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Posted by on Apr 12, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 12

 

Van Morrison Live

 

“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.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 12

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DAY 78: Funny Van Morrison Stories

Today, here’s something a bit different.

The very last thing Van Morrison is known for is his sense of humor. He’s one of music’s biggest crabs. But given his introverted nature, his notoriously inconsistent live performances, and a deep distaste for fame or any of the trappings associated with being a rock legend, over the years many great Van stories have been told which are quite amusing.

To get the full effect of these stories you have to understand a few things about Van:

1. He does enjoy the occasional drink. Van has been through periods of self-imposed sobriety, but his love of liquid spirits won’t exactly diminish any old Irish stereotypes.

2. Second, Van is known for some astounding moments of rudeness, even to his own fans and audiences. This crabbiness bothers many would-be fans. It has certainly contributed to Van’s reputation as a curmudgeon. The way he treats fans, media, and even members of his own bad used to annoy me, but eventually, I came to realize he’s just on his own planet, sometimes and so I’ll forgive and instead try to relish the music.

That said, here are a couple of amusing Van tales of many I’ve come across: I’ll try to tell more as the series continues.

VAN STORY #1: Credit Gregory Runfeldt for his funny Van story….

“A friend of mine managed a bar in a hotel. One quiet evening Van walks in, sits at the bar and orders a whiskey, my friend makes a suggestion and Van excepts. My mate pours the drink and passes the glass across the bar. At this point my friend tried to describe the incredulous look on Van’s face (which my friend said didn’t really do it justice) as Van pushes the glass back across the bar, looks him in the eye and says….. “the bottle.”

VAN STORY #2: Credit John Norvell Greene….

“My brother went to see Van in concert in the mid-80s. Van was in poor humor, so bad that he sang his songs with his back to the audience most of the show. Between songs, a fan shouted, “Van–show us your face!” Van’s reply was classic: “You came to see me, I didn’t come to see you.” From that moment on, he was hooked onto his music.”

van-morrison
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DAY 79: “Only a Dream” (Soloman Burke Cover Version from 2002)

There are so many outstanding cover versions of Van Morrison compositions that it’s become impossible to cut them down to only a few.

Certainly, one of the most memorable renditions is by the prolific performer, pioneer, and legend Solomon Burke who was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His bluesy rendition of Van’s “Only a Dream” is the ultimate payback to the Northern Irish icon who was so deeply influenced by classic 50s and 60s R&B.

“Only a Dream” sounds very much like it could have been written 50 years earlier. But it’s actually a relatively modern track off Van’s Down the Road double album. Much of the rich collection is a throwback to the songs and sounds of his childhood, albeit with Van’s own soulful twist. As is typical, Van appears to be doing music for himself here, with virtually no regard for commercial prospects of success.

Indeed, this time it was one of the legends covering a Van song, instead of vice versa. Van’s music had been done earlier by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles. So, Solomon Burke certainly fits within that wheelhouse of musical giants. Van may have penned the melody and lyric, but Burke masters this tune and makes it all his own.

The cover appeared on the 2002 album Don’t Give Up on Me, released on Fat Possum Records. Not only Van, but Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, and Bob Dylan provided material for Burke’s sessions. But really it’s the standout quality of the songs and Burke himself, one of the most versatile and charismatic singers around, that make this album so special.

That album, considered the swan song of his lengthy career, won the MOJO Award for Album of the Year, as well as the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. So, once again — even though Van has never recorded a Top Ten hit, his work continued to reach new audiences by virtue of reinterpretation by other artists.

Addendum: Burke passed away in 2010. In one of his final interviews, he admitted serial infidelity during his four marriages:

“I was young. Girls were coming from every angle. I couldn’t love them all. But I tried.”

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DAY 80: More Van Morrison — The Crabby Curmudgeon

This series attempts to be a comprehensive overview of the music and career of Van Morrison. But there will be no sugar coating.

Over the past several weeks I’ve posted some awful live performances, outtakes, embarrassing moments, and baffling misses. To be fair, no musician in the public eye over 56 prolific years can possibly go without some blemishes (Van’s first hit was in 1964). However, Van has twisted obtuseness and made it his own art form.

Ask any rock critic or interviewer who has covered the music scene any length of time, and the worst interview on the planet is usually Van Morrison. He resents being questioned. He doesn’t like talking about music, opting to let the sound speak for itself and be left open to interpretation. He doesn’t like his lyrics deciphered, brushing away serious scholarly reflection as a waste of time. Most songwriters would foam at the mouth for such attention and to be taken so seriously. Van doesn’t care.

In an odd way, this makes him both cringeworthy and endearing, at least to his loyal fans.

Consider this 2-minute sit-down interview from 1987 when he was promoting the Poetic Champions Compose album and tour. Imagine for a moment, you are the unfortunate journalist forced to sit there and ask these questions and then try and spin Van’s dismissal of the entire songwriting process in a matter of seconds. Indeed, you’ve just landed one of the rarest interviews in the music business, and this is the torturous dregs you’re left to work with.

Rarely have I witnessed something so painful to watch, yet so genuinely hysterical.

“You gotta pretend that you are searching for something, so you have something to write about, otherwise you end up with a blank piece of paper.”

Just brutal. This interview is obviously the last place on earth Van wants to be, and it shows!

Enjoy.

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DAY 81: “Crazy Love” (Van Morrison with Ray Charles)

Ray Charles had as profound an influence on Van Morrison’s music and songwriting as anyone. Van grew up listening to Charles’ soulful recordings in the 1950s. He took an important lesson from the singer-pianist who had shocked audiences in 1962 when he temporarily detoured away from his R&B roots opting to record a country and western album, which shattered barriers on race, culture, and music. Such a thing wasn’t done in those days, but Charles was a pioneer. That willingness to depart comfort zones and take new chances in new musical arenas later became a defining trademark of Van’s career, which has covered nearly every musical genre. But it really began with Van’s mentor, Ray Charles.

Continuing with our series on the greatest cover versions of Van’s songs, let’s examine the 2004 classic, “Crazy Love.” The song originally appeared on Van’s 1970 album Moondance. Charles heard it and played it so often that it became widely misunderstood as an original composition. But Van wrote it as an acoustic guitar track. When he discovered his icon Ray Charles decided to perform it (and later record the song), he was uncharacteristically thrilled, perhaps as emotionally-satisfied as from any career peak.

In 1993, Van was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. True to his crusty reputation, he didn’t even bother to show up for the induction. “It meant nothing to me,” Van recalled later in an interview so typical of his distaste for fame and ceremony. But a decade later things would be very different.

Sometime in 2003, Van was informed he’d be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Unlike being etched into the rock pantheon, this honor really meant something to Van. So, he was inclined to attend and accept the trappings of the induction. When Van learned Ray Charles would be present to perform, well, that was the deciding factor. “Yeah, I went because Ray being there really meant something,” Van stated in an expose on that aired on CBS Sunday Morning.

So, in this short clip, Charles begins singing the song Van wrote, and then Van comes out and performs a duet. It’s the only public appearance of the two legends together.

Shortly after the induction, it was obvious that Charles was in poor health. In the Spring of 2004, he went into the studio one last time for what would be his final few sessions. He recorded one final farewell album, what was titled Genius Loves Company. Fittingly, “Crazy Love” was the 12th and final song on the very last album.

Ray Charles died in June of 2004. The album was released posthumously. The swansong collection cracked the Top Ten, Charles first such feat in 40 years. In fact, Genius Loves Company became the best-selling album of Charles’ career.

Let’s have a look and a listen at this classic moment, an unrehearsed duet with the two masters, performed live at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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DAY 82: The Real Story Behind “Brown-Eyed Girl” (1967)

It’s the song we all know the words to and can sing along with. Word for word. Note for note. It’s a staple on classic rock radio and karaoke bars. Even those who don’t know the name “Van Morrison,” know his most famous hit song, “Brown Eyed Girl.” It’s his signature song.

But do they know the real story about how the catchy melody became Van’s first solo hit single?

Writer Tom Maxwell recounted much of the background story in a marvelously researched article, portions which were also relayed in Ryan H. Walsh’s joyous read of a book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Here’s my take and interpretation, melding the best details from each author along with my own insight.

In the spring of 1967, right after splitting from the Northern Irish band Them, solo Van Morrison flew to New York for the first time. He was rushed into a Manhattan studio and recorded more than 40 original songs. The three-day musical onslaught became known as the “Bang Sessions.”

Despite known for being difficult to work with and highly temperamental, record producer Bert Berns offered Van a recording contract. It was a fateful decision. Morrison signed the deal, which he later said he didn’t even bother to read nor did he consult with an agent, in exchange for the sum of $2,500.

By the time the Bang sessions were underway, Van was already on edge. He didn’t like the studio musicians assigned to the recordings. He argued with sound engineers. He got into spats with Berns and just about anyone who would subject themselves to his rants. Nonetheless, Berns and those who witnessed the musical carnage knew something spectacular was happening in the cramped cubicle of sound that was the sub-leased studio at A&R Records. Beneath the excruciating difficulties lay the heart, the soul, and the voice of a songwriting guru. Indeed, even his shitty songs were pretty good.

One of those shitty songs came together much better than the rest. Van, with no eye nor ear for commercial tastes, had written a song he titled “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Berns would have none of the scandalous trappings with racy lyrics about an interracial love affair. So, he is alleged to have altered the title to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Van disputes some of this but does agree “Brown-Skinned Girl” was the working title and genesis.

Wait, the story gets more bizarre.

Once the initial recording sessions were finished, and more than 30 original compositions were in the vault at Bang, Van returned to his native Belfast. Then, about six weeks later, a friend telephoned Van with some jolting news. The friend told Van he’d just bought a copy of his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind!

“But I don’t have a solo album,” Van reportedly shot back on the transatlantic call.

“Well, you do now!”

The gaudy album cover was a total travesty. It showed a colorized cartoonish picture of a pensive Van Morrison is on its cover, surrounded by psychedelic art and puffy lettering.

“I got a call saying it was an album coming out and this is the cover,” Van said years later. “And I saw the cover and I almost threw up, you know.”

Van Morrison was completely unaware of the album, or even that such a thing was possible. How could his record company and producer release an album with his name on it, and not even inform him?

Wait, now the story really kicks in.

“Brown-Eyed Girl” shot up the charts and reached #10 on Billboard. However, due to a badly-written contract, Van didn’t get paid. As DJs across America were spinning the catchy tune, Van flew back to the states and was in Bern’s New York office screaming at him for rushing out an album. Money might have softened the humiliation, but there was no money waiting for Van. The duo fought over royalties. Then, on December 30, 1967, the unthinkable happened. Bert Berns, the owner of Bang Records and the pillar in control of Van’s recording contract suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 38. Berns’s widow blamed Van for his death.

Incredibly, Van still owed Bang another round of songs. And so, Van delivered. He penned 31 throw-away songs. One of the song titles was “Ringworm.” In Van’s mind, none were ever intended for release. It was a farce.

What became known as Morrison’s “revenge sessions” was nothing more than trying to satisfy a contractual obligation. He had to make songs for the label, which had been taken over by powers that saw music as soda pop, something to be sold to the masses. “The album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label F-you’s,” wrote Maxwell. “Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently, that was the whole point of it: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers….Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.”

Van was only 23 at the time. But he’d already established himself as a terror to work with and deal with, some of the unpredictable bouts of rage entirely justified.

So, when Van is obligated to make his first national television appearance and sing his first solo hit on ABC’s widely-influential program, American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark, for the first time we see someone angry and rebellious, prone to fits of anger, pissed at the music industry, utterly broke despite having a hit single on the sharts, and his career in smithereens with no management and his music prospects null and void. Add the indignity of having to lip-synch a song Van didn’t even like due to the show’s technical limitations at the time, and we see Van utterly disinterested to the point of near revulsion.

That’s the real story of “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Sorta’ changes things and obliterates the joyful innocence, doesn’t it?

[Postscript: Right after Bang dropped Van, he rushed into the studio with Warner, and recorded his masterpiece — Astral Weeks.]

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DAY 83:  “Ringworm” (1968)

Following up on the previous article on “Brown-Eyed Girl”……

Imagine you’re the record company, and Van is obligated to provide X number of new tracks, and *THIS* acetate arrives in the office plopped down on the desk. The reaction for music company executives when they heard this must have been priceless.

It’s the greatest FUCK YOU! to a record label ever. Especially after the company put out an album without consulting Van or asking for his input.

Enjoy “Ringworm!”

[People ask me how VM has such a cult following. Well, it’s stories like this.]

DAY 84: “Big Time Operators” (1993)

Yesterday, we examined some of the root causes of Van Morrison’s bitterness at the music industry and hard-nosed reputation as being difficult to work with.

That resentment has inspired several vicious songs that weren’t commercially successful but certainly gave Van some deep-seated satisfaction with lashing out at those he’s perceived to have crossed him over the years. Fellow “Vanatics” have come to accept and even embrace this odd obsession with getting back at his enemies through his music. It’s become so frequent and so harsh that the lyrics from the famed curmudgeon are almost camp hysterical.

Take Van’s blistering attack on music producers, record companies, and agents in “Big Time Operators,” from the outstanding 1993 album, Too Long in Exile. Rooted in blues, jazz, and soul, Too Long in Exile is clearly one of Van’s most personal projects. He worked with his own musicians, most lifelong associates. He was also signed to a new record label which knew the combustible, yet unpredictable force of nature they were signing. One presumes they just turned Van loose inside the studio and let him roll. Accordingly, the album would be expected to be wildly undisciplined. However, the collection is remarkable even and consistently enjoyable from start to finish.

“Big Time Operators” is one of 15 tracks on the album. If you read the previous two segments of this series, you will better understand the song, which is entirely autobiographical. From the first lyric, “Well, they told me to come on over…..I made my way to New York,” we know what’s about to come. Indeed, one of the most interesting stanzas is Van saying they (the music execs) thought he was “on drugs” due to his introverted and often surly nature, but insists, “I was clean,” which was entirely true since Van had little or no experience with drug use, even though it was rampant in rock music at the time. Every lyric seems to come with a story to unpack.

After a string of pop-infused albums in the late 80s and early 90s, Van returns to his roots here in top form. Several tracks include him on saxophone. Interesting fact about the title is — Van was never in exile, apart from a nearly 3-year hiatus from recording and performing during the mid-1970s. This marks one of his most prolific periods. Perhaps Van was having some imaginary fun with lyrics.  A more grounded speculation might be that after write several pop hits, “Days Like This,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Someone Like You,” and others he felt exiled from his musical roots, which is old blues and jazz.

Special thanks to Jack Ward for today’s recommendation. Now, have a listen to Van rip apart the music industry, he claims is ruined by “Big Time Operators.”

[ h/T Jack Ward ]

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PREVIOUS SEGMENTS/SONGS:
  • WEEK 1:  (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
  • WEEK 2:  (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
  • WEEK 3:  (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
  • Week 4:  (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
  • WEEK 5:  (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
  • WEEK 6:  (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
  • WEEK 7:  (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
  • WEEK 8:  (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
  • WEEK 9  (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
  • WEEK 10  (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
  • WEEK 11  (Tell Me-unreleased; Take Me Back; Gloria by Patti Smith; Into the Mystic by Joe Cocker; Have I Told You Lately by Rod Stewart; Wild Night by John Cougar Mellencamp;  Madame George by Marianne Faithful)
  • WEEK 12  (Funny Van Stories; Only a Dream cover by Soloman Burke; Disastroud Van Interview; Crazy Love duet with Ray Charles; The Real Story Behind Brown-Eyed Girl; Ringworm-unreleased; Big Time Operators)
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Posted by on Apr 7, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 11

 

Van Morrison Bootleg

 

“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.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 11

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DAY 71: “Tell Me” (1967 — Rare B-Side Recording)

Welcome to our 11th week! Each of you who has followed deserves a diploma! Since I can’t do a cap and gown ceremony, instead allow me to continue with the retrospective on Van Morrison’s music and career.

One of the fun discoveries of this project is uncovering gems that are mostly unknown. The hits and lesser-known songs are fun to write about and listen to. But what I really enjoy is the *creative process* and learning more about how art is made and refined.

Here’s a rare track from the Bang Sessions, recorded in New York City in 1967. This three-day labor in-studio spawned nearly 40 new songs and bore the fruit that would become Van’s debut album, Blowin’ Your Mind.

“Tell Me” is a lovely melody, with Van on acoustic guitar. There’s beauty in simplicity. I don’t know why Van didn’t take this tune, enhance it with strings, and then release it sometime later. Seems that it would have made for a nice song on a later album instead of an obscure B-side to a single.  Fortunately, YouTube is around to capture and preserve these rare recordings.

As I have attempted to reveal in this project, what really astounds me about Van is his extraordinary songwriting abilities and a keen ear for just the right instrumentation. I’ve tried to show that even Van’s rarest material is sometimes just as good as music by others that came out during the same period and turned into hit songs.

Van is stripped to his core and is his most vulnerable on this recording. Have a listen.

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DAY 72: “Take Me Back” (1991)

[Two Versions — First is the cover version by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh / Second is the original recording from the Hymns to the Silence album]

Hymns to the Silence is one of my favorite albums, a must-listen for any fan of Van Morrison’s multitude of soulful ballads. Composed and recorded during one of Van’s most introspective periods, clearly an era of personal and career transition, it also marks a creative pinnacle of songwriting as a 21-song double album packed with a rich mix of styles and tempos.

Disc One one of the album reflects Van’s inner demons, feeling frustrated and burned out. Recall a few song titles, including “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore,” oddly set to the melody of a sing-along. “Some Peace of Mind” and “Why Must I Always Explain” are both expressions of disenchantment, and even resentment with fame and the media. These ten songs smack of unfiltered melancholic honesty, which doesn’t make for good party tunes but is the perfect musical elixir for self-reflection.

Interestingly, “Take Me Back” is the final song on Disc One, bridges to a far more optimistic mood. Perhaps in order to move ahead, sometimes he needs to look back. It feels like Van is intent on displaying before-and-after sides of his own musical juxtaposition. Indeed, the 11 songs on Disc Two are far more spiritual, as Van explores religious themes without becoming preachy.

I opted to post the cover version first, which I believe is a testament to the power of the song which can mean many things to different people. Jennifer Jason Leigh starred in the 1995 film Georgia, which was very a personal project since the movie script was written by her mother. Playing the role of “Sadie,” Jason Leigh drunkenly performs the full nine-minute version onstage in a scratchy voice, totally oblivious to audience reaction. It’s very Van-esque in that way, and so I’m including here.

Van’s original version is far more pristine and musically satisfying, and certainly worth a listen, as well.

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DAY 73: “Gloria” (Live Cover by Patti Smith)

Let’s examine some of the greatest cover versions of Van Morrison’s original compositions. Several notable artists have taken Van’s songs and lyrics and stretched them to new heights. One of the very best examples of this is Patti Smith, who takes an old classic and obliterates all conventional expectations as evidenced in this live version of her 1975 cover that was included on her debut album, “Horses.”

“Gloria” was one of Van’s very first self-composed songs with enduring qualities. It’s been covered by hundreds of bands over the past 56 years.

In 1967, The Doors recorded what’s arguably the most successful rendition, which was unofficially titled “the dirty version” Van couldn’t get away with shocking song lyrics nor risky stage performances when the original was written a few years earlier. So, Jim Morrison and The Doors — after playing on the same lineup several nights along with Van at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles — made “Gloria” a part of their act and later included it on an album.

However, Patti Smith went above and beyond anything imagined by either Van or The Doors. She was a favorite in the NYC club scene spawned from the same string of venues that produced Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and later Blondie and The Ramones.

Some say it as the beginning of American punk. Smith’s first album took a lead pipe to rock n’ roll, gyrating something so entirely different than what came before that its influence continues to reverberate. Horses is widely considered by most critics to be one of the most influential albums not only in the history of the punk sound but also in the history of all rock and alternative music.

Smith performs Van’s classic here live, which is a raucous display of energy and self-confidence. One of the best covers of any Van song, ever.

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DAY 74: “Into the Mystic” (Joe Cocker Cover Version)

I’ve written this before which got me into some trouble with my fellow “Vanatics.”

Many of Van’s songs are much better when covered by other artists. Rod Stewart, Patti Smith, and Joe Cocker are but a few of the other artists who have taken Van’s original compositions and added their own creative interpretation. In fact, I’ll be doing a TOP TEN COUNTDOWN of the best Van Morrison covers of all time, coming ahead shortly.

Here’s the quintessential cover artist of them all, the great Joe Cocker. He’s the anti-superstar, seemingly a mess of a man immersed in an alternative reality. Check out this cover version of “Into the Mystic” by Cocker performed in Germany, with a shirt drenched in sweat. Cocker looks like a psychotic panhandler.

Oddly enough, Cocker even named one of his mini-CDs “Into the Mystic,” released in 1996. I think his studio version is better than Van’s — more blasphemy.

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DAY 75: “Have I Told You Lately” (Cover by Rod Stewart)

Van Morrison isn’t known for writing love songs. Yet, he’s written and recorded two of the most popular romantic ballads of the past half-century, both composed about 18 months apart.

“Someone Like You” was a minor hit from the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose, which has enjoyed a long afterlife as a favorite at weddings and anniversaries.

The 1989 album Avalon Sunset produced an even bigger hit, not so much for Van when he initially recorded it, but rather a few years later when English rocker Rod Stewart belatedly added the song cover to his 1991 album, Vagabond Heart.  That memorable tune was “Have I Told You Lately.” Stewart’s raspy-voiced rendition reached #1 on the charts in several countries (peaking at #5 in the US) and remains more closely associated with the punk haired showman than the person who composed it.

To Stewart’s great credit, when I saw him perform this song during his Caesars Palace engagement about six years ago, he acknowledged Van Morrison as the writer to the audience. It irks me when artists fail to acknowledge the actual songwriter when performing, especially when it’s a well-known counterpart. Kudos, Rod Stewart.

“Have I Told You Lately” is pretty simple both rhythmically and lyrically, which is what makes it so widely appealing. Although it’s considered a love song, a little-known fact is — there’s strong evidence Van wrote this as a religious tribute. That’s reflected in the lyrics — most notably….”And at the end of the day, We should give thanks and pray, To the one, to the one….” — which makes for quite an oddity. Indeed, religion and spirituality are the dominant themes on much of Avalon Sunset. In interviews since, Van has never set the record straight on the actual inspiration for the song, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for him to be enjoying the royalty checks from the misinterpretation of lyrics that were intended for something quite different than is commonly understood.

Regardless of the basis of inspiration, “Have I Told You Lately” stands up well over time. Long after Van is gone, it’s likely to be sung and performed for decades to come at more weddings and romantic celebrations.

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DAY 76: “Wild Night” (Cover Version by John Cougar Mellencamp)

Continuing with our focus on Van Morrison songs covered by other artists here’s “Wild Night,” performed live on The David Letterman Show (1994).

“Wild Night” debuted on the 1971 country-folk infused album Tupelo Honey which initially peaked at #26 on the Billboard charts. More than two decades later, singer John (Cougar) Mellencamp covered the song on his Dance Naked LP. The re-make was a surprise hit, reaching #3 in the USA and topping the charts in several other countries, including Canada.

Interestingly, Van recorded the song as early as 1968. The song is heavily rooted in the familiar Stax sound, with layered horns punctuated with thundering bass guitar. Van’s original is far more brassy, whereas Mellencamp strips away the horns in favor of more pronounced vocals. In short, Van’s voice is merely one of the musical instruments, whereas Mellencamp’s rendition places the Indiana-born so-called “heartland rocker” at center stage. Both recordings share a similar spontaneous quality, with little or no post-production.

Mellencamp was hugely popular in the 1980s. He enjoyed a string of hit albums and singles. Four songs reached the Top 5 (most notably “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane”).

“Wild Night,” which was his last mega-hit single. Mellencamp was also one of the co-creators of FARM AID, an annual concert that benefits small farmers and workers. “Wild Night” is performed at virtually all the shows.

Here’s Mellencamp’s debut performance of the song, just as his 1994 album was being released.

….you’re walkin’ down the street
when the wind catches your feet
and sends you flyin’.

What a great lyric.

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DAY 77: “Madame George” (Cover Version by Marianne Faithful, 1995)

Continuing with the best cover versions of Van Morrison-written songs by other artists…..

British-born Marianne Faithful is one of the seminal icons and voices of the 1960s, the cookie-cutter, perfectly cast personification of the flower child. She was Mick Jaggar’s girlfriend for five years, inspired several songs by the Rolling Stones (note the Beggar’s Banquet period), flew off for three months with The Beatles to spend time with the Maharaji, and later crashed and burned due to heroin addiction and anorexia. She also sang a number of hits, several of which charted.

Known for her whiskey-casked voice, raspy from years of chain-smoking and hard-living, Faithful also appeared in several movies and television shows. In 1995, she starred in an Irish film drama, Moondance, with the entire soundtrack provided by Van. Indeed, Van was tasked with re-arranging some of his most mystical compositions, including “Madame George,” the 10-minute long freewheeling poetic recital from his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Filmmakers wanted a condensed version, down to under five minutes, and shockingly, Van complied with the request.

And so, Van re-wrote the lyrics and provided this arrangement which appears on the movie soundtrack. Faithful does an outstanding job with her interpretation. In fact, “Madame George” does lend itself to a female vocal rather than Van’s original, sang and released with when he was only 23.

“Madame George” has widely been reported to be about a drag queen, which Van denies. Nonetheless, as of 1974, he called it the best song he’s ever written. In an interview with rock journalist Ritchie York, Van said of the original version of “Madame George”….

“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 ”

Marianne Faithful’s version is divine. I should also note the great Phoebe Snow covered Van’s song, which is right up there, as well.

Have a listen. One of the best comments I’ve heard on Marianne Faithful: “Her voice might be the strongest argument to take up smoking.”

[Special note of thanks to Benjo DiMeo who was consulted on the best cover version of this Van classic.]

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PREVIOUS SEGMENTS/SONGS:
  • WEEK 1:  (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
  • WEEK 2:  (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
  • WEEK 3:  (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
  • Week 4:  (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
  • WEEK 5:  (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
  • WEEK 6:  (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
  • WEEK 7:  (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
  • WEEK 8:  (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
  • WEEK 9  (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
  • WEEK 10  (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
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Posted by on Mar 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 10

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“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.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 10

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DAY 64: “Caravan” (Live–1976)

Brace yourselves.

You’re about to witness a shy, short, pudgy, balding, funny-talking Irish dude with lamb chop sideburns dressed in a maroon-sequined jumpsuit, mispronouncing the words to his own song, barn-yarding the whole wild scene, kicking it up Saturday Night Live style, and mic-dropping the show in a Martin Scorsese concert movie

It’s a parody, only without the parody. Like the half-drink karaoke guy or the embarrassing uncle at the wedding who doesn’t know everyone’s watching, but also doesn’t give a fuck.

This incredible moment almost never happened.

The Band was set to play a farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. This came to the attention of famed movie director, Martin Scorsese, who was a big fan of Robbie Robertson and The Band’s music. He came in and shot the entire concert, which included guest appearances by Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, and many others.

Van was a reluctant addition to the all-star lineup. He had been known to withdraw into a shell while onstage, often singing with his eyes shut, not to mention his occasional profanity-laden spats with fans. Asking Van to appear seemed risky. Moreover, Van hadn’t released an album in two years and had essentially disappeared from the pop music scene. No one knew what to expect when Van was scheduled to follow Neil Diamond, then at the height of his popularity and probably the worst possible superstar act to replace in the spotlight. Van was in a horrible spot.

Making matters far worse, Van got hit by a last-minute panic of stage fright, which plagued him sporadically throughout his long career. While waiting off in the wings, Van relayed he didn’t want to go on. As Robbie Robertson and The Band began warming up to Van’s intro, Van’s tour manager had to physically push the befuddled singer onto the stage. Van sheepishly approached the microphone and then somehow morphs into an out-of-body experience. Even members of The Band were shocked to watch Van become increasingly animated during the 5-minute transformation. The song had been unrehearsed, so when Van shouts out, “turn it up!” and “one more time!” the band responds at his command.

While editing several hours of concert footage for what would become The Last Waltz, Scorsese later saw the act and was stunned. Eric Clapton said Van stole the show. Perhaps it was because expectations were so low that Van knocked this one out of the park. Known as a great songwriter, but also a deeply private man, jumpsuits and karate kicks simply weren’t in the singer’s wheelhouse.

“Caravan” was only a modestly-known track off the 1970 Moondance album. It certainly didn’t seem like much of a showstopper. Oddly enough, this guest-appearance stands as perhaps his best-known live performance. Unfortunately, it also set up false expectations for future fans who anticipated seeing the “Caravan” version of Van. Instead, they would get a different Van with each successive year, album, and tour.

This — ladies and gentlemen — is how you strut the effing stage! Talking about running the roost! Nailed it, bitches! What a classic!

“Van the Man!”

Note: This begins a week of the worst Van Morrison performances. While this appearance is perhaps his best, it’s a forebearer so some cringeworthy moments to come, which includes television appearances and interviews. This project intends to provide a comprehensive portrait, which includes some rough edges around the performer.

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DAY 65:  THE WORST PERFORMANCES — “LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN” in 1995 with SINEAD O’CONNOR

This comprehensive examination of Van’s life and career would not be complete without posting some of the disasters, and there have been many.

Perhaps his worst show was the special occasion of Van performing his own song (made famous by Rod Stewart) with fellow Irish free-spirit, Sinead O’Connor. This clip is an embarrassment for Van, who was thought to be drunk during the performance and completely destroys what should have been a memorable duet.

O’Connor grew up idolizing Van, which makes this disaster all the more disappointing. She’s wonderful, as are the musicians — The Chieftains, who backed up Van on numerous albums. However, Van fails to take the occasion seriously, lapsing into a cringe-worthy rendition of one of his most beloved songs.

This fiasco took place in London. David Letterman did a week of shows there and his guests were predominantly British and Irish. Unfortunately, what should have been one of the highlights turned into a musical train wreck.

Oddly enough, though he came out of the 1960s, Van was never known for drug use, nor bouts of addiction, nor even any missed shows. For more than 55 years, Van always shows up on time, sober (usually), and ready to perform. This appears to be a rare exception.

Watch for yourself, one of Van’s worst performances, even though Letterman, perhaps sarcastically announces at the end, “that was great!”

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DAY 66:  “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” (1970 song on the “Proof of Life” movie soundtrack, from 2000)

You’re watching the closing scene and credits from the 2000 film starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, Proof of Life, which is an espionage thriller set in South Africa. The film was burdened with problems from the start, including financial issues, an avalanche during filming, and trouble on the set. It didn’t fare well at the box office, either and has since been forgotten.

Van’s original composition is used, which is from the 1970 album His Band and the Street Choir. The track in simple 4/4 time features only four musicians — including Van, with a drummer, bassist, and a guitarist.

“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” reveals Van at his soulful best. It’s easy to understand why this song was chosen for the final fade-out of a tense movie which concludes with the angst of lost love.

More than likely, you haven’t heard this track before. So, play the short clip and listen. Like so much of Van’s music, it’s the perfect emotional match for the moment.

See if you agree…

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DAY 67:  “Hungry For Your Love” (1978 original release, also on the “An Officer and a Gentleman” movie soundtrack, 1982)

Van Morrison’s “Hungry For Your Love” is a mellow-sounding feelgood song from the 1978 Wavelength album, which enjoyed two brief bouts of radio airplay — once during the initial phase of the album’s release and again when the mega-smash movie An Officer and a Gentlemen produced a pitch-fever of hits off the soundtrack (“Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker was the clear standout).

This is one of the favorite songs of many Van aficionados, most notably Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard, who has released multiple alternate cover versions. The song contains some unusual qualities. First, it’s a throwback to Van’s earlier work done nearly a decade earlier, which doesn’t really meld with the more modern sound of Wavelength released at the height of the disco era. The song also contains a rare demonstration of Van playing the electric piano. Musically gifted and instrumentally versatile, nonetheless, it’s one of the few released recordings with Van on the keyboard.

There’s a nice groove to this song. In the movie, it appeared as background in a scene when stars Richard Gere and Debra Winger wake up the next morning after their initial romantic tryst.

 

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DAY 68:  “Irish Heartbeat” (1983)

“Irish Heartbeat” is an original composition by Van Morrison. It has been recorded several times over the years and covered multiple times by other musicians, many from Ireland. The song seems an appropriate choice on this St. Patrick’s Day.

The track debuted on Van’s 1983 studio album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. It reappeared on the 1988 album collaboration with the traditional Irish folk group, The Chieftains. Then, 25 years later, it was re-recorded as a duet with Van and Mark Knopfler. This is the version off the 2015 Duets: Reworking the Catalogue album.

Van has demonstrated extraordinary musical ability over his nearly six-decade span as a songwriter and performer. It would be futile to identify a musical icon who has covered more territory and crossed more bridges. He’s not only excelled in rock, blues, and jazz but also commands such a deep knowledge of traditional folklore. Van’s extensive career is packed with live performances of his playing and singing classic Irish songs, far beyond the typical pop music wheelhouse.

“Irish Heartbeat” is a yin and yang of a song, the soulful Van meeting his inner Irish roots halfway. Off putting to his rock fans and those who grew up accustomed to “Brown-Eyed Girl” pop hits, it’s Van reaching deep, looking back, tilling the fertile musical plain. To his credit, Van doesn’t always take us where we want to be, but in directions where we need to go.

Today, we’re all Irish. And when we listen to Van, we’re all lucky.

 

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DAY 69:  A Van Morrison Impression by Sean Cullen (2013)

How exactly does one do an impression of Van Morrison? Well, Sean Cullen absolutely brilliantly nails it!

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DAY 70:  Van Morrison St. Patrick’s Day Impression by Jimmy Fallon (2009)

A few years back, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon began doing impressions of classic rock stars. Most amazing, he did his own music and sings original material. His impression of Jim Morrison (The Doors) is astounding.

Fallon did Van Morrison on St. Patrick’s Day, having a bit of fun with the drunken stereotype. It’s all in good fun. I’m not sure how many appreciate how good this wild rendition is, but hey — how the hell do you pull off am impersonation of Van Morrison?

Fallon nails it here. Nice compliment on this Irish holiday to the previous posts in the series.

Hope you enjoy.

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PREVIOUS SEGMENTS/SONGS:
  • WEEK 1:  (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
  • WEEK 2:  (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
  • WEEK 3:  (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
  • Week 4:  (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
  • WEEK 5:  (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
  • WEEK 6:  (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
  • WEEK 7:  (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
  • WEEK 8:  (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
  • WEEK 9  (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
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Note:  Follow me on Facebook for the latest editions of the Van Morrison MasterClass, and more.
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Posted by on Feb 21, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 9

 

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“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.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 9

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DAY 57:  “No Religion” (1995)

Van Morrison may be the most religious and spiritual muse in pop music history. I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

His spiritual and religious quest is deeply authentic. His thoughts on religion have changed drastically over the years, and are reflected frequently in his music and verse. Influenced heavily by the sounds of gospel early on, many of Van’s songs display his own soul searching and a quest for inner peace. Never one to preach, his music nonetheless resonates with believers and non-believers alike. To this day, he sometimes pops into church services unannounced and performs a song, or two — to stunned listeners watching an absolute legend in the music business sing and strum a guitar.

Van’s religious persuasion in the 1960s and 1970s was typical of the time and the culture. However, he was never self-indulgent like other popular rock acts of the day. Van’s curiosities began with Astral Weeks (1968) and have been a steady pursuit ever since. From “Into the Mystic” to “No Religion,” one of the qualities that makes him so interesting and endearing is his willingness to be brave and sometimes wrong in sharing his thoughts on divinity.

Consider Van’s brief flirtation with Scientology in 1983, when he dedicated the Inarticulate Speech of the Heart album to guru-madman-charlatan L. Ron Hubbard. That stain did not age well. Much of his studio work during the 1980s and 1990s imitated his greater spiritual aspirations and reflected a burning desire to know more. All one must do is look at the titles of his albums, including Saint Dominic’s Preview and Enlightenment and Beautiful Vision and No Guru No Method No Teacher and Hymns to the Silence and The Healing Game. Religion, spirituality, and mysticism are pillars in Van’s musical canon.

Van’s songs on spirituality are among his most powerful and deeply moving. Who can deny this? “No Religion” is among his catchier and lighter compositions, marked by a foot-tapping beat, echoing vocals with a backup singer, and absolutely brilliant lyrics. This isn’t an anti-religion song, at all. Rather, the uplifting “No Religion” is one of those poetic puzzles open to broad interpretation. Van, always coy interviews about the meanings of his songs, gruffly says, “of course it’s open to interpretation — that’s the whole point, isn’t it?”

We didn’t know no better, and they said it could be worse
Some people thought it was blessing
Other people think that it’s a curse
It’s a choice between fact and fiction
And the whole world has gone astray
That’s why there’s no religion, no religion, no religion here today.

“No Religion” is from the Days Like This album, released in 1995.

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DAY 58:  “Allow Me” (1987)

Van Morrison has composed some extraordinary instrumentals. One of his best songs is off of the self-produced Poetic Champions Compose album, which included three new instrumentals among the 11 total tracks. Many critics at the time didn’t like the personal and musical metamorphosis, leading Van to become even more bitter and resentful. Rolling Stone magazine dismissed the album as “mood music” emblematic of Van’s “slump” during the mid-1980s.

I don’t see this period as a slump at all, but rather a compulsory transformation galvanized by maturity. By his 42nd birthday, Van wasn’t destined for the oldies tour. He steadfastly refused to become a nostalgia act, jumping around a stage like James Brown or Mick Jagger, both well into their own mid-age crisis. Even the cover photo shows Van, not as the rock icon from his earlier days. He’s no longer that Van — nor in appearance, not in character, not in live performances, and certainly not in terms of his music. This is the look of someone with no regard for how he’s perceived. He is his own toughest critic.

Instead, Van turned deeper within himself. He continued pushing musical boundaries and writing new material. Van also expanded further in his selection of instruments. Each album between 1987 and 2012 — an astonishing 25-year period — seemed to be very different from the last, darting from jazz to soul to country to folk to R&B to Celtic, interspersed with the occasional live album, various covers and tributes, as well as collaborations.

“Allow Me” closes the Poetic Champions Compose album, which was recorded in London. The song is almost extinct so far as any reference points or known background material. Van rarely if ever performed the track live in concert, which certainly would have surfaced had it been done. Accordingly, as best as I can conclude, this is yet another nearly-forgotten treasure. Neil Drinkwater, a session pianist is wonderful, but Van steals the song with his work on the alto sax.

Here, allow me…..

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DAY 59:  “When I Deliver” (1975 — Unreleased Bootleg)

A fundamental element of this ambitious project is making new discoveries. When digging, one never knows what’s unearthed. Not only are we venturing far beyond the customary hits, but sporadically, we also discover songs that were never included on any Van Morrison compilation. Accordingly, these “lost tracks” have been heard by only a small number of listeners.

Consider two shelved albums from Van during 1975 which never made the transition from rough studio cut to vinyl to radio airplay. Mechanical Bliss, an amazing 10-track album was inexplicably shelved, presumably at Van’s direction. These hidden gems were forgotten. Until now.

The Genuine Philosophers Stone is a three-disc bootleg series of outtakes from Van’s most prolific period as a singer-songwriter, when his plethora of studio and live recordings simply could not fit on the commercial album space intermittently released by record companies. The thing was and is, musicians don’t work according to the strict confines of a timetable. Such pressures are the basis of resentment. Instead, when the music just flows, it’s time for Van to dart into the studio, assemble a few musicians, and let the magic happen.

That’s precisely what occurred in mid-1975 when Van’s recording contract called for a new album release, to which the unpredictable and incontrovertible Northern Irishman basically told the record company they’d have to wait until *he* was satisfied with the release. Ten years earlier, Van had been bombastic at the release of his first solo album (Blowin’ Your Mind in 1967) totally without his consent. Resentful of record companies (even to this day), Van took glorious joy in his revenge, accusing the business side of indifference to artist pursuits. He made them wait, and was summarily dropped from his contract. And so, Van shelved two albums that had been set for release in 1975.

The good news for us “Vanatics” is, these recordings are now buried treasure awaiting discovery. Many of the best-quality tracks ended up on the astounding 1998 double-album release of spurious outtakes, The Philosophers Stone. However, quite a few of these hidden gems never made it to the public’s ears.

Here’s a marvelous recording that has a definitive R&B feel, written by Van, titled “When I Deliver” Notice the track seems to start off with an uncertain sense of direction, and then finds a groove about 90 seconds into the 6-minute song. Even the timing changes. Some lyrics appear to be spontaneous. Van, on vocals, also inserts some harmonica. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Van’s free-flowing creative process. Too bad this song wasn’t polished and crafted into a release. It’s got a nice soulful appeal that reflects Van’s deep connection to R&B.

Go ahead. Take six. Have a listen to this unreleased recording from the back corner of Van’s musical vault.

“Let’s do that again, that feels good…..”

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DAY 63:  “The Healing Game” (1997)

Two of Van Morrison’s most powerful songs are about healing and include the word in the song title — 1979’s “And The Healing Has Begun,” and “The Healing Game,” the title track from the 1997 album.

The Healing Game is a concept album built on street singing. Just as many American cities produced street harmonies from the 1950s through the era of “Boy Bands,” kids hanging out on corners, singing late at night, Belfast (Northern Ireland) also had a thriving street music scene. Van was a part of that as a teenager. The primary sound to come out of this movement was something called “Doo-Wop.”

Doo-Wop can be heard throughout The Healing Game, including the title song. This is among Van’s most thorough compositions. It starts slowly with the Hammond organ (Van’s trademark sound of this period) and builds into a wall of sound. Not so much music as a transformative experience, Van floods the microphones with love and spirit.

The horns, and specifically two sax solos steal the song. If you’re into horns, this is about as great as it gets. Check out the crescendo of horns in this song and note how they blend into the melody as the volume gradually rises and the scene becomes something more akin to a gospel choir.

This live track of “The Healing Game” was recorded in 1999 at Rockpalast in Germany. This was the American Bandstand of Europe, which was seen by 25 million viewers a week. Just about every major rock act of the day appeared at one time or another on Rockpalast. Note the video quality isn’t great, but the audio is just fine. Listen to those horns!

Van did many versions of “The Healing Game,” which is texturally rich and complex and allows the opportunity for spontaneity. Also, note that Candy Dulfer on the sax. She’s fabulous.

“The Healing Game” is an astounding musical composition, and one of the rare tracks that’s actually better in a live setting, as this video shows.

“Sing it out loud!
Sing it in your name!
Sing it like you’re proud!
Sing the Healing Game!”

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DAY 61:  “Help Me” (2010)

Van Morrison has never recorded “Help Me” in-studio before, which is odd because it’s one of his favorite songs to perform live in concert. The Sonny Boy Williamson II classic was first released in 1963. It’s set to the standard 12-bar-blues contour, a familiar chord pattern and song structure, which is the basis of so many great blues recordings.

Van has frequently performed “Help Me” in recent years.
One of his better shows took place about ten years ago during the BBC Four sessions, with a stellar band and enthusiastic live audience. Van’s vocals are as strong as ever in this show, but the most interesting elements are his sax intro and interlude later on the harmonica. Van frequently plays assorted instruments, both on his recordings and during his live shows, but rarely do we see him doing all three — vocals, sax, and harmonica — all within the same track.

This entire performance is among his better engagements in the past decade. I’m not a fan of his recent shows (nothing since 2012 has impressed me), though it’s hard to be critical of someone who has written such an extraordinary catalog of songs and continues to evolve as he releases new material (four new albums in the past three years).

Van can be tempestuous while onstage. You never know what you’ll get. So many of his live shows are filled with spontaneity, which can be a double-edged sword. Most of the audience prefers to hear Van sing his classics in the way they were originally written. Dismissive of all expectation, Van often wanders off on tangents trying his best, it seems, to make the hits sound as different as possible. As one can imagine, this upsets and disappoints a sizable percentage of most audiences.

Even during this performance, which was a live telecast on the BBC, we witness moments with Van turning to various members of the band and barking out instructions. We also hear Van’s customary “grunts” and “yeah’s” which are genuine moments of satisfaction from the most cantankerous of singer-bandleaders.

Well worth a listen and a viewing. Check out Van doing the Sonny Boy Williamson II classic, “Help Me.”

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DAY 62:  “And the Healing Has Begun” (1979)

We all suffer loss. We all feel pain. We all endure hardship. We all long for recovery. We all need to heal.

And so, the healing has begun.

Van Morrison’s gifts to us are his transparency and vibrancy. Somehow, he’s able to seize the most common human emotion of all, the sorrow of loss, and magically uplift us with a simple lyric and catchy melody. Among his most evocative songs of recovery comes from the 1979 album, Into the Music. The song is titled, “And the Healing has Begun.”

Clocking in at nearly eight-full minutes, the track had no intention of being released as a single, nor receiving any radio exposure, nor even promotion from Van’s live performances. It was released among a three-album flurry of eclectic recordings put out by Van during the peak of the disco era, 1979-80 when he was singing and recording against every contemporary musical current. The stong didn’t stand a chance of critical exclamation nor popular public reception.

Not that any of that mattered to Van.

“And the Healing has Begun” has aged remarkably well over the past four decades. because it’s melody and message remain timeless. The backing violin is stellar, very reminiscent of Van’s earlier period in collaboration with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which heightened many recordings from Van’s most creative songwriting period. Van was customarily dismissive when asked about the song many years later. He stated:

“Well, it’s all about healing, isn’t it?….it comes back to this question: what’s your original face? Know what I mean? Who are you really? There are so many different kinds of healing but, if you are in alignment with yourself, then that in itself is going to be healing. If you’re trying to be something other, like something superficial, trying to be someone you’re not, then that would take you away from your true center. Really, if you’re asking about those songs and those albums, then it’s about getting back to the true center within yourself. That healing thing. It was nothing new. Music has always been about healing, hasn’t it?” (Credit:  Van Morrison Song Meanings)

Yes, it’s about healing.

Van would end up writing two of his very best compositions about healing. This recording is the first. The other is “The Healing Game,” and album-title track composed some 15 years later.

Far from being a sad song, this emits spontaneous joy from start to finish. Part jam-session, part gospel revelation, and seemingly pure spontaneity, Van has written an elixir of ecstasy.

From whatever pain we need to recover, this song is a salve for our souls.

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DAY 63:  “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” (1974)

“Cleaved their heads off with a hatchet, Lord he was a drinking man.”

Now for something completely different. “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” is an obscure track off the Veedon Fleece album. Clocking in at under 3 minutes, it’s a tale burst about a fictional character named Linden Arden, presumably an Irish immigrant in America.

This isn’t a song, so much as poetry. Linden Arden‘s inner demons are revealed when he drinks, and this vice becomes his undoing. Taking the law into his own hands wields weighty consequences.

Scrutinizing the songwriting process can produce more questions than answers. As with the greatest art, melodies and lyrics often flow from the subconscious. Indeed, many of Van’s songs are not written by him at all, at least not consciously, it seems. While onstage, in the studio, and most often while composing when alone, a mystical trance takes over. Inspired by the poets and the bluesmen, he channels the energy and the mysticism in some temporal excavation.

This song is very Irish, very explosive, very unpredictable, very abrupt, very intense, very graphic —– and very, very, Van.

“Linden Arden stole the highlights
With one hand tied behind his back
Loved the morning sun, and whiskey
Ran like water in his veins
Loved to go to church on Sunday
Even though he was a drinking man
When the boys came to San Francisco
They were looking for his life
But he found out where they were drinking
Met them face to face outside
Cleaved their heads off with a hatchet
Lord, he was a drinkin’ man
And when someone tried to get above him
He just took the law into his own hands

Linden Arden stole the highlights
And they put his fingers through the glass
He had heard all those stories many, many times before
And he did not care no more to ask
And he loved the little children like they were his very own
He Said, “Someday it may get lonely.”
Now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun.”

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Posted by on Feb 8, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 8

 

 

“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 8

DAY 50:  Van Morrison at Montreux

“Smoke on the Water” (Deep Purple — 1971)

“Smoke on the Water” begins with one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock history.

“Dun, dun, dun
dun-dun, dun-dun
dun, dun, dun, dun-dun….”

Then the rat-tat-tat of drum cymbals come in, accompanied by a thundering bassline, which then launches into vocals that, until this writing project, I’d never really contemplated before.

I doubt many rock fans reading this who likely know every note of the song are quite as familiar with the backstory which led to the unusual lyrical narrative. Word-for-word, the true story is told of what happened during a deadly fire that broke out during a rock concert inside the casino ballroom at Montreux, Switzerland.

In December 1971 British rockers Deep Purple arrived on the shores of Lake Geneva to record a new album. The entertainment complex was part of the Montreux Casino…..

“We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time.”

The night before recording was set to begin, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing at the casino. The scene got really wild. Someone in the crowd fired a flare gun into the stage cover, which suddenly burst into flames. The scene turned into chaos.

“Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground.”

Deep Purple watched the bizarre scene from their hotel room. The entire casino complex and entertainment venue burned to the ground. Frank Zappa’s band also lost all their equipment in the fire. Witnessing the surreal experience, “Smoke on the Water” somehow materialized out of the ashes and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Smoke on the water,
a fire in the sky.”

The entire casino and entertainment complex was gutted by fire. Deep Purple’s recording plans were ruined. With no other option, they set up a makeshift recording studio in the hotel and laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most successful album, titled Machine Head.

The impromptu song wasn’t expected to do much and was a reluctant addition to the album. It became Deep Purple’s biggest hit. Today, “Smoke on the Water” is honored by a sculpture along the shores of Lake Geneva.

Which now brings us to….Van Morrison.

Van made his first of 18 appearances (so far) at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. He’s performed at Montreux more times than anyone, other than anyone other than B.B. King and Herbie Hancock. Van’s first of two live shows the first year ignited a bit of controversy when he screamed to someone in the audience to “fuck off.” Often cantankerous while onstage and obtuse to the extremes of disbelief, the debut performance is nonetheless, widely regarded as one of the best of his career.

During this week’s installments, I’ll be writing more about Van’s live concerts at Montreux, because there have been so many and such great music came from that stage. But first, it’s fun to know the real backstory of the special venue where all this takes place and its indelible impact on our rock n’ roll memories.

This song and soundtrack (posted here) have a great video collage of the 1971 fire.

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DAY 51:  “Street Choir” (1974 — Live Performance at Montreux)

After the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva in Switzerland burned to the ground in 1971, the famed international jazz festival was in limbo. There were questions about where to hold the performances. There were also fears that unruly crowds might recreate the incident that inspired “Smoke on the Water.” But the real crux was rapidly changing musical tastes at the time, and a debate as to whether rock n’ roll, R&B, and other non-jazz acts belonged on the festival bill.

The Montreux Jazz Festival would quickly grow into the second largest of its kind in the world, thanks to the pragmatic decision made by organizers to broaden the invitee list to big names, some not commonly associated with jazz.

Fortunately for Van Morrison, his jazz credentials were solidly in the bag by 1974. He’d recorded numerous jazz-infused tracks, had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards, released a transcendent smash hit album, Moondance that enjoyed rare crossover appeal with both rock and jazz audiences. And — Van played the saxophone!

Van and his hastily assembled band played two shows at Montreux in their first year. It’s inconceivable as to why these live shows turned out so well. The best explanation is superior musicianship, led by drummer Dallas Taylor, sitting in with Van for the first time. Taylor was the drummer for Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Van’s debut at Montreux is a juxtaposition of awkwardness and near-total withdrawal from rock superstardom which oddly metastasizes into par excellence. The four musicians onstage had barely even rehearsed together, yet they cover an entire set of Van’s original recordings, with no notes nor sheet music. It’s astounding to watch. Van is clearly in a period of transition here as a live performer. He’s abandoned all pretense of rock expectation, showing up on stage looking like a math tutor. There’s even a false start at the beginning of the track.

“Street Choir” was the only song played that night known to the audience. Fans expecting to hear “the hits” were upset, leading to an infamous incident that shall be discussed later. “Street Choir” was originally written as an acapella song, intended as the title track on an entirely non-instrumental collection. In fact, the entire album was to be acapella, which would have been quite a stretch to pull off. But Van abandoned the concept after a few sessions.

“Street Choir” ended up as the title track for the album His Band and the Street Choir, released in 1970 as a rapid follow-up to the success of Moondance. Van, already bitter towards the music industry, was infuriated when Warner Bros, the record company decided to rename his album without his consent. It was originally titled “Virgo’s Fool.”

Van’s gradual slide into loathsome anger at the music industry, which he often took out on his audiences, was well underway. Nonetheless, as the Montreux shows from the 1970s reveal, it’s all about the music.

Put on the headphones, crank up the volume, and watch brilliance on display.

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DAY 52:  “Moondance” (1970)

“It’s a fantabulous night for a romance…”

So writes and sings Van Morrison in “Moondance,” one of the most successful songs of his storied career, which was released 50 years ago this week.

Since then, “Moondance” has been covered by hundreds of different artists, of all genres — from harpists to sax players, from jazz and blues bands to the winner of last year’s Mongolia’s Got Talent. Really. They’re covering Van in Ulaanbaatar.

The title track on Van’s widely-acclaimed 1970 album, this song was considered an oddity that didn’t fit the norms of the day. The style of music certainly didn’t comply with conventional rock playlists. Indeed, rock-oriented radio stations were reluctant to play the track because it didn’t sound like a hit song with the usual instrumentation common to the most popular artists of the era.

Instead, “Moondance” was entirely jazz-infused, with its idiosyncratic timing, a standup bass, and Van’s offbeat vocals, punctuated with a swinging piano laced with brass. Fortunately, album-oriented radio was coming into its own as a force, and the staggering quality of content spread throughout both sides of the Moondance album became immensely popular, thus becoming Van’s first bona fide collection of solo hit recordings. “Crazy Love” covered by Ray Charles became a hit. “Into the Mystic” is also off the Moondance album.  It is certainly among the most whole of “album rock” collections ever made, the sprawling sum of its parts greater than any single.

Indifferent to commercial tastes and appeal, Moondance did enjoy tremendous critical and popular success as an album but the actual track wasn’t released as a single until seven years later. It charted in 1977, making it one of the most unusual recordings in pop music history both for its duel release dates and staying power as an enduring record now five decades later. “Moondance” is the song Van has played live more times than any other original recording.

The song’s origins go back to a jam session in 1967 when Van was rehearsing in Boston. His pick-up band was covering an old show tune called “Lazy Afternoon.” Van began to improvise from that standard and quickly came up with the melody that would later become “Moondance.” He had no idea at the time it would reignite his career and establish him as one of pop music’s most creative yet unpredictable artists.

Here’s the original recording from the 1970 album.

As Van would say, it’s “Fantabulous.”

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DAY 53:  “Troubadours” (1979)

“Troubadours” is a gorgeous track off of Van Morrison’s 11th studio album, Into the Music. It’s a celebration of life and love laden with neo-classic instrumentation. This song and most of the album’s collection foretells the looming horizon of Van’s songwriting and music, which increasingly will become more introspective and spiritual into the 1980s.

When Van took the stage at the 1980 Monteux Jazz Festival in Switzerland just months after the album’s release, most in the audience were hearing “Troubadours” for the first time. Indeed, most of his band, which includes the great Pee Wee Ellis on sax, is performing live with Van in a spontaneous, unrehearsed setting. Throughout this stage performance, Van can be seen displaying uncertainty as to entry points and occasionally barks out chord progressions to his fellow bandmates.  A few of his sidemen had been part of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which backed Van’s albums and live shows in the early 70s (they disbanded in 1973).  So, they were somewhat familiar with Van’s free-flowing format.

Also, note Van smoking a cigarette during the song.

We’re covering the “Montreux” period because it merits a closer and more thorough retrospective. His 1974 and 1980 performances were among the best of his career, though he’s far more subtle, even distant, from the typical rock routine. This too foretells Van’s evolution into a deeper more withdrawn state, which certainly alienated some audiences far more accustomed to flashy rock acts and the pizzaz of the disco period. Van is about as un-cool as he can be in this show, which (I believe) allows us to focus on the marvelous song structure and vocalization. One can almost see the patriarch of David Byrne (Stop Making Sense) in this clip. Byrne later noted Van’s influence on his own (anti-) style and faux act.

Van has played Montreux on 18 different occasions during the course of his storied career, mostly concentrating on jazz compositions, which is third in line to a huge list of greats which includes Herbie Hancock (27 times) and B.B. King (21 times). After the Montreux Casino burned down in 1971, the venue shifted around. However, this stage hosted many of the greatest performers and show in jazz history.

Rarely is Van ever upstaged, but “Troubadours” allows his band to flourish. Especially the piccolo trumpet. The song really takes off at about the 2:00 mark.

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DAY 54:  “Twilight Zone” (1974)

Van Morrison’s first live appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was by all accounts a disaster.

Fresh off the stunning It’s Too Late To Stop Now USA-UK tour (which resulted in an ambitious three-disc collection many critics label as one of the greatest live albums on rock history), Van arrived at Lake Geneva in the Summer of ’74 with a scaled-back band and much more mellow sound. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra’s lush brass and string section were replaced with a simple keyboardist and bassist. Even Dallas Taylor, from Crosby, Stills, and Nash on drums couldn’t keep up with the crowd’s restless expectations.

Making the sour mood even more acrimonious, Van opted to perform unfamiliar material almost exclusively from the Veedon Fleece sessions, along with tracks which were supposed to be on the (later shelved) follow-up album. He skipped all his well-known hits, an omission that didn’t go over well with the audience. Moreover, Van didn’t seem to put in the same vibrant energy his fans were used to seeing. In Van’s defense, he presumed the more laid back “jazz festival” setting would be far more open to new music and sounds, but then quickly discovered he couldn’t escape the shadow of his own towering reputation as a dynamic live performer.

At Montreux, on a makeshift stage, Van played an esoteric setlist, which also included his sax solo and a harmonica solo. Then, for reasons unknown, Van took longer than expected to return for an encore, up to 10 minutes by one witness account. In the awkward void, an intoxicated fan jumped up on the stage and began yelling into the microphone, commanding Van to play his “hits.” Finally, Van arrived from backstage to do a rare encore. As the fan was escorted out of the venue, Van — in characteristic disdain of criticism that would mark his career as a live performer — barked out, “Hey, I’m going to play what I like, and if you don’t like it — go fuck yourself!” Almost as though to rub it in, Van and his three bandmates then closed with the instrumental “Harmonica Boogie,” and with that, the concert was over.

Sometimes referred to as the Go Fuck Yourself show (which became the title of the bootleg album before the actual live concert was released years later), the show opens with “Twilight Zone.” Note the awkwardness and lack of production in the clip. This is actually the first time (and song) Van had played with this band, which appears in other segments of the series because they are quite good. “Twilight Zone” is highly unusual as Van, typically a bass-baritone vocal sings in falsetto during most of the song. Van’s intentionally-mistuned guitar also adds a raw folksy feel to the sound.

“Twilight Zone” was an outtake from the Veedon Fleece album, which bombed both commercially and critically. This disappointment led to a three-year hiatus from touring. The song was later included as a bonus track on the re-issue 30 years later, which is now acclaimed as a collection ahead of its time, much in the vein of Astral Weeks. The studio outtake also made its way onto The Philosopher’s Stone, a 1998 compilation album.

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DAY 55:  “I Will Be There” (1972)

Van Morrison was heavily influenced by the classics, especially by what’s been called the “great American songbook of standards.” Musical icons included the Isley Brothers, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and many others. Morrison even cited country acts, including Hank Williams and the Carter Family as part of the foundation for his vast musical canopy.

Long before doing retro-recordings became chic, Van wrote a new song that was clearly inspired by Duke Ellington’s jazz standard from the year 1940, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” I haven’t seen anyone make the direct comparison; but to me, this original composition credited to Van is nearly identical in rhythm, melody, and timing. Van’s songwriting repertoire was overflowing with material by the time the Saint Dominic’s Preview album was released. He didn’t need to copy other artists. However, this track has the trademark Ellington sound. It’s unmistakable. Perhaps even something from the subconscious.

During the early 70s, Van was in the midst of his flirtation with many different styles of music. But he always seemed most comfortable within the R&B groove. This outlier of a recording, mostly forgotten now, fits in nicely with the other material on the album.

Saint Dominic’s Preview became Van’s most successful US-album all the way up until 2008’s Keep It Simple. Remarkably, it contains only 7 songs, but each has resonated with critics and fans alike long after the release date.

“I Will Be There” deserves more love and attention, and we’re delivering that today.

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DAY 56:  “Wild Honey” (1980)

Van Morrison was once asked to name his favorite album. He gave a surprising answer. From his vast pantheon of dozens of studio albums and live recordings, he chose the somewhat obscure and esoteric 1980 release Common One.

Indeed, Common One is one of those magical brews that takes time to process and savor. This is not a party album. It’s the disc you play loud while driving a long trip, or sipping a goblet of Port alone, reflecting. Its five disjoined tracks do not make for a concept album. There’s no prevailing theme throughout. Two of the songs are more than 10 minutes long.

“Wild Honey” doesn’t fit either, as a song or track on the album. It seems oddly misnamed. There’s nothing wild about it. It’s the slow dance song that comes on 15 minutes before closing time.

Two things stand out from this long-forgotten track — Van’s phrasing and the unique sense of timing, which seems slightly off, but fits perfectly, infused with the STAX-like horns.

Van closed out the 1970s with yet another album that was eviscerated by critics, but which today is looked upon with far more curiosity and appreciation.

Usually indifferent to criticism and openly hostile to commercial metrics, Van was greatly disappointed with the response to this album. Common One marks a demarcation in time, a transition from one era and sound to the next. This album buried Van as one of the decade’s greatest R&B soul singers and most gifted songwriters, but it stands today as a glorious tombstone and a proud exclamation point on a definitive chapter of the VM canon.

“Can’t you feel my heart beating, just for you….”

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