The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 11
“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 11
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
- 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)