Center of the Universe (10)
In a weathered old stable in the redwood shadows at the far end of Wood Lane in the small Northern California town residents call Mayberry on Acid stand a dozen horses of various colors, patterns and states of vigor who are waiting — still — for the next apprehensive moppet to hold forth an apple.
When the kids were little — when they weren’t both in their thirties, or almost (cheeky bastards!) — and deeply into dinosaurs and trying out parent-melting multisyllabic words like “stegosaurus” and “triceratops,” the horses were one of their favorite destinations. Ours, too. The horses were six blocks away, when we lived on the flats — almost directly behind where Sorellas is today — but going there was a gallop back in time. Not just a hundred-and-fifty years back, to forty-niner and giddyup days, but back in evolutionary time, to when great beasts, bigger even than mommy and daddy, bestrode the Earth. And, lo, here they were: four-legged, short-haired dinosaurs, with merciless, black-globe, dinosaur eyes, loud, startling nostrils and floppy rubber lips that could nonetheless pluck a Granny Smith from a child’s fingers-together hand with the delicacy of a safecracker.
Beyond the stable was a paddock, where the horses could exercise, and an alarmingly cobwebbed arena, where their puny overlords could entertain a delusion of mastery by exercising atop them. And just beyond was an enchanted tunnel of redwoods and oaks, a horse trail that led, up, down, in and around, the 200 miles of paths, trails and dirt roads that serve as both firewall and vascular system for this sylvan shangrila masquerading as the Marin Municipal Water District’s watershed operation.
It’s not hard to see why Van Morrison chose it for the cover of Tupelo Honey. Or why, more to the point, when the photographer, who lived in nearby San Anselmo, suggested it to Van, who lived then in Fairfax, the persnickety Belfast Cowboy — straining to smile and looking less cowboy, more country gentleman, in the portraits with his hippie goddess Janet Planet — agreed.
Everyone, young, old or cranky Northern Irish, loves the Fairfax horses.
I’d like to suggest that everyone in Fairfax loves Van Morrison, at least as an artistic genius. Maybe the guys who worked on his house found him a little persnickety, as a person. But if you don’t love him as an artist, I’d have to question your judgment, if not your capacity to love. Van the Man is a god, and not just a hippie one, an enduring light in the firmament alongside a fingers-together handful of others, such as the aforementioned Fabs (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” aside). And he looms large in the mythology of Fairfax, too. Among the many musicians of note who’ve called this freaky and formerly affordable little town home — from members of the Dead and Big Brother to John Doe of X to Irving Berlin of “God Bless America”(!) — there are none more radiant.
For the two or three years he lived in town — until about 1974, when he and the goddess-bride broke up — Morrison also came to Earth. Not that he ventured onstage in the Sleeping Lady or Peri’s or 19 Broadway or any of the other Fairfax venues, but he did set up his parents in their own music store, Caledonia Records, on Bolinas Avenue — line-of-sight to Sorellas Caffe — a western-style storefront that would become (of course) a real estate office, the very same where Roni and I, abetted by real estate agent chicanery, would buy the cheap Dominga Avenue crib we still didn’t qualify for. And he did write most of Saint Dominic’s Preview in a house up the hill (whereas Tupelo Honey, recorded in the Bay, was mostly written in Woodstock). And it was right next door in San Anselmo, just out of sight of Fairfax, that he tried to work through his metastasizing stage fright by surrounding himself with a horn band that was too big for the tiny Lion’s Share and spilled from the club’s stage — along with the tiny sweat-soaked singer — into a fully awed audience in an explosive performance only hinted at on the live record It’s Too Late to Stop Now. And for one of my first freelance assignments for Creem magazine, I was ten feet away.
It was like those soldiers they sent into the New Mexico desert with sunglasses to witness the A-bomb tests. I still have the burn marks.
But I wanted to tell you about the house.
Keep in mind I’m the guy who always pops up to sing harmony with Giovanni on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And the guy who a few paragraphs back called Van Morrison a god. So when I opened the Marin Independent Journal one Sunday, when we were still living down in the flats, to discover that his house was for sale, it’s not surprising I grabbed the missus and headed for the hills.
I can’t find the original listing anywhere in the Googleverse, but I remember it took lots of hairy Fairfax turns to get up there. And in the decade or two since Van had decamped, it had gotten shabby. As if to symbolize it — post-rock star shabbiness, but also the past tense of seventies pastoral — there was a single, unshorn, dirty, clumpy sheep staring out from under an unshorn oak in the denuded front yard. The house was more modern than you wanted — a split-level someone had tried to turn artsy and eco by slapping on the natural redwood siding typical of seventies-era homes and stores hereabouts, while the interior was decked out — still — in the purples, velvets and gold of seventies rock royalty. Nestled before the bay window in the master bathroom, looking over oaks and redwoods and a once lush lawn, was a custom oval bathtub tiled in earnest, homemade mosaic. And while the tub might have been a tad tight for a couple of standard-sized adults, I imagined the compact ginger cannonball would have found some way to scrooch in with his soaped-up organic Venus.
Van Morrison’s naked, freckled ass, I thought, staring into the irregular grout, rubbed up against this tub’s tiles, and his red pubes gathered at its golden drain.
They were thoughts I didn’t know what to make of.
After we pleaded with the agent not to leave anything out, she unlocked an outside door to a room she clearly considered irrelevant and, with a dismissive wave, dubbed “storage.” It was an odd room that was hard to get a bead on, musty and stuffed with racks and racks of winter coats and out-of-style couture from long after Van and Janet’s sojoun. It was only when I hacked through the fashion jungle, rolling racks of dresses to a corner, that I noticed the built-in desk with the big hole for a 72-channel mixer and the control room glass that looked over another smaller room and, standing still now — breath stopped — registered the signature acoustic deadness.
Before every wannabe rock star had a studio in his home, if not a few years later, in his laptop, Van the Man — the shy man, the suspicious man, the man with the famous stage fright — had built himself a musical place to hide. This overgrown closet wasn’t storage. For a distrustful 25-year-old genius, it was the wide-open spaces, the true Wild West. Standing before the Lost City of Van Morrison, I scanned up and down and over and behind and wondered — breath stopped — what tones and syllables and grunts, squeaks and groans had been squeezed and teased and turned and stuttered and spat and twisted and stretched into life here on this Fairfax peak (en route, doubtless, to new peaks of human achievement). I wondered if within these padded walls and floors in this airless chamber high on a California hill could still be found the atomic traces of the first inkling of a rough demo of a song that wasn’t yet called “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile).”
And with that my heart went boom-boom-boom.