The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 6
Part 6 (Days 36-42) of an ongoing retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison
“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 6
WAIT! IS THAT VAN MORRISON OR MICK JAGGER?
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 36
“Go On Home, Baby” (1965)
Some of Van Morrison’s earliest recordings with the Northern Irish band, Them, are often misidentified as Mick Jagger with the Rolling Stones. It’s easy to understand why listeners — both then and now — would presume the vocals belong to Jagger. However, Van’s voice was always a slight bit raspier. Moreover, Van never went commercial, sold out his music, nor played the fame game like most of the so-called “British Invasion” groups (a misnomer that absolutely incensed members of Them, who were proudly and distinctly Irish!).
Here’s an obscure track that could have been from any recording by Them at the time. It’s from the album titled, The Angry Young Them, which was marketed as a rebel statement and sound, which now seems terribly dated and ultimately failed to connect in the same way other groups such as the ‘Stones and the Animals were able to exploit the bad-boy image.
The album’s only hit single was the iconic “Gloria.” It contained several original Van Morrison compositions, which was still unusual at the time (Bob Dylan and the Beatles largely broke the record company’s stranglehold on bands being their own songwriters and studio players). The album also included Van’s cover of the John Lee Hooker classic “Don’t Look Back,” considered by many to be the standout track. Van’s early love for Hooker’s blues became a lifelong devotion. It would result in Hooker inviting Van into the studio in 1972 to record a duet on what would become Hooker’s most acclaimed album. More to come on that album in a future lesson.
But for today, let’s go back to one of Van’s early recordings, from 1965. The intent here is to notice the similarities in Van’s vocals with Mick Jagger, but also to notice that Van sounds a bit edgier. Perhaps sound engineers tried to intentionally make Van sound rough and mean. Now 55 years later, Van in his mid-70s, is a deep baritone and would have no shot to replicating this vocal range.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 37
“Comfortably Numb” (1990)
Van Morrison rarely performs in gigantic rock extravaganzas, opting for reasons best left for him to explain, to decline every invitation except those connected to various charities in his beloved native Ireland (where he’s done several public appearances). For instance, he opted to skip Live Aid, the “We Are the World” recording session, the Concert for Bangladesh, Woodstock, California Jam in the 70s, and virtually all concerts with a cavalcade of rock stars.
Notable exceptions to Van’s self-imposed segregation from rock stardom were his connections to The Band (and the much-celebrated The Last Waltz concert in 1978) and his appearance at the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1990 for the epic “Live in Berlin” concert (and album) organized and hosted by and headlined by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.
Waters performed The Wall album in an epic setting, witnessed by 350,000 spectators and really, the entire world which was witnessing one of the seminal events of the 20th Century. The Pink Floyd co-frontman invited several musicians to attend. Many were committed to tours elsewhere that summer. However, Van happened to be touring in Germany and took an express to Berlin where he was asked to perform the lead vocals on one of Pink Floyd’s best-known songs.
Van looks like a middle-aged insurance salesman who somehow slipped onto the stage in the middle of the act. He’s about as unappealing as imaginable given the panoply of rock stars who were present. However, Van’s vocals are soaring on this track. It’s rare for a substitute vocalist to generate the same electricity as the original, but Van manages to fill in nicely.
On a far more personal note, while this concert was happening I was living and working in Romania, which had also undergone a revolution, albeit far more violent. During the same week of this Berlin concert, I did a TDY in Frankfurt, West Germany. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t travel to Berlin, instead (which would have been just as easy). Germany that summer was a rocking spectacle, as the Germans won the World Cup played in Italy. The Iron curtain fell and was ended. The West and East would reunite as one nation, soon thereafter. And, Pink Floyd’s music was the perfect soundtrack.
Back then, everything seemed ideal. The worst was behind us — or so we thought.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 38
“These Are the Days” (1989)
These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now
The lyrics and message of “These Are the Days” couldn’t be more clear. Live life for the here and now.
Van Morrison’s words are set to an elegant melody accompanied by guitar, an accordion, a string section, and superb backing vocals. Characteristic of many of Van’s compositions, the song begins softly and builds gradually towards a stirring crescendo.
“These Are the Days” is the final track on Avalon Sunset, which received favorable reviews but a more lackluster reaction from the public. The album sold well in the UK but barely cracked the Top 100 in the US market. Nonetheless, all 12 original tracks stand the test of time well and could just as easily be released today.
Van rehearsed his new songs in two days along with his backing band (which included organist Georgie Fame for the first time) and then went into a London studio and recorded all the tracks in another two days. This is one of several albums essentially crafted in less than a week’s time. However, to its great credit “Avalon Sunset” sounds far more polished than the jazz and blues recordings he typically rushed off the studio assembly line in other projects.
After the recording sessions, guitarist Arty McGlynn remarked about the band’s feelings — “we still don’t know if it’s an album, or maybe a demo for an album.” The answer to that question was abundantly clear: Van was aiming for spontaneity. This was evident on finalized tracks where Van he can be heard barking out chord changes to his bandmates and occasionally mumbling his approval when the sound matches the vision.
Indeed, even inside the recording studio, Van lives and follows his own lyrics:
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 39
“Brand New Day” (1970)
The extraordinary gift of a song can inspire us and change who we are. A song heard in a crisis can become a turning point. There are people who have written and said the paradigmatic melody and lyric of a song can spur hope and even save a life.
“Brand New Day,” an original composition from Van Morrison’s 1970 Moondance album is precisely such a song.
Van has written dozens of catchy tunes stoked with optimism. “Brand New Day” may convey this simple concept the best. Van later admitted he wrote the song during a low point in his career following the commercial failure of Astral Weeks. Van’s recording contract was a disaster, leaving him broke. He spent the winter of 1968-69 living in Boston while playing small gigs in bars and nightclubs throughout New England.
“Brand New Day’ expressed a lot of hope. I was in Boston and having a hard job getting myself up spiritually,” Van recalled. “Then one day this (other) song came on the FM station and it had this particular feeling and this particular groove and it was totally fresh. It seemed to me like things were making sense…..I didn’t know who the hell the artist was. It turned out to be The Band. I looked up at the sky and the sun started to shine and all of a sudden the song just came through my head. I started to write it down, right from (the first lyric), “When all the dark clouds roll away.”
Although 50 years old now, the song remains as fresh and meaningful as ever. Unfortunately, the track was somewhat lost and forgotten amidst the collection of treasures on arguably Van’s most popular album, Moondance, producing no less than six songs which received widespread airplay. Most notably, this included the title track (“Moondance”), Crazy Love (later covered and made into a hit by Ray Charles), and the timeless masterpiece “Into the Mystic.”
There’s not much to the song instrumentally. Its weight stems from lyrics that move the mind and melt the heart. And that’s more than gratifying.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 40
In 1968, Van Morrison departed his native Belfast and spent the next six years living in the United States. Although he toured extensively throughout North America, he didn’t perform live in the U.K. or Ireland during this period. A century after millions of his ancestral countrymen had written their own chapters in the disparate story of the American experience, Van had become an immigrant.
In the middle of 1973, Van divorced his Texas-born wife Janet Planet and returned to Ireland for a much-needed vacation. He’d hoped to stay in Belfast, but the brutal terror of The Troubles made this way too dangerous. So, Van took a sabbatical from recording and touring to focus extensively on songwriting while staying on an estate in the southern part of the Irish Republic.
Three weeks later, he had enough fresh material for a new album, which would soon become Veedon Fleece.
Veedon Fleece is frequently cited as Van’s sequel to Astral Weeks, recorded six years earlier. The same stream of consciousness remains fluid throughout the 12-song collection, rooted in Celtic traditions with a distinctly country-folk twist. It’s a perfect distillation of bi-national sentiment, though Van clearly remains emotionally and spiritually attached to the homeland. The album cover includes a photo of Van sitting in an open field flanked by two Irish wolfhounds.
Many of the titles and lyrics are intentionally vague, open to broad interpretation. For instance, what does “Veedon Fleece” mean? Van later explained it was simply a phrase he made up on the spot, a sort of musical allegory “about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.”
“Bulbs” is one perplexing piece of Veedon Fleece’s expansive puzzle. The song seems rooted in immigration and the unbreakable bonds between the past and future. One verse goes as follows:
She’s leaving Pan American
Suitcase in her hand
I said her brothers and her sisters
Are all on Atlantic sand.
“Bulbs” begins acoustically, then uses various instruments as building blocks until the end when there’s a towering celebration of sound. There may be different ways to interpret Van’s intent, but it remains a prized gift of self-revelation which not only speaks to the composer’s complexities, but our own, as well.
Even “Bulbs,” the enigmatic song title appears to have duel meanings. It’s both the origin of a flower and the first sight one sees when landing at an airport. Note — “blue bulbs” appear in the lyrics referring to the lights on a runway.
Enjoy the journey.
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY
“Rough God Goes Riding” (1997)
For many readers, The Healing Game will be one of many yet undiscovered gems in the vast Van Morrison pantheon of albums and songs. Let this latest installment allow the light of day to shine on this extraordinary collection of original tracks.
The 1997 album begins with “Rough God Goes Riding,” an odd title for the first song on an album constructed around themes of redemption, healing, and undying love. Music critic Greil Marcus even penned a book with a title based on this song. In Marcus’ bold narrative, he wrote:
The deep burr of Morrison’s voice buries the words, which cease to matter; you might not hear them until the tenth time you play the album, or long after that. ‘It’s when that rough god goes riding,’ he sings, drawing the words both from Yeats and down in his chest, and you might never know it’s the Angel of Death that has you in its embrace.
True to form for so much of Van’s music composed during the 80s and 90s (certainly a mellower period in contrast to his combustible early career), a single was released and reached only as high as #168 on the charts. Now, more than two decades later, the song is regarded as one of the best racks on one of Van’s most deeply personal albums. The album was recorded mostly in late 1996 in Dublin, Ireland.
Side Note: The extended (2008) re-issue of this album is astounding, complete with 30 studio recordings (including some notable collaborations), plus another 14 live tracks taken from Van’s 1997 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Four discs and 44 total songs — an amazing output.
This live recording here is simply outstanding, especially if you like watching the interplay between great musicians. Georgie Fame, Brian Kennedy, Pee Wee Ellis are wonderful. The dueling sax solos about two minutes in makes the live recording a killer. Van is in top form here and clearly enjoying himself singing his new song, which at the time of this live concert had not yet been released. In fact, it’s obvious this is the first time Van and the band had performed this song live.
Introduced to the audience by Van as simply “Rough God” (perhaps the rest of the title was added later), the song sounds fresh and vibrant, an ideal kick-off to an outstanding album that will be covered later in some detail in this MasterClass series.
“SIR” VAN MORRISON
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 42
Then and Now: Two Interviews — 50 Years Apart
It’s all about the music. Not fame. Not being a celebrity. It’s always been about just one thing — the music.
Van Morrison is a great songwriter and musician. But he’s a terrible rock star.
Multiple musical aficionados have noted that had Van wanted to be on the perch of Sinatra of Elvis, he could certainly have pulled it off. But superstardom wasn’t ever in the equation. Becoming famous wasn’t an ambition. It was the price.
Accordingly, his interviews tend to awkward, even painful. It seems the last thing Van likes talking about is himself.
Consider these two interviews done nearly 50 years apart. The first shows Van months after leaving the group Them on the way to a solo career. He’s interviewed by a Dutch television station. Burned out on the rock scene at 22, Van calls the music industry “phony.”
“It isn’t real,” he insists.
The next interview shows Van in quite a different setting. He’s being knighted by Prince Charles, thus earning the royal title, “Sir” Van Morrison. Surely, given his long history of refusing accolades, he had to be somewhat reluctant to be honored in this manner. Recall the Van didn’t even show up for his own Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction. In this short interview outside Buckingham Palace Van can’t help but take a shot at celebrity. “I want to get into the music,” Van insists.
The more Van changes musically, the more he stays the same in his devotion to core principles.
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