A few weeks ago, my teaching colleague and good friend, David Tew, asked me where to begin with the music of Van Morrison. He was familiar with the music but knew I had gone deeper. A few days later, I dreamed about Van. While this is not all that unusual, it was followed by an announcement of Morrison’s sixth studio album, Veedon Fleece, being re-released on vinyl.
All this got me thinking about how vast and varied and off-the-beaten-path, most of Van’s albums are. When I say “vast” I mean it. He has released 40 studio albums and half a dozen live albums. And they are varied. He has recorded blues, folk, jazz, Celtic, pop, singer-songwriter, and classic country albums. And here’s the thing, while most people know songs like “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Wild Night,” and “Domino,” that’s it. Everything else is basically unknown unless you are an actual Van Morrison fan. And even those who own a copy of Astral Weeks or Moondance know very little else.
Where do you start when there are over 50 albums to choose from?
So I thought it would be fun to write a few posts in response to my friend’s question. But instead of making a top ten list, I thought it would be more enjoyable to look at the various stages of Van’s career and discuss my favorite albums from each period. And then I thought it would be good to discuss the live albums. Because every.single.one of those live albums is transcendent.
Writing about Van is intimidating. There’s no way around it. Each word has felt like a shadow of the real thing. Like chasing chimeras. You never feel as if you have pulled off anything close to getting at the reality of what you are dealing with. But every writer will tell you about the need to write about those subjects which rivet their attention their most. And my attention has been fixed pretty consistently on Van for nearly 25 years.
Back in 1995, I worked at a BBQ restaurant while I was a student at Auburn University. That was one of the best jobs I ever had. A bunch of guys working at a BBQ pit, hanging out all day talking about theology, music, and girls, while eating all the free BBQ pork, chicken, and turkey we wanted. One of those guys was Jay. And I had never, and still have never met anyone like him. A self-proclaimed redneck who could play the guitar better than anyone I knew (even now) and he majored in Russian Lit. We would go round and round about theology and politics and just about any subject you could think of. To this day I wonder how we never came to blows. But I was always a little in awe of him.
In the back of the restaurant was this shelf where we would leave personal articles, etc. and one day I saw a double cassette album by Van Morrison. I asked, “Whose is this?” Jay – even though the album was not his – then proceeded to wax eloquent about what an incredible album it was. I’ll never forget him holding up the album in my face like some kind of evangelist holding the Bible and saying it was full of beauty and how Van wrote and sang and played as if he was on a quest for beauty.
I was confused by such talk. A quest for beauty? Keep in mind Jay was studying Russian Lit in earnest. He is the reason I read The Brothers Karamazov the first time. No doubt he had already imbibed Dostoyevsky’s statement that, “Beauty will save the world.” My redneck coworker was far ahead of me. He already saw beauty as trans-formative and something worth pursuing.
Fast forward a few months. I had moved back home to Birmingham because I was tired of racking up college-level debt. I wasn’t exactly directionless but I was only working and not taking any classes, living at home, and thinking about going overseas as a missionary. I was dating a girl and the relationship was rocky.
It was Saturday and my parents were out of town and so was the girl I was dating. I had nothing to do and was bored and lonely and frustrated with the girl. After an afternoon nap, I got up and drove myself to the mall and was looking through the CDs at Camelot.
More than once since that conversation with Jay I had paused when I saw The Best of Van Morrison in the CD bin. The foreign thought of “a quest for beauty” swam in my head. This time I didn’t pause, I picked it right up and purchased it without hesitation.
I only recognized three songs listed. It was always a risk in those days. There was no way to listen to an album before you bought it. But that was part of thrill. Sometimes you got burned. But you always gave the album a fighting chance even if after the first listen, you were disappointed. This was not one of those times.
When I got home I put the CD in my stereo, laid on the floor and listened to it straight through. Then I listened to it again. And again. And then I got in my car and drove around town for hours with those songs pushing the limits of my Honda’s speakers. I knew I had something.
And I could just touch the edge of that quest for beauty.
Then I proceeded to buy every van album I could afford. And each one I bought took me further away from my own environs on into pastoral lands full of beauty. It was like discovering buried treasure. A new land.
A few months later, I saw him live at Jazz Fest in New Orleans (May 4th, 1996). After that show I drove across the country and back, listening to him under star-studded New Mexico night skies and all alone through the barren plains of Texas. I’ve been listening to him now for almost a quarter of a century, encountering beauty all along the way.
My next post will cover a few “essential” elements you need to know about Van and his music. Don’t get me wrong, you can dive right in. But I think knowing these ten elements will help in your listening.
(Part three is here)