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August 2020

HAPPY 75th BIRTHDAY VAN MORRISON - I Want To Thank You

Van 75th

(I had the privilege of wishing Van Morrison Happy 75th Birthday when I did a Special Thought For The Day to mark the occasion on Good Morning Ulster...)

 

A joy to be on the radio to publicly say Happy 75th Birthday Van Morrison brought up in Hyndford Street, East Belfast. From Astral Weeks to last year’s Three Chords and The Truth you have created as qualitative a body of work as any of your peers. Van, you are up there with Bob Dylan and without you there would be no Bruce Springsteen. 

I want to thank you personally for a few things. 

Firstly, making our wee ordinary places sound extraordinary… Ballystockart, Ardglass, Cyprus Avenue, Castlereagh Road, Hyndford Street, Davey’s Chipper and the man who played the saw outside City Hall. You make me proud of where I’m from.

Secondly, I want to thank you for being a spiritual companion. We all need songs for the journey and songs like Full Force Gale, When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God, In the Garden and the recent Transformation have refreshed me and pushed me on in my journey following Jesus.

Stuart Bailie writes in his upcoming book 75 Van Songs about Van’s song Sense Of Wonder that it makes the case “for being a receptive soul, about the prerogative to burn bright”. 

That is Van Morrison. A man born in east Belfast with exceptional gift from God who used it to give the world a sense of wonder, to call us to being receptive souls to the transcendent and burn brighter than the ordinary around us.

American writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner defines our individual vocations… the reason God made us… as the place where our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.

I have watched in the crowd as on a stage Van Morrison lived those moments of his deepest gladness. There’s actually nothing like it. He has battled the fame and music industry that his vocation hurled him into in the mid 60s when he just wanted to play saxophone on the weekend in a Down joint...

BUT he has used that deep gladness to call the world to look higher and seek to the find the eternal now. As he put it in his spoken word song Hyndford Street to Dream in God. Thank you sir, for sharing your vocation with us all. Happy 75th birthday!


THE BELFAST STREETS OF VAN MORRISON

Cyprus Avenue.jpg.gallery

As a music fan I have imagine romantically about the places referred to in the work of Springsteen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon among a plethora of others, though a cancelled flight at Newark airport took me onto Simon’s New Jersey turnpike and the reality wasn’t too exciting! Belfast is blessed with our own contemporary music name place dropper Van Morrison. No matter where you go in the world someone has heard of Cypress Avenue. As a Presbyterian minister I used to think I would be called to the Church with the Cypress Avenue street sign outside. It never happened! Then a day or two before I was installed as the minister of Fitzroy I was listening to Madame George and there it was, “Ford and Fitzroy”. Confirmed!

In his poem/song Hyndford Street Morrison travels to Fuscos in Holywood for Ice Cream, name checks Beechie River, Abetta Parade, Orangefield, St. Donard's Church comes down from the Castlereagh Hills through Cregagh Glens, “to Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous and lit up inside/With a sense of everlasting life..." It is what Morrison has been doing since that iconic first solo record Astral Weeks, finding transcendence in the everyday familiar. In what he does and how he does it he is heading back past Irish poets like Kavanagh and Yeats to the Celtic Christianity centuries before; revealing the extraordinary in the everyday ordinary.

Morrison’s Astral Weeks is mentioned in the same breath as Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band as maybe the best record of all time and where The Beatles in 1967 were singing about places in their native Liverpool, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, Morrison created Astral Weeks’ incredible piece of poetry and sound, vast and magical, from a tiny house in a gray and claustrophobic little street in East Belfast. Though it would take him a few decades to name Hyndford Street specifically, Astral Weeks gives us Cypress Avenue, Fitzroy and Sandy Row.

Through the years Morrison has added many other spaces and icons to his catalogue of Belfast memories. Cherry Valley in the aforementioned Hyndford Street, the Orangefield of his school days appears on Got To Go Back from No Method No Guru No Teacher and then gets an entire songs called Orangefield on Avalon Sunset. In the title track of Sense of Wonder, a song in which Van sees himself as a bringer of a firey vision he is finding wonder in Gransha, Ballystockart Road, the Castle Picturehouse on the Castlereagh Road and the man who played the saw outside the City Hall. There are also mentions for pastie
suppers down at Davy's Chipper, gravy rings, barnbracks, wagon wheels and snowballs, all vivid and vital memories for Morrison himself and many of us who have called this city home.

I had one of these magical moments at a concert in Vancouver where a Canadian singer encored with Morrison’s Into The Mystic. There are no specific place names in this song but when he sang about hearing of the fog horn blow and knowing that it meant he would be coming home I was on Belfast’s Lough and tears started to seep. Thank you Van Morrison for giving our city streets a wonder that resonates in our own souls and across the world.


KATHLEEN EDWARDS - TOTAL FREEDOM

Kathleen Edwards

If there are any artists out there who feel that the muse has gone stale or feel that they are not getting the deepest gladness out of their art then Kathleen Edwards has the answer. Give it up. Walk away. Open a cafe.

That is what Edwards did. Eight years ago she had a critically acclaimed record Voyageur produced by the coolest of cool songwriters Justin Vernon. She was fed up while touring it and went off to the Stittsville, Ontario and set up a cafe called appropriately Quitters.

I have no idea how that has worked in a business sense but as an artistic move it has proved genius. 

Total Freedom sounds just that. Here is a songwriter who cleaned the slate and has come back with an album of free flowing lyric, melody and Americana groove (is there a Canadana groove?!).

Edwards might be described as a direct peer of Jason Isbell or in the slipstream of her countrymen Blue Rodeo or maybe more accurately, in a less than accurate sense, the sound that would have been made if Suzanne Vega or Jonatha Brooke, instead of Stevie Nicks had been the associate member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. It’s guitar. It’s great songs. It’s poetic lyrics.

This collection is personal, Glenfern about her old days on the road, Hard On Everyone about an abusive boyfriend, Fool’s Ride about the same scoundrel, Simple Math is about the better values of friendship that faithfully lasts from childhood and Who Rescued Who about the spiritual benefits of having a dog. It all ends with the acoustic strum of the cathartic ballad Take It With You When You Go.

It is as a consistent piece of work as Edwards has released. She seems in a good place. A place to look back and around her and make sense of it from a place of freedom. Total. 

Quitters in Stittsville. I’ll take mine black with same coloured vinyl!


THE DANGER OF BLASE IN CORONAVIRUS TIMES

Train Jumping

(Fr Martin and I share a weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph during Coronavirus. This was my script for August 29th 2020)

 

Martin Luther once said that every time we wash we should remember our baptism. It is a wonderful image. The water so important to that symbol of rebirth reminding us that by God’s grace, and Jesus work on the cross and resurrection, we are dead to our old lives and raised with Christ to a whole new way to live. It is a good thing to be reminded as regularly as we wash.

I have been considering the importance of such an action and remembering my baptism a lot in these past few Coronavirus weeks. How many times are we told in these strange days to wash our hands? The washing is vital for our health and the well being of society. Every time I do this act I remember that I am a follower of Jesus and what that should mean to my Covid 19 living!

On holidays over the past few weeks I have been reading some great novels. One of them is Jeanine Cummins’ best selling, and controversial book, American Dirt. A women in Acapulco hears her family being gunned down by a drug cartel as she hides in the bathroom with her 8 year old son. They then have to flee and end up as migrants escaping to the United States.

It is a pulsing read. They meet two teenage Honduran girls and team up. The teenagers are more train-tracks-wise and teach them how to jump from bridges onto the roof of trains to move north.

The first jump is adrenaline rushing and scary. A few jumps later and they do it without much thought. It is after that jump that the mother and the oldest girl realise that the jumping has become normal and therefore even more dangerous. Complacency and they are dead in rather gruesome ways. They have to consciously commit to staying vigilant.

When back in March I told my congregation that we were in a Coronavirus marathon not a sprint I had no idea the length of that marathon. When Fr Martin Magill and I agreed to this short Coronavirus Column we thought it was for a couple of months.

We are six months in. Weariness is real. As a result, the fear of us becoming blasé is our greatest danger. I met a man in Ballycastle Forest one evening who told me he listened to me on the radio. I immediately reached out and shook his hand. No!!! Stay alert!!! Blasé! If we all slack in our high level alertness the consequences are unfathomable. 

Another lockdown will not only be frustrating, add to many mental health issues, put the NHS back under pressure, it is likely that it would decimate the North Irish economy. Young people who are most blasé of all, it seems to me, have no idea what that will do to their job prospects, health care and pensions.

So, we need a conscious decision to remain committed. A ritual to continually bring us back to our senses. Remembering our baptism every time we wash our hands reminds us to love our neighbours, serve for homeless, hungry and thirsty, deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Jesus in every action. 


TOMORROW ON FITZROY TV - STOCKMAN IS BACK... on Van Morrison Weekend

Stockman in Your Home

It will be so good to be back in Fitzroy tomorrow... going out on Fitzroy TV at 11.00am.

For this first Sunday back we will be giving a wee nod to Van Morrison on the eve of his 75th Birthday. I will be looking at the consequences on our lives of this Coronavirus marathon. I will be looking at how we find God when the pandemic quake that his hit the world shakes us as individuals, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I will hopefully pastor us in the midst of the fog of uncertainty and anxiety with the help of John Paul Lederach, Van Morrison, the Fair Head and Jesus himself.

With the schools going back with extreme difficulties we will be led in prayer by Alastair Beacom a new Fitzer who is the principal in Dunclug Primary School. Philip Mateer will read in own inimitable way and Jonny Fitch will be our musician as well as the Chris Blake band. After the benediction Brian Houston will play a meditative version of Van Morrison's Full Force Gale. 

Speaking of Van Morrison's birthday, I will be on Sunday Sequence on BBC Radio Ulster around 9.30, sharing the spiritual benefits Van's songs have been in my walk with God.

And... why not this special weekend for Van Morrison watch our Light For Rock Musicians Vol 1: Van Morrison on Fitzroy TV - LIGHT FROM VAN MORRISON


HOW DO YOU DO THAT? - Video Song (Gareth Black and Steve Stockman feat Eleanor Black)

 

I wrote this song with Gareth Black, former guitarist and songwriter with Belfast band Halcyon Days, forgive me but from back in the halcyon days of the 90s. Gareth says that it is his first composition since the band broke up in 1999. I find that a travesty that he hasn't written since but I also feel excited that Fitzroy's fertile field of creativity has him writing again.

I wrote the lyric in a couple of places. It all began in Cape Town, back in the noughties. There with my Chaplaincy students to build houses on the townships with Habitat For Humanity, our family used to stay in a guest house called The Eagles Nest.

It looked out over the Lion's Head and Signal Hill and in the evening from the balcony I was always mesmerised by the beauty of the sunsets and the trees across the hillside. That was when I first asked God how he did that with the same time and colours of sky. Different every single night. Bruce Cockburn might have been playing too!

I then revived the idea in our other favourite scenic place - Ballycastle. I used a longer poem written in Cape Town as a short raptured benediction in Ballycastle last summer -

How do you do that?

With the same time of night

Turn the day’s benediction

Into pretty pastel pixels of light

 

How do you do that?

In the very same cloth of skies

Tie dye all these colourscapes

With swathes and swirls of surprise

 

Every night it’s another picture

We click in vain hope of capture

The tossed dust of God’s imaginings

As we gasp in holy rapture.

 

Gareth was taken by this version and then added a verse. He takes a mantra of mine in Fitzroy that we are all particles of light, shining across the darkness of the city and world. He acts like the McCartney to my Lennon and adds to the piece.

Then when he has the tune and melody to set the words upon Gareth has a gifted daughter, Eleanor, with a wonderful voice to sing the song. Not finished yet and Gareth sets the whole thing into a video of the evening sky. It is effective. 

We used it last Sunday morning, after the benediction to our on-line worship service. It sits beautifully, psalm-like as a post service opportunity for meditation.  


WHEN GOD DISAPPEARS - Thought For The Day BBC GMU 28.8.2020

Mist Hides Fair Head

I spent much of August on what we have I think disingenuously named staycations… it is as if our own beautiful coastline’s, glens and mountain scenery are some how inferior to somewhere that has passed some higher test to be deemed a Vacation.

We holiday most years in Ballycastle and love it. We walk the dog almost every night along the signature north coast beach with Rathlin just out to sea, the sun setting over Kinbane head at one side, still shining rays of light across Fair Head on the other side, with Mull Of Kintyre and all Paul McCartney thought of that in the distance.

If you ask me this kind of staycation leaves Vacations way behind.

Anyway, every single night the light, the colour of the skies are different. We can clog up our smart phones with attempts to capture it. I wonder how God can throw different tie dye shades across the same canvas at the same time of day.

One night, and truthfully just one, we couldn’t see Fair Head… or much else. A mist was down. It was erie. It was bereft. It was dank and dull. The wonder was gone. 

I could easily have let my cynicism get the best of me and start talking about the trouble with staycations… but I didn’t. As I walked towards the nothingness, the emptiness I remembered back to the night before. Actually Janice had taken a most beautiful picture of the Fair Head in all its strutting glory just a few hours earlier. I remembered.

Do this in remembrance of me is perhaps the most used phrase in all our Christian traditions. Jesus was with his disciples. He was really there. God flesh on. Soon, he wouldn’t be. So, he created a symbolic act that would remind them of when he was there… when they might find themselves losing their vision or getting caught in a gloomy, foggy days in life.

There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around us in these days. There might be lots of moments when we could lose faith, or be angry with God or not be able to see in all that we are struggling through.

When in my own life God seems veiled.. I am now going to think of that night when the fog blocked out Fair Head… I am not going not stop believing that God is there… but remember back to when I could see God in all of his glory.


VAN MORRISON 75th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS and MY PART IN THEM (ha)

Stocki as Van

(photo by Gary Burnett... for one of his Blues Nights... I thought it was as close as I ever was to looking like Van... ha!)

 

There is little doubt that in Belfast at least this is Van Morrison Weekend. Van Morrison is an iconic music artist, up there in legendary status with Bob Dylan who he has played with and Bruce Springsteen who would have no problem citing Morrison as a major influence. Van The Man has been making quality records for over 50 years and his first solo record Astral Weeks is still recognised as one of the all time great albums.

AND… He’s from east Belfast. Remembering that always does my heart good! The same area of our city that gave the imagination of CS Lewis’s Narnia gave us Morrison’s Sense of Wonder. 

There is no Birthday concert as there was for Van’s 70th at the end of the street he made famous - Cyprus Avenue. Maybe if it hadn’t have been for Cornavirus! 

Van Morrison will be omnipresent though. Hot Press magazine already had had a few weeks of their Rave On Van Morrison series where every night on Youtube another Irish artist covers a Van song. If you have missed this please go watch Gary Lightbody with Iain Archer and Miriam Kaufmann’s Into The Mystic and Bronagh Gallagher’s The Healing Has Begun are astounding and there are other great covers by Duke Special, Damien Rice, Cara Dillon, Tim Wheeler… and so many more!

Stuart Bailie is marking the occasion too. Our best ever rock journalist has almost finished a book called 75 Van Songs which takes 75 of Morrison’s songs and has written his own insightful “reviews, appreciations and imaginative responses.” There are extracts from the book available in the current edition of Northern Ireland’s premier new Arts magazine Dig With It. 

There will be much more I am sure.

As a Van fan since I bought Beautiful Vision in 1982 I will be getting in on the act. There will be various blogs and reblogs here on Soul Surmise. 

Then on Sunday morning I will be on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence at around 9.30am talking about the spiritual songs of Van that have meant most to me. I have to pick three songs and I am finding it hard to cut them down. There might also be an extending blog on this theme!

Then our Fitzroy Sunday Service going out at 11am on Fitzroy TV will be have within it a few nods in tribute to Van. Our hymns will be influenced by hymns Van has recorded and Brian Houston will bring us a Van song to meditate upon after the benediction. 

My sermon will bring in a Van idea too. In the John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach book When Blood and Bones Cry Out there is a chapter about John Paul using Van Morrison music in the long convalescence after a serious car crash. Some of Lederach’s ideas about what Van does in his music will come together with Jesus asking us to remember his death and some of the struggles to keep the faith in Coronavirus times.

Then on Monday morning I will be back on Good Morning Ulster at 7.50am to do a Van Morrison Special Thought For The Day on his actual birthday. 

So, from now until Monday I will be able to list to Van and call it work!

On Monday I will be plugging particularly the Light in Van Morrison that we premiered on Fitzroy TV back in late June, with me talking about the spirituality of Van’s work and Brian Houston covering three of his songs. If you haven’t already seen it you can watch it HERE

Phew!


THE KILLERS - IMPLODING THE MIRAGE

Killers Mirage

The Killers are a conundrum. I really shouldn’t like this band. They are influenced by bands I do not love like The Smiths and The Cure and some bands I really do not like, like Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. 

Lead singer Brandon Flowers is all bombast and sequinned shoulder pads with feathers! That K on the stage is all light bulbed up. The last time I saw kitsch like that I was driving down the main strip of Vegas with my mates Dave and Dave.

It should not work, at least for me. Yet, it so does. These guys are so intoxicatingly good. Imploding The Mirage is a great surge of a stadium sound, almost from beginning to end. Your ears and heart and soul ride a tidal wave of big brash songs.

It should not work. Yet, it so does. Why? I have been asking that as I have played this record over and over again and I think I might have my personal answer. 

Below the the synthed up 80s sounds, the bombast and Vegas kitsch is Brandon Flowers songwriting brilliance. First, he has these melodies. They are utterly crash bang catchy. 

On top this melodic bounce Flowers is simply an excellent lyricist. I love how clever he is, conjuring words and rhymes.

Then, as well as the melody and poetry Brandon Flowers adds soul. Soul is about feeling deep down. It is when the song reaches in and touches you deep. It is when the band are not just playing but creating and drilling far enough down to strike the emotional and for me best of all, the spiritual. This is what shifts the names in reviews from Pet Shop Boys to Bruce Springsteen!

Imploding The Mirage is spiritually drenched. The opening My Own Soul’s Warning is worth the entrance price alone:

 

If you could see through the banner of the sun

Into eternity's eyes, like a vision reaching down to you

Would you turn away

What if it knew you by your name

What kind of words would cut through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days

 

Flowers calls it a song of repentance. 

That whirlwind is on the cover painting Thomas Blackshear’s Dance Of The Wind and Storm which the band says influenced the choice of songs. The painting and the record seem to me about finding the eternal in the midst of the world’s clutter.

Fire In Bone is a wonderful retelling of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son:

 

When I came back empty-handed

You were waiting in the road

And you fell on my neck

And you took me back home

After all that I took from you

After all that I put you through

Here I am”

 

Running Towards a Place is says that perfect. A song of eternity but seeking to not have to wait to find all the wonder. He’s not the first rock star to quote William Blake:

 

Can you see the world

In a grain of sand?

Can you find heaven in a wildflower

Hold it in the palm of your hand?

The moment we met

 

Because we're running towards a place

Where we'll walk as one

And the sadness of this life

Will be overcome

 

Flowers is a Mormon and I am a Presbyterian but I have never heard any of his spiritual utterances that I cannot embrace. The nature of the sound that The Killers make gives a spiritual exuberance like U2 created way back on October. It make the music so hopeful.

As I listen to Imploding The Mirage I wonder if it stands up alongside Hot Fuss. I think over time that it might. For me there was dip to Battle Born and then the graph rises again and all of these ten songs might be pushing for places in the live set list for some time to come.

It is all very signature The Killers. Yet to add tweaks there is War On Drugs, Weyes Blood and even KD Lang and Lindsay Buckingham adding breadth and other hues to the unbroken formula of 16 years. 


STOCKMAN ALL OVER BBC RADIO - A WARNING!

Stocki BBC

You might start calling me Radio Ga Ga. If you have enjoyed the Stockmanless airwaves in these past couple of months here is a warning. I am on A LOT over this next month or so.

Starting this very weekend when I am on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday, Sunday and Monday! If someone could sneak me on to something on Saturday I could make a Grand Slam before Rory gets his!

So, this weekend. On Friday I am doing Good Morning Ulster's Thought For The Day. My thought will have a coastal flavour about walking the beach in Ballycastle, a controversial argument about staycations and vacations and wondering what to do when God seems to disappear from view.

On Sunday morning's Sunday Sequence, also on BBC Radio Ulster, I will be waxing lyrical about Van Morrison. On the eve of Van's 75th birthday I will be sharing how his music has been a spiritual benefit to me.

Then on Monday morning I will be back on the Good Morning Ulster show with another Thought For The Day that will again pay tribute to Van Morrison on his actual birthday.

After that I will be on Thought For the Day on BBC Radio Ulster on September 11th and 18th.

Thought for the Day goes out around 6.50am and again at 7.50am. For the Van Special on August 31st please not that it is a Bank Holiday and there is no 6.50 slot.

As well as this I am also scheduled for another series of Pause For Thoughts with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. These usually air around 5.45 am and I will be on there on September 2nd, 9th, 15th and 22nd. 

It is like those buses. none come for ages and then they all come at once!

Beyond this there are some discussions going on about another possible radio project but more and that as the weeks go on!