Van Morrison Jonathan Cott - Essay

Jonathan Cott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sometimes, in moments of bewilderment or happiness, you may catch yourself singing or whistling a song whose words, on reflection, explain how things really are with you—"Good Day Sunshine" when it's raining, "Rain" when it's sunny, "Hello Goodbye" when you don't know whether to stay or go. In all kinds of weather and situations, the song interprets you….

To the sound of the slow-motion footfall of acoustic guitar and bass, Van Morrison's radiant and archetypal vision of a woman on her horse of snow has recently brought back to me perhaps the most extraordinary of these mysterious songs, "Slim Slow Slider," the three-minute blues reverie that concludes the time-less Astral Weeks album recorded in 1968.

Coming as it does after "Madame George" and "Ballerina"—with their almost Blakean commitment to the themes of sexual organization, childlike vision and angelology—"Slim Slow Slider" can certainly be taken simply as the last of the album's three mythopoeic images: the transvestite, the dancer, the rider on her horse….

I used to think that Morrison should have ended "Slim Slow Slider" after [the] first stanza, whose image-making power, as [William Butler] Yeats knew, not only wakes analogies but also penetrates to the Great Memory. The horse-as-symbol is, of course, both a complex and ubiquitous phenomenon in mythology and dream interpretation, representing, at various times and places, the instincts, the unconscious, clairvoyant powers and even the cosmos itself.

Interestingly, in German and Celtic mythology, to dream of a white horse was once thought to be an omen of death. And in an astonishing if unconscious way, Van Morrison draws on this ancient symbolic meaning and, in four additional telegraphed stanzas, uses this wondrous hovering image—Yeats's "transparent lamp about a spiritual flame"—in order to convey two simultaneous ideas: the dissociation and alienation from Pure Being and the loss and death of Love…. From a horse white as snow to a Cadillac: the beloved rides away—out of reach, won't be back, dying—the world falls from grace….

There are plenty of songs to dance to; there are so few songs for dreaming, inviting you to recompose and re-create them, extending the dream onwards.

Jonathan Cott, "A Song for Dreaming," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 216, July 1, 1976, p. 20.