Carl's Rock Songbook No. 127: Van Morrison, “Western Man”
Best Lyrics of 2021
By a metric of lyrical quality and relevance alone, the best pop song of 2021 was Van Morrison’s “Western Man.” Music-wise, it’s a casually loping-along C&W number that takes a number of spins before it really wins you over, and thus, not an immediate stand-out from Van’s amazing 28-song album, Latest Record Project, Vol 1, which I reviewed here.
Although undramatic in manner, it’s the wisest response-in-song to 2020 that I’m aware of.
Michael Anton says somewhere in The Stakes that in his lifetime—like myself, he’s Generation X—the only truly watershed political events he’s lived through are the fall of communism, 9/11, and the riot-protests of 2020. I think he could have just said 1989, 9/11, and 2020, and we’d all have understood. For “2020” is becoming a catch-all term for a series of connected and quite revelatory betrayals/disasters, which extended into 2021. These were A.) the riot-protests (and related institutional campaigns of cancel-culture and CRT), B.) the lockdowns of 2020 and the vaccine mandates of 2021, C.) the discovery of coordinated and widespread efforts to steal the 2020 election (which may or may not have decided it), D.) the unprecedented censorious and propagandistic tack taken by legacy and social media to manage each of those A,B, and C events, and E.) the willingness of the top Dems and our President also (despite his Augustine-citing call for res publica unity in his Inaugural Address) to make trust-nuking plays for permanent one-party dominance, as seen in their attempted take-over of state election regulation, and in their accomplished opening of the border. Obviously, C.) and E.) are America-centric developments that only indirectly impact Morrison, and he probably wrote “Western Man” prior to the American election.
The unifying thread of these events which I would stress is a repudiation of democracy, but others have interpreted them as an attempted take-over of the “successor culture,” or as Daniel Mahoney has put it, following Roger Scruton, a culmination of a long-gathering “culture of repudiation.”
Whatever comes next for the West, whether it is 1) further descent down this path of faux-democratic leftist governance by oligarchs and mobs--perhaps eventually provoking hot civil wars in some nations--, or, 2) an election-winning populist-conservative “counter-revolution,” the sheer shock of 2020 is going to reshape much in our politics and culture for decades to come. As Morrison sings, the Western situation is “not going back to the way it was.”
Our 1965-2020 way of life does do its best, however, to keep puttering along as usual, and we can say that one constant in it is Morrison’s delivering the goods:
God blessed Van with the gift of golden vocals, and remarkably, one that would extend—even grow?—into his 70s. Maybe there is some connection there with Van being one of the few Boomer songsters to have kept his soul one that could rise to the challenge of our society’s present, yet late-in-the-hour-for-him, crisis/revelation, one that calls for reassessment of a good deal of the 60s/70s culture revolution that he was very much a part of.
Anyhow, in “Western Man,” Van’s lyrics consist of two little stanzas that make upfront statements connected to the song-title, and a larger one that presents a parable-like-event set in the countryside.
Western Man has no plan, since he became complacent. Stopped believing in himself, and let others steal his rewards, while he was dreaming’. …Now Western Man is adrift, and under attack.
Here, I give you the larger stanza in its final unified version, although bits of it appear, with some slight variations, earlier in the song:
Now there's no other bite, no other bite of the cherry, unless he's prepared to fight-- start on, a new path to freedom. The horse has bolted from the stables, the lunatics have taken over the farm, caretakers have taken over the main building. The governors have gone, over the wall! Plan to start meetings in the forest. Not going back, not going back to the way it was. While he was dreaming, Others were scheming. (repeat w/ variations)
Most of the interpretation here is not complicated, but lest we miss one of the noteworthy points by interpreting too quickly, let’s lay them out.
First and foremost, we have already lost the main battle. Van seems to have concluded by late 2020 that the dogged insistence on lockdown-policy, and the squelching of so much debate about it, did not merely indicate a failure of top medical experts to discern good policy, but pointed to an across-the-board triumph in our main institutions of a corrupt and anti-democracy pattern of governance. Other songs from Latest Record Project are titled “They Own the Media,” “Big Lie,” “Double Agent,” and speak of a “long con” or even of a “they” who “control everything you do.” The 2020 moment involves waking up to the ways one has been manipulated by them, and, to the breathtaking extent of their power. This is why the parable-sketch he puts before us here, set in a farm complex or rural village—notice that it has a “wall” and “governors,” even if one line speaks of it as having a “main house”--, makes rather stark statements about our situation, ones unqualified by any mealy-mouthed hoping that things can’t really be that bad.
Nope. They are very bad. Our “governors” are absent, have cowardly abandoned us, perhaps into treasonous activity, but in any case, are no longer willing or available to protect us; clearly traitorous persons who once were mere “caretakers” are now in charge—not yet of absolutely everything, but of our society’s “main building,” and with some related set, “the lunatics” (the woke mobs?) ruling its central place of production, the “farm”--; and in a similar image of insanity, some strong yet-long-tamed power, the “horse,” has become unleashed and gone wild.
There is no way anymore to conduct a defense from the “walls,” because enemies now control most the inside. A “new path” to recover “freedom” is needed, one that will involve underground resistance, i.e., “meetings in the forest.”
Second, Van indicates that Western Civilization itself is what is under attack. Long-standing warnings of how this attack was happening in morals, education, and culture, from academics like Mortimer Adler, C.S. Lewis, Allan Bloom, Shelby Steele, Chantal Delsol, and Roger Scruton, were proven correct by the last few years.
And the attack also involves too-lenient multiculturalist-driven immigration policy, such that some of the scheming others are non-Westerners, with Muslims being the particularly important group of these in Morrison’s own UK. Morrison might also have in mind various successful machinations of the Chinese state to influence, and to even approach control of, Western institutions. However, the album as a whole suggests that just as important to Morrison would be the West’s home-grown enemies. Leaders like Jacinda Arden, Nikole-Hannah Jones, Mark Zuckerberg, Anthony Fauci, Sundar Pichai, Ibram Kendi X, Boris Johnson, Daniel Andrews, Bill DeBlasio, and Robin Swann, though they were entirely or largely brought up in the West, are at bottom anti-Western, and especially regarding Western freedom.
Third, our defeat is so total that we have to conclude, not only that “going back to the way it was, now just seems near impossible,” but that we need to adopt a vision of Western freedom that is in some respects a “new path.” This is the truly golden insight of the song, the one that as a political theorist I treasure most. For it suggests that if “Western freedom” could be so decisively and quickly undone from within, then there was something flawed in our previous understanding and practice of it. That means, to put it in my democracy-rescue terms, that our goal cannot be to rewind to the 80s days of Reagan, Thatcher, and Back to the Future—or pick any WWII-to-2015 golden era you wish to—because the West cannot go “back to the way it was.” Still speaking more in my own voice, but I believe in harmony with Morrison’s, the proper goal for populist-conservatives, and for all their allies, must be a vision of democratic and nation-grounded freedom that while true to the core principles that undergirded its Western flourishing circa 1945-2015, must in other ways be new.
Fourth, our struggle will involve a) political/metaphorical fighting and revolt, b) an openness to and preparation for the emergency option of actual revolution, and c) a defense and fostering of manliness.
It is pretty clear how this song suggests c), the need for the male’s forefront role in standing up for freedom, and more generally, for the virtue of manliness and a by-and-large retention and revival of certain long-standing societal roles for men. This belief, alongside one in the basic goodness of the West, has long been under attack. “Bitter white-men” remains a standard slander, and while we are not closed to the possibility of its sometimes capturing part of the truth about an individual, we must call out the common recourse to it in our day, which is nothing but a normalization of a gesture of hatred. Similarly, the day of the “sophisticated” white male feeling he must signal his virtue by silently indulging talk about “POC” cultural/physical beauty, or of female empowerment, if it is of the insinuating kind that deliberately never speaks of white cultural/physical beauty, or of the flourishing of males, is done. With this song, Van is declaring that he is no longer going to bother himself about the supposed concerns--for in our day these are nothing, 19 times out of 20, but a form of bullying pressure--that sophisticated persons might raise about our speaking of the basic goodness of the West, and of the masculine.
That’s pretty clear. But we need to take extra care in talking about a) and b), i.e., about what is meant by the lines “prepared to fight” and “plan to start meetings in the forest.” I believe that one of the most indispensable tasks for today’s populist conservatives and democracy-rescuers is arriving at a clear distinction between a) and b). I plan to talk about this at greater length in future Postmodern Conservative essays. The key thing is that good populist leaders of our day, and poetic artists in tune with their concerns like Van, are not saying that the situation at present demands actual fighting, or revolutionary activity. We are calling for “revolution” in politics, in ideas, and in culture, yes. And we are calling for a stepping up into more intense political activity, of a kind that will involve confrontations and personal risk, yes. These metaphorical a) senses of “revolution” and “fighting” must not, however, be confused or conflated with the actual things. This is the basic error, tactical and moral, that impassioned democracy-rescuers like Brandon Straka made around a year ago (with many of them egged on in part, we now have very strong reason to believe, by FBI plants in the crowd), but perhaps also due to listening to too many songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin’,” which dared to imagine a situation at the Capitol building where “senators” and “congressmen,” who might get “hurt” due to their “stall,” would hear sounds of a “battle outside ragin’” that would “soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.”
Our times are a-changin’ big-time too, but elder Van is more careful than young Bob was. He does not call for actual fighting, but for being “prepared to do so.” That is quite similar to my calling for all democracy-rescuers to refrain from on-offense violence, or the threat thereof in their political efforts. For you leave democratic politics, and enter into the revolutionary kind, whenever you do otherwise.
However, we must not deny that a time for revolutionary action could come, under certain extreme, but far-more-imaginable-after-2020, circumstances. The “prudence” sentence of the Declaration lays out a common-sense understanding of those circumstances, with the most basic one being a long train of abuses that indicate a design to impose despotism. Some preparation for this emergency possibility is legitimate, but again, such preparing for an unwelcome future revolution to be deployed against a top-down imposition of despotism by the legally-appointed agents of a government, is radically distinct from a general welcoming and promotion of a revolutionary mindset, and of revolutionary methods. The true friends of democracy oppose the romanticization of actual revolution.
And this points to a significant qualification implicitly present in Van’s song, and explicitly so in his album, to the idea sketched above, that we democracy-defenders have already lost the main battle. For to take that literally would lead one to conclude that must be already living under an illegitimate despotism. I think Van is rather suggesting that 2020 revealed that the institutional side of the battle has already been largely lost, such that outside-the-institutions methods of resistance which one could describe in metaphor as “meetings-in-the-forest” have become necessary, even if Van is also saying that literal kinds of such “meetings” might become necessary in a future worse-case scenario. Other lyrics on the album, especially several in “My Time after a While,” suggest that it could be the case, that the success of the elite “Dupers” of our day may be passing soon, as more and more persons awaken, as Van has, to the depth of their vileness, and the alarming extent of their existing power.
So don’t overread Van’s parable, and my fellow populist-conservatives, do what intellectual work you need to, to distinguish your desire for present “revolution” in culture, electoral politics, and institutions, from how future conditions might require an emergency attempt at actual revolution.
May you all have a blessed 2022, and come to feel more confident about our fight to save the West and its freedom by the beginning of 2023! Van Morrison’s refined R+B artistry is a reminder of what was, and what may remain, a healing cultural activity characteristic of the--yes, gloriously culture-mixing and appropriating, as Ralph Ellison might characterize it--civilization of the 20th-century West. It is no out-of-touch “dreaming” to throw one’s spirit into such songs, and to highlight their potential to keep us from becoming “adrift,” “complacent,” and bereft of hope.