Soul Music, Morrison’s Sweet Thing, and memories of a long-lost friend…

Soul Music on BBC Radio 4 is a simple idea that works so well. Take one song, explore its history, talk to people who have an emotional connection to the music.

One of the songs in the new series is Sweet Thing by Van Morrison, from his 1968 folk-jazz album Astral Weeks, above.

Morrison was 23, barely known, shy and awkward when he created something as timeless as it is ethereal, fresh at every listen.

Warner Bros were keen to avoid expensive long hours in the New York recording studio and teamed him up with accomplished jazz musicians who helped create the fluid, organic feel of an album that still sounds as if it is being played for the first time. More or less the case as Astral Weeks was cut in 48 hours.

Sweet Thing is perhaps a slight song, certainly next to Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, yet its floating, wistful charm endures.

For the writer Caroline Mellor, who features in Soul Music, the song reminds her of her friend Dennis, who died aged 29. She was unable to cry at the time of his death, in private or at his funeral, and began to worry there might be something wrong with her.

Then one day, while on holiday in the Spanish mountains, she heard Van Morrison singing.

“Someone put Sweet Thing on a record player in another room and the sound just kind of drifted through the window and mingled with the sunlight.”

This triggered memories of their times together, taking a sound system out on to the South Downs, and Caroline couldn’t stop crying.

“After Dennis died I was still young, but a part of my youth died with him. And I think that’s probably the thing when people die, we’re also grieving the part of our lives that vanishes when they do. And the part of my life that ended when Dennis died was full of youthful energy, magic and gold.”


Julian’s friend John during their long drive across the US

I have written before about my university friend John, who died aged 42. And, yes, a part of my life vanished then.

Not the knotted weave of life since 1999. Not the John experiences shared with other people, including those misted university days or our wedding, where he was best man.

But experiences shared only with John now sit in a room with no door. I can’t check facts or measure memories, as there is no one to ask.

We went together on a three-week holiday to the US. An old photo album puts the date as 1981. John was an experienced driver, while I had just passed my test. We had 3,000 miles to cover in a week, as we were delivering a car, 600 miles or so a day.

I had only just got my licence. John drove in the big cities, but we shared the open road. At night, we stayed in cheap motels and in the morning ate breakfast at truck stops along Route 66.

It was a great holiday, a week in New York, a week in that car, sometimes bickering over my driving, and a week in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One night we were drowned in desert darkness, nothing to see here, until at a bend in the road Las Vegas lit up beneath us, a bowl of neon. We spent one night there, another cheap motel. It was hot and we wandered through the casinos, or maybe just one casino. We didn’t bet on the tables, or not that I recall.

Perhaps John would remember things differently. But whatever the case, that holiday now belongs only to me.

John had a brain tumour, spotted during an eye test. We talked of meeting up. He was in London, I was in York, busy at work and the father of three young children. I let the matter slip, a lasting regret.

Besides his health seemed to improve, we spoke again, there would be time to meet up. Only there wasn’t.

John would be pushing 70. We’d surely still be friends, as we are in a way, although it’s a one-sided affair.

I have written before about John and if he was able, perhaps he’d heckle me here about the choice of words, or the hoeing of old ground, as my lovely friend could be picky.

Of course, I have other old lovely friends, some here in York known for 25 or 30 years, and newer friends met in the past few years. I have a wife, three grown-up-children, a sparky livewire delight of a grand-daughter. Plenty going on, you can’t dwell, we have all lost someone.

But still.

I miss my tall friend, six foot four to my five foot eight. We met at Goldsmiths College. It was his second go at university, London after Leeds; and my first, London after not getting in anywhere else.

I don’t have a song for John Sheridan. We went to gigs sometimes, one of the last was the saxophonist Andy Sheppard at Greenwich Borough Hall, shortly before we moved north.

My wife thinks she was pregnant with our first born at the time. Perhaps he was listening as he has always liked his music.

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