Monday, 20 November 2017

"Hi, Jon"

Van Morrison: A Brush with Greatness

Here's a funny story from the Guardian in 2017 called The day Van Morrison remembered me – and impressed my girlfriend. 

A chance encounter in a restaurant in Bath with Van the Man leads to a bizarre series of events for one fan, recalls Jon Bewley.

In 1994 I was travelling around the UK visiting various arts festivals with an eye to setting up a new arts organisation, the future Locus+. At the Bath Festival, I was travelling alone. Not knowing the city, I chanced upon a small, out-of-the-way restaurant and during the meal I noticed to my great surprise that Van Morrison was eating there, too, with a companion.

I was, and still am, an enormous fan of Van Morrison and had a momentary crisis of what I should do about this opportunity to meet him. I decided to approach his table.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you during your meal,” I said.

They both looked up at me.

“But… Van Morrison?”

He nodded.

“I just wanted to say how much your music has been an important part of my life, say thank you, and wondered if I could shake your hand.”

“What’s your name?”, Van Morrison asked.

“Jon,” I replied.

He offered his hand and I shook it.

“Thank you, Jon,” he said.

I then left them to it.

The next day I was walking down one of the many pedestrian precincts in Bath in the sunshine when I noticed Van Morrison coming towards me talking on his mobile phone. As he approached our eyes met and as he passed he raised his hand and mouthed, “Hi Jon,” to me as he continued on his way. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn’t believe it – twice in two days.

The following day I had finished in Bath, so travelled back to Newcastle. It was my girlfriend’s birthday and I had a plan to surprise her with a weekend break in Dublin. We flew to the city and after checking into our hotel, decided to walk up O’Connell Street to St Stephen’s Green for early evening cocktails in the famous Shelbourne Hotel.

The bar was horseshoe-shaped and we had seats at the end of one side. After a few minutes my girlfriend turned to me and said: “Oh my God! You are not going to believe who has just walked in – Van Morrison!”

I almost choked on my margarita.

I turned around and Van Morrison had taken a seat at the bar opposite us. Our eyes met and after what seemed to be an eternity, he slowly raised his hand and mouthed: “Hi Jon.”

I was speechless with shock. Looking me in the eye, my companion said: “I didn’t know you knew Van Morrison.”

Monday, 13 November 2017

2017 Van Buyer's Guide

I thought late last year was a great time to buy Van product.  But he's gone even better this year with two new releases in under three months.  Doesn't Van know the meaning of the word 'retirement'? I urge all fans, both casual and the obsessed, to get out there and support the Van product release with your cards or wallet.  There is so much great music on offer.  

What about some special purchases for Christmas? You owe it to the next generation to pass on the Van legacy. Buy those CDs or vinyl versions for the kids or grandkids. Forget about their initial contemptuous looks. They'll come around in time.  What about that ungrateful son-in-law?  Get him hooked on Van and his negatives won't irritate you so much! Got any ex-wives?  Buy them the gift of Van and your divorce settlements won't crush you as much.  

Anytime is a good time to buy Van merchandise.  Here are some recent albums: 

1. Versatile (2017)  -  On December 1st, Van releases Versatile which similarly to Roll With the Punches sees Van releasing some originals among an album of covers.  Basically, the formula is one third Van and two thirds covers.  Roll With the Punches was bluesy whereas Versatile is more Jazz oriented.  Like Roll, Van also re-releases some songs.  It's a winning formula and it is sure to please fans.  Check out Van's official site for information.  

2. Roll With the Punches (2017)  -  it was only two months ago that Van released this deceptive little gem.  It's one of those records that grows on you with each listening.  It's Van's homage to blues and possibly Bob's Theme Time Radio Show

3. Keep Me Singing (2016) -  Keep Me Singing is a wonderful album, and, in my humble opinion, is easily in his Top 10.  Keep Me Singing is Van's 36th studio album and consists of 13 tracks - 12 original songs written and performed by Morrison, as well as a cover of the blues standard Share Your Love With Me - written by Alfred Baggs and Don Robey and previously recorded by artists such as Aretha Franklin and Kenny Rogers.

4. It's Too Late To Stop Now - Vol. II, III, IV + DVD (Released 10/6/16)

It's Too Late To Stop Now (Volumes II, III, IV & DVD) is a three CD and one DVD collection of previously unreleased live concert recordings from Van Morrison's mythic 1973 tour with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra.  Total run time is 313 minutes.

CD1: Recorded live at The Troubadour, Los Angeles, May 23, 1973
CD2: Recorded live at the Santa Monica Civic, California, June 29, 1973
CD3: Recorded live at The Rainbow, London, July 23 & 24, 1973
DVD: Recorded live at The Rainbow, London, July 24, 1973

5. The Essential Van Morrison (Released August 28, 2015)

A great 37 song overview of the man’s career.  I’m assuming some of your other best of Van CDs are worn out.  Very similar to the various Still on Top compilation albums but still great.

6. Moondance (2 CD version) (October 22, 2013)

The two CD version of the expanded Moondance album is a good choice. It contains a remastered version of Moondance and another CD of highlights from the multi-disc expanded version.

Other Product

Go to the official Van site and check out the merchandise.  There are vinyl versions of the albums, souvenir T -Shirts, hoodies, posters, caps, prosthetic limbs, etc. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Van's Best - Another Poll

Steve Hoffmann Music Forums is a fantastic site with a lot of Van material and comment.  Someone started a thread where people could vote on 21 Van albums.  I note that Common One, The Healing Game and Keep it Simple aren’t on there. Keep Me Singing wasn't around when the poll was constructed.  

The best according to this poll were as follows: 

  1.  Moondance
  2.  Astral Weeks
  3.  St Dominic's Preview
  4.  Tupelo Honey        
  5.  Veedon Fleece
  6.  His Band and Street Choir
  7.  It's Too Late to Stop Now
  8.  Into the Music
  9.  Hymns to the Silence
10.  No Guru, No Method, No Teacher
11.  Them
12.  Poetic Champions Compose
13.  Hard Nose the Highway     
14.  Avalon Sunset
15.  Wavelength
16.  Enlightenment
17.  Blowing Your Mind
18.  A Night in San Francisco
19.  Days Like This
20.  Irish Heartbeat
21.  Too Long in Exile

My own Top 21 might look like this just at the minute:

  1.  Astral Weeks
  2.  Moondance
  3.  Veedon Fleece
  4.  Keep Me Singing       
  5.  It's Too Late to Stop Now
  6.  St Dominic's Preview
  7.  No Guru, No Method, No Teacher
  8.  The Healing Game
  9.  Them 
10.  Into the Music
11.  Enlightenment
12.  Hard Nose the Highway
13.  A Night in San Francisco  
14.  Tupelo Honey
15.  Wavelength
16.  Common One
17.  His Band and Street Choir
18.  Keep it Simple
19.  Days Like This
20.  Hymns to the Silence
21.  Best of Volume 3

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Extreme Van Fan Anecdotes

Donna Lethal   -   Astral Weeks and T.B. Sheets both held - and hold - special places for me (you breathe in, you breathe out) not only from my Cambridge days when they still talked about Van - a decade and a half after he had left the neighbourhood - but as the soundtracks to great loss and the aftermath. I still can't listen to Into the Mystic because of the anguish that it accompanied. In Cambridge, I would wander around Harvard Square hungover early in the morning, out to buy cigarettes, unable to get the image of the 90-something drunk man playing knucklebones or the jailbird with "1%" hand tattoos who both shared our table the night before, not knowing how or why I had ended up there, until finally it was time for the movie theatre to open where I spent days away from my stifling apartment. Most nights I slept in my giant claw-foot tub. Eventually, I fled to New York.

Rob Muszynski   -   Living in the Bay area, I have had the chance to not only see him many times but I've had several conversations with him.  I made a case of Vin Morrison for some guests that I took to one of his concerts. Van kept one bottle and signed another for me. It's in a little trophy case. 

Rod Stewart   -   In 2006 I took my daughters to see Van play in LA. The promoter tells me Van would love to meet me backstage. So off I go. Van walks towards me and I stand up to give him a friendly hug and he just barges past me. Unbelievable. Why can't he just be nice to people?

Maya Webb   -   We all used to go to a dive bar after work.  This bar had a juke box and on that juke box was the album by Van Morrison called T.B. Sheets.  I would watch Mike across the room as he would smoke, drink, flirt with girls, play pool and at the end of the night he would put money into the juke box and play the title song from the album. It is 9 minutes and 34 seconds and I wished it would go on forever.

Unknown   -   I've always heard that Morrison still has stage fright after all these years and he's only effusive when well lubricated, which can put a show on one side or the other of falling apart or being classic.  I've seen him three times. Once in LA on his ill-considered tour with Linda Gail Lewis. I don't know how he could have thought that album was a good idea.  And twice in Atlanta both of which times were great, though he did not interact either time. As far as concert quirks: A) For some reason he's rarely able to pull off Moondance live and B) he tends to use the lyric "made of rattleskin hide" instead of "made of rattlesnake hide" when he's doing Who Do You Love?  And speaking of concerts, his shows are widely torrented and bootlegged, and many of them sound better than commercial live recordings by other artists. 

Hey Vinyl Man   -   As I understand it, it's not because he "doesn't address his audience" that people consider Van Morrison contemptuous. It's because he's been known to be outright rude to them on occasion - pretty much the definition of contemptuous. There's surviving video of a concert in 1974, I think in San Francisco, where some poor misguided soul called out for Brown Eyed Girl and he took more than five seconds to tell the guy off. (His response was something like, "If you keep your mouth shut, you might get what you want, otherwise you're just boring me to death and probably everybody else!")

vanderleun   -   The origin of T. B. Sheets is, figuratively and literally, in nightmare.  His mother, Violet Morrison, said that the song originally had emerged from a nightmare her son had and that he had felt it so strongly that he couldn't tell it to her but sang it instead with verses lasting for an hour.
An hour? The song on the album runs nearly 10 minutes, twice the length of any of the others, and an eternity for a pop album of the mid-60s. But an hour? Just to stay in that mental space for 10 minutes is enough for most people. (The song did not chart.) But an hour is inconceivable.  Still, I'd like to hear it. It's a song that first insinuates itself deep into your lungs and then crawls down your bones:

So open up the window and let me breathe,
I said, open up the window and let me breathe
I'm looking down to the street below
Lord, I cried for you, Oh, Lord.

The cool room, Lord, is a fool's room,
The cool room, Lord, is a fool's room,
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets
And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets, on your sick bed.

I gotta go, l gotta,
And you said, please stay.
I want, I want a drink of water,
I want a drink of water,
I went to the kitchen to get me a drink of water,

I gotta go baby.
I send, I send, I send somebody around here later,
You know we got John comin' around

Later with a bottle of wine for you, babe."

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Unionist or Republican?

Q. How do you get 50 Orangemen in a phone booth? 

A. Tell them they can't march in there.

Anyway, Quora was founded in 2009 and is a question-and-answer site where questions are asked, answered, edited and organised by its community of users. Here’s a Van question that someone submitted:

Is Van Morrison sympathetic to the Unionists or Republicans in Northern Ireland?

Toby Smith   -   Van Morrison was born to a Protestant family in a working class district of East Belfast, an overwhelmingly Unionist area. He also recently became Sir George Ivan Morrison when he was knighted by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace on 4 February. His reaction to the occasion was overwhelmingly positive, saying it was "amazing" and "exhilarating", suggesting he does not have any antipathy towards the idea of Northern Ireland's status within the United Kingdom. He was nominated by Sammy Douglas, a staunchly Unionist local politician.

The two facts above place him fairly and squarely in the Unionist camp.

However, in Johnny Rogan's biography of the man, we can read that, as a child, he had both Protestant and Catholic friends and wished that they could get on better than they did. We also know that he regularly sells out live venues in the Republic of Ireland, and has recorded versions of many Irish folk songs. So although he is Unionist by birth and upbringing, he is not a staunchly political person and would seem to be proud of all aspects of his Irish heritage.

Eamon O'Kelly   -    I don't think Van Morrison is particularly invested in the politics of either side in Northern Ireland. To the best of my knowledge, he has never expressed a public opinion on the subject. At most, he may be a very lukewarm unionist. I need to note a flaw in the phrasing of the question, insofar as it juxtaposes the terms unionist and republican. The counterpart to “unionist” is “nationalist”. In the Northern Ireland context, republicans are an extremist minority among nationalists who favour the use of violence and terrorism in support of the political goal of a united Ireland.

As other answers have noted, Van Morrison grew up in a Protestant household in East Belfast and thus likely was “unionist” by birthright. He has, however, lived in the Republic of Ireland and in the United States for protracted periods and therefore is unlikely to have strong associations among the Northern Ireland political class, unionist or nationalist. I should note that the terms unionist and nationalist themselves are becoming increasingly anachronistic. Opinion polls suggest that a significant percentage of nationalist voters (even Sinn Féin voters) favour remaining in the United Kingdom.

Philip Deane   -   This is not based on anything but my own thoughts...... So feel free to take it with a pinch a salt. Van grew up in East Belfast which was a predominately Protestant community, so you could say in his early life he could have had loyalist leanings. But as with most people from Northern Ireland, when you step outside and look back in, you realise it is just a petty squabble. So any leanings one way or another would have quickly been displaced. Being a musician, he is not caring about the religion of the person he is playing with, he is caring about harmony, timing and sound. So I would be shocked if he had any leanings at all. 

EXTRA NOTE: It's good that the conflict in Northern Ireland seems to have declined in the last couple of decades.  It seems both sides seem to want to move on and try to forget the past, which is really positive. Not everyone will agree with that, of course. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Them - The Fans Speak!

Anonymous   -   How can anyone seriously say that Van Morrison "made a BIG mistake" leaving Them? First of all, he made Astral Weeks, a singular album of such brilliance that Them could NEVER touch it. Then he made several other great albums, and had far more commercial success than Them with or without him, while not compromising his integrity.

Anonymous   -   I don't think Van Morrison regrets leaving Them! But Time out time in for is at least better than his first solo album (put out against his wishes).

Junodog4   -   Overshadowed by Van Morrison, but their brief output was stellar.  I guess they were more of a singles band (Gloria, Here Comes the Night, Baby Please Don't Go).

Blogger Constantine   -   Time out time in for and Now & Them are both better than anything Van ever put out. Especially the sloppy overrated hipster magnet Astral Weeks!

Walter   -   disillusioned by The Stones, and shortly afterwards by The Pretty Things, the jazzy style of THEM was exactly what we needed back in 1965/66.  Their Little Girl  is one of my Top songs ever. Not the official version, but an alternative one, featured on a double vinyl LP. Probably an outtake and published erroneously.

Gerard Hennessy   -   I’ve just heard that the great Alan Henderson died in Minneapolis USA in 2017. With the exception of The Belfast Gypsies, he was in every other incarnation of Them in both the 60’s and 70’s. For me, Alan more than anyone, deserves to be known as Mr Them. Since leaving music in the early 1980’s he had been working in the construction industry.

GBlueOwl   -   I've noticed something weird about old Them tracks that have been turning up on compilations lately; they're no longer credited to Them.

A couple of years ago, when the first Sopranos soundtrack album was released, it contained the track Mystic Eyes credited to Them featuring Van MorrisonFine. But earlier this year when the second Sopranos soundtrack was released it had a track listing for Gloria credited to Van.  I thought it was probably a live Van Morrison recording of the song, but later when I heard the album it turned out to be the original classic Them recording.

Also, on the Nuggets II box set there's another original Them track which is credited to "Van Morrison" on the track listing on the back of the box, although in the booklet under the entry for the song there's a notation that says something along the lines of "originally released under the name Them". I don't have the booklet available to me right now to quote exactly, but the descriptive paragraph also refers to this as a Them track, and even says that the band actually played on it, a rare event at that point in the group's history.

Skydropco   -   Billy Harrison did an intense interview in Ugly Things Magazine awhile back, they could have put a bit of that in. Billy has an ego to match Van's, and sets the record straight (on his terms) on a lot of musical ideas that made Them great. Poor Alan Henderson, hardly mentioned, was with Van right to the end and beyond. Of course, Them had a couple of dozen musicians pass through it's ranks (and that's up to only '66!), to me the golden years were '64-'65 the later stuff is good when Van leans towards more r&b soul, but it's not really Them.

Hallucalation   -   Jackie McAuley is my Facebook friend and he doesn't want to remember his Them/Belfast Gypsies years at all. Billy is right. He was the musical heart of the group, after he left, it's all went out downhill. Them Again on the whole is a weak album with too much covers. The Dutch EP is very good though as well as later singles (Richard Cory & Call My Name).

Trevor Best   -   Billy Harrison worked in GPO ( Post Office Telephones) as an engineer. Firstly in Newtownards and later in Dial House Belfast. I first met Billy when I was a young lad that hung about the local music shop in Bangor on a Saturday . I was trying to play the riff from Gloria when this unknown person turned and said to me ” That’s not how it goes” He took the guitar and played it slightly differently. Being an impetuous youth, I argued that my way was right. The guy turned to me and said ” I know, cause I wrote the effing thing, son” That was about 1976.

Billy and I became friends and we came across each other every now and again as I worked for BT as well. I remember he went off to Germany to record a solo album on a guitar that he made himself (it looked a bit like a strat with the top horn cut off ). Around the same time I used to go to the Pound club on a Saturday afternoon to see Light playing. Jim Armstrong was a legendary guitarist. I only knew that he was the guy who had replaced Bill in Them. 

Lenny   -   Boooooooo!!!  I vastly PREFER the work he did with Them to his solo releases, and so to see Them written out of history as it were on the new triple album, and that material lumped in with the later stuff, really irks me. It seems deceptive, and a cruel blow to the band, as well.

James Saville   -   I hear people say Them was better than Van. Is it just revisionist history? Is this how people are now? You say Them was/is better than Van and somehow you're cooler? 

Gary Jackson   -   Some years ago, Decca in the UK, which had the Them material, was bought by Polygram, which is also Van Morrison's label. Maybe that's a clue

Lenny Smith   -   Van Morrison apparently freaks out when you mention THEM to him, in fact he'll just walk away. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Van: Belfast boy to Global Star

Here’s a great post from the Starts at 60 blog by Benjamin Hill mentioning Van’s father and some early Van history:

'I watched Van Morrison go from humble Belfast boy to global star'

Van Morrison's father George worked in the shipyards in Belfast. In the 1960s I was an apprentice electrician at Harland & Wolff, in its Belfast shipyard in Northern Ireland, and like all teenagers who could play a few chords on the guitar, I was in awe of The Beatles, four working-class boys from Liverpool who had turned the music scene upside down. We would always be discussing the merits of the latest groups in the charts but usually you were Team Beatles or Team Rolling Stones.        

George Morrison was an older electrician in the yard, who was a blues fanatic with a great record collection. These records were hard to come by but George would get them from the sailors on US ships that came in to Belfast for repairs. He told us that a lot of the music we were listening to originated from these Afro-American artists. But George the electrician had a real interest in a local Belfast band called Them. The lead singer of Them was George’s son, Van Morrison, who followed his father’s great love of blues.  

Van ‘The Man’ started with a band called The Monarchs, who took the same path as The Beatles by playing in sleazy night clubs in Hamburg, but when they broke up Van was back in Belfast to team up with Billy Harrison, Alan Henderson, Eric Wrixson and Ronnie Millings to form Them. They took up residence at The Maritime Hotel and were billed as Ireland’s specialists in rhythm and blues, attracting a cult following not unlike The Beatles at The Cavern or The Rolling Stones at The Crawdaddy Club.  

In July 1964 the band travelled to the London Studios of Decca and recorded Slim Harpo’s Don’t Start Crying Now.   Decca called in specialist rhythm and blues producer Bert Berns and Them had their first big hit Baby Please Don’t Go, an old Big Joe Williams standard that was also recorded by Muddy Waters. The flip-side was the Van Morrison-penned Gloria, which was a favourite with the fans at The Maritime Hotel. 

Baby Please Don’t Go raced up the UK charts when it was used as the theme tune of the TV show Ready Steady Go. Next was Here Comes The Night, which became their biggest hit, rising to number three in the UK charts. Although their live performances were great, they could not produce the same sound on records, though, so session musicians (one of which was Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame) were brought in to complement Van Morrison’s vocals.  

So the band Them had a short life and Van Morrison relocated to the US in 1967, but they left behind a legacy of pure ‘Belfast blues’, highlighted by a fantastic seven-minute autobiographical track called The Story Of Them with the opening line “Who are, what are Them?”.

Reader Comments

David Fleming   -   It wasn't the Maritime Hotel, it was the Maritime Club in College Street Belfast.

Denise Doyle   -   It was an old seaman's Hostel....given the title of hotel....Van got together with Jimmy,Jerry and Gerry to form the Club having been to Ken Coleraine club in London on the groups journey home from Hamburg.

Joe Brown   -   Van the man is a legend, his compilations with Tom Jones, Cliff Richard and The Chieftains are the best, The best live album I've ever heard is Van Morrison, A NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO.

Maureen Croxford   -   Love his songs, been to see him in concert but have to say that he should stick to the studio because he is not comfortable in front of an audience. Best album has to be Poetic Champions Compose.

Mally Toussaint   -   Beautiful voice. Most boring stage presence ever!

Ruby West   -   Them also played The Jazz Club in Belfast . We were all proud of his success then and now. Belfast was the best place to live in the 60s. I went to every dance hall, club anywhere where music was.

Catherine McCullough   -   They also played in Sammy Huston's Jazz Club on Thursday nights!

Jenny England  -   One of my favourites - so sexy!

David Martin   -   I am the same age and lived close to Van. I was a regular at the Maritime and Jazz Club - possibly 7 nights a week. I remember him from the beginning. I used to have a drink at the Fiddler's Arms round the corner from the Maritime and the Crown close to the Jazz Club. I was close friends with Billy Kennedy the son of Eddie Kennedy and Kerry Scott who was his nephew. Those three bouncers Gerry, Jerry and Jimmy could be quite aggressive and threatening at times. Lucky I was on good terms with them. My three friends got involved with two deadheads in the Jazz Club that were getting a bit nasty with Van. He was recently returned from Them's first USA tour and slipped into the club and was standing by himself minding his own business. We give them a bit of a send off. There were a few good stories he related about the scene in the USA and the famous stars he met in Hollywood. Sadly things began to break down out there amongst the Them members, but then upwards and onwards as an outstanding solo career lasting 50 years.

Kenny Kate Dowden   -   Van was the sax player in the Monarch show band. I was the bass player in the 60 sixties. He was a great muso and a good friend. 

Jim Fitzsimmons   -   Met him in person...a rude twisted twat!

Michael McPhee   -   Van bought a friends home up in Hollywood out of Belfast turned it into a studio. Bit of a miserable dour bugger if you asked me but I have about a dozen of his albums. First record I bought was Gloria.

Barbara Kahi  -   Have been waiting years for Van the man to come to Australia/New Zealand.

Linda Barber   -   I'm a huge Van fan. Absolutely love him. Saw him in concert years ago in Australia and wish he would come out again.

Mary Veronika Porter   -   I stood in the back queue with him in Mill Valley, California. We talked.