Van Morrison – you either love him or hate him. Although, just maybe, there's one Van Morrison song that, no matter how people feel about him, brings back memories of a certain time and place in their life whenever it comes on the radio or when someone drops the record on the stereo.
Over the fifty years Morrison has been putting out albums, critics and fans have criticized him for his reluctance, and often downright refusal, to give interviews, as well as his refusal to cooperate with biographers. Anyone who’s been to a Van Morrison concert over the past 30 years has witnessed a performer often singing with his back to the audience, caring not one whit whether or not he bonds with the crowd, palpably distant, and sometimes apparently distracted by the search for the perfect note, to hit the groove with his band. Tickets to his concerts remind the audience that the performance begins promptly at a certain time and no one gets in after that.
(And they are concerts, not “shows.” There’s never any flash, just a singer trying to find his voice and wrap it around or under the music.)
No other musician has guarded his identity, shrouded it in mystery, refused to be pinned down to a musical genre or style, and hidden himself away from the public eye more than Van Morrison.
Although people have sometimes called Morrison a misanthrope and a recluse, and have generally despised his reluctance to embrace his celebrated contributions to all forms of popular music, all of that misses the point. It is Morrison’s voice that creates his enduring presence, and he’s well aware that it’s his most important instrument. Watch him in a live performance, or in one of the many videos of his performances available on You Tube, and while he might hold a guitar on some of his songs – the clip of his 1996 performance of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” is a classic example – it’s often just a prop.
In that 1996 performance, you can see Morrison ruminating as he searches for the opening phrase, wondering where to jump in, where to lead. Such moments make it appear that he is impatient (he may be) with his band or maybe with himself. And in that classic clip of Morrison gyrating across the stage on “Caravan,” there are moments when he almost sneers at Robbie Robertson because Morrison is ready to come back in and Robertson is still blithely riffing along on his lead. Even toward the end of the video, Morrison looks as if he’s found his groove, ridden it, and is ready to leave but the band keeps on playing, so Morrison has one more jump kick across the stage. He looks frustrated when he walks offstage, and you can see in it in hindsight. Folks in the audience for that anointed night at Winterland likely felt Morrison’s energy, the growl in his voice, the way Morrison’s voice followed its turns in and out of the mystic, and were “healed,” as a later Morrison lyric has it.
Van Morrison turned 70 earlier this week. In celebration, Legacy Recordings released the Essential Van Morrison, a 2-CD, 37-track anthology of Morrison’s music, both from his long solo career and from his early days with Them. Later this year, Legacy will release Morrison’s earliest recording with Them, and eventually will also release deluxe editions of Saint Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and Enlightenment. In addition, Legacy made 33 Morrison albums as digital releases and available for streaming – many of them never before available in such formats. It’s listening through this music that we begin to know a little more of the artist, as he struggles with the bloody Irish civil and religious wars in “That Rough God Goes Riding” or “Saint Dominic’s Preview” or “Almost Independence Day.” Or when he travels down the rocky road of love in “Tupelo Honey” or “Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)?” Or when he peers through the tangles of the mundane looking for “Enlightenment,” or pleas for solace in “Lord, If I Ever Needed Someone.”
Yet, there has never been a definitive biography of Van Morrison, mostly because Morrison refuses to cooperate with writers or grant them interviews. The closest we have is Clinton Heylin’s, Can You Feel the Silence?: Van Morrison: A New Biography (Chicago Review Press, 2004). While Heylin draws on over 100 interviews with Morrison’s friends and colleagues, the book still lacks Morrison’s distinctive voice.
The best book on Morrison remains Greil Marcus’ brilliant study of his music, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (PublicAffairs, 2010). In these provocative reflections on the many musical moments of Morrison’s life, Marcus, our most perceptive music critic – whose seminal book of music and cultural criticism, Mystery Train, turns 40 this year – searches for the story that Morrison’s music tells. Listening to songs from “Mystic Eyes” (1965) and “Tupelo Honey” (1971) to Morrison’s performance of his “Caravan” on The Band’s Last Waltz (1976) and his live performance of “Mystic Eyes” in 2009, Marcus points to the moment in the song when Morrison finds that magic chord, riff, or note and everything is transformed. “Morrison's music opened onto the road it has followed since [Astral Weeks],” he writes, “a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps, and snares down the middle.”
Marcus hears Morrison’s genius, and his deep dissatisfactions and his yearnings, in his voice, which “as a physical fact, Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied.”
One of Marcus’ most brilliant moves is to compare Morrison with another exceptional musician whose virtuosity and unwavering focus on the music itself eventually destroyed him: Peter Green, and Green’s time in Fleetwood Mac (in the best years of that band). Marcus views the 16 albums that Morrison released from 1980 through 1996 – beginning with 1980’s Common One and going through 1996’s Tell Me Something – as Morrison’s desert period, when the singer was putting out some of his dullest and least interesting music.
According to Marcus, “Morrison comes from a similar place [as Green], with the same belief in the blues as a kind of curse one puts on oneself, but for a long desert in his career, he fled from it, his voice hollowing out along with the placid, reassuring world his music described ... his music was all self-reference, until solipsism ruled and awarded its crown: the solipsistic is always king of his own kingdom, and who willingly gives up a down?”
Morrison comes out of his doldrums with 1997’s The Healing Game. Writes Marcus: “All of that is left behind on The Healing Game; as a singer of confidence and pride, Morrison sometimes goes almost as far into the dark as Green did. Morrison dominates each song on The Healing Game – but the word song seems much too small. Like the rough god he sings about, Morrison is astride each incident in the music, each pause in a greater story, but often the most revealing moments – the moments that reveal the shape of a world, a point of view, an argument about life – are at the margins.”
On “Madame George,” from Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the repetition of the words “dry your eyes” and “goodbye” is the transformative moment when the search for the right word suddenly occurs and finds a body of flesh to hold the word. In “Tupelo Honey,” the phrase “drop it, smack dab, in the middle” modulates the romantic tone of the song and reveals the violent undertone of the lyrics.
About Morrison’s version of “It’s All in the Game,” on 1979’s Into the Music, Marcus observes: “But when Morrison says, ‘And your heart will – yeah – fly away,’ the last two words are so small, like fireflies, that in their lightness the song takes on an emotional weight it's never had before, in all of its long life ... the yaargh was just a sound back on that first number, in the growls of ‘Bright Side of the Road,’ but now, with Morrison deepening the old song, it's a whisper, and a spell ... Morrison is the witness, the guide, the narrator, but like nobody else he steps into the song as a ghost lover.”
In the end, Marcus writes: “Van Morrison's music as I hear it holds a story – a story made of fragments. There is in his music from the very first a kind of quest: for the moment when the magic word, riff, note, or chord is found and everything is transformed. At any time a listener might think that he or she has felt it, even glimpsed it, a realm beyond ordinary expression, preaching out as if to close your hand around such a moment, to grab for its air, then opening your fist to find a butterfly in it--but Morrison's sense of what that magic moment is must be more contingent. For him the quest is about the deepening of a style, the continuing musical situations in which his voice can rise to its own forms.”
Morrison fans might disagree with some of Marcus’ assessments – his assessment of Morrison’s desert period, for example – but Marcus’ clear love and admiration for Morrison’s most thought-provoking and musically astonishing work offers new glimpses of Morrison’s musical genius. Yet, Marcus sums up Morrison in terms that put him in the same pantheon as John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, and Elvis: “You put a man next to a microphone, hand him a sheet of words, and soul comes out.”