Friday, August 19, 2005

Mystical Poet Of Sound
A journey through Van Morrison’s music

It is September 1968. A short, eccentric, earnest 23-year-old man from Ireland is in the vocal booth of a recording studio in New York trying to cut an album. His session musicians are some of the best jazz players in the city. Strange, because the man is not a jazz musician, nor is he cutting a jazz album. His label has hired these musicians because they want to minimise recording costs as they aren't totally convinced about the project. Competent jazz musicians are expected to keep the margin of error low. It's not working out too well. The man refuses to elaborate on what the songs are about or how he wants the musicians to play. The musicians don't appreciate that. So here he is, in the studio alone, just singing the songs to his acoustic guitar, while the musicians wait outside for him to finish so that they can then dub their parts and go home.

The man is Van Morrison and the album being recorded is Astral Weeks. His name doesn't mean much to the musicians outside since they are all from the jazz world. But Van Morrison is a highly respected figure in the rock/pop world. Someone called Jim Morrison idolises him, even copies his stage swagger. Jim's band, The Doors, have just had a huge hit with "Gloria"- one of Van's songs. Van himself used to front a band called Them - considered one of the finest bands in America. He'd written a song called "Brown Eyed Girl" - a huge hit that made him popular as a songwriter. The world had been at his feet. But he was turning his back to it. Them had disbanded because Van balked at its positioning as "The Rolling Stones of America". That is not how he sees himself. He wants his music to bring out his deepest feelings. In fact, just a few months back, he'd tried that with a song called "TB Sheets". In the 9 1/2 minute song full of raw pain, Van had sung about a girl dying of TB in a hospital and the feelings of her boyfriend. No-one knows whether this was autobiographical but the fact is that after recording it, he'd broken down in the vocal booth and sat devastated on the floor for a long time. However painful the experience had been, he'd probably felt that this is how far he wanted to go with his music, for now at least.

This is what he is doing now with Astral Weeks. He's written a few songs partly autobiographical, partly stories about others, but all rooted in the pain of "TB Sheets", though in a less direct, more ethereal sort of a way. There's a strange "otherworldly" yearning in the songs as if something very momentous is about to happen, as if something held very dearly is about to end, as if there'll be some sort of a rebirth soon.

He doesn't know it now, but that is exactly what would happen to his career as a musician. Astral Weeks would be hailed as among the most original and astonishing albums ever and would send Van Morrison's stock soaring in the world of music. Inspite of the massive critical success, the album would sell poorly. He would attribute that to the "sameyness" of the songs in the album, something he'd become very conscious about. Determined to break the constant, almost monotonous sound of Astral Weeks (which in many ways was the real strength of the album as it gave it a moody, trance - like feel that lasted right through), Van would produce and arrange his next album.

Moondance ('70) would be another breathtaking album. Unlike Astral Weeks, it would be joyous and relaxed, it would swing, there'd be jazz, soul, blues and rock in it and they'd mesh together as one sound with his sublime voice celebrating every moment in the album. This melodic, accessible album would become Van Morrison's commercial breakthrough on his own terms. Moondance would sound like the new beginning Astral Weeks is hinting at. He would find happiness in marriage and in his success as a highly respected songwriter. His next 2 albums His Band And The Street Choir and Tupelo Honey would reflect this. The albums would be mostly exuberant and happy, but uneven. The title track of Tupelo Honey would be a true classic - a beautiful, beautiful love song that would even feature in an Oscar-winning film (Ulees Gold) 26 years after it was written.

But all that's a long way off. Right now, Van is singing the song - "Cypress Avenue"- about the pain a grown man feels as he watches a 14-year old girl walk back from school. He's in love with her but there was no way he can even talk to her, let alone get to meet her. He sits alone in his car, watching her walk by, as he does every day, maddened by his helpless, hopeless love.

Van himself was to feel a different sort of pain 4 years later when his marriage fell apart. His music, however, wouldn't let on - he was never comfortable about outright "confessional" work. Instead, the album St. Dominic's Preview ('72) would have songs of rootlessness and travel, that gave subtle cues to his personal turmoil. Another fabulous album, it'd almost be a combination of Astral Weeks and Moondance, some moody and introspective songs, some joyous and jaunty. The highlight being the marathon "Listen To The Lion" - another song of yearning, where he would try to voice the lion he heard inside his consciousness. (Sounds weird? But what a song! ) He would sing, moan, grunt, roar, hum, yelp and produce a hypnotic, breathtaking performance of a remarkable song no-one else would ever dare to attempt.

Meanwhile, in the studio, Van is about to give one of the most stunning performances of his career. The jazz musicians have finally gelled with him and reconciled somewhat to his style of working. The are now doing the first take of a song that begins with Van singing -- "If I ventured in the slipstream / between the viaducts of your dreams / where immobile steel rims crack / and the ditch and the backroads stop / could you find me/ would you kiss my eyes / and lay me down/in silence easy / to be born again". No-one has a clue what he's singing about. No-one cares. Because the song is absolutely riveting and there's a strange kind of magic in the air. The musicians play as if they're mere physical representations of one solitary soul. The first take is to be the only take. Van has left the room. The song would be called "Astral Weeks". They would name the album after it.

1974's Van Morrison album would be called Veedon Fleece. The result of his recent travels through Ireland, it was to be a ruminative, mostly lacklustre album with a few moments of brilliance, like the sparkling "Bulbs". By and large, Van would not create great music for a while. Then 1978 would hear Wavelength - one of his most melodic, catchiest albums ever (perhaps to a fault). Many of the songs would seem almost celebratory - about life, love the past and the future. The title track would be partially a tribute to radio, which had been a great influence during his youth. But it would be 1979 before Van Morrison touched greatness again. With an album called Into The Music, his first overtly spiritual album. The songs weren't to be evangelistic though. Van's faith was always more personal, more mystical. Through it would emerge optimistic songs like "Bright Side of The Road " and "You Make Me Feel So Free". In the lovely "Full Force Gale" he would sing "No matter where I roam / I will find my way back home / I will always return to the Lord". A perfect encapsulation of where he was to be at. But it'd be the second half of the album that would give it its "classic" status. With passionately sung, exquisitely played, magnificent songs like "Angelou" and "The Healing Has Begun", he would remind the world how far above other musicians he was. Something they'd again forget in the early '80s, as his music, completely consumed by matters of the spirit, would lose some vitality. He'd be drawn to spiritual movements like New Age teachings and Scientology and write about heavenly realms and mystical raptures and even attempt to create music for meditation. Van's longtime interest in poetry and other writing would show up in songs like "Cleaning Windows" and "Rave On John Donne" - a tribute to the metaphysical poets. He'd even devote a song each to William Blake and Rimbaud in A Sense Of Wonder ('85) - an album that would combine his spiritual muse with his musical aims more convincingly than before. Once again, he'd seem to be getting back to his best.

Van is now singing "Madame George" - possibly the best track on Astral Weeks. A compassionate, heart-rending song about a drag queen. Not something most of us can empathise with but then this what great art is about - making you feel deeply for the plight of an unlikely other. The song suggests a finality, an end in something. Many would later feel that the song had captured the mood of its time - the sixties were ending, the hippie dream was fading, disillusionment was creeping in. Van refused to ever speak about the song.

He wouldn't talk about his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher either. No-one would know at that time that the title was derived from his understanding of J. Krishnamurthi's thoughts, someone who'd greatly interest Van. The themes of contemplation, healing through music and spiritual redemption would be all over this superb album. One of his most breathtaking songs ever "In The Garden" was to be also his most spiritual, suggesting Christian leanings, though a closer listening indicates otherwise. Van's spiritual quest would never be about religions or sects, but about "the other world", about a oneness with nature, among other things. Still, all this wouldn't make his music heavy. As the hummable "A Town Called Paradise" and the marvelously tuneful "Ivory Tower" would testify. Or "The Mystery" from his next album Poetic Champions Compose ('87). This album would also have gloriously melodic tracks like "Alan Watts Blues" (about retreating to the mountains with a book by Alan Watts - well-known Irish philosopher), "Give Me My Rapture" and "Did Ye Get Healed" (both blatant expressions of his spirituality). 1988 would bring Irish Heartbeat-Van Morrison's fine collaborative album with legendary Irish band- The Chieftains. They would re-interpret traditional Irish songs joyously, with great feeling.

"Ballerina" is possibly the most autobiographical song on Astral Weeks. Sung with amazing intensity, the song is probably about his future wife Janet, who is at this time dabbling in ballet. Maybe "Beside You" and "Sweet Thing" are about Janet too, Van won't say. The obscure lyrics and introspective tone compounded gloriously by Van's soulful vocals would make the scope of all possible explanations superfluous. There is somehow a great sadness in the music, and this is the source of its immense beauty.

Between '89 and '91, Van Morrison would come out with 3 beautiful albums all juxtaposing his spiritual search with a preoccupation of his past, his childhood mostly. Avalon Sunset ('89) would be one of his finest albums, ever. Starting with a catchy evangelist duet with Cliff Richard (a chart hit), the album would graduate to more introspective, moody, yet marvelously musical tracks. From those, "Have I Told You Lately" would become a huge hit for Rod Stewart. (The difference between Stewart's sentimental, maudlin version and Van's original rendition aptly exemplifies the difference between chart-topping, best-selling music and sincere music from the real talents). Again, it'd be the second half of Avalon Sunset that would make it one of the stunning albums of the '80s, particularly the incredible personal lament "When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God". Van's next album - Enlightenment ('90) would carry on the tone of Avalon Sunset. Mellower than the earlier album, it'd still have some absolutely magical moments, none more than the 'touching' "Memories", about the loss of a loved one, sung with great feeling and without the sentimentality you'd associate with such songs. (This lack of sentimentality is what makes Van Morrison's music special. Sadness, sometimes even happiness, without mushiness often leads to great beauty and that is exactly what happens with a lot of Van's work). Hymns To The Silence ('91), his last spiritual album, and his first double studio album, would exemplify that beauty again. With superb songs about the past - "Take Me Back", about love-"Carrying A Torch", about discontentment - "I'm Not Feeling It Anymore" and even about the hardships of being a respected songwriter - "Professional Jealousy". He even did traditional Christian hymns like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" demonstrating with superb performances the inherent beauty in these time-honoured compositions.

The '90s would be a time of expanding musical frontiers. Van would do a blues album with the legendary John Lee Hooker - Too Long In Exile ('93). Then a full-fledged jazz album with Georgie Fame -How Long Has This Been Going On ('96). Both albums would showcase his magnificent singing and exquisite musicianship. These albums would be interspersed with 2 average ones. Days Like This ('95) would be an easy listening, unremarkable collection of songs except the title track - a true diamond amidst pebbles (This is the song Helen Hunt brightens up to in As Good As It Gets, it's also the song Bill Clinton requested Van to perform when he went to Ireland for the Irish accord). The Healing Game ('97) would be slightly better, with a terrific counterpoint to "Days Like This" called "Sometimes We Cry".

It's getting late. Astral Weeks is playing in the studio. The album's been completed, the jazz musicians have gone home satisfied with a somewhat different day's work. The singer's voice seems to emanate from someone in great pain, the songs seem to be about people who cannot entirely comprehend their lives, the music is unlike anything ever recorded. The studio staff concur that this is not going to a hit. They'd be proved right - this album would sell barely 400,000 copies in 30 years. But what they don't know is that Astral Weeks would sell approximately the same amount year after year and show no signs of ever fading out.

Van is walking back home because he's too broke to take a cab home. He doesn't know that his music will be revered by generations of musicians (many aren't born yet) from Dylan to James Taylor to Bruce Springsteen to Sting to Bono to REM to Counting Crows to Beck. He doesn't know that despite never shooting a video or giving many interviews, his music would be heard all around the world. He doesn't know that he'd be one of those rare artistes for whom "greatest hits" compilations would never do justice (two volumes are available in India and they have some of his best songs, but they're rather like a collection of best paragraphs from a body of great novels). He doesn't know that his enduring contribution to mankind would be to suffuse popular music with a rare integrity and give it a deeper, spiritual side. He doesn't know that Astral Weeks has been the starting point of this sensibility. He doesn't know anything. Right now, he just wants to sleep.

Jaideep Varma
December 1998


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