Van Morrison

The Irish singer-songwriter has identified himself with poets from Blake to Yeats, and like those "poetic champions," he has searched for the right words, the right feeling, as if for the Holy Grail.

Published September 19, 2000 7:09PM (EDT)

Van Morrison opened his 1999 album, "Back on Top," with a song called "Goin' Down Geneva." Sung as a straight blues in the style of one of Morrison's heroes, Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Goin' Down Geneva" is in the tradition of road-weary blues tunes, a milepost on the endless highway of touring performers who don't know which hat rack to call home. "It's not easy, baby," Morrison sang in his gruff voice, "living on the exile plan."

But this Irishman's exile has always been self-imposed. He has wandered through Europe and the United States, sometimes in the footsteps of his idols, then back to Ireland and Great Britain. The soul stops on this number aren't Memphis and Mobile, though, but Salzburg and Montreux. Of Geneva he sings, "Vince Taylor used to live here, nobody's ever heard of him."

You may never have heard of him either, but as lovers of rock arcana know, Vince Taylor was an American rockabilly singer who came to Europe to make it big. His "Brand New Cadillac" (covered to great effect by the Clash on "London Calling") was a couple of minutes of hiccuping hysteria and remains his chief claim to fame. David Bowie has acknowledged Taylor as one of the models for his fictional rock messiah, Ziggy Stardust; Taylor met Bowie in London and showed him on a map where the flying saucers were going to land. He made his last appearance on stage dressed as Jesus, saying, "I won't be needing this band anymore. In fact, I won't be needing any of you. 'Cause I have places to go, and, and a father to return to."

Taylor died about 10 years ago, and Van Morrison is one of the few who has stopped to wonder "just who he was, just where he fits in." Maybe he sees the singer's tale as a cautionary one, a there but for the grace of God thing. Sure, Morrison's recordings with Them in the '60s were greater successes than "Brand New Cadillac," but there was no guarantee he would go anywhere solo. Indeed, much of the singer-songwriter's output seemed designed to thwart success. From the brooding deathbed scene drawn in "T.B. Sheets" (1967), to the obscure song cycle of "Astral Weeks" (1968) and all the oblique and ethereal lyrics that came later -- not to mention his forays into jazz, Irish and country music -- Morrison has placed unwelcome mats before his house. He has been contemptuous of journalists, difficult with his collaborators and, at times, barely tolerant of his fans. Like some musical Andy Kaufman, he does not seem to care what people think of what he's doing. And woe unto his imitators.

But for every counterintuitive move he has made, Morrison has played the savvy entertainer as well. He began recording 35 years ago, an eternity in any branch of popular music, and through each stage has managed to hit the charts here and abroad with an impressive array of hits, including "Gloria," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Domino," "Wild Night" and "Wavelength." He has recorded almost 30 albums as a solo performer (not including his collaborations with artists as diverse as the Chieftains and Georgie Fame) and as he has gone through labels he has kept a sharp eye on each album's marketing and reception.

Morrison defends most of his work with a poet's pride, but can crank out an instant standard like "Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)" He has walked out on audiences without warning, but can still hold them in his thrall. He sometimes wanders through his own lyrics like a man looking for his keys, picking up this, discarding that, but knows a good phrase when he coins it: "I want to rock your gypsy soul," "Torn down ` la Rimbaud," "You don't pull no punches, but you don't push the river," et al. And like Bob Dylan, to whom he owes such a debt and with whom he shares so many characteristics (paranoia, inarticulateness, divine inspiration and maddening inconsistency), he found out "when you reach the top you're on the bottom."

The "top" that Morrison sings of in the title track of "Back on Top" is a sort of personal Golgotha: "Saw me climbing to the top of the hill/You saw me meeting with the fools on the hill ..." Looking at the legend of a nut gone flake like Vince Taylor, the sometime-Christian Morrison might just count his blessings. He's played the angry young man, the wandering mystic and sometimes the mad hatter, but nobody has nailed him down yet.

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When I was a young boy
Back in Orangefield
I used to gaze out
My classroom window and dream
And then go home and listen to Ray sing
"I believe to my soul" after school
-- "Got to Go Back," 1986

George Ivan Morrison was born Aug. 31, 1945, in a working-class neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His parents were Protestants, though his mother, Violet, briefly became a Jehovah's Witness. (Van's memories of those revival-like meetings were recalled in the 1978 song "Kingdom Hall.") An only child, Morrison had his father's record collection to keep him company. George Sr., a shipyard electrician, had a passion for American music and the 78s to prove it. As a boy, Van fell under the spell of Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, the Carter Family, Mahalia Jackson and his perpetual favorite, Leadbelly ("He was my guru," Morrison once remarked).

"He struck me as a talented kid from the very earliest days," childhood friend George Jones (not that George Jones) recalled in John Collis' biography, "Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart," "but he was very shy, left to his own devices at home a lot while his parents were at work. But his father had these blues records. They were his friends. With the common denominator of music he could get on with people."

Thanks to this tutelage, Morrison was way ahead of the pack when the skiffle craze swept the United Kingdom in the mid-'50s: He'd been listening to Leadbelly sing "Rock Island Line" long before Lonnie Donegan covered it. An amalgam of American folk, blues and jug band music, skiffle was a precursor to rock 'n' roll in the U.K., the original do-it-yourself sound. "Anyone could form a skiffle group simply by stealing his mother's washboard and fixing a broom handle to a tea chest, then stringing it with wire to make a rudimentary double bass," wrote Philip Norman in his Beatles biography, "Shout." Morrison -- like John Lennon, Jimmy Page and countless others -- supplied the guitar and formed his own skiffle band. (Morrison returned to those roots this year with "The Skiffle Sessions," recorded live in Belfast with Donegan and fellow-skiffle pioneer Chris Barber.)

At the age of 15 he dropped out of school to play saxophone with the Monarchs Showband, touring Ireland, the U.K. and Germany, where black GIs dug his Ray Charles impression. In 1964, Morrison returned. "Van appeared in Belfast, saying we all had to grow our hair long like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, all the London bands," Jones recalled. "He reckoned you had to walk around looking that way." Morrison quickly joined the newly formed Them, adding his R&B repertoire to their rock base. With the help of savvy management (a trio of local entrepreneurs who billed themselves as the Three J's), Them was soon the house band at Belfast's Maritime Club. Like the Beatles at Liverpool's Cavern a few years earlier, the Maritime shows became legendary. "Them gigs became the event," said keyboardist Eric Wrixon, "something people could nail their colors to."

"My first memory was entering the Maritime and seeing Van sliding across the stage," said Mervyn Solomon, son of Decca Records co-founder Morris Solomon, who was there scouting the act for his dad. "The kids really ate out of his hands." So it seems did Decca, since in short order Them was in the label's London studios, cranking out hits. Those records were "for the commercial market," according to Morrison. "In fact, the whole point of the club was the opposite of that. That was the ironic thing. The most obscure pieces of music we could find on blues albums, that's what we were playing."

Though not currently in fashion, Them cut a handful of hits that still blow holes in the oldies formats to which they've been consigned. Their cover of "Baby Please Don't Go," with its hot-rod bass line and snakey guitar riff courtesy of session man Jimmy Page, became the signature song on British pop show "Ready Steady Go" and still ranks as the best rock version of the song extant. As Dylan covers go, Them's version of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" ranks with Hendrix's appropriation of "All Along the Watchtower." (Give him the keys, Bob; that's Van's song now.) And "Gloria" belongs in the Monument Valley of rock, right beside "Satisfaction." From its try-this-at-home-kids guitar riff (there's a reason why the song has been a staple of garage bands ever since) to its pagan, singalong chorus -- "Gloooor-i-a!" -- the song still goes off like a two-minute, 35-second bottle rocket. Though most Americans came to know the paler Shadows of Knight cover, Them's was the real deal: Morrison's vocal belied his age and set a new standard for dirty rock singing. If Van Morrison had recorded nothing else we'd still be singing his praise.

Them broke up in 1966, almost as quickly as they assembled, the victim of mismanagement and personnel changes. Morrison was at loose ends: He'd toured the U.S., met a woman he really dug in San Francisco who called herself Janet Planet, tasted fame and adulation (the band played L.A.'s Whiskey A Go Go 17 days straight, with local legends in the making the Doors and Captain Beefheart opening for them), and now he was back in Belfast, as if he'd never gone anywhere.

Fate interceded in the person of Bert Berns, a songwriter and producer in the Lieber and Stoller vein who had started a new label called Bang for Atlantic Records. Berns had worked with Morrison before (he penned and produced "Here Comes the Night," Them's No. 2 U.K. hit) and had already made a reputation as the hitmeister behind "Twist and Shout" and "Hang On Sloopy." He recognized Morrison's talent and invited the singer to New York in 1967. The sessions that arose from their collaboration (originally released under the unlikely title "Blowin' Your Mind," and available now as Bang Masters) yielded the hit Berns desired and revealed Morrison to be a stubborn and purposeful artist, born to confound the system that supported him.

"Brown Eyed Girl" went to No. 10 on the U.S. charts that year, powered largely by the "sha-la-la" chorus. What seems more remarkable now is the mournful quality of the singer's voice as he invokes a lost love -- a lost youth -- at the ripe old age of 21. "So hard to find my way," sang Morrison, "now that I'm all on my own" (followed by the randier couplet, "Saw you walking just the other day/My, how you have grown!"). Morrison was an old soul before they called them that.

The sessions themselves were, as Bill Flanagan wrote in the Bang Master liner notes, "a stormy three-day recording date in which a brilliant, difficult, hungry 21-year-old musician attempted to record with a bunch of studio pros who didn't know what this crazy Irish kid was up to and for a producer with a great ear for Tin Pan Alley pop at a time when Tin Pan Alley pop was becoming an anachronism." Berns kept telling the band to keep it upbeat -- he loved the slightly Mexicali feel the Isley Brothers brought to "Twist and Shout" -- even as Morrison incoherently directed the band toward ... something else.

"I think we should be freer," he is heard telling the musicians at one point. "We should have a freer thing going. At the moment we have a choked thing, you know?"

No, the tracks tell us, they didn't. Sure, they played a smooth Slim Harpo riff to the claustrophobic "T.B. Sheets," but what the hell was he going on about? "The sunlight shining through the crack in the window pane/Numbs my brain" -- what the fuck? The singer was addressing a woman dying of tuberculosis (called Julie in the song but inspired by an Irish friend of his named Dee, who had died of T.B.); he was stuck inside, guilty and alive when he'd rather be anywhere else. "Open up the window and let me breathe," he cried, and many listeners felt the same way. "Who wanted to listen to an endless song about tuberculosis when the air was filled with the sounds of the summer of love?" Greil Marcus wondered.

As the sessions moved toward their chaotic end, with Morrison introducing two of the impressionistic songs that would help complete "Astral Weeks," it was clear he was tuned into another frequency. On a fairly straight-ahead pop ditty called "The Smile You Smile" he sang of "roaming in the gloaming" and critics have used the line as an apt description of the singer's meandering, sometimes meditative style. He would search until he found what he was looking for -- which in this case was "Astral Weeks."

And I shall drive my chariot
Down your street and cry,
"Hey, it's me, I'm dynamite
And I don't know why"
-- "Sweet Thing," 1968

The winter of 1968 saw the release of some remarkable records: the Beatles' "White Album," the Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet," Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland." In the midst of all that noise and fury it was easy to miss the true debut of Van Morrison, and many did. But many critics swooned, and the album developed a cult status; at a time when listening to rock albums and taking acid was as common as watching the game and drinking a beer, "Astral Weeks" became a classic come-down album. Jazzy and meditative, partly cloudy and entirely unexpected, the record still stands as Morrison's greatest accomplishment.

Morrison was blessed with a pair of new managers (Bob Schwaid and Lewis Merenstein) who hired jazz musicians (Richard Davis, bass; Connie Kay, drums; Warren Smith Jr., vibes; Jay Berliner, guitar) to complement the songwriter's musical odyssey. He did not have to explain to them the sound he wanted (and from the evidence in his interviews, a good thing, too). He just played the songs and told them to improvise, finding the feel of "Astral Weeks" as they went. (The album was recorded in two days.) Filled with memories of youthful longing and precise references to places in his past ("Cyprus Avenue"), peopled by strange characters like the sad drag queen of "Madame George," and leaning toward mysticism, with its images of light, rain and rebirth, "Astral Weeks" filled a void no one knew existed.

Lester Bangs picked "Astral Weeks" as his desert island companion for Greil Marcus' collection "Stranded" (1979), recalling the sense of identification and solace he felt listening to it in '68. "It sounded like the man who made 'Astral Weeks' was in terrible pain," he wrote, "pain most of Van Morrison's previous work had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work."

But pure beauty and mystical awe don't sell any T-shirts, and after getting over his outrage when the album was judged in a rock context ("It's obvious to anyone with two ears that there's no rock 'n' roll on that album at all"), he went back to writing stuff that would sell. "Moondance" (1970) was as soulful as "Astral Weeks" had been jazzy, and there were hooks aplenty. With his new reliance on horns and backup singers, Morrison was fulfilling the soul-revue fantasies of his youth. It was a formula -- hooks, horns, a wee bit of roaming-in-the-gloaming -- that he followed over his next few Warner Bros. albums, "His Band and the Street Choir" (1970) and "Tupelo Honey" (1971).

Morrison's personal life stabilized then as well. He married Janet Planet, who wrote hippie-dippy poetry for the liner notes of "Moondance," and posed for countless starry-eyed photos with her: Van and Janet holding hands, trading flowers, riding horses. The dark shadows of "Astral Weeks" seemed mostly banished, occasionally ruining the wedding photos with such plaintive lines as "Why did you leave America?/Why did you let me down?"

The couple moved from Woodstock, N.Y., to Northern California's Marin County as Morrison cultivated his reputation as a recluse and a temperamental artist. In California in the early '70s, he and his band stood in marked contrast to the wasted remnants of San Francisco's summer-of-love scene. "Van controlled everything with hand signals," a member of his vaunted Caledonia Soul Orchestra recalled -- a real anomaly in an age in which most bands still ended their sets with 20-minute free-form ragas. But as tight as the band always was, the singer was often just uptight. He walked off more than one stage when the sound or the lights or the audience wasn't right, and even on the good nights he seemed remote, still and hidden behind his acoustic guitar.

According to Planet, life at home was no hootenanny either. "He really doesn't like a lot of people around," she said at the time. "We never go out anywhere, we don't go to parties." The tensions in Morrison's personal life colored the slightly unsettled "St. Dominic's Preview" (1972), with songs that captured the downside of the California dream. Marin County was then the petri dish of what was often referred to as "the human potential movement," as programs like est, Actualizations and Lifespring created a lexicon of psychobabble that has yet to be fully eradicated. Morrison captured the moment in the album's title track with some of his most accessible poetry to date:

All the orange boxes are completely scattered
Against the Safeway supermarket in the rain
And everybody feels so determined
Not to feel anyone else's pain
No one making no commitments
To anybody but themselves
Talking behind closed doorways
Trying to get outside
Get outside of their shells.

Planet filed for divorce in 1973 and fought her husband for custody of their daughter, Shana. (Morrison has sung with his grown daughter of late, most movingly on the Ray Charles chestnut "You Don't Know Me.") Planet went public with her problems with her husband (which must have goaded the recluse to no end), and she wasn't alone. Ted Templeman, producer of "Tupelo Honey," "St. Dominic's Preview" and "It's Too Late to Stop Now" (1974), said, "I'd never work with Van Morrison again as long as I live, even if he offered me $2 million in cash. I aged 10 years producing three of his albums."

Though the rest of Morrison's '70s records were more inconsistent (and none yielded a hit single until 1978's "Wavelength"), he was definitely finding his groove -- following his bliss, as they might have said back in Marin. On 1974's "Veedon Fleece," Irish and new age interests started to collide and by the end of the year he stopped recording and touring, getting deeper into Gestalt therapy and more and more private. While the albums took on term-paper titles ("Inarticulate Speech of the Heart," "A Period of Transition"), his method became more meandering, harder to pinpoint.

"It's all based on spontaneity," he said at the time, "and that's my trip from beginning to end, whether it's writing a song or playing a guitar or a particular chord sequence, or blowing a horn, or whatever it is, it's based on improvisation and spontaneity, right? And that's what I keep trying to get across in interviews and it's very hard because the process is beyond words!"

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And if you get it right this time
You don't have to come back again
And if you get it right this time
There's no reason to explain
-- "Foreign Window," 1986

In the past two decades, Van Morrison has released an album almost every year. There have been studio albums of new material, covers of songs by mentors like Mose Allison, collaborations like his current album of country standards with Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee's sister) and lots of live recordings. He continues to tour (you can catch him in Europe this fall), usually with a large band. He's even added a second lead vocalist, Brian Kennedy, to help him handle the weight of all that material.

Morrison is not terribly in vogue these days. Critics are kind to each release but no one sees him breaking any new ground. And while new bands still bite his style (Counting Crows being the most obvious), it's a far cry from the late '70s when any number of singer-songwriters -- Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker -- were paying homage. Morrison handled this sincere flattery with typical good grace. "Springsteen's definitely ripped me off," he said in an interview, while in a song entitled "A Town Called Paradise" he complained that "Copycats ripped off my words/Copycats ripped off my songs," etc. Like Joni Mitchell, he sees ripples in pop's water from the stones he once threw, and it burns him up.

Still, his fans remain loyal, even a bit obsessive. The Van Morrison Web site is the best of many that catalog his every move, while his unofficial fanzine, Wavelength, captures the dyspeptic spirit of the man. ("Even More Bullshit for Sale," reads the link to the e-commerce page.) He remains intensely private and resents all intrusions into his personal life. (He is engaged to and lives with a former Miss Ireland named Michelle Rocca, and settled in England.) None of which stops the critics and biographers from attempting to explain him.

In last year's "New Biography," he questions the motives of former friends who have told tales about him to the press. "How come they've got such good memories," he wonders, "and I can't even remember last week?" A spate of Christian songs ("Give Me My Rapture," "Did Ye Get Healed?") led many to believe he had converted, just as dedicating a 1983 album to L. Ron Hubbard got him labeled a Scientologist. The title of his 1986 album "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" was meant to quash the speculation. "There have been so many lies told about me," he told an interviewer, "and this finally states my position." The 1995 song "No Religion" went that album one further as Morrison sang, "I can't bleed for you/You have to do it your own way."

It has been said that in Morrison's music one finds questions rather than answers. Searching, seemingly unsatisfied, he has identified himself with poets from Blake to Yeats -- often to an embarrassing extent. (When Yeats' estate initially refused to let Morrison record the poem "Crazy Jane on God," the singer sulked, "My songs are better than Yeats!") But like those "poetic champions" he drops the names of, he has searched for the right words, the right feeling, as if for the Holy Grail. Even his return to Ireland, and then Great Britain, follows the primal path he laid out for himself in the 1972 song "Listen to the Lion." In 11 minutes of scatting and primal growling Morrison recounts how "we sailed and we sailed and we sailed/Away from Denmark/Way up to Caledonia. .. All around the world ... Looking for a brand new start." The lion that he seeks -- and that he flees -- is inside of him.

Cliff Richard, the durable British pop singer who dueted with Morrison on the 1989 U.K hit "Whenever God Shines His Light on Me," said he thought Morrison was "filled with self-loathing." Certainly no one would call him a happy chappy, and photos of Morrison smiling are as rare as hen's teeth. But as his prodigious musical output reminds us, his restlessness is one with his nature. Nothing, especially him, is good enough.

There's a song on "No Guru" called "Foreign Window" in which the singer watches a pilgrim's progress, "bearing down the sufferin' road." No telling who the wayfarer is -- it might be him, it might be you -- but the burden sounds familiar. "I saw you from a foreign window," Morrison sings,

You were trying to find your way back home
You were carrying your defects
Sleeping on a pallet on the floor
In the palace of the Lord.

Rest easy now.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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