Not even his mistakes, from the windy rap of “Philosophy” in the early Them days to the sentimental bitterness of Hard Nose the Highway in 1973, subvert the shape of his career, because scars and wounds are part of that shape. And his career has been a kind of war: with producers (he now produces himself), with managers (Bill Graham has taken over) and with himself. Van’s voice, calling up the thickness of Muddy Waters, the hurt and warmth of Bobby Bland and the delicacy of Smokey Robinson, is a constant in his music; passion and lyricism are too. But refusal is also a constant: a loud no, or a quiet no that is harder for its menace. Van has been in the music business but never quite of it. His relationship to the audience seems somehow accidental, and often it’s clearly an adversary relationship.
Still, if Bob Dylan plays the sensitive, even tortured artist, you know that however much he believes in the role, he believes in it as a role. That isn’t so for Morrison. There’s no distance in his music or performance, good or bad. Even when his resistance to a crowd is palpable, so concrete you can feel it pressing on your chest, it’s no conceit: It’s real. With a new album and a new manager, Morrison has begun a national tour, his first in a long while. It kicked off at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco the weekend of October 5. Nearing the end of the late show on the second night of the gig, Morrison opened up space in “Caravan,” an encore; he slowed the song almost to a stop, as if daring the crowd to anticipate his timing. He’s done this sort of thing for years, and the effect is always dramatic, disconcerting; here the audience responded with unison clapping. For the first time that night, save for his introduction of the band, Van talked to the crowd. “Shut up,” he said. “Just shut up. We do the work here, not you.”
The echoes of that nasty moment come from every phase of Morrison’s career. Jarring as they are, they’re one version of the driven grace in his assault on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a Them recording; the shockingly brutal references to bad air in “T.B. Sheets”; the impossibly exultant cries of “a cool wind” in “Almost Independence Day.” Morrison is incapable of letting you off the hook.
The problem with the show I saw in San Francisco was that the hook was never really there. It was a good show, short and tight; I came away having had a good time, but without having been moved, threatened or thrilled. Never have I seen anyone convey blankness with such intensity.
Van’s new band—two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, plus two women singing back-up—is professional and ordinary; from the first vamp for Morrison’s entrance, it promised no surprises. Van appeared (looking as he did in The Last Waltz, not like the virile stud on the cover of Wavelength) and applied himself to “Moondance.” Then he tossed the tune to Katie Kissoon, one of the backup singers. As a friend said, it was as if someone had let the air out of a balloon: All waving arms and fake smiles, Kissoon delivered a performance that would have been appropriate only on an Oscar telecast. As Van finished the number, Kissoon and her partner screeched him right out of the mix.Van went straight into “Wavelength.” It seemed twice as big as on record, all beat and presence, a great piece of rhythm that, thanks to the superb clarity of the Old Waldorf’s sound system, you could hear in your stomach. The pace changed with “Into the Mystic”—instead of a sax burring quietly behind the line, “When the foghorn whistle blows,” we got more screeches—and Morrison moved the show on with two love songs from the new album. They seemed formal—there was no sense Van was singing his own life—and offered moods in a middle range: desire and pleasure, but not joy or rage. Without a horn section, there was none of the interaction Morrison has brought to performances in the past, when he directed his musicians like a puppetmaster; he didn’t sing off the guitar, and the band stuck to its arrangements. The audience was pushing harder than the people on the stage. The audience found itself pushed back when Morrison briefly left the stage to Kissoon for an entire song, “Crazy Love,” which she blithely transmogrified into “Feelings.” It would have been different if Morrison had been backed by Martha Reeves or Darlene Love, not to mention Christine McVie—but this was insane. Again, he had to start all over. “Kingdom Hall” and “Natalia”—from Wavelength—had punch and flair, but a contradiction was emerging, a contradiction the show was meant to hide.
What we were seeing was one true side of Van Morrison: the pop romantic who has surfaced on most all of his records since Moondance, but who speaks most vitally on the gorgeous Tupelo Honey. This Morrison makes music of affection, sensuality and acceptance. He wants peace of mind and ordered satisfaction most of all, and sings as if he already has them. But the Van Morrison who has caused some people to commit themselves to his career as if it were a quest distrusts conventional satisfactions and cannot rest with any sort of peace. This is the man behind “Listen to the Lion,” “Mystic Eyes” and “St. Dominic’s Preview.” What he wants most is freedom, and what he tells us is that getting hold of freedom is perhaps not as hard as living up to it, standing up to it. Often, these two sides of Morrison’s music come together, and when they do, the result is a sort of mystical deliverance. You’re spared not a single fear, but you’re somehow insulated from all of them—as is Van.
This is what happened on Astral Weeks, “Almost Independence Day,” and, on Veedon Fleece, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” (“Listen to the piano at the beginning,” Jonathan Cott once said to me. “That’s a prayer”) and “You Don’t Pull No Punches but You Don’t Push the River.” This was more than peace of mind; this was peace with life.
When all we’re allowed to see is one side of this conundrum, we’re all too aware of what’s being held back. And what is being held back will find its way out one way or the other, as it did when Van the romantic shut the audience up.
I thought about some of this during “Natalia,” until Van’s cry of “I’ve transcended myself!” jerked me out of my reverie. “I hope not,” I said out loud to no one, but two songs later Van proved himself wrong, with Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.” This was pure 1967 sleazy Fillmore Auditorium white blues, with Van alternating between his harp and the words, as far as I could tell not taking a breath. Despite effete touches added by the back-up singers, who grinned madly throughout the magnificent desperation Morrison was churning up, this was the high point of the night: blood on the floor. “When you walk, walk with me,” he shouted; “When you talk, talk with me—You gotta help me/I can’t do it all by myself!” Morrison wasn’t asking the audience for encouragement, as most singers would do with this song. His plea was aimed at someone—or something—much harder to reach. This was our first and only glimpse of the Van Morrison who can scare a crowd, and it was almost enough.
For all the songs from Wavelength included in the set, Morrison passed on his longest and most striking new composition, “Take It Where You Find It.” With Garth Hudson of the Band on organ and Van’s words ragged into indecipherability at times, this is the only number on Wavelength that sounds obsessed, that hurts. “Lost dreams and found dreams/In America,” he sings, repeating the last line, then repeating it again: America offers its adventurers everything but a final settlement, and that’s a deal Morrison will take. A settlement was close to what the show at the Old Waldorf seemed made for, but true to the long rhythms of his career, Van couldn’t quite keep the bargain.
Despite a terribly flat start October 7, NBC’s Saturday Night remains the only real rock ‘n’ roll show on television. Debuting the fall season, the regulars fumbled through pro forma retreads of last year’s hits without a hint of last year’s timing. The sole triumph came near the end, as Jimmy Carter (Dan Aykroyd) materialized, flanked by John Lennon (John Belushi) and Paul McCartney (Bill Murray), to announce “A Framework for the Reunification of the Beatles.” As Jimmy read off the details of the pact (“George Harrison will be limited to one song per album concerning the Indian subcontinent”), the camera cut in clips from the actual Carter-Begin-Sadat bash: Thus, as John and Paul leaped up for their ritual embrace, McGovern, Jackson and Vance broke into applause. You could almost see the fish in Jimmy’s mouth.
The show also featured the first live TV performance since I don’t know when by the Rolling Stones, and they came across with perhaps the only form of outrage left to them: They were outrageously bad. The band stomped all over whatever suggestions of rhythm they allowed their songs to retain, blowing changes left, right and center. Mick didn’t sing. He growled, off-key and flat, as if he’d been up for a week. “Beast of Burden,” “Respectable” and a madly cracked “Shattered” weren’t songs, they were little punch-outs: stuff you might hear after-hours in a roadhouse. I loved every moment.
Real Life Rock Top Ten
1. Bryan Ferry, The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic)
2. Ben E. King, “Tippin” (Atlantic)
3. Diego Cortez, Private Elvis, a book of photographs by Rudolf Paulini with text by Duncan Smith (Fey/Two Continents)
4. Wire, Chairs Missing (Harvest import)
5. Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain” (Warner )
6. Peter Tosh, “Don’t Look Back” (Rolling Stones Records)
7. Boston, “Don’t Look Back” (Epic)
8. Junior Thompson, “How Come You Do Me,” from Raunchy Rockabilly (Charly import)
9. prag Vec, “Existential/Bits/Wolf/Cigarettes” (Spec import)
10. Neil Young, Comes a Time (Reprise)
New West, November 30, 1978