This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs victory in Super Bowl IV. Remember the Chiefs’ unusual “choir huddle?” This year’s team likely promises to be their best chance in decades to get back to the championship game. I’m backing the Chiefs big in the final week of the NFL season. Hoping to sing “Hallelujah!” Here’s my Week #17 write up.
I’m glad to be in the profit column for the year after suffering through a brutal mid-season slump. Let’s now close out the regular season strongly with this final slate of wagers and (hopefully) winners.
By the way, I’ve begun contributing original content for an online gambling website, which (appropriately enough) is onlinegambling.com. Please check it out.
Those of you who like data, trends, and various aspects of handicapping methodology may be interested in these three new articles which I wrote up and posted in the last two days:
If you want to know my reasoning for this week’s wagers, much of the content in these articles (links above) will explain. I’m particularly proud of my work on the UNDER trends, as this took considerable research on my part and (to my knowledge) hasn’t been discovered until now.
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 3
Part 3 (Days 15-21) of my ongoing series which is a retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 15
“Celtic New Year” (2005)
“You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the telltale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose.”
So wrote Andy Whitman, reviewing the 2005 Van Morrison Album, Magic Time, which contains one of the singer-songwriter’s most spirited compositions.
“Celtic New Year,” musically and lyrically, sounds like it could be the official theme song for the Irish Tourism Board. It’s a joyous musical postcard to the land of green.
However, Van’s deep Irish roots and broad branches haven’t been without a few thorns. Much of his career has overlapped a bloody sectarian conflict known as “The Troubles.” Yet somehow, Van was able to straddle the barbed-wire fence during the entirety of the deadliest period within the British Commonwealth since World War II.
Van, a proud Belfast native raised as a Protestant, would have been viewed as an adversary by Irish Republican nationalists under most circumstances. Indeed, the IRA fire-bombed performance halls and even murdered working musicians for taking gigs within the “occupied” part of Belfast. But Van circumnavigated political controversy largely by staying out of it. He never made public statements nor wrote any songs hinting that he sided with Unionists or was sympathetic to Irish Republicans. Clearly, his perceived neutrality was made easier by relocating to the United States during The Troubles, a terror campaign that began in the early 1970s and continued well into the 1990s.
Van wasn’t entirely indifferent to the horrors of the terrible divide and needed to fill the void. Songs of homage to Irish culture and history stoked with literary references were the plentiful substitute sprawled across multiple albums, perhaps a reminder to both sides of the deadly conflict there’s an underlying and unifying bond between them — Celtic pride. Indeed, as Van spent less time in (Northern) Ireland, absence made the Irish heart grow fonder.
One of Van’s most inspired songwriting periods stemmed from his collaboration with the traditional Irish band from Dublin — The Chieftains. They recorded an album together appropriately titled Irish Heartbeat. He also created the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which would serve as his backup band on many recording sessions and live performances. He appeared on countless television shows in Ireland, often singing impromptu folk songs. In interviews, to this day, Van rarely talks about rock music or the pop scene, but he maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Irish music and old Celtic folk songs. Lyrics can be recited sans notes, entirely from memory.
In 2005, Van turned 60. At a time when most pop musicians are either winding down their careers or relying purely on nostalgia, Van ramped things up. He’s released 11 albums since then, an astounding output of original creativity for someone half his age, but almost herculean given Van’s intense touring schedule.
“Celtic New Year,” one of the very best songs Van has written, is a powerful soulful ballad, enhanced by a melodic guitar riff, a hearty piano accompaniment, backed by a full symphony orchestra. But the composition’s most poignant moment occurs late in the 6-minute track when an Irish flute gets into the mix and steals the spotlight, closing the catchy song with a masterful flair of authenticity and delicacy.
This song is a masterpiece. See if you agree.
I said, oh won’t you come back? I have to see you, my dear. Want you come back in the Celtic New Year? In the Celtic New Year.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 16
“Cyprus Avenue” (Live Performance-1973)
Van’s live performance on the evening of July 23, 1973 at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park (London) with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra was a perfect storm that ended with a lightning bolt — a thundering rendition of “Cyprus Avenue” from the much-acclaimed 1968 album masterpiece, Astral Weeks.
Van is at the very top of his game here, “whipping the crowd into a frenzy and then stopping on a dime — teasing out anticipation, rushing, receding, and coaxing every drop out of his band.”
That night, 3,000 electrified spectators were treated to a mesmerizing display of raw unfiltered spontaneity. Even the occasional out-of-tune flaw, the missed note here and there, and Van’s own idiosyncratic sudden stops in mid-song meld together into something of a faux lovechild between James Brown and Bruce Springsteen, while smoking a cigarette. Oh, and this has to be the only rock song in history with a full stanza of studdering.
Rolling Stone magazine wrote of the show stopper:
“Working his way up to a ferocious conclusion, he stood before the audience shaking his head back and forth, hair falling about him, looking like a man insane. Finally, with tension mounting, he ran across the stage, ran back again, jumped over a microphone cord, held the mike up to his face and screamed, ‘It’s too late to stop now’, and was gone.”
If that’s not enough, check out Van’s daughter — 3-year-old Shana Morrison — wandering onto the stage with a tambourine, totally oblivious to the wild scene around her. About two-thirds into the song, Van realizes things are about to spin out of control, so he whispers to Shana to go offstage, presumably into her mother’s arms waiting off in the wings. Mind you, this is LIVE SHOW filmed by the BBC, in front of a packed house.
More on the classic Van composition later in a future lesson. By the way, “Cyprus Avenue” refers to a street in Belfast. When Van was a teenager, Cyprus Avenue represented the other side of the tracks, so to speak. It’s where those who grew up working-class aspired to be.
But on this night, the place to be was on the front row at the Rainbow Theatre, watching Van tear up the stage like a madman.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 17
“Sometimes We Cry” (Live Performance — 2016)
In yesterday’s lesson, we watched 3-year-old Shana Morrison make her first stage appearance alongside her famous father. That was an impromptu gem where the toddler wandered innocently out onstage in the middle of showstopper “Cyprus Avenue” while Van was wailing away on the microphone. Forty-three years later, Shana joined her iconic dad again, this time all grown up while performing the heart-tugging ballad “Sometimes We Cry.”
It’s not easy being the child of a famous musician, but that likely goes double for the kin of Van Morrison. Today, Shana tours regularly with her own band playing in mostly small venues and works with many other artists, but her father’s shadow casts both unreasonable expectations and likely even contains some serious baggage. Van’s music may be highly-respected, even revered. However, he isn’t particularly well-liked in the music business, even among his fellow musicians.
Van and Shana have performed many times together over the years. This song is one of their best duets. It’s a hymn to the soul following a loss and an endearing acknowledgment that feeling sad and crying is okay.
“Sometimes We Cry” was included in 1997’s The Healing Game, one of my favorite of Van’s many albums. Oddly enough, Van’s version didn’t chart. But when Tom Jones heard Van’s song, he then recorded it a few years later, and the song went to #1 in the U.K. (Van has never had a #1 hit).
This live rendition of a great song was recorded by someone in the audience at the Fox Auditorium in Oakland, CA in January 2016. Van looks to be his usual grumpy self, but Shana, never far from her patriarchial shadow, appears to be enjoying the spotlight.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 18
“Wild Night” (1971)
“And the wind catches your feet, and sends you flyin’!”
Following the broadly-successful Moondance album, Van swerved onto the opposite side of the musical highway, recording and releasing the country-infused “Tupelo Honey.” Most of that collection of songs was written while Van lived in Woodstock, NY while hanging out with Bob Dylan and The Band. These simpler songs rooted in the soothing rhythm of Van’s acoustic guitar made for yet another surprising departure from expectation.
Recorded in San Francisco, the album produced two hits that received frequent radio play — the title song “Tupelo Honey” and “Wild Night,” an R&B driven track that sounds like a Stax record, driven by a rollicking up-tempo bass.
Van’s song reached #28 on the Billboard charts. It was released during the heyday of the “singer-songwriter” era — when musicians not only were encouraged to write and compose their own music but also had some measure of control over the direction of their careers. Van took full advantage of this newfound artistic freedom, releasing seven albums within a 5-year period.
Surprisingly, “Wild Night” wasn’t just a one-time hit. Twenty years later, singer John Mellencamp took Van’s song and turned it into a #1 hit single. Like so many Van songs, his original version was eclipsed by a later alternative rendition. Mellencamp’s interpretation of the song is terrific, indeed.
But for now, let’s go back to 1971 and listen to Van’s original.
“The wild night is calling.”
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 19
“Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo” (2012)
At the 2005 Nice (France) Jazz Festival, Van performed a live set at the Arènes et Jardins de Cimiez. The ancient venue, a Roman Amphitheater, was quite the scene. Let’s just say the place has some history. It hosted its first live event way back in 190 A.D. — probably something to do with gladiators. This contemporary and far jazzier lineup included the following performers who took the festival stage at Nice:
— B.B. King
— Muddy Waters
— Fats Domino
— Chuck Berry
— Charles Mingus
— Miles Davis
— The Count Basie Orchestra
— ….and Van, of course.
While staying on the Cote d’ Azur, Van — always inspired by his surroundings and on the lookout for song ideas, came upon a road sign which read: “Monte Carlo 25K.” Monte Carlo happens to be about 25 kilometers down the French Riviera to the east of Nice. Hence, sometime later, that became the opening line of a new original song: “Goin’ down to Monte Carlo, about 25K from Nice.”
The 8-minute track appears on the 2012 album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, which I rank as Van’s best work within the past 15 years. Packed with songs of self-reflection, sincere regret, and real hope, encompassing diverse instrumentation, it’s the closest Van has ever come to a musical autobiography. While apolitical for most of his career, he even lashes out at the global political and financial structure in the aftermath of the fallout of the worldwide 2008 economic crash. The album produced no hit songs but was well-received by both critics and Vanatics as a collective whole, so much so that it reached #10 in the U.S. and #15 in the U.K on the charts. Not bad for a singer-songwriter reaching his 70s doing jazz-laced compositions.
Van explained “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo” as a simple day in the life of his time spent on the French Riviera, which has become a favorite vacation spot. When asked why? Van gruff and always straight to the point snapped, “because it’s warm.” That’s it.
The studio version of this largely unknown song sounds like an impromptu jazz session, the players on alto sax, piano, standup bass, and drums each taking turns on in two distinct instrumental interludes. Think of a jazz band in the hotel bar at midnight. That’s the vibe. It’s not a song. It’s a mood and a mindset. Perhaps it’s even some measure of contentment.
I’ve posted a rare live version of “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo,” performed months after its release, at a hotel in Belfast. The live version sounds a little punchier, and Van — perpetually bitter towards the critics — barks out a few attacks towards his detractors IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SONG.
Classic Van, note for note, word for word, in every way.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 20
“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
Being a Van Morrison fan requires an innate sense of curiosity about the things we do not yet know combined with an insatiable lust for enlightenment. It also comes with an inherent understanding that satisfactory answers to these questions will be evasive, if not impossible.
But still — quest for enlightenment we must.
“Enlightenment — I don’t know what it is.”
So writes and sings Van the title track from his 1990 album Enlightenment. The album crashed in the U.S. but was a big success in the U.K. where it climbed to #5 on the charts. The collection of all original material reflected a period where the music wasn’t intended as entertainment so much as a poetic exploration of the possibilities. Van has dabbled with religious themes during much of his career. Undoubtedly, his ties to the musical gospel stem from growing up under the spell of spiritually-tinged American singers like Ray Charles as much as any genuine religious devotion. That said, Enlightenment isn’t a statement-of-fact nor a final destination. It’s but one of many of Van’s album whistlestops.
So, how do we interpret “Enlightenment” — both the song and the album? Well, we don’t.
Instead, let’s just listen and enjoy Van’s recording session from Wool Hall Studios, Beckington Townhouse, in London.
One can’t help but feel “enlightened” that something really cool is happening here.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 21
“Don’t Look Back” (1992 — with John Lee Hooker)
You can’t fake the blues.
The best bluesmen (and women) are often seen and heard performing in clustered bars and tiny nightclubs making $75 a night, if that, bleeding their souls to strangers under dim lights on worn-out stages that could use a fresh coat of paint.
The giant of a man and musical force that was John Lee Hooker didn’t escape that scene nor leave it behind, so much as he invited us all into his musical lair. There aren’t many voices that can command a room and steal a moment, even without a microphone. There are few vocalists who can give a simple tune such authenticity that the song becomes a personal incantation and is entirely their own. Johnny Lee Hooker had that gift.
In 1992, Van agreed to participate in a film documentary about his life and career that produced some extraordinary outtakes (which were never broadcast). Van recorded with Hooker twenty years earlier. They appeared on each other’s albums many times. Van, impervious to fame and pop-star celebrity, revered Hooker as the genuine singer and bluesman. Hence, he became a natural impromptu addition to the film.
One afternoon, Van went out on a pier on the bayou some miles outside New Orleans and joined Hooker on an old blues classic. Van had previously recorded “Don’t Look Back” way back in 1965 with his Northern Irish starter band *Them.* This gem of a jam session occurred in front of the cameras for that documentary. Given this was performed and recorded outdoors, the sound quality is remarkably crisp.
The Hooker-Morrison rendition is stripped bare to just two masters at their soulful best. Both keep time tapping a right foot on the wooden pier. Van does the guitar work and a little backup vocal. But Hooker seizes the moment just by opening his mouth and letting pure honesty flow. It’s pristine. It’s magic. It’s the blues.
This recording won’t win any Grammy Awards….oh but wait — it certainly inspired a few. A few years after this short session, Hooker recorded the same song with Van inside the studio, and it became the title track of a new album. In 1998, Don’t Look Back won the Grammy for “Best Traditional Blues Album,” and the John Lee Hooker-Van Morrison song won another Grammy for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” Not bad for a couple of old-timers tapping their feet and jamming in a swamp.
Even Van, never one prone to compliment, is in awe here working alongside Hooker. Who can blame him?
Marieta strapped me to the sofa. No jokes, please.
Actually, she put out a bottle of something 15.3 alc. strong from Paso Robles and forced me into watching the 2-hour and 15-minute, Marriage Story, which I’d tagged as a painful something to avoid, one of those quirky chick-flicks where all the men are assholes and all the women look like Scarlett Johansson.
Man, was I wrong.
Marriage Story is entirely held together by the two essential elements of crafting a great movie — 1. a brilliant script with witty dialogue, and 2. standout performances by the leads surrounded by an ensemble cast of supporting actors at the very top of their game. In short, the writing and acting are both stellar.
Scarlett Johansson, a frustrated mother trapped in an unfulfilling marriage gives the performance of her career. Yet it’s not the big scene-stealers full of rage and tears that define this complex role, but rather the small facial reactions, the minor annoyances, and some sense the camera never blinks and therefore can’t peer away from Johansson, not because of her beauty, but because this was such a marvelous performance to savor.
Worth noting and seeing: There are a couple of Alfonso Cuaron-esque scenes — extended monologues and dialogue dagger duets — where there are no scene cuts. Johansson and Driver are pushed to their limits. Anyone who has been in a marriage and experienced blowup fights will totally empathize with how small arguments can easily spin out of control. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) was the first movie to accurately portray marital discord with angst realism. Parts of this film are every bit as compelling.
Adam Driver, her husband, is equally as good. I knew next to nothing about Driver (was he in Star Wars?). During the first 20 minutes of the film, I hated him being cast because he just didn’t look the part. But over two hours I was converted and by the end of the film, Driver had me totally captivated in a believable portrayal of a frustrated dad desperately trying to keep things together which are crumbling all around him.
If all this sounds depressing, it isn’t. Remarkably, the film has several comedic moments. Juxtaposed against the story of a break-up, this remains very much a love story. Striking this delicate balance was achieved thanks to Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty (remember Airplane?) who co-star. Each is perfect as the quirky sidebars to a film that might otherwise have been cruelly voyeuristic. We laughed at least a dozen times, sometimes with the salty sadness of tears in our eyes.
Marriage Story runs a little too long, but that can be forgiven. Perhaps 15-20 minutes could have been trimmed. I also found the long scenes with the child a bit tedious. But these were minor annoyances given the payoff in emotional satisfaction. And, let me just add without any spoilers the ending was both entirely realistic and brilliant.
Barring something on the horizon I haven’t seen yet, Scarlett Johansson deserves the Oscar for this performance.
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 2
Part 3 (Days 8-14) of my ongoing series which is a retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 8
“I Heard You Paint Houses” (2019)
I was stunned to watch Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman, recently and see Van’s name listed in the closing credits.
Turns out, Van sings a duet on the title track, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which was the name of the book on which the mobster movie was based.
Robbie Robertson wrote most of the music and lyrics after being chosen by Scorsese to compose the film’s soundtrack. The relationship between Robertson and the film director dates back to 1978’s The Last Waltz, a documentary of The Band’s final live concert. As things turned out, Van performed in that show, as well, in a show-stopping rendition of “Caravan,” which initiated another collaborative friendship. Indeed, Van’s music has appeared in half a dozen Scorsese films.
Robertson sings the opening stanza here and plays a gritty lead guitar, but the vocals on the track mostly belong to Van, who’s gnarly baritone voice enriches the lyric with genuine authenticity. There’s also some irony to Van, arguably Ireland’s most revered pop music icon (U2’s Bono may disagree), being plucked to grouse the vocals on a film titled “The Irishman.” Lyrically, the words are somewhat campy given the subject matter, which is murder-for-hire.
I didn’t think much of the recording when I first heard it, but after listening closely a few more times on headphones, it’s now pleasantly burned into my conscious. Van is especially good on this track.
Good to see Van stealing the spotlight in a brand new movie that’s likely to receive many Oscar nominations. Could a nomination for Best Original Song be forthcoming? It would be a treat to see Van performing with Robertson at the Academy Awards ceremony a few months from now.
Have a listen…..
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 9
“Into the Mystic” (Live Performance, 1974 — Winterland Arena in San Francisco)
Van’s live performances have long been erratic affairs — sporadically mesmerizing, other times detached, often mechanical, and occasionally downright hostile. Since this career retrospective isn’t intended as a homage so much as a comprehensive portrait, now’s a good time to show Van when he wasn’t at his cordial best.
Between 1970-1974, Van composed more than 100 original songs, released 7 studio albums, 16 singles, and performed 267 live concerts — not including television appearances and interviews. As his 1974 world tour was winding down to a close, Van was bitter, burned out, and badly in need of a reprieve. Already prone to rages of discontent and suffering from bouts of depression, Van’s bombastic temper spilled over while on stage one night at the Winterland Arena (a.k.a. Winterland Ballroom) in San Francisco.
Some in the crowd had begun chanting for Van to sing more familiar songs, but the Irish troubadour would have none of it. Fed up with the whole scene, Van ripped into the audience.
“If you shut your mouth and keep quiet you might get what you want, alright? Otherwise, you’re just like boring me to death, and probably everybody else.”
Then, without missing a beat, this tirade is immediately interrupted by Van launching into one of his most beloved ballads, “Into the Mystic” — ironically one of his most spiritual quests for inner peace. The irony of this moment is both jaw-dropping and hilarious.
Indeed, the opening moments to this song are *SO-SO-SO-SO* Van Morrison at his core.
In an upcoming lesson, I’ll write more about “Into the Mystic,” a profound song, a critically-acclaimed masterpiece, and a familiar fan favorite that’s now spanned five decades and remains one of his most requested tunes. But for now, let’s take a look at Van’s raw unfiltered brutal honesty, which is revealed onstage in this grainy black and white video. Unfortunately, the film quality isn’t very good, but the sound is excellent. Van looks like he wants to be anywhere else but on stage at this moment, but his harmonica work about midway into the song is outstanding.
Note that at the end of 1974, Van virtually disappeared from the music industry. He didn’t record another album nor release a single for the next three years. At his peak, age 29, Van didn’t just walk away. He vanished. I’ll be writing more about this period, later, as well.
Also of note here is the concert venue, the iconic Winterland, one of the most storied music meccas in the United States at the time. Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham had opened the Winterland three years earlier and it hosted just about every big name in music. It was the home base for The Grateful Dead, who performed here dozens of times. Fittingly, it was also the venue where The Band’s final concert was filmed, 1978’s The Last Waltz, in which Van returns to the stage in a dramatic comeback that some say stole the show.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 10
Van’s self-imposed exile from singing and songwriting lasted three years. His first daughter, Shana had been born. His marriage to model Janet Planet collapsed. Swarmed with groupies and gawkers, fiercely protective of his privacy, he abandoned Woodstock, NY and relocated to Marin County, CA. By the time Van’s creative comatose expired and the troubadour-grumbler returned to the pop music scene refreshed, two significant things had occurred:
1. Popular music tastes changed. 2. Van changed.
Van finally emerged from his sequestration and released what would become his ninth studio album, A Period of Transition. The aptly-titled collection of songs was much anticipated by critics and fans, alike. However, that album turned out to be a major disappointment for everyone. The selection of material neither matched the quality of his previous recordings nor delivered on the promise of musical “transition.” This creative and commercial failure set the stage for Van’s next significant album project, Wavelength, recorded at a makeshift studio set up in the Manor House in Oxfordshire, England and released in late 1978.
Wavelength marked a drastic shift in musical style for Van, away from his traditional R&B roots and horn-heavy instrumentation, supplanted by Peter Bardens‘ synthesizers. Indeed, pop music was changing fast, going more electronic. The title track was unlike anything Van had done before.
The song begins with Van’s voice almost unrecognizable in a high falsetto, an odd awaking for those accustomed to lyrics often shouted in liberation rather than sang. Then, Bardens’ minimoog synthesizer slowly seizes the rhythm, with Van’s velvety harmonies layered perfectly atop.
By late 1978, the era of the singer-songwriter was dead. Popular music temporarily lost its senses and swerved into a ditch called disco, punctuated at the opposite extreme by an explosion of big hair bands fronted by jackrabbit vocalists in spandex. Van might as well have been a polka dancer, stylistically speaking, but as “Wavelength” shows, he could adapt to the times when necessary.
Van’s work was rewarded with the single peaking at #42 on Billboard, which also made the album the best-selling of his career up to that point.
Lyrically, “Wavelength” begins with a tribute to his boyhood days when he first heard Ray Charles on Voice of America radio. That moment ignited a lifelong love for Charles’ music. Ironically, even in a catchy up-tempo song laced with synthesizers, Van still stays true to his musical roots.
“I heard the voice of America Callin’ on my wavelength Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio I heard the voice of America Callin’ on my wavelength Singin’ “Come back, baby Come back Come back, baby Come back….”
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 11
“Bright Side of the Road” (1979)
Van’s mid-1970’s included burnout, divorce, three years of seclusion, an album flop, a startling comeback, and by decade’s end — the reaffirmation of a musician at the very top of his game.
Following Wavelength, which became Van’s best-selling album up to that date, the self-described soul singer returned to his roots with 1979’s Into the Music, which received widespread acclaim and was named by critics as one of the year’s best albums.
Into the Music kicks off with the happy-go-lucky radio-friendly “Bright Side of the Road,” which became a minor hit. The song would bear added fruit years later. The song is perhaps best known today as part of the catchy soundtrack for the 1997 baseball movie, Fever Pitch. Van’s song was also used to sell Toyotas during the 1990s, the title lyric “bright side of the road” being the near-perfect pitch-line for a new car. When he wrote the song, Van certainly had no idea he’d make more money off a car commercial than any song royalties accrued. Singer Shakira also performed Van’s song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“Into the Music was about the first album where I felt, I’m starting here…the Wavelength thing,” Van said. “I didn’t really feel that was me….that’s when I got back into it. That’s why I called it Into the Music.”
Indeed, Van was back in his groove. Critics hailed the album as his best work since Moondance, released a decade earlier. Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “It’s a record of splendid peace….a vastly ambitious attempt to reconcile various states of grace: physical, spiritual and artistic….that’s what this album is about, proudly and stunningly and with no apologies — Resurrection. Real Hope.”
The song and album’s success owes much to an event that was something of an accident. The album was recorded in a small studio in Sausalito, CA. Tenor saxophone maestro Pee Wee Ellis lived nearby and was asked to sit in on one of the album’s other tracks. Van was so impressed with Ellis’ work, that he was asked to stay and play on every song. That marked the beginning of a nearly two-decades-long collaboration between Van and Ellis. No doubt, Van’s music over the next dozen albums, as well as hundreds of live tour performances were enhanced significantly by Ellis’ virtuoso on horns.
“Bright Side of the Road” is nothing special, musically speaking. But it’s a catchy tune that’s certainly fun to listen to. I dare you to try and sit still and not move along to the rollicking melody while Van sings one of his most optimistic songs.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 12
“Take This Hammer” (2017)
“Take This Hammer” is an old chain gang song dating back to the sharecropper days when freed slaves worked backbreaking jobs — such as mining, railroads, logging, and in the blazing cotton fields of the Deep South. These songs were sung daily by poor men who had little reason for hope in their lives, but who found solace and inspiration in music. This collective cross-generational pain and suffering birthed the blues, gospel, and many so-called prison songs. The melding of these influences later became the foundation for rock n’ roll.
The great bluesman Lead Belly learned this song while an inmate in the notorious prison farm at Angola, Louisiana. He added his own timing and chord structure and turned it into a classic that’s transcended all musical genres. It remains a popular studio “jam” tune to this day. Versions of the Lead Belly standard have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Spencer Davis Group to the Foggy Mountain Boys to John Prine. The Beatles jammed to the song in their Let It Be (a.k.a. Get Back) sessions.
One of the most recent takes of the song is by Mitch Woods. In 2017, Woods was joined in the studio by Taj Mahal on guitar and Van who laid down some incredible vocals. In his 70’s, Van’s voice certainly isn’t what it once was, but this is exactly the kind of song Van was born to sing. The impromptu recording, with guitar, piano, and Van on vocals while banging a tambourine with a drumstick, made its way onto a musical compilation for charity titled Freinds Along the Way, which can be heard and seen here in this short 2-minute outtake.
It doesn’t get much better than watching three masters at their craft sitting around in the studio and jamming to an old Lead Belly classic. See if you agree.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 13
“Queen of the Slipstream” (1987)
What’s the meaning of the cryptic song title and lyric “Queen of the Slipstream?”
No one knows for sure, except Van. The composition has been widely interpreted — as an ode to a distant love, a literary homage, a song with deeply religious overtones, but could just as easily be nothing more than a catchy play on words. Indeed, Van has been known to dream up clever phrases in song and then take mischievous delight while admirers scramble trying to make sense of some presumed revelation shrouded in lyrical allegory.
What’s certain about the 5-minute track is the gorgeous melody, intensely enhanced by the strings of a chamber orchestra. Like many songs written and recorded by Van during this period of deep introspection, it’s a meditative exploration uncertain of a particular destination but resolved nonetheless to forage the chance of new discovery.
“Queen of the Slipstream” appeared on the 1997 album Poetic Champions Compose, an ambitious collection of new material that received mixed reviews from critics. Rolling Stone magazine was particularly brutal, calling it a “cranky self-imitation” and a “painful slump.” Nevertheless, album sales were boosted significantly by the popular love ballad “Someone Like You,” which has since become a staple soundtrack played and sang at weddings. Commercial success aside, “Slipstream” remains the far more intriguing album track, reminding us that it’s okay to persevere if only in small increments, one step at a time, sketching in the details as we go along. Poetic Champions Compose is that album stoked with small details, many pleasant and inspirational.
The song was also released as a single the following year, but it did not make the charts. Yet, there is an enduring quality to the composition. Over the years, it’s appeared in several movies. It was a favorite of the late actress Farah Fawcett and was used in a documentary about her life at her request after her death.
My take is the following: “Queen of the Slipstream” is gorgeous, brilliant, perplexing, and something of a mess. While there’s intriguing combustion of instrumentation here, the song could have benefited from a bit more tailoring. Produced entirely by Van, it had no one inside the studio to say, “Stop — let’s re-record that part again, or how about turning down the string mix a little?” Van, entirely left to his own ear and taste, simply floods the soundboard until it short-circuits on woodwinds.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 14
“Haunts of Ancient Peace” (1980)
Preamble: “Common One” is a Van Morrison album not so much to be listened to but absorbed into the soul. It’s the music of melancholy. It’s the album I’ve put on dozens of times when doing something around the house, or driving, or writing. These are not party songs. No one will run to the dance floor. These are songs to play in peace, often in solitude. Like a fine scotch, it’s meant to be sipped and savored, nut guzzled down like a keg of beer. Mindful that this series (VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS) isn’t a “Greatest Hits” compilation, today’s selection is one of Van’s more esoteric compositions. I’m eager to share my thoughts with you about this now.
Van was once asked by an interviewer to name his favorite album of his own music. With more than 50 albums from which to choose (not counting foreign releases) it was something of a shocker to hear him cite Common One, a six-song compilation that received scathing reviews from critics and was largely ignored by fans upon its release.
More recently, Common One has garnered a tardy appreciation from many who have given it a redux and may have discovered there was far more to the album that many realized nearly four decades ago.
“Haunts of Ancient Peace,” a 7-minute mood piece punctuated with jazz underpinnings, embodies the spirited wholesomeness of Common One. It’s thoroughly Van distilled down to his creative essence — a wanderlust of vast exploration, intentionally non-commercial, oblivious to judgment. Certainly, Van knew when this song (and album) were released, they’d receive zero radio airplay. The music was destined for instant obscurity. Like so many of Van’s songs released during the 1980s of varying lengths, styles and accompanied by unconventional orchestration, these songs are a rebuke to the pop music culture. Enlightenment and discovery, not song royalties, are the objective.
The unusual song title comes from a 1902 book by Victorian-era Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (1896-1912). Indeed, as Van’s lyrics promise, this is very much “a song of harmony and rhyme in haunts of ancient peace.”
I’ve taken a live performance of this song rather than the studio version (I don’t know the venue nor the year). Van even occasionally performs this song live up to this day. See if you agree this is a song to be absorbed by the soul.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: BONUS ENTRY
Remembering Joe Smith (1928-2019)
Today, we remember the late Joe Smith, who died last week at age 91.
Smith was a music industry giant, with precisely the resume Van Morrison typically loathed. An executive with Warner Bros., then Elektra afterward, and finally the CEO of Capitol-EMI, Smith’s approach was markedly different than virtually all the other music moguls, one reason why Van viewed him as the notable exception to a dirty business that often exploited artists and their music as nothing more than commodities. Smith even came around to share Van’s cynicism about his own industry, years after his early retirement lamenting, “it’s no fun anymore” — an industry run by people who are more business-oriented than those of us who are very music-oriented.”
Smith’s connection to the Northern Irish misanthrope began early in his solo career. Taken from the obituary in The Guardian:
In 1968. Smith pulled off a coup by signing Van Morrison, whose contract at Bang Records had fallen into the hands of the mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. Smith bought out the contract by taking $20,000 in cash to an abandoned Manhattan warehouse. He described Morrison as “a hateful little guy,” though considered that “he’s the best rock’n’roll voice out there.
I love that line, “a hateful little guy.” Brilliant. Note: In a future post, I’ll write more about Van’s contract being controlled by a Boston mobster. That deserves its own chapter.
As noted, Joe Smith was a giant. He also signed The Grateful Dead to the Warner label in 1966, recognizing early on the major force they were to come. Other artists signed by Smith included Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, the Cars, Mötley Crüe, and many others. But Smith’s biggest success and closest personal association with the Eagles.
There are some interesting stories in this article, including a remarkable tidbit about an album release being the bounty of a wager linked to a game of trivia, which I’m linking HERE.