"Cleaning Windows" / Van Morrison
Still reading that book about 1960s British pop, and the author mentioned a song by George Formby called "When I'm Cleaning Windows" as a typical example of British songwriting before the Beatles. Now, I know hardly anything about George Formby except that he played the ukelele and sang corny music-hall-style comedy numbers in the 1930s and 1940s; he was apparently a real national icon, though. The only song of his I recognize is "Leaning On the Lamppost," which later became a sort of novelty hit for Herman's Hermits in the US (in the UK, they'd never have gone for it). But as soon as I read that song title "When I'm Cleaning Windows," I thought of this copasetic track from Van Morrison. I'll bet anything Van knew that Formby song, but what he did with it is worlds away from a plinking ukelele and yuk-yuk comedy.
Infuriating as Van Morrison can be, I'm still willing to forgive him everything when he swings like this. This is from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision (though I'll admit I only know it from a greatest hits collection -- I'm no Van completist). It lands squarely in his "I'm just an ordinary guy" line of songs, which are completely contradicted by his Celtic mystic songs, but so be it. The recurring line that seems to be the heart of this song is in the chorus, a swiftly rapped-out bit of Formby-esque patter: "I'm a working man in my prime / Cleaning windows."
But the only thing Van's song shares with Formby's, really, is the subject and a certain sort of chirpy upbeat tempo. I'm guessing that Van really did work as a window cleaner at some point in his life; whereas Formby was all about the window cleaner leering through the glass for naughty glimpses of people's lives, Van's has the ring of experience in the jaunty way he describes carrying ladders past wrought-iron railings, or cleaning a lady's fanlight. More than anything, though, it's a testament to a slacker lifestyle. Sure, he's got this menial job, but in his spare time he's having a damn good time. "I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers / In my lunch-break / Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner / And went straight back to work....We went for lemonade and Paris buns / At the shop and broke for tea ... I was blowing saxophone on the weekend / In that down joint." He doesn't even bother to make things rhyme; this is more like a diary than a crafted song. He cheerfully insists that he's happy cleaning windows -- but it's not all that he's about.
We've all had periods like this in our lives, haven't we? Golden times when we were content to live in the moment. I'm thinking back to a summer in Indianapolis when I worked the cash register at Lobraico's Rexall pharmacy and wrote at nights for my friends' start-up magazine, InCity; I didn't know at the time how rare that carefree little interlude in my life would be.
In the second verse, Van lays out chapter two of his musical autobiography in a nutshell: "I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon / On the street where I was born / Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Muddy Waters singing 'I'm a rolling stone' / I went home and read my Christmas Humphrey's book on Zen / Curiosity Killed the Cat / Kerouac's Dharma Bums and On the Road." It's like he turned to his turntable and nightable and just transcribed what was sitting there. It's poignant to think of this kid in Belfast greedily sucking in American blues and beat lit, as if real life was gonna happen somewhere else. But there's no mistaking how deeply he absorbed that stuff; this song has such an irresistible R&B groove, with delirious flourishes from a tight horn section, and Van's voice is a rare and beautiful thing, the way it shades from growl to croon to bark to flutter to howl.
"What's my life?" he triumphantly announces; "I'm a-happy cleaning windows / Take my time / I'll see you when my love grows ." You can just hear the grown-up rock star yearning back to that innocent, uncomplicated time; hell, he's making me nostalgic for it, and I've never set foot in Belfast. This is wonderful stuff indeed -- who needs George Formby?
PS: I'm assuming there's some major Van Morrison career retrospective box set going to come out soon, because so many of the early albums and even the earlier "best of" compilations seem to be discontinued on Amazon. Listen to the sample on iTunes, though, if you're so enabled -- it's a blast.