As much as I worry about my parents during COVID-19 and about my wife’s mom, there’s another senior citizen whose welfare sometimes troubles me — Van Morrison.
I have no reason to believe the famous Irish singer is anything but fully healthy and well looked-after. I bring him up only because of the monumental importance he has played in my life and how sharply I will one day feel his passing.
I first noticed the bizarre, entrancing genius of his music in 1989 when I was a college junior.
I already knew about radio favorites like “Moondance” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” (which have been played into oblivion, as far as I’m concerned.) But the album I heard that day in my girlfriend Lea’s room was much different. I remember where I was sitting, I remember the weather outside. I remember asking Lea the name of the artist, I remember studying the album cover.
Astral Weeks, released in 1968, is commonly considered Van Morrison’s masterpiece. On first listening, I couldn’t get a handle on it. The vocals and lyrics sounded like something I already knew – something which fit with the folk rock of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. But there were important elements I didn’t recognize – the arrangements, the overall mood.
The music sounded like … what? I was too young and inexperienced to identify elements of jazz.
The mood? There was an undercurrent of sadness, but also an intense yearning which intrigued and unsettled me. The album got in my head that spring. It stirred something which would take years for me to pin down.
For a long time Bob Dylan was my favorite songwriter, but one day I realized it was no longer true. His lyrics address man’s relation to self and others. They tell me about broken hearts, double-crosses, madness, injustice, and the eternal, lonely impulse to hit the road.
Van Morrison’s music covers some of the same territory, but it always gravitates back to something deeper – man’s relationship to inspiration, man’s connection to God. Morrison’s musical project, first announced on Astral Weeks and still meaningfully under way 52 years later, is “to be born again.” Where Dylan is brains, Morrison is heart and soul.
Another distinction between the two songwriters: as prolific as Dylan has been, as captivating as his music is across various genres and various authorial postures, the quality of his work has declined more noticeably over time. Recent efforts sometimes feel like fetishized caricatures of the troubadour universe he once mined so brilliantly for themes and characters.
His most recent effort about the JFK assassination, “Murder Most Foul,” as fascinating as it is, does not rise anywhere near the level of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” or “Visions of Johanna.” The rhyming, the word choice, it’s … fine. But it seems somewhat slapdash and lazy, of secondary importance anyway to the content itself, which is the still-stunning fact of JFK’s killing. Across 17 minutes of pop-culture survey and Shakespeare allusion, Dylan brings back to the front of our minds what a shocking, momentous tragedy Kennedy’s killing was.
The song can be seen as the third installment in a career-spanning trilogy of outrage about specific historical injustices. The first two songs were: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” about the death of a Maryland hotel worker in 1963; and “Hurricane,” which centers on the arrest and imprisonment of the boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
Dylan’s latest effort shares the sustained, straightforward outrage of those two songs, and though less artful, is still effective. On some level, it’s just interesting that at this particular moment, with all that’s wrong in the world, Dylan is meditating on the JFK assassination. He sees it not just as a crucial pivot in American history, but an event on the same scale as the death of Christ, for example.
And yet the Dylan song, as compelling as it is, actually reminds me how exceptional Van Morrison is, by contrast, still to be writing songs which succeed both as art and as expressions of self and spirit.
Over the years I compiled a Spotify playlist for my son. I initially called it “Lesser Known Van,” but it gradually expanded to the point where the title no longer applies. Along the way, I made the playlist “collaborative” to allow additions by my son, who somehow in the midst of a steady diet of Travis Scott, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye also fell in love with Van.
It was gratifying to see a 16-year-old become curious about, and then entranced, by the same hard-to-categorize artist who brought me up short 30 years ago. It was especially gratifying when Morrison lyrics would overlap with my son’s AP English homework. Long before he encountered them in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, my son had already heard about Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and T.S. Elliot, whose names are ritualistically incanted on Morrison’s 1980 album Common One. From Morrison’s music, my son already had a handy reference point for Blake’s mysticism, already had personal experience of an artist pursuing ecstatic insight.
To say Van Morrison is my favorite artist is of course not to say that I know or admire him as a person. One gets the sense he is a complicated, occasionally difficult man. When he was writing beautiful love songs like “Tupelo Honey,” for example, his own relations with people were not honey-sweet, according to biographers.
But this is often the case. Artists are flawed human beings, sometimes dramatically so. One Dylan biography tells us that his peers in NYC found Blood on the Tracks off-putting and even infuriating, since it presented such a self-pitying, one-sided view of the collapsed relationship which the rest of them had witnessed at close quarters. (Spoiler alert: these peers weren’t on Dylan’s side.)
Then again, who cares? I wasn’t there, and neither were you. The resulting album is no less brilliant or affecting, even if the artist himself behaved poorly.
A central difference between Morrison and Dylan over time seems to be Morrison’s sincerity as a spiritual seeker versus Dylan’s mercurial genius as trickster/jester/social gadfly. Morrison takes the arguably feminine posture of being open to finding out, while Dylan tends toward the more closed, male posture of already knowing (and informing the rest of us). Perhaps Morrison’s sincerity helps explain his continued viability as a songwriter. For example, as he began to explore Buddhist ideas on albums like 1990’s Englightenment, he seemed able to incorporate the concepts deftly, almost effortlessly, even as his passionate Christianity remained in full force.
An overlooked song from recent years is about his father, who once made a trip to the U.S. to try to find work so that his family could join him. The plan did not work out, he returned to Belfast, and went to work at the Harlan and Wolff shipyard. It wasn’t the career he wanted, but it paid the bills. He made peace with it. The story, which is fundamentally a sad one, is told in an up-tempo jazz number called “Choppin’ Wood,” the title of which is a nod to Zen wisdom about simplicity, humility, and right conduct. The song was released 2002. In three-and-a-half minutes, the song tells a short story’s worth of information. It also plays with two meanings of “spark.” The father was a “spark down at the yard;” that is, he was an electrician. But even as he was faithfully supporting his family, the “spark” of joy and inspiration was gone. The hope of the earlier trip to the United States had been replaced by resignation and daily drudgery.
Well, you came back home to Belfast,
So you could be with us like,
But you lived a life of quiet desperation on the side,
Going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike.
Well, the spark was gone, but you carried on,
And ya did just the best that you could.
You sent for us one time, but everything fell through,
But you still kept on choppin’ wood.
Morrison is a lifelong admirer of African-American music. His music is sometimes placed in the so-called “blue-eyed soul” category which includes performers like Stevie Winwood, Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, George Michael, and so on. Basically it’s white artists who owe a huge musical debt to African-American predecessors, and whose best work may sometimes extend old genres in new directions.
In later years, Morrison’s music has shifted from folk music to jazz, a shift which recalls Joni Mitchell’s own evolution toward jazz. Today, at 74, Morrison remains not only a vibrant performer, but a songwriter who grapples with his dreams, demons, and preoccupations in songcraft that remains surprisingly fresh.
Keep Me Singing, from 2016, is a wonderful album, full of energy and subtlety. It may seem effortless, maybe for Morrison it was. But it still sounds new even while visiting all the old Morrison topics — dark nights of the soul, new love, and the on-again, off-again connection to spirit.
Sure, there are moments when latter-day Van is easy to parody, such as the infamous “blah, blah, blah” lyric in “Behind the Ritual.” But that line is actually a comment about ritual — the rote quality which necessarily co-exists with the magical capacity of rituals to elevate or entrance. In fact, compared to contemporaries like Dylan or Springsteen, Morrison rarely feels as if he is repeating himself. This is somewhat remarkable, for a man who has released 41 studio albums.
On the other hand, as a poetic device and performance technique, Morrison certainly does repeat himself. He frequently dwells on a single line or word, repeating it, exploring it, varying the phrasing. He is trying to dial into spirit. He is trying to cast a spell, both on his audience and on himself. The best songs feel like incantations, fervent conjurings of the spirit world. Tunes worth checking out in this regard are “Summertime in England” and “Spirit,” from Common One in 1980.
It’s a mark of his facility as a songwriter that he composes memorable songs even on petty topics. Morrison can tend toward paranoia, bitterness, and ornery stay-off-my-lawn-ism, especially regarding the music industry and celebrity journalism. Four excellent tunes resulting from this frustration are: “The New Biography,” “Professional Jealousy,” “Why Must I Always Explain,” and the “The Drumshanbo Hustle.”
In this essay, I have dwelled on the songwriting. I have left unexamined his talents as a performer and a band leader. For glimpses into these two areas, I recommend It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Vols. 2-4, released in 2016. These were culled from a series of incandescent performances in California in 1973 by Morrison and his 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. The renditions are stunning, especially “Caravan” and “Purple Heather.”
Another live album worth checking out is 1994’s A Night in San Francisco, especially “I Forgot that Love Existed,” which wanders into Dyaln’s “All Along the Watchtower” in its closing frames; or “See Me Through,” which drifts into “Soldier of Fortune” and then Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf).” The medley shows a performer not only blessed with a rare voice, but also committed to its fullest, fearless exploration. The same is evident on the album of traditional Irish music which Morrison made with the Chieftains in 1988. His versions of “Raglan Road,” “Celtic Ray,” and “Star of the County Down” became standards in the genre.
In still other genres, he does superb versions of the Webb Pierce country classic “There Stands the Glass,” as well as the 1930 tune later made popular by Ray Charles, “Georgia on My Mind.”
A final note on Astral Weeks — as breathtakingly original as the record is, it was clearly a collaboration. Morrison provided the lyrics, vocals, and melodies. But the arrangements and instrumentation were the work of top-shelf New York City jazz players assembled by producer Lewis Merenstein. There have been squabbles through the years about how much of the album’s genius stems from Morrison himself, how much from the supporting cast. It’s an interesting debate, one I don’t have a strong opinion about.
To me music is always a collaborative project as soon as a second player joins or an engineer starts recording. Astral Weeks clearly owes a massive debt to producer Merenstein, bass player Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay, and flautist and saxophonist John Payne. On the other hand, Morrison’s voice is no less an impressive instrument, and the spell he weaves lyrically is disorienting and magical.
Two critics who understood the import of the record were Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs. While other critics were confused or turned off by the experimental album, Bangs wrote, “It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of (Morrison’s) previous work had only suggested; but … there was a redemptive element in the blackness.
“Certainly it is not a young man’s record; there are lifetimes behind it,” Bangs wrote.
Morrison himself returned to the material 40 years later with two shows at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The resulting album showcased the magical, wistful quality of the songs, but also showed that Morrison at 62 was an arresting, commanding vocalist, maybe even more so than in his 20s.
To be sure, he has a certain kind of voice. His music is a certain type of music, and not for everyone. But for those who get hooked, it becomes utterly entrancing. That he can till toss off songs like “Celtic New Year,” “Keep Me Singing,” and “Let It Rhyme” this late in the game seems extraordinary.
All of which is an extremely long way to say, this is an artist whose passing one day will be a sad, sad day for me. May the day be many years hence.
My Spotify playlist, for any who want to check it out: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5GAl3weUUCjuzEOots3mOD?si=lABKQzuSQJWzIV7dtpF03g