The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 12
“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 12
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.”
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.”
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!
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.
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.]
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.
[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 ]
- 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)