Van Morrison Favorites
A coupla years I wrote a guide to Van Morrison’s solo album (aka no Them) here, and might leave it there but the other day somebody said to me “it’s like living in dreamland,” she was being negative and my jukebox brain went immediately to “Call Me Up In Dreamland” and I started wanting to write about Van The Man again.
Putting together the songs that remain my faves I decided not to bother with the three earliest masterpieces, The Bang Collection, Astral Weeks, and Moondance (though I did sneak in a live version of “Caravan,”). The songs I chose date from the early 1970s and the most recent from 2008. As a pop fan, I prefer Van at his most tuneful and there is not much blues here. Van’s 1990s were better than his 00s or 10s, but all three decades find a working man in his prime and few of them made the grade here. I wanted to include either the title track or “(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” but Tupelo Honey isn’t available (I don’t get it either but the search did find a lovely cover of “Tupelo Honey” by one Dusty Springfield). The one song I dropped at the last second was “Summertime In England”.
Call Me Up in Dreamland – This is the one that got me started, it is a pop soul miasma with horns aplenty, girl choir, and a perfect rock star configuration with Van on the road, tired, detailing his days, and finding his future in the music, and what saves him is what he is doing it for, what is getting him off: the music. That’s what matters and, before his born again period, the everlasting eternal… on the saxophone. The chorus is so addictive, it feels good to sing, it makes you happy in a dream of a form of immortality.
Wonderful Remark – Philosopher’s Stone Version – Martin Scorses’ “The King Of Conedy” was a sublime take down of the shallowness of light entertainment, the mindless muddle which exists till this day (or late night) and personified by the towering presence of Midwestern charmer Johnny Carson -a man with at least two distinct personalities. Jerry Lewis portrayed the Carson stand in, Robert De Niro the comedian wannabe who kidnaps Jerry… put it this way, it was “The Joker” movie without the super villain. There are two versions of the song, the one that runs over the closing credits, a sad, slow, melodic bummer about the waste of minds inherent in television consumption (we live in a country where the average literacy level is that of a thirteen year old -and you wonder why people respond to Trump: they are stupid), the version on Van’s rarity masterpiece Philosopher’s Stone is better, though I am not sure the backing vocals are necessary, the flute lifts it up and there is a hymnal attitude, as though the Late Night host is bringing us to prayer that are more important than the questions Van himself raises.
I Believe to My Soul – Live – From one of the greatest live albums of all time (certainly Van’s best) It’s Too Late To Stop Now, the Ray Charles blues dynamic all underlined emoting with again an off center religiosity, believe in God? Believe in your soul? And how does that make it to romance or love? The original dates from 1961 and is a soul blueprint. Van was covering his own stuff, some celtic pop, some rock, some blues, some soul, and also covering Ray (and Sam Cooke). The original can’t be improved on but Van comes as close as you can to matching it.
Linden Arden Stole the Highlights – So, what’s it all about? That’s what I want to know:
“Linden Arden stole the highlights
With one hand tied behind his back
Loved the morning sun, and whiskey
Ran like water in his veins
Loved to go to church on Sunday
Even though he was a drinking man
When the boys came to San Francisco
They were looking for his life
But he found out where they were drinking
Met them face to face outside
Cleaved their heads off with a hatchet
Lord, he was a drinkin’ man…”
The song is off Veedon Fleece and it is more Celtic mystic added to why did you come to America vibes, the sound (and I might add the man’s name) is Irish, the feel, the smell of alcohol, the clutch of violence as a tall tale, all add up to a timeless serenade of a life that ends in violence. It is mostly just the piano and Van but it turns Arden into a heroic figure, and a murderer. The words sound like a Western except, he killed them with a hatchet?
Domino – The title is a reference to Fats Domino, and Lord have mercy, what it shares with the piano legend isn’t piano, nor is it New Orleans r&b, it is is an intoxicated joy from one end to the other that doesn’t stop for a moment: all brash self-confidence as it swings and roars in a guttural expansion of sound. It is a truly thrilling experience even while the lyric, about romantic indifference, isn’t the most cheerful. The cheer, the real happiness is in Van’s shout out: “Hey Mr. DJ, I just wanna hear some rhythm and blues music on the radio”
Blue Money – Like “Domino,” “Blue Money” is off Morrisons’ His Band and Street Choir as well, and like “Domino,” it fills you to the brim even while not having the horns break out quite as intoxicatingly, happier. The story of Van sitting in on his girl posing naked for a photographer, and yet it doesn’t bum about it, they have their eye on the (blue) money that will bring em a good time. The woman in question is a terrific person, so glad to be alive even while smoking a cigarette is both a drag on it and a drag. Listen to the bridge, where Van does something he does nearly as well as Satchmo, sing the horn parts. These two songs and the one below it are pop music heights for him, ear candy of the first order even as they fit themselves in the r&b portion of his music obsessiveness.
Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile) – Morrison claimed that Jackie Wilson’s singing on his string of hit singles, roughly from 1957’s “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet)” to 1967’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” deeply influenced him. On “Jackie Wilson Said” Van sounds more like higher and higher as the song jumps at it, in a song of romantic adoration without a shade of a doubt in it, to quote Robert Christgau “Jackie Wilson said it was reet petite,” he shouts for openers, and soon has me believing that “I’m in heaven when you smile” says as much about the temporal and the eternal as anything in Yeats”. The song is where Van finds the happiness as a more complete if transient moment, so that when she walks across the room it makes his heart go boom boom boom. The song, like “Domino,” lives in the horn arrangements and Van’s voice is another horn, and they come together where just a look from his loved one makes his day. By the end, Van ra-a-tats the coda and with no fade it is just over. So you put it on again.
Caravan – Live – I am not sold on the Live version from It’s Too Late To Stop Now being superior to the recorded version on Moondance, but I am fairly certain the singing is better. Similar to “Domino” it is an overwhelmed sexual euphoria battling the edge of romantic disaster. Van’s response is to an argument threatening their happiness is to tell the woman to turn up the radio, the one place salvation is possible. Live the romance is not his first concern, as he sings along to the radio he enters into the mystic and into the physical of the mystic. “It is turned on” he wryly notes to a fan who shouts out, and more than anything than perhaps another Morrison performing while fully erect on the Ed Sullivan Show, the soul, r&b, the radio, and the girl are a combustible combination, both as sacred and profane as can be. “TURN IT UP”.
Kingdom Hall – In 1978 I was living in Lebanon in the middle of the civil war and while I couldn’t get my Lebanese brothers and sisters to embrace New Wave, ignoring This Year’s Model in March 1978, they flipped over Van’s Wavelength in September of the same year. Wavelength is seen as an alright not great album but if you live in a city in constant lockdown with militias battling in the streets, you don’t necessarily want sexual jealousy to be where it’s at. You want the spiritual of “Kingdom Hall” with a Gospel like r&b and girls harmonizing behind where he’s at for a party that evokes the Black Churches of the deep south.
Checkin’ It Out – Also from Wavelength, this is a break up song but not my break up song. I was living with a guy named Joe Khalife at the time, and he was dating a German woman, and the relationship was in tatters though Joe was doing his best to keep it together, his drunken rages were a time bomb waiting to explode. Everything about those days was extremely volatile and when the bottom fell out, Angela ran away and within a year I had left Beirut never to return. I hear this as Joe pleading to her.
Behind the Ritual – Both this song and “Cleaning Windows” are about music as tradition, as timeless recapitulations of the past in the present. Not tradition in a traditional sense, it isn’t turkey at Thanksgiving, as such, but more like a sacrament, the same moves, the same echoes of the past in the present as Van finds the spiritual behind the ritual. It isn’t really one of his great moments but it is a singular exploration of how and why music is Godly
Cleaning Windows – “Cleaning Windows” is eccentric if you have never known professional window cleaners in suburban England (I mean Ireland as well), where working class men roamed the streets in duos, with their ladders and sponges. Morrison connects the pride in work with love of the blues and for a world so long gone even in 1982, he cleans window during the day, blows saxophone at a down joint on the weekend, and takes pride in both. And the subject matter, the earnestness and beauty in hard work backtracks onto his heroes, the Jimmy Reeds, and like them then, he in the here and now is a working man in his prime. The cleaning windows is a metaphor for the happiness of doing a great job.
Tore Down a la Rimbaud -as in Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who started writing at the age of 15, quit at 21, and dead at 37. Once you get that, the song (which took Van twelve years to complete) becomes the answer to what it is about: writer’s block. Compared to the “Jackie Wilson Said” type of superby high spirited, Morrison uses similar ingredients to a different end, it isn’t a happy song at all and yet its seeds are from happiness and spirituality and it would lead him to Christianity (a different sort of inspiration)
In the Garden –there is a sense of not wonder anymore, but a feel for the Irish mysticism as it merges with his Catholicism and provides him with a coda that replaced “it’s too late to stop now” for the end of a show: “no guru, no master, no teacher” as the piano and acoustic guitars surround him in a sound unlike his white R&b, slower, deeper, the words become a mantra and the garden is possibly Gethsemane (to stretch the conceit to the breaking part, maybe the girl is the angel?). What inspires Van is spiritual, romantic and musical love, that is for Van God shining his light…
Whenever God Shines His Light – One of the great Christian songs of modern times, I mean 20th/21st Century hymns. I wish I could send it to every Hillsong Church in the world so they could understand how to write about religious adoration without coming across as a needy crank. A duet with living legend Cliff Richard, they sing both separately and together and clearly express what they get from Jesus. The song does what Van claims Jesus does. Quite often, when Van performs r&b he leans on the horns, when he performs Celtic folk (for want of a better name) he uses the piano. The piano based song is a utilitarian concept of Christianity, not only can Christianity, can faith, allow you to perform miracles and heal the lame, but it can heal you as well:
“In deep confusion, in great despair
When I reach out for him he is there
When I am lonely as I can be
And I know that God shines his light on me”
That is the essence of a theology, not just claiming your reward will be in heaven but also that your reward is here on earth, that even in your darkest moments you can turn to God. Magical thinking? Sure, but all thinking is magical thinking and if the thought can charter you, then why not? There are few songs that make a better case for faith.
Queen of the Slipstream – I haven’t written much about his backing bands, but the piano was so basic to Poetic Champions Compose that Neil Drinkwater deserves singling out. The piano is the instrument on one of the most beautiful and mythic love songs the poet ever has composed, even a full orchestra is in awe to the piano, they merge around Neil not Van. Van ventures in the slipstream and finds true love from a woman who dismisses material happenstance for deep and abiding love. A slipstream is the region behind a moving object in which a wake of fluid (typically air or water) is moving at velocities comparable to the moving object, relative to the ambient fluid through which the object is moving. In other words: it is the wind beneath your feet and an image Van uses with extreme dexterity.
I Forgot That Love Existed – That bass lick at the outset steers a song that is among the most important to me, personally. The line that means so much is a call to almost literally everybody ever. Let’s think about romantic love, something that has existed from the beginning of the human civilization though wasn’t written about very much: “A series of church reforms in the 12th century took Christianity from a rather austere view of God the Father to a new focus on Christ’s humanity. The spiritual lives of ordinary people were recognised, and people were encouraged to have a more emotional and personal relationship with God as individuals. And romantic love – giving yourself to another person – provides a justification, in the medieval moral compass, for the pursuit of self-fulfilment as an individual’. Van is correct here, there was love in 350 BC, but a reading of Socrates on romantic love finds it more closely attuned to the shadow in a cave, all love moves towards the divine (here). If you have an interest, read Plato’s “Symposium”. What I admire here, why it is so important, is the line “Everyone that ever loved, everyone that ever tried”. This joining of people is worthy of John Lennon, its inclusiveness takes the sting out of romantic failure, it makes those who didn’t manage romantic happiness on an equal footing as those who have. In effect, it turns McCartney “all the lonely people where do they all belong” inside out. It positions failing and succeeding on a level playing field. Here we have something to bring true happiness to everyone, a song for all its loving is a gift, not of hope but how hope is not necessary. Everyone who ever love, everyone who ever tried will understand.