"Madame George" is a ten-minute song by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It appears on the album Astral Weeks, released in 1968. The song features Morrison performing the vocals and acoustic guitar. It also features a double bass, flute, drums, vibraphone, and a string quartet.
|Song by Van Morrison|
|from the album Astral Weeks|
|Recorded||September 25, 1968|
|Astral Weeks track listing|
Recording and composition
The main theme of the song is about leaving the past behind. The character of Madame George is considered by many to be a drag queen, although Morrison himself denied this in a Rolling Stone interview. He later claimed that the character was based on six or seven different people: "It's like a movie, a sketch, or a short story. In fact, most of the songs on Astral Weeks are like short stories. In terms of what they mean, they're as baffling to me as to anyone else. I haven't got a clue what that song is about or who Madame George might have been."
Van Morrison, speaking to biographer Ritchie Yorke about the writing and meaning of the song, said in part:
"Madame George" was recorded live. The vocal was live and the rhythm section and the flute too and the strings were the only overdub. The title of the song confuses one, I must say that. The original title was "Madame Joy" but the way I wrote it down was "Madame George". Don't ask me why I do this because I just don't know. The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is "Cyprus Avenue"..."Madame George" just came right out. The song is basically about a spiritual feeling.
In April 2007 Tom Nolan wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that Madame George was none other than Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of Irish poet and mystic W. B. Yeats who acted as Yeats' muse through automatic writing and inducing trances. He cites the ever-present interest in Yeats by Morrison, and the words in the song: "That's when you fall into a trance/Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance/With your folded arms in history books you glance/ Into the eyes of Madame George."
An earlier recording with slightly altered lyrics and a much swifter tempo changes the tone considerably from the Astral Weeks recording, which is downbeat and nostalgic; the earlier recording is joyous, and seems to be from the point of view of a partygoer who sees the titular character. This version surfaced on the 1973 release T.B. Sheets, which compiled unreleased recordings Morrison had made for Bang Records in 1967.
This song contains a number of references to places and events in Van Morrison's native Belfast: Cyprus Avenue (also the title of another song on Astral Weeks) is a tree lined, up-market residential street in east Belfast; Sandy Row is a working class staunchly Unionist/Protestant neighbourhood in south Belfast; "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" was a practice of Northern Irish Unionists as they travelled on the train from Dublin to Belfast where the train crossed the River Boyne (site of the Battle of the Boyne, 1690). Fitzroy may be a reference to Fitzroy Avenue, a narrow residential street in Belfast between the Ormeau Road and Rugby Road.
The rock journalist Lester Bangs wrote in 1979 that the song "is the album's whirlpool. Possibly one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made, it asks us, no, arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too." Bangs also remarks that "Morrison has said in at least one interview that the song has nothing to do with any kind of transvestite – at least as far as he knows, he is quick to add – but that's bullshit." Indeed, the lyrics contain the lines "In the corner playing dominoes in drag/The one and only Madame George".
Artist Mark Wallinger said of "Madame George": "The sense of desire and loss expressed in this song is so sad because it dares one to try to hear it again as if for the first time. It describes our exile from our past. Radical, allusive, heartbreaking, and the ultimate three-chord trick."
In 1974, after he had recorded eight albums, Morrison told Ritchie Yorke when he asked him what he considered his finest single track and the one that he enjoyed the most that it was: "Definitely 'Madame George', definitely. I'm just starting to realize it more and more. It just seems to get at you... it just lays right in there, that whole track. The vocals and the instruments and the whole thing. I like that one."
Always a favorite of rock critics, "Madame George" is one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and it was listed as No. 467 on the All Time 885 Greatest Songs compiled in 2004 by WXPN (88.5 FM) from listener's votes and No. 356 in 2014.
Madame George appears in the "Black Boys on Mopeds" lyrics of Sinéad O'Connor: "England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses" suggesting that she is a legendary figure. David Gray pays tribute to the song on the final track of his album White Ladder, with his cover version of the Soft Cell song, "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye", which ends similarly and even borrows lyrics "Through the rain, hail, sleet and snow, say goodbye. Get on the train, the train and say goodbye". In David A. Stewart and the Spiritual Cowboy's song "Out of Reach", from the album Honest, there is a line that goes: "Madame George got played today, she almost forgot she could feel that way". Although not a direct imitation, the riff that the string quartet repeats at the end of the song is mimicked at the end of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" (one of several indicators that Morrison had great influence on Springsteen), confirmed by Springsteen himself on Desert Island Discs talking to Kirsty Young. The American rock band Hat On, Drinking Wine takes their name from a lyric from the song: "He's much older now/With hat on, drinking wine."
When singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading appeared on Desert Island Discs talking to Sue Lawley on 29 January 1989, "Madame George" was selected as one of the eight records she would like to take to her desert island, and also as the one favoured record she would most want to save if the other seven were lost.
"Madame George" was featured on Morrison's album Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, released in 2009 to celebrate forty years since Astral Weeks was first released.
- Marianne Faithfull performed this song on the 1994 Van Morrison tribute album No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison. Faithfull's version also plays over the closing credits of Dagmar Hirtz's film Moondance (1995). Faithfull's version of the song was also released as a single in 1994, with Morrison's "Queen of the Slipstream" as the B-side.
- Jeff Buckley recorded a cover version of this song.
- Energy Orchard covered "Madame George" on their 1993 album, Shinola.
- Phoebe Snow covered "Madame George" on her 1998 album I Can't Complain.
- Eric Bell released a live cover of the song on his album Live Tonite...Plus!.
- Ursula Burns
- Heylin, Can You Feel the Silence?, p. 518
- 1970 Rolling Stone Interview
- Uncut Magazine July 2005 issue
- Yorke, Into the Music, pp. 60-61
- Nolan, Tom (2007-04-14). "Who Was Madame George?". The Wall Street Journal online. Retrieved 2007-04-30.
- Lester Bangs. "Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks". personal.cis.strath.ac.uk. Retrieved 2009-02-11.
- Kirsty de Garis (2003-01-19). "Nick Hornby - 31 songs that have changed my life". The Observer. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
- Yorke, Into the Music, p. 169
- All Time 885 Greatest Songs
- 885 All Time Greatest Songs
- Sue Lawley's Desert Island Discussions, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, 112-8, 193.
- "Discography singles". briankennedy.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-09-05.
- "Jeff Buckley - madame george". Retrieved 2008-10-24.
- "Bap Kennedy - Triste article". triste.com.uk. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
- "I Can't Complain Album Review". billboard.com. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
- "allmusic:Eric Bell:Songs". allmusic.com. Retrieved 2009-09-11.
- Bailie, Stuart (2008-01-07). "Astral Weeks, Wondrous Days". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-03-10.