Ian Worpole ruminates on why Van is still The Man.
So I get this press release along with the new CD, Pay the Devil, and it says “For 40 years Van Morrison has continued to be an important and vibrant artist,” and I’m like, yeah, I guess he has, they sure got that right, and then I’m like, is that the best they can come up with? So herewith, my own totally subjective, totally unauthorized personal press release, and if it takes up the whole of my column space this month, well, so be it. Here goes: George Ivan Morrison, born Belfast 1945: Singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist. First rose to prominence as lead singer of the Northern Irish rock band Them. Ah yes, I remember it like yesterday. It’s 1966 and I’m 16 years old, glued to a grainy black and white TV. It’s a live concert. Them is playing “Here Comes the Night,” and somehow the band has gotten ahead of Van. They’re on the B part and he’s still singing the A part, and there it is — that look, that sneer, that sheer disdain as Van-not-yet-the-Man tosses his shoulder-length locks and glares at his hapless mates. Fast forward eight or nine years, I’m at Art College, Newcastle-on-Tyne, the north of England. Word gets out that Van and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra is playing the City Hall. The hero is returning from America, the world conquered. Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic’s Preview, albums of such incandescent brilliance we can’t believe that if we lay down enough money we can see Van-now-the-Man in the flesh. And we do, and there he is. The locks are gone, he’s even starting to recede a bit, there’s a hint of a beer gut, bad taste in clothes, but, that voice! The string section, the horn section, the songs, the audience is in heaven.
Too Late to Stop Now was the double album that came out of that tour, and to this day remains the live album to try and live up to. “Here Comes the Night” is now a complex string quartet driven near classical work; “Gloria” as an encore has us dancing in the aisles. It is a trajectory so perfect it takes years for me to learn and comprehend the dark side that came with it: The Bang record label years where he was paid a pittance and driven to distraction. I learn that the reason he never performs the song loved by AM stations around the world, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” is quite simply because apart from the few cents agreed to in the contract, he’s never made another nickel from one of rock’s classic songs. That little gold mine is being passed along to everyone but him. As early as 1967 Van was allegedly broke, depressed and hitting the bottle. By some miracle he gets taken on by Warner Bros. and pulls together what is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time, Astral Weeks (1968). A jazz-folk-rock operatic song cycle with jazz legends Richard Davis on bass and Connie Kay on drums, Astral Weeks was recorded in two days flat in a New York studio. It was my yardstick to measure all relationships by – if you didn’t dig Astral Weeks there was no hope. Then more great stuff; he’s living in California now, the early golden years leading up to that 1974 tour. Never mind the rumors of falling off his chair, off the stage, so drunk he couldn’t play (or was it simply stagefright?) Never mind the first hints of paranoia in “The Great Deception,” a tuneless rant that mars the otherwise impeccable Hard Nose the Highway (1973). Never mind anything, at this point I move to the U.S. myself to join in the fun. One day in Illinois I’m reading the local paper, someone is reviewing Veedon Fleece and they hate it, can’t understand one bit of it, but they are so wrong, so, well, stupid. It is, in fact, a brooding masterpiece that includes a short song “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” so perfect in construction, lyricism and melody that it should be right up there with Chuck Berry on that spaceship Voyager, heading into the great unknown.*
So, there’s the first ten years; only thirty more to go, bear with me, some of you think all he did was that thing with the Chieftains, right? A drop in the ocean, that one. From his earliest days, Van Morrison has declared his overwhelming influences to be the blues, jazz, skiffle, r’n’b, soul, gospel – nary a mention of actual Irish music, traditional or otherwise. Roddy Doyle’s book and film The Commitments addresses the same concept – a bunch of white Irish kids who yearn to be black and sing “Mustang Sally” with Wilson Pickett. In the rare interviews that get past the monosyllabic grunt or allow the interviewer to live to tell the tale, Van will list the heroes that inform his music, the likes of John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and Louis Armstrong. The last concert Ray Charles played before his death was with Van; many of his surviving heroes now clamor to play with him. And in the last thirty years there have been some serious ups and downs, often within the same album. Into the Music (1979) starts out gangbusters and slowly fizzles; as the eighties rolled around, more spiritual and literary themes took hold: Beautiful Vision (1982), Poetic Champions Compose (1987), and others contain utter gems. Then there’s the New Age period and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983) with its languid instrumentals, fortunately bucking up with A Sense of Wonder (1985) and Avalon Sunset (1989). The downside from here on in is the aforementioned paranoia, the lyrics about being ripped off, copied, idolized, despised, overanalyzed and misunderstood. When I moved to Woodstock in the late eighties I met people who had worked with the man or fed him drinks. Few have kind words to say about him, but most are prepared to forgive him, for the music. Van himself is quoted as saying, “I never said I was a nice guy, okay?” But while scrolling through some interviews online I came across a nugget that struck me deeply. A 1996 interview in the Guardian newspaper details hanging out with Van in New Orleans. He’s there for a jazz/blues festival, it’s hot and steamy, the crowds start to press in, Van has a panic attack and literally flees to his hotel room. There he proceeds to settle down and watch his Fawlty Towers video collection! “He’s watching the one about the German visitors – don’t mention the War! and the one about the rat. Van’s laughing fit to burst, and he’s happier than a pig in shite.” Jaysus, how can you not love this grumpy old gnome? And I realize that he’s the type of creature that reflects our own moods, desires, perceptions – his contradictions become ours, and we happily let him become our whipping boy. How nice a guy would you be if you’d written “Brown-Eyed-Girl” and handed it to the Company Store? So the years roll by; the classic Hymns to the Silence (1991), oh yes, Irish Heartbeat, that one that got the Chieftains back on track but a throwaway effort all in all, although Van does credit John McCormack as an influence by this point. He plays with Dylan, they become good friends; he saves the Band’s farewell concert “The Last Waltz” with a barn-storming “Caravan” high-kicking across the stage; he starts dating Miss Ireland and comes up with “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?” a saccharine confection parlayed into a mega-hit by Rod Stewart. When a temporary separation with Miss Ireland comes about, someone is heard to remark, Thank God, maybe he’ll get back to writing something real again. The albums keep coming, we’re getting close to the present, with the almost flawless What’s Wrong With This Picture? (Bluenote label, 2003). Okay, flawless qualified by the understanding that half his lyrics by this point are about being ripped off, but when they’re set to a calypso beat, who can argue? The best of the rest are about his unending search for peace of mind, which he admits he will never find – again, how can you not love this man? And so to his 35th album, not counting compilations and bootlegs. Pay the Devil (2006) is a collection of Country and Western covers such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Back Street Affair” and three originals that fit right in. Ever since he pulled off “I Can’t Stop Loving You” on Hymns to the Silence, this album has seemed inevitable, and it’s all a brilliant tour de force of vocals, arranging and musicianship. But I can’t help but get the feeling it’s just one more or lesser step on a wildly unpredictable, erratic, exasperating but glorious career. Along with pal Bob Dylan and the sublime Neil Young, Van the Man is one of the few greats from the 1960s who can still knock your socks off, and please, Van, it’s too late to stop now.