Friday, August 21, 2009

You can leave now if ya don't like what's happenin' - Van Morrison's first four (with a few asides)

Outside of the expected radio fragments, the music of Van Morrison never really entered my consciousness until I was well into adulthood, and even then it was initially in less than optimal circumstances – crowded parties or noisy bars or an acquaintance endeavoring to familiarize me with the man’s greatness and then proceeding to talk over the entire first side of whatever record they’d felt was so necessary to impact upon my consciousness at that very instant. I don’t think this hit and miss fragmentation is particularly unusual; Morrison is just one example of a popular musician who is often elusive in the mainstream, known and casually categorized more than they are actually listened to, suffering a friction between a surface notoriety and the lack of deep recognition that also shrouds names like Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. But Morrison is a curious case, being extremely busy in his first five/six years as a recording musician in a variety of contexts.


He started out as the front man for Them, a very worthy example of gritty Brit Invasion R&B that scored a few hits, among them one classic that often gets confused as a Rolling Stones tune (“Here Comes the Night”), and one canonical non-hit (“Gloria”) that will eternally serve as a cornerstone for the garage-rock explosion that followed shortly after the band’s demise, an explosion that seems to regenerate momentum every decade or so.

A catastrophe of cover design
He then broke out solo, managing to get almost immediately screwed over by his label Bang while simultaneously scoring a smash hit, the biggest of his career, with “Brown Eyed Girl”, a song I feel safe in conjecturing every human being over 25 years of age that resides in the US/UK has heard at least a dozen times. Easy. But the other initial examples of Van by his lonesome are considerably more complex than the jukebox euphoria of “Girl”, and it’s a head-scratcher why some of the songs collected on his 1st LP Blowin’ Your Mind (no false modesty from this Irishman, or to be truthful, from the label that apparently released the record without Van’s knowledge) weren’t more ensconced into the “classic” rock mainstream during my formative years. Tunes like “TB Sheets” and “He Ain’t Give You None” are grand examples of exquisite stretching out, the later drifting into some impromptu vocal loopiness that these days is as rare as a tooth on a chicken. And “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” (the B-side to “Brown Eyed Girl”) is maybe the tune that should’ve been his follow up hit, with its blue-eyed guitar based funkiness, it’s sweetly idiosyncratic backup singers, and an expert slow build to a manic soul testifying that carries not an ounce of fat on its frame. Jeepers. I guess a big part of the problem is that the album seemed to be scarce for a long time; at least I never saw it anywhere during the long hours of music shopping I chalked up from age 13 to 30. Its available now with bonus tracks, however, and for folks that are generally inclined to look at the cut of Van’s jib with a warm smile and an approving nod, I’d say give it a shot if you haven’t already. It has a clued in sensibility that I imagine pleased the punch out of that era’s burgeoning rock elite (those growing out of garage and in need of something a bit heavier but not necessarily louder) while also ruffling up the feathers of the more Modish Disco-Tek inclined movers and shakers. Or perhaps I’m woofing up the wrong eucalyptus. After all, I wasn’t there.

The debut was followed up with a recording for a new label (Warner Brothers) that is generally considered to be his enduring masterpiece. Astral Weeks continues to be a challenging work that yielded no hit singles and wasn’t initially a strong seller. Plus, reports conflict as to how immediate and fervent was the record’s critical reaction. I’ll state right now that I’m just getting reacquainted with the album after a long period of non-ownership. To elaborate, I first bought Weeks on cassette from a gas station tape rack when I was roughly 23, taking it on a test drive with a friend into the guts of Virginia and being suitably smacked upside the head with its lushness, its slightly stressed emotionalism, and its moments of caustic beauty, an overall thrust that falls somewhere between toughness and melancholy. That cassette lasted a few years before shredding and necessitating a replacement, also a tape (second hand, because I’m a cheap-skate) which lasted until it inexplicably vanished as tapes often do. So here’s the rundown: The very first time I heard the damn thing I simply KNEW it was a classic, particularly by the moment the slow burning aching prettiness of “Cypress Avenue” started bleeding out of the speakers, closing out the recording’s first side in exemplary fashion (the kind of song that potentially makes a listener wait for an unspecified period before flipping or continuing with the rest of the music, an effect that’s mostly lost in this post-compact disc era, though Weeks has recently been reissued on high quality vinyl for those with the sexy chutzpah to own a working turntable), or the scrambling up-tempo shrewdness of Side Two’s opener “The Way Young Lovers Do”, with its onion-like sound layers, horns vibes and acoustic bass too expertly delivered to simply appear as a nod to jazz influenced validation (a.k.a. “my, aren’t we hip?”), instead existing as an injection of adrenalin that gallops along avoiding clichés and gathering strength until abruptly it’s over, and the gears are slyly shifted onto what is for me the record’s centerpiece, the slowly pummeling “Madame George”, an exhibit of gradually building string motion and wounded atmospherics that rise and level off and then lunge out one last time like a maddeningly deliberate baroque fever dream before slowly fading away, making me feel like Nico’s goddamned ghost just took over my body for nine minutes: A draining but ultimately rewarding encounter with a psyche that perhaps loved and lived a little too much. Yeah, it’s like that.
And yet I must confess that Astral Weeks is an album that I held at arms length for a long time. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was a generational thing, the fact that it wasn’t produced by someone that had a birth date in rough proximity to my own. But I doubt it, since I was then championing music from this record’s era both well-known (Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Live/Dead) and obscure, at least at that point (Oar, Pink Moon, Chelsea Girl) to anyone who’d suffer my verbiage (like you’re doing right now). As I peck out these words I’m leaning toward the possibility that I just wasn’t….ready….for the record. Lacking in maturity is maybe a self-deprecating spin on it. But whatever, because I’ve listened to it about a dozen times in the last month and it really truly (finally?) feels, through my ear canals and into my bloodstream, like the heavyweight masterpiece that it’s been described as for the last few decades. It’s not a flawless record; part of its greatness stems from the fact that it’s imperfect and rough in spots—“Slim Slow Slider”, the album’s relatively brief closing song apparently stretched out for a couple years and needed an edit that makes the tune feel a bit anti-climactic, though maybe a dozen more listens will change my mind. Another aspect of the LP is how the intensity of the songs, a quality that at times borders on abstraction is totally matched and elevated by the musicians playing it, which in turn seems to send Morrison almost to the brink of his talent. There are spots where it sounds like his outward-pushing to embrace and match the music forming and building around his songs flirts with oblivion, or to put a finer point on it: this was a higher class of musician than Van was accustomed to interacting with, veterans from the take no prisoners American jazz scene that Morrison has since admitted he knew almost nothing about at the time. But to be clear, these aren’t faults. The details in the last three sentences all clearly work in the album’s favor, heightening its greatness and making it one of the most singular musical experiences ever committed to tape. I really don’t think I’m being hyperbolic.

So. Those knowledgeable in the specifics of Morrison’s output know what’s next. It’s Moondance, which pales in comparison to the majesty of its predecessor, but still has much to offer, even if I feel it’s a flawed record. It’s flawed foremost because its title-track can’t withstand the repeated play it’s received over the decades (it was finally released as a single seven years after the album). Frankly, it’s just not a very good tune, being a pastiche of phonus jazz-isms that reek of a guy who discovered Dave Brubeck ten years too late. Dude, you’ve been hangin’ with the wrong crowd. The rest of the album is far tighter, and much more polished than anything from Weeks, though this isn’t really a negative. Unlike the previous record, Moondance is primarily a pop album (singer-songwriter division), though it mines R&B/soul territory so successfully that many people might be given pause if asked to place it in a genre. This is partly because Morrison, like John Fogerty, is quite unique and expressive, though always tasteful in his soul music borrowings. “And It Stoned Me” sounds a bit like The Band augmented with a sweet horn section (nothing too tight or clumsy), and “Crazy Love” comes off like some lost early Aaron Neville single that’s gathering value in the back of a New Orleans junk shop. “Into the Mystic” glides along on pretty acoustics, the rhythms subtly building in intensity to a crescendo that culminates with a majestically delivered (so well controlled) horn section vamp that can stick in the memory for freaking days. Maybe the best track on the album, it deserves to be as well known as this record’s “Everyone”, which plays over the credit sequence of Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums and has a cadre of fans who don’t know Van Morrison from Van Gogh or Van Halen. The song following “…Mystic” feels like a misstep to these ears, however. “Come Running” isn’t terrible, but its upbeat motions to a gospel-tinged joyousness never really succeed in their intentions. That’s okay though, for the rest of the record registers as varying degrees of rich bullion. Overall, the tidy professionalism and studio polish of Moondance lacks the power of Astral Weeks’ nude rawness, its feeling of artistic exhaustion, the rich gamble that’s still paying confounding dividends. They are both certainly different animals, one a stunning soul-purge the other a (mostly) savvy piece of construction. I can clearly recall the first time I drunkenly swayed along to the sounds of Moondance at a field party with a plastic cup full of foamy lukewarm keg beer. I’d heard the record maybe twice in it’s entirety previous to that point, and I didn’t consider myself a fan. In those days I was much stronger in my vocal advocacy of the enduringly tough formalism of Them, a band I still love like a brilliant and vivacious sibling. On that night my intoxication helped to loosen the bolts of resistance. And so I danced under the moon, oblivious to the irony at the time. What I remember thinking in the moment concerned how I never felt so “adult”. ‘Twas a bittersweet and paradoxical experience.

There is no electric sitar on this record
But, hey! How about one more? Van’s next record, released the same damn year (1970) as Moondance, titled His Band and the Street Choir, still sounds quite worthwhile to these increasingly weathered ears and noticeably scales back the smoothness of the previous release while retaining Van’s concise examination of largely R&B-based songwriting. There’s an urgency here that’s lacking on Moondance, and the hit single “Domino” which opens the album still retains its power through its years of steady rotation on classic rock and oldies stations. Easily Morrison’s most direct homage to the music that helped shape his artistic sensibility, “Domino” is one of that rare breed, a hit single that sits on the album that spawned it and doesn’t feel like a let down. Of course it is the opener, but I’m predicting that if I played the songs in reverse order I’d feel the same way. How about that for bold hypothesis? But the strongest aspect of His Band is the small moments of oddity and warmth that add up to a big whole. The strange soprano sax bleating on “Crazy Face” might’ve made the late great Steve Lacy wince, but to a non-player like me it simply feels like a gutsy beauty move. That it slides into and doesn’t disrupt such an intensely pretty tune shows just how deft these folks were at shaping this stuff on the fly (two albums in a year, remember). Tunes like “Give Me a Kiss” hover on a tightrope between the gulfs of throwbackery and contemporaneousness, chugging along like an extremely highly-regarded local bar band having the greatest, grandest night in their existence, the kind of night that inspires table dancing and marriage proposals. Even that cop in the corner is having a good time. And what’s he doing here, anyway? “Call Me Up in Dreamland” actually succeeds where Moondance’s “Come Running” flounders, managing to pull off a looseness that grows and emits an almost tent-revival feel. When the sax solo starts, any doubts that it would fracture the tune’s fragile grip on a non-polished celebratory gush is laid to rest, for the horn playing is the loving definition of elated amateurism, thick and drenched in pure love. How sweet it is. But I’ll confess that my favorite tune from this record is the fairly well known “Blue Money”, an eccentric little noodle into some gal-guy-greenback nonsense as zonked-out profundity that’s so attractively bent I can listen to it five times consecutively without any lessening of it’s qualities. There are half a dozen more strong tracks (unlike Moondance, no duds), but my personal pick of the bunch is……well. It could be “Gypsy Queen”, the best slow-groove old-school rhythm and buh-lues make-out tune I’ve heard in quite some time. This is to say it really makes me want to make out. Oh-well. Instead I’m sitting in front of this keyboard, which holds its own distinct pleasures and rewards.
In just a smidge over five years, Van Morrison grew from a stern and sharply-suited vessel of the new Caucasian R&B, squeezing off a few spectacular sparks that any true fan of garage punk should recognize and appreciate, and into a young solo artist of raw ambition that was somewhat similar to another Brit Invasion-era figure that had soaked up the sweaty and bottomless influence of the American blues idiom, namely Eric Burdon. From there he kicked out a recording that many consider to be the greatest of the last century, and while I don’t go that far, I do think that it’s not unapt to describe Astral Weeks as being comparable to Gertrude Stein’s novel Three Lives, a book that I’d been thinking about in this context (honest) before oddly stumbling onto a copy in my local used book shop just recently. There exists a concurrent aspiration and approachability in that defining work of modernist literature, a successful commingling of rich language and deep detail that still retains a sincere accessible quality that is very reminiscent of Morrison’s sprawling, demanding yet ultimately inviting masterpiece. In addition Van, like Ms. Stein (at least at the point of her debut) is attracted to conjuring portraits of fictive characters and locales that mark him as similar to Dylan certainly, but also can’t help but bring to my mind the vast expanse of literature’s past. And so, sweet Gertrude, if you will permit me the liberty. But it’s also telling that she and he went in subsequent directions that differed due to their own temperaments and the unique parameters of their chosen art forms. Morrison reigned in the sprawling severity of his vision and developed as a commercial artist in a performance based medium, and Stein did just the opposite, perhaps primarily because literature is a solitary act of creation, where even the appreciation of the finished work is largely on a one-to-one basis (Mr. or Ms. Writer meet Ms. or Mr. Reader), a factor that allows authors to be at least in theory less concerned with the follies and whims of those receiving their work. Again, at least hypothetically. What’s not a theory is their stature as artists. Stein is simply unimpeachable, and if Morrison had stopped after his fourth solo record, he’d still be called a master. But he didn’t, and there is more (much more), but the examination of his later work is for another time, and perhaps for someone other than myself to undertake. But who knows? The more I hear about this Tupelo Honey, the more I’m intrigued, an interest that’s starting to border on the smitten. What can I say; I’m a sucker for a classy lassie…

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