The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 2
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 2
Part 3 (Days 8-14) of my ongoing series which is a retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 8
“I Heard You Paint Houses” (2019)
I was stunned to watch Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman, recently and see Van’s name listed in the closing credits.
Turns out, Van sings a duet on the title track, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which was the name of the book on which the mobster movie was based.
Robbie Robertson wrote most of the music and lyrics after being chosen by Scorsese to compose the film’s soundtrack. The relationship between Robertson and the film director dates back to 1978’s The Last Waltz, a documentary of The Band’s final live concert. As things turned out, Van performed in that show, as well, in a show-stopping rendition of “Caravan,” which initiated another collaborative friendship. Indeed, Van’s music has appeared in half a dozen Scorsese films.
Robertson sings the opening stanza here and plays a gritty lead guitar, but the vocals on the track mostly belong to Van, who’s gnarly baritone voice enriches the lyric with genuine authenticity. There’s also some irony to Van, arguably Ireland’s most revered pop music icon (U2’s Bono may disagree), being plucked to grouse the vocals on a film titled “The Irishman.” Lyrically, the words are somewhat campy given the subject matter, which is murder-for-hire.
I didn’t think much of the recording when I first heard it, but after listening closely a few more times on headphones, it’s now pleasantly burned into my conscious. Van is especially good on this track.
Good to see Van stealing the spotlight in a brand new movie that’s likely to receive many Oscar nominations. Could a nomination for Best Original Song be forthcoming? It would be a treat to see Van performing with Robertson at the Academy Awards ceremony a few months from now.
Have a listen…..
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 9
“Into the Mystic” (Live Performance, 1974 — Winterland Arena in San Francisco)
Van’s live performances have long been erratic affairs — sporadically mesmerizing, other times detached, often mechanical, and occasionally downright hostile. Since this career retrospective isn’t intended as a homage so much as a comprehensive portrait, now’s a good time to show Van when he wasn’t at his cordial best.
Between 1970-1974, Van composed more than 100 original songs, released 7 studio albums, 16 singles, and performed 267 live concerts — not including television appearances and interviews. As his 1974 world tour was winding down to a close, Van was bitter, burned out, and badly in need of a reprieve. Already prone to rages of discontent and suffering from bouts of depression, Van’s bombastic temper spilled over while on stage one night at the Winterland Arena (a.k.a. Winterland Ballroom) in San Francisco.
Some in the crowd had begun chanting for Van to sing more familiar songs, but the Irish troubadour would have none of it. Fed up with the whole scene, Van ripped into the audience.
“If you shut your mouth and keep quiet you might get what you want, alright? Otherwise, you’re just like boring me to death, and probably everybody else.”
Then, without missing a beat, this tirade is immediately interrupted by Van launching into one of his most beloved ballads, “Into the Mystic” — ironically one of his most spiritual quests for inner peace. The irony of this moment is both jaw-dropping and hilarious.
Indeed, the opening moments to this song are *SO-SO-SO-SO* Van Morrison at his core.
In an upcoming lesson, I’ll write more about “Into the Mystic,” a profound song, a critically-acclaimed masterpiece, and a familiar fan favorite that’s now spanned five decades and remains one of his most requested tunes. But for now, let’s take a look at Van’s raw unfiltered brutal honesty, which is revealed onstage in this grainy black and white video. Unfortunately, the film quality isn’t very good, but the sound is excellent. Van looks like he wants to be anywhere else but on stage at this moment, but his harmonica work about midway into the song is outstanding.
Note that at the end of 1974, Van virtually disappeared from the music industry. He didn’t record another album nor release a single for the next three years. At his peak, age 29, Van didn’t just walk away. He vanished. I’ll be writing more about this period, later, as well.
Also of note here is the concert venue, the iconic Winterland, one of the most storied music meccas in the United States at the time. Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham had opened the Winterland three years earlier and it hosted just about every big name in music. It was the home base for The Grateful Dead, who performed here dozens of times. Fittingly, it was also the venue where The Band’s final concert was filmed, 1978’s The Last Waltz, in which Van returns to the stage in a dramatic comeback that some say stole the show.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 10
Van’s self-imposed exile from singing and songwriting lasted three years. His first daughter, Shana had been born. His marriage to model Janet Planet collapsed. Swarmed with groupies and gawkers, fiercely protective of his privacy, he abandoned Woodstock, NY and relocated to Marin County, CA. By the time Van’s creative comatose expired and the troubadour-grumbler returned to the pop music scene refreshed, two significant things had occurred:
1. Popular music tastes changed.
2. Van changed.
Van finally emerged from his sequestration and released what would become his ninth studio album, A Period of Transition. The aptly-titled collection of songs was much anticipated by critics and fans, alike. However, that album turned out to be a major disappointment for everyone. The selection of material neither matched the quality of his previous recordings nor delivered on the promise of musical “transition.” This creative and commercial failure set the stage for Van’s next significant album project, Wavelength, recorded at a makeshift studio set up in the Manor House in Oxfordshire, England and released in late 1978.
Wavelength marked a drastic shift in musical style for Van, away from his traditional R&B roots and horn-heavy instrumentation, supplanted by Peter Bardens‘ synthesizers. Indeed, pop music was changing fast, going more electronic. The title track was unlike anything Van had done before.
The song begins with Van’s voice almost unrecognizable in a high falsetto, an odd awaking for those accustomed to lyrics often shouted in liberation rather than sang. Then, Bardens’ minimoog synthesizer slowly seizes the rhythm, with Van’s velvety harmonies layered perfectly atop.
By late 1978, the era of the singer-songwriter was dead. Popular music temporarily lost its senses and swerved into a ditch called disco, punctuated at the opposite extreme by an explosion of big hair bands fronted by jackrabbit vocalists in spandex. Van might as well have been a polka dancer, stylistically speaking, but as “Wavelength” shows, he could adapt to the times when necessary.
Van’s work was rewarded with the single peaking at #42 on Billboard, which also made the album the best-selling of his career up to that point.
Lyrically, “Wavelength” begins with a tribute to his boyhood days when he first heard Ray Charles on Voice of America radio. That moment ignited a lifelong love for Charles’ music. Ironically, even in a catchy up-tempo song laced with synthesizers, Van still stays true to his musical roots.
“I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio
I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Singin’ “Come back, baby
Come back, baby
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 11
“Bright Side of the Road” (1979)
Van’s mid-1970’s included burnout, divorce, three years of seclusion, an album flop, a startling comeback, and by decade’s end — the reaffirmation of a musician at the very top of his game.
Following Wavelength, which became Van’s best-selling album up to that date, the self-described soul singer returned to his roots with 1979’s Into the Music, which received widespread acclaim and was named by critics as one of the year’s best albums.
Into the Music kicks off with the happy-go-lucky radio-friendly “Bright Side of the Road,” which became a minor hit. The song would bear added fruit years later. The song is perhaps best known today as part of the catchy soundtrack for the 1997 baseball movie, Fever Pitch. Van’s song was also used to sell Toyotas during the 1990s, the title lyric “bright side of the road” being the near-perfect pitch-line for a new car. When he wrote the song, Van certainly had no idea he’d make more money off a car commercial than any song royalties accrued. Singer Shakira also performed Van’s song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“Into the Music was about the first album where I felt, I’m starting here…the Wavelength thing,” Van said. “I didn’t really feel that was me….that’s when I got back into it. That’s why I called it Into the Music.”
Indeed, Van was back in his groove. Critics hailed the album as his best work since Moondance, released a decade earlier. Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “It’s a record of splendid peace….a vastly ambitious attempt to reconcile various states of grace: physical, spiritual and artistic….that’s what this album is about, proudly and stunningly and with no apologies — Resurrection. Real Hope.”
The song and album’s success owes much to an event that was something of an accident. The album was recorded in a small studio in Sausalito, CA. Tenor saxophone maestro Pee Wee Ellis lived nearby and was asked to sit in on one of the album’s other tracks. Van was so impressed with Ellis’ work, that he was asked to stay and play on every song. That marked the beginning of a nearly two-decades-long collaboration between Van and Ellis. No doubt, Van’s music over the next dozen albums, as well as hundreds of live tour performances were enhanced significantly by Ellis’ virtuoso on horns.
“Bright Side of the Road” is nothing special, musically speaking. But it’s a catchy tune that’s certainly fun to listen to. I dare you to try and sit still and not move along to the rollicking melody while Van sings one of his most optimistic songs.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 12
“Take This Hammer” (2017)
“Take This Hammer” is an old chain gang song dating back to the sharecropper days when freed slaves worked backbreaking jobs — such as mining, railroads, logging, and in the blazing cotton fields of the Deep South. These songs were sung daily by poor men who had little reason for hope in their lives, but who found solace and inspiration in music. This collective cross-generational pain and suffering birthed the blues, gospel, and many so-called prison songs. The melding of these influences later became the foundation for rock n’ roll.
The great bluesman Lead Belly learned this song while an inmate in the notorious prison farm at Angola, Louisiana. He added his own timing and chord structure and turned it into a classic that’s transcended all musical genres. It remains a popular studio “jam” tune to this day. Versions of the Lead Belly standard have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Spencer Davis Group to the Foggy Mountain Boys to John Prine. The Beatles jammed to the song in their Let It Be (a.k.a. Get Back) sessions.
One of the most recent takes of the song is by Mitch Woods. In 2017, Woods was joined in the studio by Taj Mahal on guitar and Van who laid down some incredible vocals. In his 70’s, Van’s voice certainly isn’t what it once was, but this is exactly the kind of song Van was born to sing. The impromptu recording, with guitar, piano, and Van on vocals while banging a tambourine with a drumstick, made its way onto a musical compilation for charity titled Freinds Along the Way, which can be heard and seen here in this short 2-minute outtake.
It doesn’t get much better than watching three masters at their craft sitting around in the studio and jamming to an old Lead Belly classic. See if you agree.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 13
“Queen of the Slipstream” (1987)
What’s the meaning of the cryptic song title and lyric “Queen of the Slipstream?”
No one knows for sure, except Van. The composition has been widely interpreted — as an ode to a distant love, a literary homage, a song with deeply religious overtones, but could just as easily be nothing more than a catchy play on words. Indeed, Van has been known to dream up clever phrases in song and then take mischievous delight while admirers scramble trying to make sense of some presumed revelation shrouded in lyrical allegory.
What’s certain about the 5-minute track is the gorgeous melody, intensely enhanced by the strings of a chamber orchestra. Like many songs written and recorded by Van during this period of deep introspection, it’s a meditative exploration uncertain of a particular destination but resolved nonetheless to forage the chance of new discovery.
“Queen of the Slipstream” appeared on the 1997 album Poetic Champions Compose, an ambitious collection of new material that received mixed reviews from critics. Rolling Stone magazine was particularly brutal, calling it a “cranky self-imitation” and a “painful slump.” Nevertheless, album sales were boosted significantly by the popular love ballad “Someone Like You,” which has since become a staple soundtrack played and sang at weddings. Commercial success aside, “Slipstream” remains the far more intriguing album track, reminding us that it’s okay to persevere if only in small increments, one step at a time, sketching in the details as we go along. Poetic Champions Compose is that album stoked with small details, many pleasant and inspirational.
The song was also released as a single the following year, but it did not make the charts. Yet, there is an enduring quality to the composition. Over the years, it’s appeared in several movies. It was a favorite of the late actress Farah Fawcett and was used in a documentary about her life at her request after her death.
My take is the following: “Queen of the Slipstream” is gorgeous, brilliant, perplexing, and something of a mess. While there’s intriguing combustion of instrumentation here, the song could have benefited from a bit more tailoring. Produced entirely by Van, it had no one inside the studio to say, “Stop — let’s re-record that part again, or how about turning down the string mix a little?” Van, entirely left to his own ear and taste, simply floods the soundboard until it short-circuits on woodwinds.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 14
“Haunts of Ancient Peace” (1980)
Preamble: “Common One” is a Van Morrison album not so much to be listened to but absorbed into the soul. It’s the music of melancholy. It’s the album I’ve put on dozens of times when doing something around the house, or driving, or writing. These are not party songs. No one will run to the dance floor. These are songs to play in peace, often in solitude. Like a fine scotch, it’s meant to be sipped and savored, nut guzzled down like a keg of beer. Mindful that this series (VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS) isn’t a “Greatest Hits” compilation, today’s selection is one of Van’s more esoteric compositions. I’m eager to share my thoughts with you about this now.
Van was once asked by an interviewer to name his favorite album of his own music. With more than 50 albums from which to choose (not counting foreign releases) it was something of a shocker to hear him cite Common One, a six-song compilation that received scathing reviews from critics and was largely ignored by fans upon its release.
More recently, Common One has garnered a tardy appreciation from many who have given it a redux and may have discovered there was far more to the album that many realized nearly four decades ago.
“Haunts of Ancient Peace,” a 7-minute mood piece punctuated with jazz underpinnings, embodies the spirited wholesomeness of Common One. It’s thoroughly Van distilled down to his creative essence — a wanderlust of vast exploration, intentionally non-commercial, oblivious to judgment. Certainly, Van knew when this song (and album) were released, they’d receive zero radio airplay. The music was destined for instant obscurity. Like so many of Van’s songs released during the 1980s of varying lengths, styles and accompanied by unconventional orchestration, these songs are a rebuke to the pop music culture. Enlightenment and discovery, not song royalties, are the objective.
The unusual song title comes from a 1902 book by Victorian-era Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (1896-1912). Indeed, as Van’s lyrics promise, this is very much “a song of harmony and rhyme in haunts of ancient peace.”
I’ve taken a live performance of this song rather than the studio version (I don’t know the venue nor the year). Van even occasionally performs this song live up to this day. See if you agree this is a song to be absorbed by the soul.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: BONUS ENTRY
Remembering Joe Smith (1928-2019)
Today, we remember the late Joe Smith, who died last week at age 91.
Smith was a music industry giant, with precisely the resume Van Morrison typically loathed. An executive with Warner Bros., then Elektra afterward, and finally the CEO of Capitol-EMI, Smith’s approach was markedly different than virtually all the other music moguls, one reason why Van viewed him as the notable exception to a dirty business that often exploited artists and their music as nothing more than commodities. Smith even came around to share Van’s cynicism about his own industry, years after his early retirement lamenting, “it’s no fun anymore” — an industry run by people who are more business-oriented than those of us who are very music-oriented.”
Smith’s connection to the Northern Irish misanthrope began early in his solo career. Taken from the obituary in The Guardian:
In 1968. Smith pulled off a coup by signing Van Morrison, whose contract at Bang Records had fallen into the hands of the mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. Smith bought out the contract by taking $20,000 in cash to an abandoned Manhattan warehouse. He described Morrison as “a hateful little guy,” though considered that “he’s the best rock’n’roll voice out there.
I love that line, “a hateful little guy.” Brilliant. Note: In a future post, I’ll write more about Van’s contract being controlled by a Boston mobster. That deserves its own chapter.
As noted, Joe Smith was a giant. He also signed The Grateful Dead to the Warner label in 1966, recognizing early on the major force they were to come. Other artists signed by Smith included Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, the Cars, Mötley Crüe, and many others. But Smith’s biggest success and closest personal association with the Eagles.
There are some interesting stories in this article, including a remarkable tidbit about an album release being the bounty of a wager linked to a game of trivia, which I’m linking HERE.