1969. I’m sitting on the floor of my high school gym with my friends, wishing we were outside skipping the light fantastic. Yawning at the monotone promises of Student Council candidates and picking the neon-pink polish from my nails, I glance up at the clock. Time never crawled so slowly. My stomach growls.
And then, a young bearded man dressed in white robes takes the stage. He is presidential hopeful Timothy Treger, and I am suddenly alert. A restless murmur goes up in the audience as he announces he will be reading from John Lennon: In His Own Write. This is no usual campaign speech, this is a nonsense story called Snore Wife and Some Several Dwarts, and mere words into it I’m rolling on the floor with laughter. (I mean, I really did roll on the floor with laughter: the story was funny, and if my friends and I found something funny that’s what we did – even if we were out walking we’d stop and fall to the sidewalk to split a gut.)
Timothy did not become president of Centennial Senior High in the sleepy suburban land of Coquitlam, B.C. Jocks and preppy kids were not ready for this peacenik with the long hair and flowing robes. I voted for him of course. And the day after his speech I spotted him in the cafeteria, incognito in jeans and a T-shirt. I introduced myself and he invited me over to his place after school.
Tim had his own apartment in the basement of a house and there on a hotplate he cooked brown rice and vegetables. A vegetarian with his own pad, how utterly new all this was to me and how very cool. Tim told me that out of respect for the earth and the people who grew the rice I should eat every last grain in my bowl. I did. And afterwards, he lit some incense and put Astral Weeks on the turntable. I’d never heard Van Morrison’s first solo album in its entirety. Now, as Van growled and whispered and cajoled out the title cut, I sat in silence, my eyes closed. I was floating “in another time, in another place” and Van’s sensual swirling utterances were taking me there.
“Got a hormone high,” I heard him sing over and over again. Years later I would discover the lyrics are “got home on high”. In keeping with the musician’s oft repeated theme of transcendence, “home on high” connotes a place above the throng: “We are goin’ to heaven.” But “hormone high” is what I heard back then. It is also what I felt, at age fifteen, as I tripped out in my crushed velvet bellbottoms and love beads. And the mounting intensity of the seven-minute-long Astral Weeks track was a sublime musical accompaniment to my coming of age. The song reaches ever so sweetly for climax then upon arrival sustains the ecstatic mystical moment with shimmering instrumentation wrapped in soft spiralling vocals.
This was the time of free love but Tim and I were never lovers, at least not physical lovers. We went on peace marches and attended sit-ins together; shared wine and cheese and bread with other protesters; rubbed tiger balm on our temples. At school we started our own chapter of SDS without really knowing what it was. I wrote angry missives for the school newspaper and Tim booked Big Brother and the Holding Company for a school concert.
“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world”, Van croons in Astral Weeks. Those lyrics cut deepest for me, floundering in a sea of adolescent insecurity as I was. But the day Timothy Treger walked into my life, dressed like Jesus and reading comical stories out loud at sombre events, was the beginning of the end of my strangerhood. Some people shrink your world, others expand it, Tim did the latter in spades in one exciting eventful year in my life, a year that confirmed for me that rolling on the sidewalk laughing was better than staying in your room crying and that being kooky was better than being cookie-cutter.
Morrison was twenty-three when he put Astral Weeks out. It arrived at the end of the sixties, the end of an era to be sure but simultaneously the beginning of something fantastically new for me. That visit to Timothy’s place with the grains of rice and quivering music, heralded a new dawn: I was stepping out into the world and I was doing it to a soundtrack played by the one and only Van Morrison.
I never saw Timothy after that school year ended. He was moving in universes I was barely aware of at the time. I bumped and banged my way into the seventies and university, went from ragged patched jeans to corduroy hot pants, from psychedelic light shows to discos with revolving coloured lights; David Bowie and Lou Reed took the spotlight. But there was always Van the Man, transporting me, transporting a generation. And every time I hear him sing “We are goin’ to heaven” I am reminded of the man in the white robes who, just by virtue of being who he was, gave my soul permission to fly.
Photo: left: the author (age 15) with her friend Suzanne & some cats. In the rockery at 616 Rochester, Coquitlam, B.C.
Title: from Astral Weeks: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaduct of your dreams…”
Wardrobe: Dress on Suzanne created for the author by Terrill Marlow, big sister extraordinaire.