The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 1
“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.”
He’s been called a genius. A poet. A mystic. A sage. An original. A nonconformist. A hermit. A curmudgeon. A misanthrope. And a boor.
Indeed, all these tags apply to Van Morrison, arguably the most enigmatic of all popular singer-songwriters of the past half-century.
So far, he’s released 53 albums, including 71 singles — yet, he’s never had a top-five hit. Now, in his mid-70’s, he continues touring and performing at a tireless pace — although, he’s a self-admitted introvert in an extrovert’s profession. He’s been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and even been knighted by the Queen of England — however, he loathes doing interviews and the all-too-predictable questions he’s asked as to what any of his songs mean. He gets mentioned in the same breath as the Irish masters — including Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Moore, and Beckett — while bristling at any of the accruments of such lofty comparison, opting instead to simply be called “a soul singer.”
“I don’t feel comfortable doing interviews,” Morrison snaps. “My profession is music and writing songs. That’s what I do. I like to do it, but I hate to talk about it.”
Since Sir Van Morrison hates to talk about his own music, the inevitable void has been filled by a cottage industry of writers and critics all over the world willing to proxy for him. Including — yours truly.
Consider this latest series, which I’ve titled the “Van Morrison MasterClass” precisely such an exercise. It is as much an attempt at exploring Van Morrison’s rich musical legacy as a hope and a promise of new discoveries.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 1
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS — DAY 1
“You’ve Got the Power” (1972)
This was a stunning personal discovery. It’s the B-side of a single “Jackie Wilson Said,” the minor hit off the 1972 album, St. Dominic’s Preview, charting at #61 on Billboard. This flip-side chestnut is obscure and mostly forgotten, even by loyal Vanatics. Reference Point: Van fans are known as “Vanatics.”
“You’ve Got the Power” layers Memphis horns atop the Stax sound, with Van’s vocal energy as not so much the lead as the accompaniment to a rich stew of raw musical alchemy. As is characteristic of much of Van’s studio work (making this both amazing and maddening)….both “Jackie Wilson Said” and “You’ve Got the Power” were recorded in a single take.
Here’s a short recount of the session, recorded in Mill Valley, CA:
“Morrison’s band had only rehearsed the song once before the session, which led to the parts being rearranged in the studio. Despite the initial problems, the band recorded it in one take: “At the end [we] all stood in silence: had [we] got it in one go? Van called for another take, but stopped a few bars in because he felt it wasn’t working. ‘I think we’ve got it.”
Have a listen to this rare gem, which clocks in a 3:30. Headphones recommended, crank it up loud, and sing it strong.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS — DAY 2
“Days Like This” (1995)
“Day’s Like This” is the title track from the 1995 album which peaked at #5 in the UK, but sold poorly in the US, due perhaps to mixed reviews and a diverse collection of songs scattered across multiple musical genres, with tracks that were inspiring to some but alienating to others.
Although the song wasn’t a hit single when released, it’s since become a widely-played and well-known gem on the “soundtrack of life,” commonly played while boarding airplanes, heard in restaurants and shopping malls, and even in a few movies, including As Good As It Gets.
The song was even chosen as the official anthem of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement towards the end of the infamous “Troubles” period which terrorized much of divided Belfast, Van’s boyhood home.
“Day’s Like This” features an upbeat message, Van’s gruff vocals, and a marvelously catchy chorus that’s easy to hum along to. Van also takes the lead solo on saxophone.
When President Bill Clinton visited Belfast in Nov. 1995, himself a “Vanatic,” he expressed interest in performing the song onstage with Van at a live stadium concert with 60,000 people. It would have been fun to see President Clinton, a saxophone player, joining Van in concert. But the Secret Service vetoed the idea citing security concerns, especially given the threats in Belfast.
The song also includes singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy on backing vocals. Van’s musical anchorman, Pee Wee Ellis stands in on tenor sax.
Van was never part of the so-called MTV generation. He utterly loathed music videos. Nonetheless, Van was talked into making a rare and as-it-turns-out stylish in-studio B/W video release, which is posted here.
Now, nearly 25 years since its release, “Days Like This” remains as enjoyable and inspirational as ever.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 3
“Here Comes the Night” (1965)
Van’s career began with *Them* a short-lived Northern Irish band tangentially grouped as part of the Britsh Invasion. *Them* took their odd name from the 1950’s horror film. Tensions within the band and their producer Bert Berns began early and fractured into a nasty breakup, after which Van launched his solo career in 1966.
Berns, already well-known for producing several hit records including the original “Twist and Shout,” wrote “Here Comes the Night” and gave it to Them, which by mid-1965 had released two hit records, the bluesy “Baby Please Don’t Go” and Van’s own popular rock classic “Gloria.” The song reached #2 in the UK and #30 in the US.
“Here Comes the Night” isn’t Van’s best work, by any stretch. But this clip does show Van, at age 20, fronting Them in a live performance. Shy and introverted by nature, Van displayed an impersonal public persona which appeared to be alienation from his own audience. Onstage, he rarely acknowledged fans (which continues to this day). For Van, it’s always been about the music.
Van as the lead singer for Them proved difficult to work with and manage. He refused to go along with fake “live” performances and promotional gigs, instantly creating a hard-nosed reputation:
“We were never meant to be on ‘Top of the Pops,’ I mean miming? Lip syncing? We used to laugh at the program, think it was a joke. Then we were on it ourselves. It was ridiculous. We were totally anti that type of thing. We were really into the blues…and we had to get into suits and have make-up put on and all that.”
Note that Van refuses to wear a suit in this show, which turned out to be one of Them’s final live performances. Added trivia: Jimmy Page (later with Led Zeppelin) was the session guitarist on the studio recording.
This video clip clocks in at less than 3 minutes, but shows why Van, even at age 20 was clearly destined for bigger and better things to come.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 4
“Just Like Greta” (2000)
“Some days it gets pretty crazy,
I feel like howling at the moon.”
Thus begins “Just like Greta” is a musical tribute to the reclusive Hollywood legend and a personal plea for solitude.
Perhaps Van saw something of himself in the Garbo mystique, the late film star who retired at age 35 and didn’t make another movie or grant an interview during the final 50 years of her hermitic life. Throughout his lengthy career, Van — annoyed by fame, mistrustful of strangers, prone to stagefright, and utterly oblivious to public or critical reception — must have looked to Garbo as both guru and muse. Part of his being longs to be “Just Like Greta.”
Indeed, the vast catalog of Van’s music reflects self-doubt and the constant pursuit of enlightenment. Van albums do not make for good party tunes. Van writes much deeper songs of reflection, of pain, of loss, and of longing. It’s the voice of the subconscious. He’s the artist you plug into the iPod during a quiet airplane ride or a long drive, best when alone with your own thoughts. Certainly, Van has written and released plenty of upbeat tunes, but his heart and soul remain bronzed in melancholy.
“Just Like Greta” is one of Van’s lesser-known tracks, originally recorded in 2000, but inexplicably omitted the next album release, Down the Road. Five years later, the song was recycled on Magic Time, both a commercial and critical success. Though unreleased as a single, and no airplay was given, the song complimented a fine album that became one of his most successful releases, debuting at #2 in the UK and #25 in the US. Nonetheless, few listeners aside from hard-core Van fans, have likely heard the song before.
The song clocks in at 6:29, starting off with Van at his soul-searching best. Then, anchored by a slow but steady crescendo the mood gradually begins to shift from a soft ballad into a rousing finish flooded in orchestral strings. Van’s vocals are paired with the familiar echoes of the Hammond organ. Lyrically speaking, Van alludes to his own past, singing “I’ve been too long in exile….” which is an unveiled reference to his album released a decade earlier, Too Long in Exile.
The song’s most catchy moment occurs immediately after the instrumental interlude about midway through (at the 3:50 mark) when Van suddenly takes the song uptempo and launches into a spirited declaration about “going out to L.A. (to) get my business done,” then “going on to Vegas, then I’m going on the run.”
Today — Van, even at 74, a tireless tour performer who still writes songs, releases albums, and appears in as many as 75 live shows annually, must feel the temptation to ignore all the phone calls and the demands of the trade and simply run away from it all. You know, “Just Like Greta.”
Don’t we all have days and thoughts to do the same?
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 5
“T.B. Sheets” (1967)
Van’s breakaway solo period after leaving the Northern Irish group Them included a spell of struggle and near starvation. Even while “Brown Eyed Girl” was rocketing up the Billboard charts, Van — screwed by a really bad recording contract — made little or no money from his early work. He once told the story of having to borrow money to pay the rent.
“While I was recording, I realized I didn’t even have $2 to buy a sandwich,” Morrison told CBS in an interview many years later. “I had to borrow money to eat.”
Morrison had flown to New York from Belfast to sign a record contract he had not fully studied, nor legally vetted with attorneys. During a two-day recording session at A&R Studios starting 28 March 1967, eight songs were recorded, originally intended to be used as four singles per a verbal agreement. Instead, the songs were rushed out and released as the album Blowin’ Your Mind, without Morrison being consulted. Van said he only became aware of the album’s release when a friend mentioned on a phone call that he had just been in a record store and bought a copy.
Alas, that was Van’s first solo album — and he didn’t even know about it. Thus began a long career of loathing the music business and being mistrustful of associates, a characteristic which continues to this day.
“T.B. Sheets” was one of the songs off that debut solo album which was written and recorded during an extended creative period that became known as the Bang Sessions, in reference to Bang Records.
“Morrison had intended to record the song in one take, but there were two takes recorded that day….,.There is a long-standing, but perhaps apocryphal story of Morrison’s emotional state during the song’s recording Michael Ochs wrote later, “after ‘T.B. Sheets’ was recorded, the rest of the session had to be canceled because Van broke down in tears.”
“T.B. Sheets” is a song about death. It’s a bluesy masterpiece melding Van’s soulful vocals, his shredding harmonica introduction, tambourine timing, laced with catchy riffs on lead guitar. The song wasn’t released as a single but was covered by iconic bluesman Johnny Lee Hooker in 1972. Van’s song also appeared in ambulance scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 1999 misfire movie, Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicholas Cage. That movie isn’t very good, but the song fits the urban underbelly as a perfect soundtrack. Note that some might find the video images to be disturbing.
This is stunning early work by Van, which is even more impressive when considering how rushed the production was in the studio and the pressure the singer-songwriter was under at the time. I love Van’s racy harmonica work here, which never sounded better.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 7
To date, Van has released 53 albums and 71 singles, so it’s surprising to learn he’s never recorded a #1 hit. In fact, no Van composition has ever charted in the top five. Even his signature song, 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl” rose only to #10.
It’s even more surprising to find out the highest-charting single of Van’s prolific career was the 1970 release, “Domino,” the opening track from the album, His Band and the Street Choir. To this day, “Domino” remains his best-performing song, though few hard-core fans or casual listeners would place this song anywhere near the pantheon of VM’s best recordings. It peaked at #9.
“Domino” is a tribute to R&B legend Fats Domino. It’s packed with blaring horns and is pure R&B all the way. Lyrics include Van singing “Lord have mercy” during the refrain, undoubtedly mimicking the influence of James Brown, another of Van’s musical idols. Indeed, “Domino” is a definitive in-your-face statement by Van who rejected stereotyping and refused to be pigeonholed as a rock act. Following up on the success of the jazz-infused Moondance album which was released earlier that year, Van unexpectedly swerved into the R&B lane going full blast. Oddly enough, following this project, his next album, Tupelo Honey marked a 180 shift to into folk-country.
“Domino” was one of many chestnuts during a bountiful songwriting period for Van. It marked a definitive shift in intent to write music for wider audiences. After his debut album premiered to mixed success, the extraordinarily ambitious Astral Weeks had been released the following year. That classic collection is now regarded as one of the greatest albums in pop music history, but it was a commercial failure at the time. Van, still plagued by a bad recording contract and essentially broke, vowed to write some catchier and shorter songs certain to receive radio airplay, and thus make money. So, he nested on a treasure trove of fresh original material written during 1969 in upstate NY. With a new record deal, he was determined to cash in with a flurry of pop hits and albums that would sell commercially. When the Moondance album (with the title hit single) was released in 1970, Van’s wisdom of maintaining strict control over his work and reaping the benefits thereof was confirmed. “Domino” was written and recorded during this period. Indeed, much of what appeared on His Band and the Street Choir could have made for a double-album set to Moondance.
“Domino” is lyrically simple, rhythmically catchy, and one of Van’s most radio-friendly songs.
Note that Jim Keltner is on drums, described as the leading session drummer in America circa 1960-1980. Keltner was the drummer on much of Van’s work during this period. Keltner has appeared on countless popular recordings over the years, including each of the former Beatles’ solo albums following their breakup.
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