Thursday, 28 May 2015

Shop Van Morrison

Everyone loves to shop these days it seems.  I’ve noticed a kind of global obsession to buy things.   When I was young no one talked about retail therapy.  We had no money and yet it seemed like we had all that we needed.  I’m really surprised by this global shopping mania.  Even men my age seem to have become so feminised that they want to engage me in conversation about soft furnishings or talk about how “cute” some giftware item is.  The world’s moved on and I haven’t.  

Apparently, people like to buy things and then post photos of what they've bought on something called Facebook.  People then receive positive affirmation about their shopping decisions when people "like" the photos.  (People really shouldn't get too chuffed about it because I've heard of people "liking" photos of child starvation, brutal crimes, freakish diseases and torture as well.) 

I still suspect that shopping fills a void that spiritual things did once upon a time. Having said all that, is there anyone who wants to shop Van Morrison?  Below is my shopping guide (and I’m the least qualified person to be advising you): 


There are always 7000 or so items listed on ebay using the search terms “Van Morrison” and “World”.  I notice that among the usual CDs, records, books and magazines one can buy ticket stubs, t-shirts, signed items, clippings and pieces of Van art. 

Van Shower Curtains

How do I explain this to male readers? Etsy is the global phenomenon of handmade shopping.  If someone can make it Etsy will have it.  When you visit Etsy you will find that snatches of Van lyrics have been applied to every nick-knack or furniture item possible.  There are clocks, ashtrays, tea towels, chairs, wall-hangings, plates, posters, jewellery, etc. Surprisingly there are also CDs, cassettes, records and t shirts for sale. 

Van Morrison   -   The Official Site

Van’s official site Van offers posters, t-shirts, hats and a couple of albums for sale.  Van's not as merched up as The Stones but he's getting there. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Astral Weeks Number 1 Again

Alan Ewart's list of 75 Essential Albums makes interesting reading.  He's got most of the usual classic albums in his list but also includes 5 albums by Van with Astral weeks at number 1.  Here's most of his wonderful post.  

75 Essential Albums
#1 Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

After 7 weeks of recommending a great album every day I come, at last, to my favourite album of all time the simply unsurpassable Astral Weeks by Celtic Soul legend, Van Morrison.  I have included no less than five Van Morrison albums in my list of 75 essential albums, Common One, Into The Music, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Moondance all making the cut.  It will be clear that I am a massive fan of Morrison’s work and to be frank I could have included 17 of his 30 plus albums in my top 75.  

The real strength of Morrison’s music lies in its originality, its spirituality, its depth and its life affirming freedom.  Nowhere is this more evident than on Astral Weeks.  This is an extraordinary album on so many levels.  It has influenced generations of musicians and yet before Van walked into the studio he had never met much less played with most of the jazz musicians who played on the album.  Rolling Stone points out that:

“It also sounds like the work of a group of musicians who had become finely attuned to one another through years of working together — but, in fact, Morrison had made his name with rock songs like Gloria and Here Comes the Night and he sang Astral Weeks sitting by himself in a glass-enclosed booth, scarcely communicating with the session musicians, who barely knew who he was.”

The album was recorded in just a few days and whilst Astral Weeks was critically acclaimed from its release and yet it was never a huge chart success.  Appreciation of the album increased as years past and it achieved legendary status with many reviewers over the years hailing it as the best album ever made.  The late great Lester Bangs said:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.  It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.  Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”

Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Astral Weeks. It is incredibly complex, obtuse, deep, surreal, allegorical and impossible to analyse.  It is an album that reaches right down into your soul, it becomes a part of you.  Even after many years and thousands of listens I find something new in the album almost every time I listen to it and there is rarely a week, much less a month when I don’t listen to it.

The album is often seen as a concept album and indeed it does progress through a life cycle from ‘Taking care of your boy/ seeing that he’s got clean clothes / putting on his little red shoes’ in the opening title track through to “I know you’re dying, baby / And I know you know it, too” in closing track ‘Slim Slow Slider’.  For many Astral Weeks was the ultimate ‘stoner’ album, something to lay back and absorb, to allow yourself to be carried away by it.  It may be the fact that the album is difficult to understand that leads people to this conclusion.  It is absorbing, a piece of fine art to be revered and enjoyed time and again.

Every song creates incredibly powerful imagery, it showcases Morrison’s abilities as a storyteller but above all it highlights his abilities as a vocalist.  It shows his mastery of phrasing and timing and the lyrics do paint pictures even if those pictures are sometimes disturbing.  The beauty of Sweet Thing “you shall take me strongly In your arms again, And I will not remember That I even felt the pain” contrasts with the lyrics in Cyprus Avenue where a presumably adult male sits in his car shaking and trembling as Van sings “nobody stops me from loving you baby, So young and bold, fourteen years old.”  

The joy of young lovers who  “sat on our own star and dreamt of the way that we were” contrasting with the transvestite Madame George “sitting in the corner playing dominoes in drag.”  It is complex, interesting and thought provoking piece of work.  It is the interest and engagement, the light and the dark, the joy and the sadness, the mundane and the spiritual which all blends together to create a piece of musical art that I doubt will ever be equalled much less surpassed.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Astral Travels of Van Morrison

Here's a great piece by Scott Foundas written in 2009 at the time of the Astral Weeks Live shows, CD and DVD.   The full article is at the SF Weekly site

"I believe I've transcended," Van Morrison repeatedly incanted toward the end of the title track from his 1968 album, Astral Weeks, during the second night of a brief November stint at the Hollywood Bowl. Indeed, frequently over the course of those two nights, the famously mercurial, 63-year-old Irish singer-songwriter seemed to transcend age, time, and whatever other ballasts turn some veteran performers into wan caricatures of themselves better suited to halls of fame than halls of music. All the more remarkably, he was, for the first time in his five-decade career, doing what could be loosely termed an "oldies show," performing Astral Weeks in its entirety, with a band that included Charles Mingus guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on the record itself.

But as far as Morrison is concerned, the resurrection of Astral Weeks isn't so much a journey into the past as an entirely new beginning. For all its enduring critical acclaim (Lester Bangs, for one, famously cited it as his favourite record), the album was a commercial non-starter upon its release and remains, along with 1974's masterful, defiantly uncommercial Veedon Fleece, one of his least-performed.

Astral Weeks was first recorded, in September of 1968, during a storied 48 hours at Manhattan's Century Sound Studios. Along with Berliner, many of the Astral Weeks session musicians (including bassist Richard Davis and late drummer Connie Kaye) were recruited because of their background in jazz. Most had never met or played with the singer before. "It was recorded like a jazz session, which is the way I like to do it," says Morrison. "It was an alchemical kind of situation, where the people involved could read the situation and come up with stuff spontaneously, and not belabour it, not overproduce or overthink it. Everybody on the sessions was like that, which was uncanny. That's the way it worked out."

Forty years later, a similar in-the-moment euphoria prevailed as another group of musicians--some old, some new--came together in L.A. "We'd only had one run-through, and even that wasn't a complete rehearsal," Morrison said. Nonetheless, when he and his band took to the Hollywood Bowl stage, the result was an inspired reimagining of the Astral Weeks song cycle, from a reshuffled track order to a dramatically expanded Slim Slow Slider, now transformed from a plaintive, three-minute album closer into a wailing, heart-wrenching eight-minute centrepiece. 

Meanwhile, from the first pluckings of the title track's pizzicato bass line to the final invocation to "get on the train" on Madame George, Morrison grunted, spoke in tongues, strummed his guitar, and blew his harmonica with such impassioned vigour that it really was as though he were playing these songs for the very first time. To be born again, indeed.

He doesn't suffer slackers, either. Pay close attention during one of his concerts--nearly two-dozen of which I've attended in the last decade--and you can frequently catch sight of band members scurrying to keep apace with their leader as he calls out sudden tempo changes or uses hand gestures to take a swelling crescendo down to a muted whisper and back again. 

For these and other reasons, it has not always been easy to find musicians tuned into his wavelength. "It's difficult to get them to go where I'm going," he told me during our first interview, in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "That's what you have to work on. It doesn't have anything to do with technical ability. Well, it has something to do with it, because they need the technical ability to start with, but then they need to drop that and follow me and break it down into something that's less complicated than that, so they can follow where I'm going."

Where he's going is, as often as not, into a stream-of-consciousness reverie where a single album cut is deconstructed and reassembled into a trance like epic often lasting a quarter-hour or more. In the '70s, songs like Caravan and Cyprus Avenue were regularly subject to such reinvention, while more recently, Morrison has favoured the likes of In the Afternoon and Burning Ground. These are the moments--the bedrock of any Morrison gig--in which the "healing" about which he's so often sung really begins.

The course that a concert takes depends on a couple factors. "One is, if you feel like the audience can go with you, then I can stretch out more. [The other is] finding key songs where I can get these particular musicians to go along with me, because every band combination is quite different. A lot of times, you can get musicians, but they don't have a rapport, so you have to build the set around where we can go. Some bands I've had can do anything, go anywhere, you know? Other bands can only do certain songs in a certain way. It just depends."

"Well, if you take it as a river, then it's got offshoots - this stream and that stream, north stream, south stream, slipstream. All sorts of streams, you know?" he says. "But it's all connected to the source. All that stuff that I picked up in the formative years is what I've been able to put together as my own thing, so to speak. For me, it's [about] going back to the source. That's where I first got the word, or heard that sound. You can't really say it is 'X,' because it just ends up being another word or a cliché. But that initial energy was turned on in me, and I was lucky enough to get to know some of the people--like John Lee Hooker, who was a very good friend over the years."

For the man who once sang that "my job is turning lead into gold," his own celebrity and its attendant pressures seem as much a double-edged sword as ever. "I never bargained on fame; it's just something I've had to deal with that came along with doing the music," he says. "It's like I've got these scars," he adds, pointing at his back, "and why do I have to keep showing people the scars all the time? You know what I mean? It's in the songs somewhere there. I still have to turn myself inside-out to do this. It's still got a price; it's not free. Doing these gigs--that's got a price. I have to act. I have to perform."

"The only thing I love is the music," he says, without hesitation. "The rest of it is pure shit. The kind of shit that fame attracts is very dark. It's very dark. I like the music, but that's it."

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Horsfield's Best Of

Here’s a forum initiated by Martin Horsfield’s search for the best songs of Van.  It can be found in full on The Afterward site

Martin Horsfield   -   The glaring lack of many works by The Man on Spotify sent me back to iTunes recently, in the hope of adding to my existing “best of”, assembled a good 10 years ago. Unfortunately, he’s pretty unrepresented on there as well these days, so I’ve spent the last week listening to the further reaches of his back catalogue and ripping the odd find to iTunes. So, now my best of is a good 50 songs long, covering as many of the veteran R&B grump’s Caledonian soul stompers, Celtic reveries and metaphysical musings as I could find.

But it’s too late to stop now. I fear there must be some deep cuts that I’ve missed. Or perhaps you could help me rearrange the running order so that the GLW doesn’t insist that I turn it off whenever we get into the more “difficult” likes of Rave On, John Donne. Maybe some of his recent records are under-represented (The Healing Game seems quite good). So, here’s my work in progress. What more needs to be done?

Brown Eyed Girl, Domino, Bright Side Of the Road, Full Force Gale, Moondance, Glad Tidings, Gypsy, Wild Night, Heavy Connection, Flamingos Fly, And The Healing Has Begun, And It Stoned Me, (Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball, Sweet Thing, The Way Young Lovers, Into the Mystic, Bulbs, Raglan Road, Why Must I Always Explain?, Streets Of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches, The Mystery, Orangefield, Have I Told You Lately, A Town Called Paradise, Summertime in England, Redwood Tree, Snow in San Anselmo, Haunts of Ancient Peace, Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart I, In The Garden, Dweller On the Threshold, Rave On John Donne, Coney Island, In The Days Before Rock’n’Roll, Wavelength, Call Me Up In Dreamland, Real Real Gone, Jackie Wilson Said, Precious Time, Days Like This, Ivory Tower, Caravan, The Great Deception, Madame George, The Street Only Knew Your Name, Street Choir, Hard Nose the Highway, Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview and Enlightenment.

Vulpes   -   Gotta have Kingdom Hall. Then there’s “Natalia” and “Take It Where You Find It”, and that’s just the Wavelength tracks. If I were you I’d just buy the whole damn catalogue and be done with it.

Jayhawk   -   What no Astral Weeks? Also love Cul de Sac and Listen to the Lion, and Take me back off of Hymns to the silence. But seriously what is Van up to? You can’t seem to buy anything of his other than Astral Weeks and Moondance, at least not in new editions.

Black Type   -   The ‘original’ Wonderful Remark is much better imho. Also Ballerina, On Hyndford Street, Listen To The Lion, Celtic Swing, A Sense Of Wonder, Queen Of The Slipstream, Celtic New Year, Carrying A Torch, Irish Heartbeat (Chieftains version) and Crazy Love.

Steve T   -   You must have On Hyndford Street on the playlist. Also Queen of the Slipstream. I know there are people on here who dismiss his later stuff entirely – they are wring – Magic Time and Back on Top for example are both great albums . Try Just like Greta from the first of these two. Much as I love Mr Leven, and I love Mr Leven, to claim he is “better” than Van is just dumb. Van’s been coasting for about 20 years now but is still capable of churning out a masterpiece or two on every album. Oh, Healing Game is almost as good as Wavelength which is almost as good as Veedon Fleece which is almost as good as Too Late to Stop Now.

Gary   -   Madame George so low? Nooooooooooooooo! No. No. No. No. No- And no. “The kids out on the street collecting bottle-tops” is enough alone to merit a higher placing. Never mind the rest of those beautiful lyrics.

Blue Boy   -   The best post 90s albums for me are The Healing Game and Down the Road. Agree about Hymns to the Silence which is superb. And, like everyone else I am baffled that the availability of Morrison’s material is by some distance the worst of any major artist. What about Cyprus Avenue, Ballerina, Street Choir, Old Old Woodstock, Listen to the Lion, Cul de sac, Take it where you find it, Cleaning Windows, Vanlose Stairway, Cry for Home, Ivory Tower, Queen of the Slipstream, I’m tired Joey Boy, Enlightenment, Hymns to the Silence, Carrying a Torch, Rough God Goes Riding, The Healing Game, Sometimes we Cry, Down the Road, Fast Train, Just Like Greta, The Lion This Time and If in Money we Trust?

SteveT   -   I’m tired Joey Boy – great choice.

Charlie Gordon   -   Huge omission so far is the extraordinary one two punch of Linden Arden Stole The Highlights and Who Was That Masked Man from his best album, Veedon Fleece.

Argot   -   Rave On, John Donne has to be higher.

Rob C   -   Piper at the Gates of Dawn, She Gives Me Religion.

Simon L.   -   Angeliou and the live version of Caravan from Too Late To Stop Now. I could actually leave the rest and just keep those two and I think I’d have the essence of Van, at least as far as I’m concerned.