To those who were listening, it was clear that Van Morrison was as intense and imaginative a performer as any to emerge from the first wave of the post-Beatles British Invasion. Yet it was equally clear, to those who saw his early live shows in 1965, that Morrison lacked the flash and the flair for pop stardom possessed by such clearly inferior singers as Keith Relf of the Yardbirds or Eric Burdon of the Animals. Morrison communicated distance, not immediacy; bitterness, not celebration. His music had power, but also subtlety; as a white R&B singer he was a great lyric poet. Without the superb studio band that had played on his records, he seemed unfocused, and his music did not quite come across.What he lacked in glamour he made up in weirdness. He was small and gloomy, with more black energy than he knew what to do with, the wrong man to meet in a dark alley, or cross on a stage. He did not fit the maracas-shaking mold of the day; instead, in 1965, he recorded a shimmering version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that in some ways was stronger than Dylan’s, and turned the fey Paul Simon composition “Richard Cory” into a bone-chilling horror story. Who was this Irish kid, singing folk songs and R&B with the raw emotion of a country bluesman, but never sounding black?
In 1966 Them broke apart for good, and Morrison took himself to New York under the wing of producer Bert Berns, scoring in 1967 with “Brown Eyed Girl,” his first Top Ten single, after which he was promptly forgotten. Brooding and drinking hard, Morrison moved to Boston, where, in an incomprehensible Belfast accent, he pestered late-night DJs for John Lee Hooker sides. Once he was booed off the stage when a group that would later make up part of the J. Geils Band called him out of the audience to front their version of “Gloria.” “Don’t you know who this is?” Peter Wolf shouted at the hissing crowd. “This man wrote the song!”
But they didn’t know. In 1967, when you said “Morrison” you meant the Doors, who, one read at the time in Crawdaddy, were preparing a treatment of “Gloria” that upon release (it never was released) would surely be greeted by the gathering storm of new rock fans as “a masterpiece.”
As if Van Morrison’s performance of “Gloria” had ever been anything else.
Bert Berns had tried. He and Morrison had followed “Brown Eyed Girl” with a dark, bluesy album called (with too-late trendy hopes) Blowin’ Your Mind; the music was well-made (Eric Gale played first-rate guitar), but also morbid. Sales were minimal. The signature track was titled “T.B. Sheets,” which was exactly what it was about. Who wanted to listen to an endless song about tuberculosis when the air was filled with the sounds of the Summer of Love?
Morrison returned to Ireland, apparently a burnt-out victim of the pop wars. There he wrote a set of songs about childhood, initiation, sex and death, which finally took form as Astral Weeks, a strange, disturbing, exalting album for which there was little precedent in rock and roll history when it was released in November 1968. Tempered by jazz restraint (Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet played drums, while the great Richard Davis provided the finest bass playing ever to appear on a rock and roll record) and three levels of string arrangements, the disc moved with a rock beat and a rock feel. It was as serious an album as could be imagined, but it soared like an old Drifters 45.
With Astral Weeks, Morrison opened the way to a new career, and established himself as a performer who deserved to be ranked with the creators of the very best rock and roll music. He has lived up to that promise.
Astral Weeks did not sell strongly, but it attracted widespread critical attention, and, in some sections of the country (most notably the San Francisco Bay Area), constant airplay on a few of the FM rock stations just then coming to the fore. Both reviews and airplay paid off with subsequent releases, and Morrison achieved a solid if not a mass popularity with Moondance (1970) and with singles such as “Domino” (1970) and the wonderful “Wild Night” (1971). He had moved to Woodstock, and he celebrated a pastoral life of domesticity and sexual delight; the hard edge of his early music, and the profound ambiguities of Astral Weeks, seemed well behind him. Then he relocated in Marin County, where his wife had grown up and where his popularity was fierce; one more album of good times (his best) followed, Tupelo Honey (1971); his domestic paradise fell apart; and his music turned tough once again, with Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972). Yet Morrison’s music has been of a piece.
“When I was very young,” the late Ralph J. Gleason wrote in a review of Moondance, “I saw a film version of the life of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, playing himself. In it he explained to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice off from the other good ones was very specific. ‘You have to have,’ he said, ‘the yarrrrragh in your voice.'”
Van Morrison has the yarrrrragh. His career, especially since Astral Weeks, can be seen as an attempt to deal with the yarrrrragh: to find music appropriate to it; to bury it; to dig it out; to draw from that sound, that aesthetic (for it is an aesthetic more than it is merely a sound), new tales to tell, or old tales to tell in new ways. The yarrrrragh is Van Morrison’s version of Leadbelly, of jazz, of blues, of poetry. It is a mythic incantation, and he will get it, or get close to it, suggest it, with horns (no white man working in popular music can arrange horns with the precision and grace of Van Morrison), strings, in melody, in repetition (railing the same word, or syllable, 10, 20, 30 times until it has taken his song where he wants it to go). To Morrison the yarrrrragh is the gift of the muse and the muse itself. He has even written a song about it: “Listen to the Lion.” Across 11 minutes, he sings, chants, moans, cries, pleads, shouts, hollers, whispers, until finally he breaks away from language and speaks in Irish tongues, breaking away from ordinary meaning until he has loosed the lion inside himself. He begins to roar: he has that sound, that yarrrrragh, as he has never had it before. He is not singing it, it is singing him.That is a mystical description; it is a mystical song. Much of what Morrison has done in the last years has been in this vein (though not obviously; Sri Chinmoy has yet to appear on one of Morrison’s LP covers). Certain themes have emerged in Morrison’s music, from album to album: an attempt to come to grips with his existence as an Irishman, whose homeland is in flames, who lives safely, if not peacefully, in America; a corresponding will to discover or recapture a mythical homeland, “Caledonia,” or Scotland, the place from which his ancestors originally came, ages ago; an attempt to shape and communicate a sense of freedom. All—the resolution of each of these questions—come down to the yarrrrragh, Morrison’s sound, which he cannot, it seems, get at will, which is definitely not “a style,” which is a gift and a mystery and understood as such. When Morrison touches that sound he is alive as an artist; he is an adventurer in mystic realms, a conqueror, a supplicant, whatever he would be. When he cannot get it—as on His Band and the Street Choir or Tupelo Honey. when he was likely not looking for it—he is an impeccable, satisfying, altogether masterful musician.
Morrison is heir to a tradition of mysteries, and he knows it. He is a Celt, and at least a spiritual descendant of the Irish prelate St. Brendan, who set out from Ireland 1500 years ago and who, according to legend, reached America itself, and perhaps founded a colony, which disappeared. So there may be a sense in which Morrison can understand that he was always an American (could have been, was meant to be); that his place in America is fated, even if it is unsettled, as he stretches out toward that mythical Caledonia, even believing, sometimes, that in a long and intricate manner, the blues came not from Africa, but from Scotland. That here came from there, that there are no divisions, that all parts of himself are, somehow, linked. Yet this is not a belief, it is a possibility, and the tension remains, driving the urge to wholeness, leading to albums like the incandescent Veedon Fleece (1974), or 1979’s Into the Music, in which every side of Morrison’s music touches every other.
Morrison remains a singer who can be compared to no performer in the history of rock and roll, a singer who cannot be pinned down, dismissed, nor fitted into anyone’s expectations. He is a conundrum: his mysticism, which is, I think, his final strength, is anchored by the day to day reality of the American life he has chosen, which is why his mysticism has nothing in common with the tawdry banalities prevalent in the “spiritual” rock and roll of the Seventies. But of course it is that anchor, that reality, that has brought his mysticism to the surface, that has demanded it. That is, one might think, the way it ought to work. Morrison, it can be seen now, is a man on a quest; it will be a long one, but there are listeners who will be with him for the duration.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976, edited by Jim Miller (later updated for the 1979 version)