Van Morrison – 10 of the best
From radio-friendly R&B via religious fervor to spiritual reawakening, these tracks map the Northern Irish songwriter’s soul-searching career
Wednesday 1 June 2016
1. TB Sheets
During Van Morrison’s spell in Them, the brutally, brilliantly reductive Belfast band he fronted between 1964 and 1966, there had been glimmers of an artistic sensibility at odds with the turbo-boosted dockside R&B of songs like Gloria and Baby Please Don’t Go. On My Lonely Sad Eyes, Hey Girl and an aching cover of John Lee Hooker’s Don’t Look Back, Morrison was reaching for something deeper and more revelatory. It wasn’t until he made his first solo recordings in New York with Bert Berns in 1967, however, that he began forging a distinct creative identity. The antithesis of the jaunty Brown Eyed Girl, TB Sheets is the first great Morrison immersion: 10 minutes of crawling, bloodied blues, sticky with the sweet stench of decay. Taking cues from gnarled old death songs like TB Blues, Morrison conjures something entirely idiosyncratic. The “Julie baby” dying of tuberculosis was, according to various sources, either an old high school friend, his London landlady or a work of fiction. Whoever she may be, Morrison delivers us, with unremitting focus, into her fetid room, creating a suitably claustrophobic, choking musical backdrop of stabbing organ, stinging blues licks and searing harmonica. His agitated death-watch veers between compassion (“I cried for you”), impatience (“I gotta go, I’ll send somebody around later”), awkward empathy, guilt and mortal dread. When words fail, he snuffles at the window like a hunted boar. When the recording was over – apparently; perhaps apocryphally – Morrison burst into tears. Not an easy listen, but grimly unforgettable.
2. Madame George
It’s almost impossible to pick one track from the close-stitched tapestry that is Astral Weeks, where every song – excepting, perhaps, the smooth swing of The Way Young Lovers Do – makes persuasive claim to being a masterpiece. Morrison’s dreamtime evocation of postwar Belfast was recorded in a handful of hours with some of America’s finest jazz musicians, relying on intuition and alchemy to bring the songs of memory and rebirth to vivid life. Madame George exemplifies the album’s mood of heightened nostalgia, its pitch of ecstatic longing. Earlier attempts at the song recorded with Berns came out sounding boorish and flat-footed. Now working with New York producer Lewis Merenstein, Morrison and his hired hands instinctively divine the heart of it, capturing an entire street world in 10 minutes with three simple acoustic guitar chords, fluttering flute, backstreet violin and Richard Davis’s double bass, the elastic anchor which holds the whole thing together. The charismatic drag queen of the title – an amalgam of six or seven different people, according to Morrison – is a wonderfully elusive construct around whom a rich cast of characters spin. Although his lyricism has never been more colourful or evocative, the key line is a simple one: “Say goodbye.” Madame George is one long letting go: to time, place, people; above all to innocence. It ranks among the most beautiful and heartbreaking farewells in popular music.
3. Into the Mystic
Morrison followed the loose abstractions of Astral Weeks with the precise opposite – a collection of tight, honed, radio-friendly blue-eyed soul made with the crack band of local musicians he had assembled near his home in Woodstock. The 10 tracks on Moondance offer up an embarrassment of riches, but the killer cut is this mysterious tale of being “born before the wind, oh so younger than the sun”, and sailing the “bonny boat” into some sublime metaphysical harbour. Pinned down by Morrison’s rattling acoustic rhythm guitar, John Klingberg’s propulsive bass, and the totemic foghorn, Into the Mystic provides the spiritual heft on an album more concerned with transmission than transcendence. I saw him perform it a couple of years ago in Edinburgh and it still possesses a mighty pair of wings.
4. Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)
Morrison’s superlative run of driving R&B singles in the early 1970s – Come Running, Domino, Blue Money, Wild Night – turned him into a US pop star, a development he professed to loathe, naturally. That particular populist strain of writing peaked with this frantic, appealingly odd slice of finger-snapping soul-pop from 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview. Paying homage to the great American R&B star, one of the few vocal stylists who could hold a candle to the Belfast Cowboy, Morrison is at his most unaffected and exuberant. There’s no poetry here, just a string of “do-do-do-dos”, “bop-shoop-bops” and “dang-a-lang-a-langs” to express the sheer joy of being head over heels in love. Dexys Midnight Runners had the big UK hit with the song in 1982 (resulting in their infamous “Jocky Wilson” Top of the Pops performance), but Van’s remains the definitive reading. You can imagine the wee fellow high-kicking his way through it, letting it “all hang out”, and very possibly tearing the seat of his trousers in the process.
5. Listen to the Lion (live)
Morrison’s peerless double live album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, is revisited this month in an expanded box set. Recorded during his 1973 tour, it captures him at a career peak, performing with the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a superlative band augmented with two horn players and a string quartet. The new material – 45 tracks – only serves to emphasise the jaw-dropping power and versatility of Morrison in full flood. It includes two previously unheard versions of Listen To the Lion, his epic incantation from Saint Dominic’s Preview; the one recorded at the Rainbow in London just about shades it for sheer vocal abandon, not to mention Bill Atwood’s soaring trumpet part. The song itself is the ultimate expression of Morrison’s compulsion to heed the internal voices that drive his music, the seemingly painful search for his inner lion. Over a slow, stop-start shuffle, the words are pared to a bare minimum. “I will search my very soul,” is the digested read; this is all about sound and feel. Many years later Morrison described it as “a song about me. Probably the only one”.
6. Streets of Arklow
After moving to America in 1967, Morrison spent the next six years in exile from Ireland. On his return in 1973 for a holiday, he immediately found the muse rapping at his window. He flew back to his home near San Francisco with a hatful of strange and beautiful songs, infused with Celtic twilight and preoccupied with a grail-like object that gave his next album its title but the significance of which even Morrison has since been unable to adequately explain. Reminiscent of Astral Weeks in its instrumentation, flow and questing spirit, Veedon Fleece is one of his greatest works. Any selection from the album is bound to be representative rather than definitive, but this brooding, contemplative march is a highlight, inspired by Morrison’s visit to the Wicklow town of Arklow, his head “full of poetry”. James Rothermel’s high, lyrical recorder soars over “God’s green land”, and when the strings swoop in at the start of the third verse, the force of the music perfectly conveys the gravitas of Morrison’s “soul-cleansing” excursion.
7. Full Force Gale
Following a directionless mid-to-late 1970s, Morrison wrapped up the decade with one of his most enjoyable albums, Into the Music, a breezy declaration of spiritual and musical regeneration. With a sensational new band, spearheaded by former James Brown horn player Pee Wee Ellis and freewheeling violinist Toni Marcus, he hit upon a powerful folk-soul hybrid which on the album culminated in a monumental 11-minute version of the 1950s standard It’s All in the Game. Van’s more accessible musical instincts were also back on track. The one-two punch of Bright Side of the Road (a minor hit in the UK) and this rousing declaration of being “returned to the Lord” is one of Morrison’s most uplifting opening sequences, and the most effortlessly immediate music he had made since the days of Brown Eyed Girl. Whether or not you care for the God-talk, Full Force Gale is an irresistible expression of rebirth, a punchy pop gospel testament which sweeps away any doubters.
8. Summertime in England
This 15-minute excursion from 1980s meditative Common One became the fulcrum of Morrison’s live shows for the next decade, an open-ended opportunity for the band to vamp and for he and Ellis to engage in extended call-and-response routines about topics as obscure as brass bands and Seamus Heaney’s publisher. Summertime in England is the deepest of Deep Van, an improvised jumble of some of Morrison’s most pressing musical, spiritual and literary preoccupations. Partly inspired by the open spaces of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, it’s a deeply ambitious, highly eccentric, improvised blend of snappy rhythm, hymn-like half-time passages, funky organ, vaulting strings and free-flowing horns. The action moves from the Lakes to the Vale of Avalon as Morrison pictures Wordsworth and Coleridge “smokin’ up in Kendal”, evokes Mahalia Jackson coming “through the ether”, pays homage to Yeats, Joyce, Eliot and, of course, William Blake, and eulogises about a woman in a red robe – “high in the art of sufferin’” – with whom he plans an assignation in the long grass. The conclusion of all this magnificent madness? “It ain’t why, why, why – it just is.” Amen.
9. In the Garden
Van’s last full-length masterpiece was No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, released 30 years ago. From its pointed title onward it found him shucking off many of the formal teachings that had infiltrated his music over the past several years – Christianity, Scientology, Rosicrucianism – to reconnect with his enduring muses: nature, pantheistic spirituality and a deep absorption with the past. In the Garden brings all three themes together in six minutes of pure rapture. Morrison transports himself back to “the garden wet with rain” of Astral Weeks, taking the listener, trancelike, through what he later described as “a meditative process”. The music is unspeakably gorgeous, a wonderfully tensile ensemble performance lead by Jef Labes’ rippling piano motif, every quiver held in check through to the ecstatic climax, where Morrison turns the album title into a mantra. Though he tends to favour more workmanlike material in concert these days, this remains the transcendent high point of Morrison’s recent live appearances.
10. Coney Island
Before Morrison’s long slide into genre exercises – a skiffle album here, a country record there, jazzin’ at Ronnie Scott’s – and the undistinguished collections of too-solid blues and R&B that have defined his music over the past two decades, he enjoyed a late-80s commercial renaissance with Avalon Sunset. The album marks the lush, string-drenched apogee of his preoccupation with a peculiarly British strain of ancient mysticism. Forget the singularly unlikely Cliff Richard duet (Whenever God Shines His Light) which finally got The Man on Top of the Pops, and head instead to this magnificent miniature Coney Island is an orchestrated gem over which Morrison recites – in thick east Belfast vernacular; check out the way he says “face” – an autumn bird-watching trip through the County Down where the “craic was good” and so, apparently, was the grub: “Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings, in case we get famished before dinner”. Somebody once tracked the route taken in the song and concluded that Morrison must have deployed William Burroughs’ cut-up technique on his road map, but such literalism misses the point. This is a journey into the heart of life’s simple joys, a note-to-self to seize contentment when it appears, even in such seemingly mundane pleasures as “stopping off for Sunday papers at the Lecale District”. A mere 123 seconds it may be, but Morrison’s eternally restless soul has rarely sounded at such peace. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”