Song Radios #4: So You Know It’s Got Soul

9 07 2009

And the caravan is on it’s way
I can hear the merry gypsies play
Mama mama look at Emma Rose
She’s a-playin with the radio

And the caravan has all my friends
It will stay with me until the end
Gypsy Robin, Sweet Emma Rose
Tell me everything I need to know

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means ev’rybody’s staying overnight
Barefoot gypsy player round the campfire sing and play
And a woman tells us of her ways
La, la, la, la…

Turn up your radio and let me hear the song
Switch on your electric light
Then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight so I can feel you
Sweet lady of the night I shall reveal you
Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, radio
Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul
Radio, radio turn it up, hum
La, la, la, la…

—The Band w/ Van Morrison, “Caravan” from The Last Waltz (Download)″

The Band - The Last WaltzA few weeks back, I called in to one of my favorite radio shows, Chicago music critics Greg Kott and Jim DeRogatis’s Sound Opinions, to talk about one of my favorite albums of all time, the Band’s farewell concert, the Last Waltz, and my quote made it on the air. Here’s what I had to say:″

Hey Jim and Greg, this is Matt from Irvine, California – just got done listening to your show on the best live albums of all time. One of your callers, reviewing the Dylan album, mentioned the band, but I’m wondering how you could make it through the entire show without saying anything about the Last Waltz – the band playing with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, the Staples, and, on my personal favorite track, Van Morrison performing this spastic version of Caravan … really just an epic concert a sort of farewell to classic rock, made into one of the best concert films of all time by Scorsese, capturing that sense really of a performance that’s kind of already nostalgic, already a thing of the past as soon as it’s happened, an essential moment in music history, and a phenomenal album, really just inexcusable to leave this album off the list. Thanks!

“Caravan” captures the spirit of The Last Waltz in a few ways. As a song about friends gathering round a campfire to dance, sing and play, “Caravan” evokes the sense of community that brings all of these great musicians together to consecrate this moment in rock history, the sense of camaraderie that is so apparent when everyone comes on stage together, arm in arm, to sing “I Shall Be Released.” In the same way, it evokes the experience of watching the film together with my high school friends while home from college one summer break and reliving all of those classic rock memories I talked about in Songs About Radios #1.

At the same time, as the usually sedate Van Morrison grunts about getting down “to what is really wrong, really wrong, really wrong,” it’s powerful to see him carried away by the experience into an almost epileptic seizure. This is the soul equivalent of speaking in tongues, testifying in a guttural, non-human language to the sacred power of music coursing through his body. Morrison’s scat improvisation and vocal tics make Caravan one of my favorite picks for karaoke – the opportunity to become possessed by Morrison’s ghost, “so you know you got soul,” is hard to resist.

Some of my friends chuckle at the moderation of that line, “Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul,” but I think they’re missing the point. Sure, this isn’t Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” (“turn it down you say / well all I got to say to you is time again I say, ‘No!'”). When Van Morrison turns up the radio, it’s not about balls-to-the-wall ecstatic excess, it’s so that you can hear the spirit of the music pass through the community. Morrison’s moderation is an instance of the sublime, the almost to big. By limiting the volume, he allows the music to delimit a finite radius around the campfire which creates a sense of intimacy and gathers the community around its light, while simultaneously pushing gently at its bounds.