There are songs that seem to make time stretch, stand still or even flow backwards. Mostly this is an effect of nostalgia, the way music can take you back to a time or place you have left behind. Now and then, though, a turn of phrase or the way a note bends can play tricks on the mind.
Van Morrison’s voice is an example of this, and never more so than on Madame George, from his groundbreaking Astral Weeks album. Morrison himself has said that he doesn’t know what it is about or who Madame George is, but it is clearly a song of goodbye – the word is repeated many times throughout.
In terms of its structure, Madame George is extremely simple: three chords repeat without variation, creating a backdrop against which Morrison’s voice soars and whispers, rises and falls, while the other instruments – strings, flute and occasional percussion – improvise. The listener is placed in a world of seemingly unconnected details (a soldier boy, kids out in the street and the mysterious Madame George herself “in a corner playing dominoes in drag.” The song uses the second person throughout, so that we feel personally involved in this world, and then it asks us to say goodbye to it before we have fully understood it: “And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below / And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow …”
It is as he realizes that this goodbye is inevitable that Morrison’s voice truly comes into its own, lingering over words, sometimes repeating a word or a phrase several times in the same line, as the music surges and fades like waves around it: “Say goodbye to Madame George / Dry your eye for Madame George / Wonder why for Madame George …”
There is a moment of piercing beauty as he goes: words are crammed into the song lines as if there is pressure for something significant to happen: “And as you leave the room is filled with music / Laughing, music, dancing, music all around the room / And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all / So cold …” The way his voice teases melodies out of this goodbye keeps postponing it, repeating it endlessly until it has gathered an incredible resonance around itself, as if it has to stand in for all the many goodbyes of a lifetime.
The music fades; it seems as if it has reached a resolution. All the instruments fade except the bass and Morrison’s simple three-chord guitar progression. Then, softly at first, Morrison begins to hum, and this melodic line is picked up by the strings as they re-enter the song, conjured by his voice. Once again we are caught up in the intensity of this moment, moving out from the intimacy of a room in spite of a voice calling us back: “Get on the train / Get on the train / Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye …”
These words are moving in themselves, but it is the way Morrison’s voice phrases them, stretching or clipping lines for emotional emphasis, that refuses to be forgotten. It hovers on the edge of what can be expressed in words, at the point when language collapses and only sound is left.