Intro to Van Morrison: Part 5, 1985-1991

If I was to make a greatest hits collection of Van’s songs from this period and the threshold for a song’s inclusion was “among his very best,” we’d be talking about 50 songs or more. It’s an impossible task. This may be my favorite time period for Van.

I would like to be able to explain why. But I’m not sure I can do it. Maybe it’s the spiritual nature of the songs mixed with a kind of defiance. The mysticism is still there. The pastoral scenes. Nostalgia. Van’s voice reaching into the high heavens. There is a poetic quality to the majority of these songs that outstrips the rest of the time periods. And you can see this pretty clearly in Lit Up Inside.

These albums are Spring afternoons, crisp wine at dusk, sunlight on your face after a long winter, a blinding green field, and the gospel after the dark night of the soul.

I recommend these albums wholeheartedly.

A Sense of Wonder: 1985

sense of wonder

I should get all the negative out of the way first. Though Van is smiling, the album art is terrible. The front is bad and the back is embarrassing. There is a guitar used throughout this album – prominently used in the first track – that reminds me of bad Christian music from the 80’s.

Only when you are honest can you move forward and see the good.

And there is a lot of good and great on Sense of Wonder. As a matter of fact, every song is worthy of your attention. And after I put on my parachute pants and Coca-Cola shirt, even that guitar didn’t bother too much.

In all seriousness, this album has a few classic songs and all the rest are still great songs. “His Master’s Eyes” is worth spending money on the whole thing.

Highlights: Tore Down a la Rimbaud, The Master’s Eye’s, A Sense of Wonder, Let the Slave

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher: 1986

no guru

A definitive album. And by that I mean an album that could be used as a textbook definition for the music of Van Morrison. It may not be his best but you get a great representation of what his music is and can be. Nostalgia for home, music, and the days gone by. The sounds of jazz. The poets. It’s all there.

And while I say it may not be his best album, it is probably up there for some. After all, it does have “In the Garden,” which I often think is his best song. I first listened to this album because of that one. As perfect a song as it is, it is even better in the context of the whole album.

Highlights: Got To Go Back, Foreign Window, In the Garden

Poetic Champions Compose: 1987

poetic

Maybe my favorite album title. And a beautiful album from start to finish.

Starts with a slow jazzy atmospheric instrumental. There is another one of these to start the second side. Poetic Champions Compose has a number of classic hits and that makes it easy to overlook all the other great tracks. I have always thought of this as “No Guru: Volume 2.” The sounds and atmosphere are the same.

Meditative. Contemplative. Literary soul music.

Highlights: Queen of the Slipstream, I Forgot That Love Existed, Did Ya Get Healed?

Irish Heartbeat: 1988

irish

There is not much more to say about this album than it is easily one of my favorite albums ever. Heavy rotation in our household. I love Van. I love the Chieftains. When he sings, “I’m drunk today” in “Carrickfergus”, you can feel the heartbreak all the way down. When I first bought Irish Heartbeat, I listened to “I’ll Tell Me Ma” over and over till I knew every word and could sing along because it’s just so fun.

My wife’s favorite.

Highlights: Every single song deserves your attention.

Avalon Sunset: 1989

avalon

When I first started listening to Van Morrison, I knew only a handful of his tunes. I knew “Brown-Eyed Girl,” obviously. John Cougar Mellencamp had done “Wild Night.” “Domino” could be heard on the radio. “Gloria” was covered by the 77s. But there was one more covered by Phil Keaggy. And it may have been may be part of my discovery story (told in part one) and I had just forgotten.

“When Will I Ever Learn to Live In God” was on Keaggy’s Crimson and Blue, which is still a favorite record of mine. That song just blew me away. It was a song that continually swam around in my mind for a long time. Hard to shake, it was. And so I expected it to be among the highlights on this album. But it’s not. It’s great but there are so many great songs, that one doesn’t even make the cut.

One of my favorite moments on this album is in the spoken word piece, “Coney Island.” When he says “yer face” with that definitive Irish way of adding extra syllables – which is similar to where I live in Alabama – it always makes me smile.

The two most popular songs from Avalon Sunset are “Whenever God Shines His Light” and “Have I Told You Lately.” Honestly, neither is favorite of mine. But this is my chance to point out the “You” is God and not a girl.

Felt good to point that out.

Highlights: Coney Island, Orangefield, Daring Night, These Are the Days

Enlightenment: 1990

enlightenment

My second favorite Van Morrison album and a perfect lead-up to my favorite. What makes this album outstanding apart from the quality of the songs is the violin work. At least what I thought was violin work. There is no violin listed in the liner notes or on the Wikipedia page. Whatever.

There are two things about this album you need to know:

  1. “In the Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll” may take you a few listens to get used to. The spoken word parts by Irish poet, Paul Durcan are…well…a little odd. But once you give it the time it deserves, it’s a musical gift.
  2. Van is not pro-Enlightenment thinking here. Somehow, fans have missed this. It’s as if some have not paid attention to the part where he sings, “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”

This is an amazing album from start to finish. Although, some have called Enlightenment a companion to Avalon Sunset, I disagree. This is more akin to his next offering.

Highlights: Every note.

Hymns to the Silence: 1991

hymns

In part one I explained the significance of Hymns to the Silence. This is without question my favorite Van album. And one of my favorite albums period.

My friend Jay told me Van was in pursuit of beauty and this album was the first to convince me he knew what he was talking about.

I once had the opportunity to buy it on vinyl for $10 in mint condition and I hesitated and then it was gone. Someone else bought it. I can’t even talk about it much more than that because it is still pretty painful. And embarrassing that I hesitated.

Singling out any song would be like choosing a favorite child. I elevate this album and the songs that make it up to the level of literature in my life. I love this album so much, I rarely recommend it because I do not want to hear that someone does not care for it.

I listened to this album throughout an eight day road trip across the country to California. On that road trip, I saw him live in New Orleans. All of those events and the places I saw and the people I met are all wrapped up in these songs, apparently never to be separated.

It’s a double album and we are doubly blessed to have it.

Highlights: What? Do you want me to choose which of my kids I love more?

An Intro to Van Morrison: Part 4, 1977 – 1983

In Part One, I told my story of discovering Van and why this series of posts.

In Part Two, I provided 10 elements of Van’s music that might help you listen.

In Part Three, I looked at the golden age of 1968 – 1974


Some thoughts before we jump into this time period of Van’s work.

First, listening to these albums over and over so I can write about them has been a unique experience. As I sit here and listen to the final notes of “Scandinavia” I think about how good it is to write about something you love and people read it.

Second, when I listen to these albums in order, I hear links and transitions I otherwise might not notice. Period of Transition and Into the Music sound nothing alike. but when you listen to them with Wavelength in the middle, the sounds and changes make far more sense.

Third, my appreciation has grown deeper as I listened with the intention of writing. The great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” This has been the case.

Finally, my appreciation of Van’s body of work has grown. He really is “the man.” And the following albums bear that out just as much as the last.

A Period of Transition: 1977

period

It’s true. I’ve enjoyed some albums on vinyl more than through other mediums. It reminds me of my childhood, it keeps me present, and there is something more human about the physicality of placing the record on the turntable and then placing the needle on the record. It may not always sound better but I always enjoy the experience more. But with A Period of Transition I did not like the album much at all till I heard it on vinyl.

That’s a first.

I usually buy a record on vinyl because I like it. But this was different. I’ve gotten to the point that this album is more than a little enjoyable. Maybe it just took a few more listens. It’s still not a “great album” and is easily the weakest record in his whole catalog as far as I’m concerned. But I now think this collection of songs surpasses the actual cover art. which honestly is not that much a feat.

Highlights: Joyous Sound, Flamingos Fly, Cold Wind in August

Wavelength: 1978

wavelength

It makes sense this album sits between his weakest album and a great album. The second side of this one is really good and the album ends with one of my favorite songs by Van. “Take It Where You Find It” is almost nine minutes of emotionally epic music. There are a few other good songs but none like this on Wavelength. This album is worth having if only for that one song.

Highlights: Kingdom Hall, Sante Fe/Beautiful Obsession, Take It Where You Find It

Into the Music: 1979

vanmorrison-intothemusic(10)

If someone said to me, “Into the Music is my favorite Van album,” my response would be, “That makes total sense.” If someone said to me, “Into the Music is my favorite album ever,” I would also say, “That makes total sense.”

Into the Music is a perfect album of what could be called Celtic Pop Soul Music. It has a lightness and depth and height that you long for in every Van offering.  I love every song on this album. Every. Single. One.

If you go read reviews of the album when it was released, the praise is nearly universal. It is described as an album of hope, grace, and pure beauty. Rolling Stone’s Album Guide gives it five stars. And the original review in RS said, “There’s much beauty on this LP, but very little that’s simply pretty.” I think that’s right.

Into the Music is a testimony to how wonderful Van’s catalog is. I’ve never even considered it my favorite. And yet, it is so wonderful. I know of no recording artist’s greatest hits collection that is better than this album. I gave up on trying to list the highlights.

Highlights: Every dadgum moment.

Common One: 1980

common one

One of the rules of Biblical Interpretation I teach my 10th graders is the need to read the Bible “existentially.” This means, you need to crawl into the skin of the characters and try to understand what they would have felt and thought. So I wonder how people felt when they went to buy this album and saw that it only has six tracks. Could they tell that two of them were just over 15 minutes? Did they know they were picking up an album that was so totally different from the one before?

Funny story. About 10 years ago I was on amazon music and looking at this one. I’m not sure how it happened but it alluva sudden started downloading and said, “Thank you for your purchase.”

What?

I emailed amazon and they refunded me and told me to just enjoy the album.

And I did. And I have now for 10 years. I actually don’t listen to this album a lot. Not because of the quality of the album, because Common One is a fantastic album. But it is one of those pieces of music that requires a certain context. I don’t say “piece of music” lightly. There is a cohesive symphonic feel throughout. It sounds like what I would imagine the countryside of the Britain and Ireland to look like. Beautiful and transcendent. Also, you really need to listen to the whole thing in one sitting.

I used to get mad about the inclusion of the song “Satisfied.” It is so different from all the other songs. It does not “fit.” But this past week I was listening to the album and I was struck how it acted as an emotional reprieve. “Summertime In England” will lay you out and take you to heights unknown if you are not careful. I needed a chance to take a breath while on the emotionally roller coaster that is Common One.

Common One feels like it dropped through the roof of the sky as gift from above. And never has the music and the album fit so well. Also on this album, we get our reference to “Avalon.”

Highlights: Haunts of Ancient Peace, Summertime in England, When Heart Is Open

Beautiful Vision: 1982

bv

Those who know me, will not be surprised I have had more than one memorable moment listening to Van in a library. As a pastor, writer, teacher, and a lover of books, I have spent a lot of time in libraries. I was pastor of a small church in Birmingham when I first sat down and listened to this one about a decade ago. I was sitting in front of a huge window in my favorite chair.

No really, it is still my favorite chair.

I put in my headphones and started from the beginning and man, I was transported. That was one emotional experience. So many moving melodies and Van’s singing is just perfect. After searching for the right word to describe Beautiful Vision, I kept coming back to “measured.” But that’s not quite right. It’s just this steady stream of beautiful word pictures, and each song is in good proportion to the other.

This album has the distinction of including “Vanlose Stairway,” which is probably a top five van song for me. (I may have eight to ten top five songs.)

I’m not sure Van has more aptly titled any of his albums. Don’t let the cover art fool you.

Highlights: Celtic Ray, Dweller On the Threshold, Beautiful Vision, Cleaning Windows, Vanlose Stairway

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart: 1983

inart

If you looked at the cover of this album and surmised there would be a lot of synthesizer on this album, you would be correct. This one was released in 1983, you know. But don’t let that scare you away. Now that you know this fact, it might not be so off-putting. It’s true, most of these songs would be so much better if they did not contain the synthesizer. And we know this because we have live versions of some of these songs and they are something else entirely

In all seriousness, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart has some great songs. What distinguishes this album for all the others is the inclusion of four instrumentals. There is also a decidedly very Celtic sound throughout this album, foreshadowing things to come.

Highlights: Celtic Swing, Rave On, John Donne, Irish Heartbeat

An Introduction to Van Morrison: Part 3 1968 – 1974

 

van-morrison-edcaraeffgettyimages

Now we get to the main event.

In part one, I explained why I was doing this and little history of my love for Van.

In part two, I listed ten things that you may or may not need to keep in mind while listening to Van Morrison

This week, I cover what most Van Morrison fans consider the golden age. This stretch of albums would be enough to enshrine him among the greats. Seven brilliant records over a six year period. Every single one belongs in your collection. Buy them on vinyl and CD and cassette and 8-track. Okay, maybe just vinyl.

It is possible that someone will go look at a list of Van albums and wonder why I have not included Blowin’ Your Mind. the reason is that Van does not consider that to be a true album. It was released without his consent. So, in deference to him, I do not include it.

(However, it is great and includes a little known hit “Brown-Eyed Girl.” You may have heard of it.)

*Astral Weeks: 1968*

 

astral

Whenever someone talks about Van Morrison, this albums comes up in the conversation. It is inescapable and is the audible specter haunting every other album he has released. I recently read an ebook of the author’s 20 favorite Van Morrison albums. Even though he did not choose Astral Weeks as his number one, he compared every other album to Astral Weeks. While AW was not that huge of a hit initially, it eventually became the defining album of his career. This is not to suggest, everything after is a let down. You just need to know this is the landscape of Van’s discography.

It is a beautiful record, regardless of where it lands in the lists. Back when I was a Seminary student, I once fell asleep in the library while listening to those songs and awoke with what I could only call wonder…a beauty I could not grasp wholly. The first few notes of Astral Weeks may be the most beautiful intro of any album I know.

Highlights: You have to listen to the whole thing straight through.

*Moondance: 1970*

 

moon

The first album I bought after The Best of Van Morrison was Moondance. For months this was the only thing I listened to. And this is the album I always recommend for anyone to start with. If you don’t like this one, you need to just move on. There are songs so good on this album, most other artists’ high water marks look paltry as they sit next to these that are Himalyan in size and scope. You can hear the jazz Van loves so well but this is a very melodic album full of perfect pop songs.

Highlights: And it Stoned Me, Moondance, Into the Mystic, Crazy Love, Caravan

*His Band and Street Choir: 1970*

 

band2

My friend, Jon gave me this album for my birthday about 15 years ago. I can remember listening all the way through for the first time while sitting out on my front porch in Augusta, Georgia. I love this album but no listen has ever compared to that first one. I keep trying to recapture that first listen, and I catch the edge every now and then, but alas, it escapes me.

Highlights: Domino, Virgo Clowns, If I Ever Needed Someone, Street Choir

*Tupelo Honey: 1971*

 

tupelo

I just put this on the turntable. Every time I hear this album I am taken back to Bethany and I’s first year of marriage. We listened to this album over and over and over. It’s her favorite, I believe. There are so many beautiful, wistful moments on this album. It’s basically a country americana record with some celtic soul thrown in for good measure. Among his finest. And the title track is in the running for his best song ever. As a matter of fact there may not be many songs better than “Tupelo Honey.”

Highlights: Wild Night, Tupelo Honey, and Moonshine Whiskey

*St. Dominic’s Preview: 1972*

 

St.-Dominics-Preview-by-Van-Morrison

I must have had half a day off during the week. Which would have meant working on Saturday morning at the bank.

This was a hard time. The bank was a hard cold place. Calculating and cruel in it’s lack of basic concern for those who it daily came into contact with, I felt totally at odds with its philosophy, its methods, and its unstated goals. I was always looking for something to lift me out of the mire. Out of the muddy pit.

On that half day, I drove down to an antique store where I remembered seeing records for sale. I was looking for something in particular, but ended up walking away with this one. This record stayed on the turntable for at least a month. Till I knew every word. I downloaded the album from iTunes so I could listen on the way to work and on the way home. There is not one bad track on this album and is sometimes my favorite of his. This is a warm blanket of an album. It’s hospitable but once you get in, you are taken to high and deep places you never knew you could go on an album.

Highlights: Title track, Listen to the Lion, Redwood Tree, Independence Day

*Hard Nose the Highway: 1973*

 

hard nose

This is not a bad album. This is actually a really good album. Maybe, even great. Here is why I say “maybe.” The other day I was listening to the first side (vinyl) and it genuinely moved me. It is one of the best sides of a record I have ever heard. Flawless. Intense. Beautiful. Moving. But then there is the second side…which is good. But nothing like the first. It may be a great album because of that first side, though.

However, it is not known for being a “great album.” Hard Nose suffers from sitting between two albums generally known as masterpieces. It may also suffer because Van covers, “Bein’ Green.” Yes, that is the Kermit the Frog song. And it is glorious. I think people think it’s weird, though.

Highlights: The whole dadgum first side, Bein’ Green

*Veedon Fleece: 1974*

 

veedon fleece

If you are the kind of person who needs to understand the lyrics and does not enjoy layers of veiled meaning, this may not be the record for you. However, if you can look (listen?) past such phenomena, then you need to give this album a shot.

There are many who call this one of if not his best work. It is certainly the only other album that recalls Astral Weeks. But it is decidedly not Astral Weeks, Part Two. There are two songs on this album that seem to always be swirling around in my head. “Bulbs” and “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” are possibly the two greatest songs which I do not understand at all.

Highlights: Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Streets of Arklow, Bulbs

Twenty Years, Twenty Moments

wedding day

1. We are sitting on a bench. A stone bench. But it’s the kind of moment you would not even notice how uncomfortable the bench is. Only the moon provides light reflecting on the water of the lake – the lake which now sits at the bottom of the mountain we live on. We are looking into the water. There is a lot of talk about “what we are.” I think I lied through my teeth. Anything to keep close. I picture my arm around her but that would be a stupid risk. And while I may be stupid enough to think I could keep this up, I am not so stupid to take any chances at this point. Also I’m not entirely sure she is all that glad to be with me.

2. Spring’s darkness is a distinct part of the memory. I remember standing out in front of O’Henry’s Coffee. We’d been inside earlier with some friends. We had not been on a date in over a month. She is standing there in the night under the lights of 18th Avenue. We are shuffling our feet behind her red car, a Mazda. I lean against it. Her arms are folded. She is not entirely happy with me. Not entirely mad. And in a moment of insanity, I think about how she is the kind of girl I want to marry. Not love, but close.

3. I’m in my roommate’s bedroom. I’ve no idea why. He’s not there and I’m lying on the floor next to a dusty ficus tree. But I’m on the phone begging her for one more date. This is no exaggeration. She was afraid. I finally had to tell her she can tell me ‘no’ but I will call her back tomorrow and ask again. It sounds pretty annoying. It was. But it worked.

4. Night sky again. The sky looms large. Bethany looks magical. The Shakespeare Festival’s lights cascade across the well-manicured grounds. We walk with hands worked together as natural as breathing. Other couples take advantage of the near silence and paradisal scenery. Carefully sculpted hedges. Reflecting pools. The noise of the theatre whispers in the background. Forever seems close. And If I close my eyes, the scene is before me.

5. It’s funny. She is moving into a new apartment. I’m helping. If I’m lifting anything heavy, it is only to impress. And I’m not sure where the idea came from. Curiosity? Calculation? Hope? The kind of hope that crowds out all rational thought making it impossible to make good decisions. “How long is your lease?” While I thought I was being inconspicuous, she knew exactly why I wanted to know. But I remember us going to Johnny Ray’s BBQ afterwards and I was happy with her answer.

6. We have not spoken in three days. And the recollection of hearing how she did not want to be the wife of a pastor is ongoing. She is standing in front of me sad. Tearful but lovely. After not seeing her for more than a day, she looked altogether painfully stunning. We argued outside the church. She was going in to the worship service and I was leaving. We left together and I started scheming for forever that day.

7. Back at the lake again with stars above and laid out on the surface of the water. She knew I was looking for a ring already. So I had to be as sly as possible. Disheveled and unshaven,  it was a bid to quell any expectations. I sat next to her on the bench. Firm seat and steely resolve. I told her we could not afford to get engaged and start planning a wedding. Then I proceeded to get down on one knee. The rocky, root-strewn ground sloped into the water. Diamond out and held up to the moonlight, her voice glides across the water, “We’re engaged!” Anonymous congratulations resound from shadows on the other side.

8. She did not want me to see her before the ceremony. She moves into the room – 500 standing in honor of the beauty before them. Most see her innumerable moments before I do. Anxiously I wait, peeking around the crowd. Words simply are not nearly enough. It was the emotion of every great myth, the birth of every legendary act, and the very pushing back of the Fall itself.

9. Halloween night at a retreat center in rural Alabama. The night air is cool – on the verge of cold. Sitting with our feet propped up on a fence, we had met only hours earlier. We’re getting to know each other – both facing into the Alabama sky over the tops of pine trees up into the vast expanse full of pinpricks, the very guides of sailors into adventure, time out of mind.

10. Twenty-four hours later – the wedding is over – we are sitting in a Ruby Tuesday’s in Williamsburg, VA. Little did I know that every bite of every meal is wondrous on a honeymoon. I remember sitting there in a corner of the restaurant looking at her and thinking, “Here we are. We’re married.” I might have said something out loud. It was a more real moment than any previous. Hipster opinions be damned – I cannot pass a Ruby Tuesday’s without remembering that moment. Thankfully, they are everywhere.

11. After a church softball game we are at a Mexican restaurant on Green Springs Ave. The name escapes me. We are sitting there in love. Happy to the hilt. You know the happiness. Playful. Laughing and smiling at everything. Every moment is an opportunity to celebrate. It has a rhythm to it. Two souls full of the joy of all that is in the moment, this moment. No wonder Edmund Dantès was so full of revenge. You cannot even imagine any other ‘courting’ couple could feel this way.

12. My face hurts from smiling so much. We are standing in the receiving line. The glorious echo of ‘congratulations!” heard under the stars six months earlier is being repeated again and again and again. Hundreds upon hundreds of reverberations of that moment pushing against the walls of space and time. That echo from friends and family stretching across every season of life. Some echoes from voices not heard but in another life. And we stand there fixed in the movement of heavens. We stand there dressed in the “already and not yet” of which theologians across the centuries have written volumes.

13. I think I can remember “the first time ever I saw” her face. It was in the Sunday School room and she stood in the back. It is possible I was teaching that morning. Or helping with announcements. Anyway, I was in the front of the room, she was in the back. And I remember being struck by her face. After meeting her for the first time, my mom talked about her striking features. That room where I saw her for the first time was later my son’s Sunday School room.

14. One of my favorite memories of her is captured in a picture and so the memory has stayed with me well. We are in Estes Park, Colorado and hiking. She is ahead of me on the trail. Her hair is in a ponytail. She is wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and hiking shorts and standing by a mountain stream and the Rockies are rising up behind her in honor. She is squinting and smiling and I can remember the joy of being there and sharing every moment. The smell of the campfire. The wonder of the scenic views. The laughter at all the Elk around our tent in the morning.

15. The day I bought her ring was Friday. I look back and think how she should’ve seen it first. But I showed it to everyone at my office and felt like I was spreading joy among those people I spent so much time with during the week. When my kids get excited about something like Christmas, they cannot contain their excitement. It’s like they’ll explode with joy and anticipation. That is how I felt all day on Friday. Except on Christmas, you cannot wait to *get* something as a kid. I was dying to give that ring to her.

16. I’d been living in that Brook Highland apartment for a few months. But the night before was her first night in the apartment because it was the day we got home from the honeymoon. It was Monday. I was anxious to get home for the first time because she was there. In our home. Our home. There is nothing like coming home and your spouse is there and you are thinking about dinner for the first time and talking about the day after that first ordinary day of work.

17. We stood in the kitchen and hugged. I may have just gotten home from work. The sounds of the kids were all around us. I started to let go and she said, “No, not enough.” And so I didn’t let go. And she’s right, you know.

18. We are sitting on a beach. Both of us are watching the water meet the horizon. Something about the sea air, the light of dusk, and the waning sun causes us to look at each other and smile. We’ve been here a dozen times. We know this place and maybe it knows a little about us. The kids are playing nearby in the sand. Some others are playing in the water. Another family is having pictures made, trying to capture something only cameras wish for. Our bellies are full of seafood. Our hearts are full, too.

19. It’s snowing. Our chairs in the living room are turned so we can look out onto our white front yard, which has never looked so beautiful. A Christmas tree sits between us. We are drinking coffee and watching the biggest snow flakes we’ve ever seen fall from an Alabama sky. John Coltrane plays in the background and the snow just keeps coming defying all predictions and expectations just like lovers do in all those great stories that’ve always been told.

20. It’s my birthday. We are in downtown Franklin, TN and our kids are back in Birmingham. We just ate a staggeringly good meal and we are walking back to the car past all the shops. We did not know there was an arts and crafts fair going on. At one of the booths I buy the coffee mug I am drinking from at this very moment. Such a surprise only adds to a perfect fall scene. The tress are turning. The air is finally cool after the stretch of a southern summer. We happen upon a candy store and throw some financial caution to the wind and purchase homemade chocolate. The air is now even cooler and we talk about how perfect this night with no plans and nowhere to be has been…one of those nights that reminds you of all the joy you have yet to experience.

An Introduction to Van Morrison: Part 2

vanmorrison_young

My last post was all about why I am doing an introduction to Van Morrison and I also provided some of my own history with Van.

In this post I want to discuss elements of Van and his music that may (or may not) be helpful in listening to his music for the first time or the thousandth. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need a guide to appreciate Van Morrison anymore than you need an expert to stand in awe of a Van Gogh. But these ten elements are always with me as I listen.

1. There is no one like Van. I am not saying he is the best. That argument could be made but I am not making it. I am simply saying he cannot be compared to anyone else. There is no artist like him. No one melds so many diverse kinds of music like he does.  I am always comparing artists, especially when recommending artists to other people. But when talking about Van, there is just no one to compare him to. Not even Dylan. Or Springsteen, who wanted to be Van in the early days. What Van does is singular. He is in a class by himself. I point this out because as soon as you try to categorize, you will become frustrated.

2. Van sees himself as a working musician. He has no desire for celebrity or fame. He has no desire to expose his personal life to public scrutiny. He wants to play his music with his friends and then be done. Of course, this is very hard when you are considered one of the most celebrated singers and songwriters in the world, so it causes much consternation. And he has been cataloging his frustrations with fame for decades now through songs like “Fame” and “Just Like Greta.” He seems to have loosened over the past few years, but even now he for the most part wants to just be left alone.

3. He loves to name-check the greats. Van loves to not only sing songs by his favorite artists, he also writes songs about them. He name-checks them all the time. There aren’t many albums in which this does not happen. As a matter of fact, I discovered Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and John Lee Hooker by listening to Van’s records. And when Van sings about the artists he loves, I love it every single time.

4. Van’s voice is an instrument. This is one of the defining characteristics of his music separating him from pretty much everyone else. It’s not just that he has a great voice, his use of his voice is different. Much like an instrument, he twists and twirls it, and entwines it around notes and words, playing with each. He will add syllables hitherto unknown, putting us southerners to shame. Sometimes I don’t get it. But more often than not it is transcendent.

5. Van can blow. And he can play guitar. But I can almost always tell when he is the saxophonist on a song. His tone is warm and rarely shrill. He is above average and that matters because of all the Jazz, Blues, and R&B music he tackles. More than anyone, his playing reminds me of Stan Getz. He can play almost any instrument, but when he plays the saxophone, something special jumps out of the speakers.

6. He likes to play it loose. Van is famous for not wanting to go through a lot of takes to get a song right. And he is known for playing live and in the studio with guys who he has not practiced with. He basically will play a song and expect the band members to “join in or get out of the way.” He is far more interested in the feel of a song than in the technical precision. I think this is what is so attractive about his music. There is a raw sincerity in the execution of the songs.

7. Van loves poetry and is a poet. I did not know this when I started listening. But it soon became clear. Most of what he has written over the years can lie on the page without the music to make it “sing.” And to prove it, back in 2014, he released a  beautiful book of selected lyrics called Lit Up Inside. And he loves poetry. He sings about poets and poetry, which sounded like grace to a young man who also loved poetry and felt alone in that affection. He name-checks poets all the time. One of my favorite tracks ever done by van is “On Hyndford Street.” It’s a poem, spoken by Van, with an organ in the background humming along like evening fog. And then some slight guitar. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. This made it easy for me to dive deep into his work.

8. Van will redo a song. And it will be one of his own songs. And it will most likely sound nothing like the original. Because we tend to fall in love in with the version of a song we first heard, this can be frustrating. But this is very Van. Try listening to Astral Weeks and then go listen to him preforming that whole album live at The Hollywood Bowl. Not only are the songs in a different order but most sound so different to the point of being almost unrecognizable. You need to be prepared for this when you find a live version of “Brown-Eyed Girl.”

9. He can get spiritual. Van seems to have always had a mystical side to him. What is unseen always seems to be right around the corner or above the clouds in his lyrics. Whether he is singing about the failures of “Enlightenment” or Celtic spirituality, it’s always there. He is never shy about this. In other words, what you can see is not all there is for Van. He seems to have gone through a short Christian phase at one time, which shows in songs like “Whenever God Shines His Light” and “Full Force Gale.” On my favorite Van album, he covers “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Be Thou My Vision.” God is always part of the equation with Van.

10. Van likes to reminisce. With songs like “Take Me Back” and “Got to Go Back,” it should be no surprise he enjoys looking back on what life was like back “In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I cannot think of one album that does not do this. He looks back on the music of those days, the way life was, where he lived, and the people he encountered. I cannot overstate how powerful this often is. His bucolic reflections of growing up in post WWII Belfast are usually so beautiful to the point of heartbreaking and breathtaking. He paints these incredible pictures of spaces he has inhabited and through some kind of sorcery taking you to the places he is describing so well, you can smell the trees and the hear the water rushing and feel the cool wind blow. These moments are not charming. They are transcendent.

In part three I will begin recommending albums. It will not be a top ten or anything of the sort. My plan is to break them down into seasons of his life and work. That first season will be from 1968 – 1974 and it is a remarkable one.