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.