The song arrives wholly unexpected as I crawl through the snarl of peak-hour traffic in a smart car connected to every passing tower. Spotify will do that. You punch in “British folk rock pop” and get Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing.
A rush of memory and I’m gone. Suddenly it’s 1986 and I’m driving the Pacific Highway with her, somewhere south of Lennox Head, in a 58 Studebaker coupé, top down, the smell of wood smoke, clifftop visions of the great South Pacific pearl and a roadside kiss, lost in the arms of a beautiful girl …
And that song.
Get a grip, Seymour. Euphoria is dangerous. It leads to places, triggers uncouplings, broken hearts, messiness.
Focus on structure. Structure is all. Six eight, the grinding double bass, the galloping verse, Van’s twisted roar: “And I will never grow so old again.”
It is after all, just a song.
But the truth of it lies elsewhere. It is the sum of all parts that gives songs the power to change us, to lure us towards some heightened state. We follow willingly. People love to hold songs close, long after the action has passed, like talismans to a perfect life they could never live but wish they had.
Songs are nothing more than what they offer us in our present circumstances. Morrison plundered the geography of romance in his songs, vividly played out in the streets of London, Dublin, the rolling hills around Belfast and the fleeting vision of a lover moving just beyond reach.
I clung to Sweet Thing through the catastrophic London bombings of 1982, when Hunters & Collectors atrophied and were almost lost. I returned to Australia with the secret belief that I too could write a love song as eloquent and truthful. A song that would rise above my circumstances.
Knowing that songs have this power drives me to write. To find the trigger and hold a room. It’s a trick for sure, but there lies the songwriter’s power, born on the shadow side of consciousness where we wrestle with fleeting dreams, chord shapes, passing melodies, scratched-out phrases drawn from the well of joy and misery that is life itself. And love. How do you write about that? It’s a question that has never left me. Sweet Thing taunted me for years and still does.
The one abiding truth I’ve taken from writing songs is that they will be misunderstood. But as long as they carry that mysterious note of yearning, that longing for some greater knowledge, they will, as Bob Dylan once said, get up and walk around the room on their own.
Perfection be damned. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. At some point – and only when intuition finally kicks in – you say, “Yep ... that’s close enough.”
I recently moved north of the Yarra River and found myself listening to Van Morrison again. That agonisingly beautiful 1968 album, Astral Weeks.
Because it was here, under the stars of Fitzroy 38 years ago, walking these cobblestones, that I heard Sweet Thing again, lifted the dusty needle on her turntable to repeat, felt her kisses and finally wrote of love, for the first time:
And you shall take me strongly
In your arms again
And I will not remember
That I even felt the pain
We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain
And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.
Today, love’s euphoria has been clinically inspected. People take comfort in a brave new suite of myths: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin.
And there is, of course, Spotify to calm the soul.
And there’s you.
“Sweet thing ... ”
Mark Seymour is touring Australia now