by John Almond
I recently welcomed Van the Man back into my home after a long time away. Well not literally as I do like to keep my heroes at a distance, nice and high on the pedestal, to avoid the likely disappointment of reality overtaking the myth.
For about thirty years from the early 70s onwards Van Morrison’s music was a constant in my life and one I that I shared with friends, family, girlfriends including the current Mrs. A (and I can’t say that for too many of my favourite artists). His songs were a backdrop to many a gathering - I would see him live whenever he was in town and pretty much bought each new album without a second thought. But by the late 90s I found I was getting less than excited by the retreading of tired old blues numbers and his music slowly disappeared from the “current rotation” stack. There was a brief rekindling of the old spark in an album called Magic Time in 2005, but that was a small island in an ocean of R&B mediocrity.
I’ve always still kept an eye out on what he’s doing but, to my shame, my main involvement with Van of late has been in laughing along with various (non-complimentary) apocryphal stories and “Mr. Grumpy” put-downs that have appeared in the various music magazines and blogs over the years - notably the late lamented WORD. Van has never been loved by the press in the way that his contemporaries like Dylan and Cohen have been. Admittedly, he doesn't always help himself, but I feel his music deserves a more generous re-evaluation.
Way back I didn’t get him at all. My brother-in-law was a diehard fan and used to bring his albums up to my parents’ house, and one year he left me a tidy stack of the VM back catalogue over the summer holidays. Reluctantly setting King Crimson to one side, I put Veedon Fleece on the player and something connected.
Maybe it was “the Yarragh” that I heard. Greil Marcus talks about this in his book Listening to Van Morrison (a rather pretentious and certainly very singular view but worth a read). In the book, he says that this expression was coined by the old Irish tenor John McCormack as an almost indefinable quality in the voice which can move a performance from being merely very good to something special. Marcus talks about how Morrison attempts to surrender himself to the music in order to reach a state of exultation. It’s not something that he can do at will though – there are great expanses of music where he misses the mark and sometimes by a country mile. But when he finds that moment, it can achieve something which is entirely his own, transcendent and unlike any other contemporary singer. Back in our front room in the mid 1970s I heard that on “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River” where the title line is chewed over repeatedly until it, and the wonderful Jeff Labes arrangement, become the ebb and flow of “the river.” Personally, I’d put this track over and above anything on Astral Weeks (looks overhead for possible lightning bolts).
Other moments that deserve special mention include “Listen to the Lion” from St. Dominic's Preview. Over 12 minutes of beautifully restrained playing by a band including the MJQ’s Connie Kay on drums and Ronnie Montrose on lead acoustic guitar, Van weaves a song which about the search for the courage within. There are few words, but the way he sings and repeats the phrases make it almost like an incantation, sometimes desperate and longing and at other times boasting. Eventually his voice breaks down into an animalistic roar. As he said himself: “It's a song I guess about me - probably the only one about me." It‘s an extraordinarily moving and unique piece of music.
The title track of Astral Weeks was the first example of his stream of consciousness style of songwriting and would have been startling at any point in any artist’s career, but Van Morrison had just turned 20. Referencing reincarnation and channeling Lorca and Lead Belly, I have no idea what it is all about in a literal sense, but the mood conjured up in the long wind down against the thrumming bass of Richard Davis with the repeated phrases “I got a place on high/so far away/way up in the heavens/in another time in another place” is other-worldly.
My final choice would be the second side of Into the Music. From “Angeliou” to “You Know What They’re Writing About,” the songs just merge together to form a single mood piece. The other hero - or rather heroine - here is the violinist Toni Marcus, who weaves ever more passionate and lyrical lines around Van’s lyrics and the voice and instrument work as one. There is a pulverizing rendition of Tommy Edwards “It’s All in the Game” where Morrison dissects the lyrics and gives it a heft and meaning that goes way beyond the original composition. Like a trapeze artist he takes risks, and sometimes when the individual elements converge, the results can border on the miraculous. It’s as good a side of music as Van, or any of his contemporaries, has produced.
So whilst Bob may be God - and I don’t feel that strongly to want to argue the case - then for me Joni sits on one hand and Van on the other (with maybe Neil trying to muscle in from the side). For each of those artists, the overly used terms “unique” and “ground breaking” certainly applies. But it’s the consistency and sheer volume of quality recordings that marks Van Morrison as something special. Following the ubiquitous and wondrous Astral Weeks in ‘68 over the next 26 years, he produced the following albums that are all never less than excellent:
Moondance; St Dominics Preview; Hard Nose the Highway; Too Late To Stop Now; Veedon Fleece; Wavelength; Into The Music; Beautiful Vision; Inarticulate Speech of The Heart; No Guru No Method No Teacher; Poetic Champions Compose; Irish Heartbeat; Enlightenment; Hymns to the Silence; Too Long in Exile; A Night in San Francisco.
I can’t think of another artist who has maintained such a high level of quality over such a long period, and for that I take my hat off the man and can forgive the relative drop in form over the next couple of decades.
If you want to find an easy way into Van Morrison’s music then I’d suggest Moondance if looking for a fairly straight-ahead singer songwriter album with Americana leanings; Wavelength for something a bit more rock/pop; Poetic Champions Compose for a cool jazzy vibe; and Into the Music for a something which combines the above but with a more acoustic/folky feel. Then delve deeper...
John Almond is a songwriter and musician based in Hertfordshire, England working under the name of The Feedback File. His latest album, The Earth Beneath Our Feet, is available at bandcamp.com.