I was wandering around a flea market, when I saw Van Morrison. He was rummaging through old records, and though I knew he was a private and kind of grumpy guy, I was surprised to see him. In the dream world, he'd very publicly left for Russia as a protest against the shallowness of Western society. (This is Edward Snowden in the news, peeking into my subconscious.) So I tentatively greeted him, told him that I'd found his music to fill a place in my heart that nothing else could quite fill. Then I asked what made him come back from Russia.
A cantankerous soul, he said, "I'm not back from Russia. You see nothing, ok? I'm just visiting for a wedding." (Yesterday I was talking with my boss about weddings and going home to see people for them.) I asked him what made him choose Russia. He said, "No bullshit. People say what they mean, and they spill what's on their minds. You gotta have a thick skin, but if someone tells you they're your friend, they are your friend for life." (This pertains to recent strains in my social circle. To put it mildly. And my own bad feelings about that and other past failed friendships.)
So I asked him if he wanted to get a drink. He begrudgingly said yes. Somehow this turned into talking about songwriting. And really, I admire Van Morrison's songwriting maybe more than any other living musician - his stuff is so lean and tight and meaningful without being unsubtle. It's a marvel of elegance - elegance in the mathematical sense, that he gets you from the start of the song right through to your heart in just a few notes, and then stays there. If I could write fiction like Van Morrison writes songs, I'd be incredibly successful. So I'm trying not to enthuse too much in the dream, and I figure by the time he finishes his beer he's on his way, but he says, "Ok, let's sit down at a piano and write your song, ok?"
So we did, there was a piano there in the little bar we're in, and we grabbed a sheet of (conveniently available) sheet music. And I start to hum it to him while he plucks it on the piano, and I write down the words. And before too long, there it is - and so we play it together, he's on the piano and I had a little drum-kit with brushes, a snare, a small cymbal..just enough to lay down some jazz percussion, just supporting the piano, not loud. Just a base. And I fumble through this song, but I'm excited and I'm feeling it and it's fresh in my mind - and I'm getting supported by Van fucking Morrison, who takes off on wild improvisation around the melody. And in a couple of minutes we're done and I'm beaming. And he says, "Yeah, not too bad. A good start."
And this is like the best compliment I've ever gotten in my life. So I thank him for his time, his talent, his teaching. And he says, "Look, I gotta do this Christmas thing for a friend. Why don't you sit in, do percussion?" I'm completely bowled over. Explain I'm not trained or anything, I was just playing by feel, but he's ok with that, best way to do it, in his opinion. So we go to this church basement and a dozen people or so are there, and we start to play some Christmas music. (This is because we watched the last episode of "Orange Is The New Black" the other day, which had a Christmas pageant.) And he plays this incredible improvisation on "Joy To The World" - it's a total deconstruction of the song, and then a rill and a whir and reel around the melody and back again. And I kept up on the drums, and it was really great, very satisfying deep in the guts, where your harshest critic lives. So we're done the set, and I ask him if we can play my song?
So he shrugs, and I hand him the sheet music, and we try it again. But it just doesn't gel this time. It's not awful, but it's not good, either. Stumble a few times, and I'm trying really hard to recapture that moment and it's just not working. So after we're done Van shuffles the paper around and I'm like, "I'm sorry, that's my fault obviously. I don't know the song well enough, I guess, I couldn't remember it."
And then I get a message from my subconscious about being an artist in the form of an admonishment from Van Morrison. "It's not because you don't know it well enough. That's not where it comes from, it's not about *knowing* the song. It's about being honest, and singing without any kind of protection from the world. It's about making music that makes you vulnerable, and making that beautiful. If it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right. And if it comes straight from your heart, but you don't know the song, you're still doing something beautiful - but if your performance is technically perfect but has no soul, no one will care. Be. Fucking. Real."
Thank you inner Van Morrison. I can make art that matters, and that passes your standards, when I'm honest. But don't worry about how people perceive it, or getting it wrong, or be burdened by technique. Check.