Linden Arden and the Belfast Cowboy

“Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”

Veedon Fleece coverVan Morrison’s album Veedon Fleece (1974) on which today’s song appears, represents a bookend to an artistic period in his career; a period that began with his seminal Astral Weeks (1968). Songwriter Glen Hansard once commented to NPR that Astral Weeks made him “realize that so much of what makes music great is courage.” This period was followed, both literally and figuratively, by A Period of Transition (1977)Neither Astral Weeks nor Veedon Fleece emerged to immediate popularity or critical acclaim. Indeed, Rolling Stone panned the latter in its initial review in 1975, saying “Coming from anyone else, Veedon Fleece would merely be an embarrassment: Coming from Van Morrison, it seems more like another aberration in a fitfully inspired career.” Rolling Stone has since recanted.

Both Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece exhibit Morrison’s brand of artistic courage. Astral Weeks is aesthetically and emotionally engrossing, with the whole exceeding the already generous sum of its parts. In the long trajectory of Morrison’s career as musical “healer,” it is a beginning he may not have surpassed.

Ironically, a few months ago I was looking to take a break from murder ballads, and I put on Veedon Fleece for a bit of that sonic healing–something artful, ambitious, and mysterious. I had not listened to it in a while. By the second song, I was unexpectedly back in murder ballad territory again with “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.” These things often come without conscious bidding.

It’s more than mere accident that inspires me to discuss “Linden Arden” today. What’s significant in this song is Morrison’s success in finding the emotional core of the murder ballad, and his economy in so doing. This song is also decidedly his, at least for now. The power of shared experience in this song comes to us as listeners, not as singers, but I am confident I am not alone in feeling its power.

“Linden Arden” eludes simple classification, presenting a work that is deeply rewarding, even if it is not carried on much in others’ voices. With today’s post, we’ll discuss “Linden Arden” in the contexts of the murder ballad tradition, Morrison’s music, and the ties between Ireland and America. In the next post we’ll explore some of the song’s artistic influence. These are just a few of the…ahem…highlights.

Listen also on YouTube. Other formats here.

Sound and sense

“Linden Arden” starts off with a piano introduction by Jeff Labes that journalist Jonathan Cott described to the writer Greil Marcus as “a prayer.” Marcus gives three pages of his book When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison to “Linden Arden,” and he provides me with some mild consolation that I was surprised to hear a murder ballad on an album I had known for years: “I didn’t catch the words that day, or for years to come. It didn’t occur to me that the song needed them–or maybe it was that even as Morrison sang the words, the song itself forgot them.”

Greil Marcus book cover, Van MorrisonI can only suppose that Marcus means that the musical arrangement returns to its themes as though the intervening lyrics wrought no particular transformation for singer or listener. He later alleges that the words remain “only as a signifier that a particular person is singing the song.” I think Marcus is right that Morrison places a lot of emphasis on sound and perhaps less on sense than the average ballad; but his case is strained here, especially by “Who Was That Masked Man” on the next track beginning with basically the same line on which “Linden Arden” ends. We’ll see below that other critics provide few more options on the “sense” side of things.

“Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” is a fiction, a mystery, a concoction of Morrison’s transatlantic musical and poetic imagination. The opening line confesses Linden Arden’s enigmatic crime. What does it mean that he “stole the highlights”? Was the hand tied behind his back a sign of prowess or confinement? Whatever crime it was, the ensuing stanzas tell us of its deadly consequences.

Linden Arden stole the highlights
With one hand tied behind his back
Loved the morning sun, and whiskey
Ran like water in his veins

Loved to go to church on Sunday
Even though he was a drinking man
When the boys came to San Francisco
They were looking for his life

But he found out where they were drinking
Met them face to face outside
Cleaved their heads off with a hatchet
Lord, he was a drinkin’ man

And when someone tried to get above him
He just took the law into his own hands
Linden Arden stole the highlights

And they put his fingers through the glass
He had heard all those stories
Many many times before
And he did not care no more to ask

And he loved the little children
Like they were his very own
You say, “Someday it may get lonely”
Now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun

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