Monday, 31 October 2016

Van Morrison Changed My Life

Scottish author Michael Logan described the night Van changed his life in his "One Monkey With a Typewriter" blog.  Can we create a texting abbreviation based on the above title?  VMCML?  The following post has been edited for brevity's sake.   

August 31, 2009   -   Van Morrison changed my life

Nats was telling me last night that she was glad she started fencing and met me because I had helped in the creation of Charlotte. I guess it is just common courtesy to thank the sperm donor, but I’ll take any kind of compliment I can get. Anyway, this led to a discussion of life-changing moments. All our lives are full of little crossroads that would send us down different paths.  Most of the time we don’t notice these moments as they slip by or we don’t appreciate quite how much they would change our lives. I actually do have a moment from which I can clearly trace a path to where I am now.

It is 1992. I am 21 and sitting upstairs in the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow with my relatively new work colleagues from Linn Products – the high end music system company. I have taken a job stuffing components into circuit boards after dropping out of university due to a combination of factors, including laziness, poverty and a lack of self-esteem. The job is boring, but the people are great and my immediate boss is the exact double of Zelda from the Terrahawks, which somehow makes it more bearable. I have no clear idea of what I am going to do next. I am just content to be making some money to spend on records, booze and chemicals.

I am a terrible singer, but have glugged down just the right number of beers to be cajoled into singing on the Karaoke machine. I elect to sing ‘Gloria’ by Van Morrison, partly because I love Van the Man, but also because it is a shouty song and therefore suits my singing voice. My performance is what you would expect. Even above my amplified screams I can hear giggles and abuse. I content myself by spraying the ungrateful buggers with spittle every time I shout ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’.

Finally it is over, and I return to the table. Callum, who runs the test department - which comprises three or four guys whose diplomas from Cardinally College give them a faint air of superiority over the plebs – comes over and demands to buy me a drink. He is a huge Van Morrison fan, and wants to congratulate me on my performance (he is very, very drunk). We get even more drunk and talk about Van Morrison for an hour, then move onto other things, such as the fact I had finished 2.5 years of Physics at Strathclyde University. Callum and I become work buddies, and within three weeks he asks if I would want to go back to university to study electronics, with the fees paid by Linn (I had lost my right to fee payment in 2nd and 3rd year by dropping out). Of course I say yes. I go to Glasgow University, get my degree and promptly show my gratitude to Linn and Callum by going off to work for OKI in Cumbernauld.

So, here’s the chain of events leading to now: I sing a Van Morrison song in a bar, and as a result get friendly with Callum. Consequently, I go back to University and get a degree. My degree gets me a job at OKI, where I meet Andy McVeigh. I rent a room in his flat. In a casual discussion one day, I tell Andy I used to fence. He gets all keen and says he wants to start it (Andy is a major womaniser, despite being bald since 19 and looking kind of like a turtle, and is sure he can get some action at fencing). I am not so keen, remembering how angry/upset I used to get when I lost at competitions, but he persuades me to come along with him. We join Glasgow West End Fencing Club, where I drink a lot, make some great friends and kind of fence. This goes on for six years, until I am just about to quit fencing because it has lost its appeal. Then Nats joins Glasgow West. After some ups and downs, we get together. She is going to Bosnia for a year, and after a few months decide we are in love, are going to get married and that I am coming to Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb Republic. I sell my house and car and go to Bosnia, where I trade in my soldering iron for a notebook and pen. 

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Van's Melbourne Concerts, 1985

Van Morrison's Australian Tour of 1985 is considered one of his least memorable.  Apparently, Van tried to pull out of the commitment but it couldn't be arranged.  Australia has seen a few reluctant music performers over the years.  Bob Dylan has had few issues of the years. among his many great shows here.  One issue for some performers is the "tyranny of distance".  Performers just aren't at their best after being peeled out of their seats after a couple of long haul flights strung together.  

Van's three opening concerts on the tour were at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre.  It  was originally built for the 1956 Olympic Games but by the mid-80s had been re-configured to a capacity of 7,200 people.  Van's shows took place on February 25, 26 and 27.  The first show lasted for 1 hour 22 minutes and consisted of 19 songs.  The second show lasted for 1 hour and 27 minutes and again 19 songs were played.  The third show had 21 songs performed and lasted for 1 and 22 minutes.  There was a commonality about the shows with most songs played at all three shows.  Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Vanlose Stairway, Summertime in England and St Dominic's Preview were some of the 'threepeats'. 

Australian performer Ross Ryan opened for Van at these three Melbourne shows only.  He was kind enough to answer my questions about his memories of the tour. He admitted that he was a huge Van Morrison fan and nominated Astral Weeks as probably one of his all-time favourite albums. He said,  "As a writer and particularly as a vocalist – he’s the real deal. Hence I was very excited to score the support spot."

He continued, "When I arrived on the afternoon of  the first gig, the vibe from the Australian promoters was that they’d been finding Van, shall we say, a tad difficult. He refused to do any press and all photography was banned. It was also implied that overall he was not exactly a cheery chap.  It seemed that, at the time, he pretty much wanted to be almost anywhere rather than Australia."

"I’ve supported lots of overseas acts and have always enjoyed meeting them and hanging out. In this case I was left with a dilemma. I was back stage with a dressing room right next to Van’s. Our names on our doors. Usually I would just knock and introduce myself, etc.  But after my conversation with the promoters I asked myself, “Do I really want Van Morrison to think I’m a jerk?” Thus, alas, I never met the man."

"As for the shows, they too lacked communication. His band was awesome and the sound was great but sadly Van sang off-mike all night – like 6 inches or more away from the microphone – so you couldn’t really hear him very well. He also had made sure that he could barely be seen. He was dressed completely in black, wore a black hat  and had obviously arranged that there would be minimal stage lighting. If I recall, at one point he even walked off to get a spotlight taken out."

"For the price of a bottle of Johnny Walker per night, I’d arranged with Van’s front of house sound crew to record my opening sets. On the second night I mentioned to them my frustration at not being able to hear Morrison’s vocals. Their response was something along the lines of “Yea, tell us about it”."

Mr Ryan found the shows a little disappointing – an opinion shared by more than few fans there. Australian fans are eagerly awaiting the return of the great man but only a few overly optimistic people think that will happen.  

Other Melbourne Comments 

Dave in Box Hill North     -   I attended Van Morrison's 3 Melbourne concerts (Feb 1985) & 1 in Belfast (1990). The music & band were great, but Van ignoring the audience overshadowed them.  I can't understand a music star turning their back on the people who have bought their albums and concert tickets and made their work acclaimed forever.  Pity you never saw Van live. In Melbourne in 1985 he was disappointing and in Belfast in 1990 he was much better.

JAC   -   I also attended one of Van the Man's gigs in '85, and have to say, I went to hear the music - NOT listen to some overseas musician comment on politics or the weather in Melbourne. So the guy is shy. Big deal. I got what I went for ... entertainment and brilliant music. And if he never returns to our shores, which looks likely, at least I can say I've seen him... 3 rows from front and taken photos!!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Van in the New Zealand Charts Since 2000

Ever wonder how sales of Van albums have been doing in New Zealand in the new Millenium?  Well, wonder no longer.  Chart positions like this would translate into significant sales if it was for the U.S., but NZ is rather smaller.   Its population is about half that of New York City.  

Latest album Keep Me Singing reached number 5 last week before beginning its downward trend.  Interesting to note that last year's Duets: Re-working The Catalogue  album is Van's best performer in New Zealand.  

Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012)  -  12
Down The Road (2002)  -  8
Keep It Simple (2008)  -  15
Keep Me Singing (2016)  -  5
Magic Time (2005)  -  21
You Win Again (2000)  -  36
Moondance: Expanded (2013)  -  36
The Best Of (Vol 1) (2002)  -  6
The Essential Van Morrison (2015)  -  6
The Skiffle Sessions (2000)  -  26
Van At The Movies (2007)  -  10
Still On Top: Greatest Hits (2007)  -  14
What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)  -  17
Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009)  -  15
Duets: Re-working The Catalogue (2015)  -  2

Friday, 7 October 2016

Keep Me Singing – 21 Facts

1. Keep Me Singing (2016) is Van’s first album of new material in four years.
    2. This is the first time a professional lyricist has been used by Van.  Don Black wrote the lyrics for Track 2 Every Time I See a River
    3. Some have commented on the use of four drummers – Liam Bradley, Robbie Ruggiero, Paul Robinson and Van Morrison
    4. Track 11 Going Down to Bangor contains lots of Bangor references.  There’s Napoleon’s Nose (a feature on Cavehill), Cavehill, Pickie Pool, a charabanc, mountains of the Mourne and Donaghadee.
5. In Going Down to Bangor he also mentions “cousin Billie” but I can’t find out who that might be.  Only child Van had a few cousins, one of whom apparently inspired Gloria.  Also there’s a group called “Cousins of Van Morrison”. 
    6. This is the second album he has used trombone on.  The first was his last studio album Born to Sing.  This time trombone is played by Laurence Cottle on several songs. 
    7. As with Going Down to Bangor, Track 9 In Tiburon namechecks a lot of local colour.  Tiburon is a town near San Francisco, in Marin County where Van lived after his move from Woodstock in the late 1960s. He mentions Chet Baker, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Neal Cassady (from On the Road), Cast Your Fate To The Wind by Vince Guaraldi, ‘looking out on the Golden Gate’, the No-Name Bar, etc.
8. Chet Baker playing at The Trident is also mentioned.  Pat Corley, author of Vanatic, mentions that it was outside the Trident that Chet Baker while trying to score some heroin got beaten up so badly that all his teeth got knocked out which ruined his embouchure so he couldn’t play his horn for a long while till he got his mouth sorted out. 
    9. In Tiburon also includes the Irish slang word “culchies” which means “unsophisticated country person”. 
10. The quality of Van’s voice on this album is amazing.  Compare his voice to other performers of his era who are still going and it really is a modern wonder.  People have belittled Van for his strict time-keeping at concerts but it looks like vocal longevity might be the payoff. 
  11. On Track 7 Holy Guardian Angel, Van samples an old African American spiritual for the lyrics Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow
  12. Van performs one cover on the album.  This is the Track 8 Share Your Love With Me written by Alfred Braggs & Don Robey. Van originally recorded it for a Bobby Bland tribute album which never happened.  Van’s admiration of Bobby Bland goes back a long way with his band Them recording Turn On Your Love Light and Van’s live version of Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.  Van’s version here is a little bit countrified.

13. In the song Holy Guardian Angel Van sings ‘I was born in the midnight, long before the break of day’.  Van was born at 11:59 on August 31, 1945. 
  14. Lyrically there are few silly things here as on many Van albums.  Lines like “whoops I beg your pardon”, “bring me my bucket and spade” and “I was Mr Nice Guy too long” stand out.  
  15. Pat Corley noticed a typo error in the lyrics booklet for In Tiburon.  It mentions the ‘Hungry Eye’ club but it should have read ‘The Hungry i” with a small letter “i”.  There has plenty of debate about what the letter “I” stood for, some claiming “id” and others ‘intellectual’ (but they couldn’t afford the paint to finish the sign).
16. On Track 11 Going Down to Bangor Van includes the lyric line “just six miles from Donaghadee”. Oddly on the last studio album (Born to Sing, 2012) Van has a song Goin' down Monte Carlo which includes the lyric line "Goin' down to Monte Carlo about 25k from Nice". Distances matter, apparently. 

   17. Track 9 In Tiburon (Spanish for shark) also mentions the City Lights Bookstore.  City Lights published the American edition of Van’s book of lyrics Lit Up Inside.
18. Keep Me Singing contains one instrumental.  Track 13 Caledonia Swing lists Tony Fitzgibbon on ‘fiddle’.  “Caledonia” is the Roman name for Scotland and is daughter Shana Morrison’s middle name. 
   19. The title track Keep Me Singing seems to reference a few Sam Cooke songs with lyrics like “my change to come” and “Let the good times roll”.  Sam Cooke is directly mentioned continuing Van’s long tradition of name-checking key people from the arts who have influenced him. 
20. One lyric oddity appears on Track 5 Memory Lane.  Van claims "it's coming onto winter, nights keep getting shorter and shorter".  Reminds me of the many science errors in the Koran.  Nights usually get longer in winter, but apparently not on Planet Van.   

   21. Track 10 is Look Beyond The Hill.  It was originally an instrumental called Yo and was a B-Side to one of Van's singles but he has revisited it and added lyrics just like he did on his last studio album with Close Enough for Jazz. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Van's Most Underrated Album

Egil Mosbron posted a look back at Van’s 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart on the Born to Listen site.  You gotta check out the site which has a ton of material about music and plenty of Van things there too.

Van Morrison´s Most Underrated Album: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983)

Released            March 1983
Length                47:10
Label                   Mercury (UK) and Warner Bros. (USA)
Producer            Van Morrison

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is Van's fourteenth studio album. Morrison said he arrived at the title from a Shavian saying: “that idea of communicating with as little articulation as possible, at the same time being emotionally articulate”. There are 4 instrumentals among the 11 songs. 

As he explained in 1984, “Sometimes when I’m playing something, I’m just sort of humming along with it, and that’s got a different vibration than an actual song. So the instrumentals just come from trying to get that form of expression, which is not the same as writing a song.” The reissued and remastered version of the album contains alternative takes of Cry for Home and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart No. 2.

Critics attacked this album for such things as the use of synthesisers, the thank you to L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of the Church of Scientology) in the liner notes, having too many instrumentals and a lack of ‘good songs’. even rated it the worst Van Morrison album.

A Few Expert Opinions 

Van Morrison   -   What I´m dealing with is repetition … two chords played over and over and over again, ad nauseam. Now that´s really what I do … to transmit this to people and take this repetition through stages of boredom and run that whole range … from boredom to serenity.

Brian Hinton   -   The major song on the album is in fact a poem – yes, a real one, recited, though Morrison cannot stop himself breaking into song, and a slow saxophone ends the proceedings. Rave On, John Donne sounds like a Ginsberg rant of joy, with the metaphysical Elizabethan and other dead poets brought up to date, as beacons of light. Walt Whitman, Omar Khayyam, WB Yeats as well, an Open University reading list of visionaries.

Peter Mills   -   The tripartite structure of Rave On John Donne – spoken word, singing, instrument – is as programmatic within itself as any more ambitious through-composed body of work. It involves a deploying and sorting, and controlled release of ideas, live in the studio, the right to do so at each stage won by the work done in the preceding section. Yet even though the six minutes we have are edited, this is not mere process – the spirit of creativity, that which “raves”, passes through the track in an uninterrupted seam, Rave On.

Clinton Heylin   -   Rave On, John Donne was presumably intended to inhabit the same space as Summertime in England in a more condensed form, grasping at a new-found conceit, establishing a chain of seers who paved the way.

Mark Holmes   -   Higher Than the World, is simply one of Van´s most sublime songs and one of the highlights of his 1980´s output. It isn´t innovative from a musical perspective and hardly has a beat to latch onto. It isn´t a particularly passionate song .. What it does have is one of Morrison´s most persuasive vocals, which is therapy for the ears!   I´ve read numerous reviews on Morrison´s output but this song hardly gets mentioned.  This undervalued beauty is an ideal way to start the album – it is an outstanding opener.

Richard S. Ginell   -   Higher Than the World is simply one of the most beautiful recordings Morrison ever made, with Mark Isham’s choir-like synthesiser laying down the lovely backdrop.

Mark Holmes   -   my love of this album is down to the quality of the best tracks offered on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. At its best, this album is immensely enjoyable. .. despite the presence of a couple of average songs, it is overall an undervalued record that offers several essential Morrison efforts. It surpasses his other 80´s albums, with two notable exceptions (Common One & No Guru, No Method, No Teacher)

David Cavanaugh   -   After a stressful day, it can be soothing to soak one´s limbs in Inarticulate Speech of the Heart´s aromatic foam and feel its essential oils and herbs magically relax the muscles.  Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is typically of early 80´s albums made by artists preoccupied with stylish production and flawless arrangements, .. What Van Morrison adds to the template is an amalgam of Irish folk and new age, creating picturesque music of t(he mind.. With four instrumentals on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, the listener´s imagination has to work harder than normal to find the imagery within. A glorious exception is Rave On, John Donne, which even people who don´t like the album agree is an important piece of work.

Patrick Corley (author of Vanatic)   -   I think though during this period of spirituality Van saw music as an aid to meditation and contemplation too. I think that´s why a lot of the lyrics are sparse and repetitive, not really songs at all. So what about the tracks? I think the outstanding track on this album is Rave On, John Donne … the other outstanding track for me is Irish Heartbeat ..

David Fricke   -   The ratio of instrumentals to vocals here may be Morrison’s way of illustrating that it’s not the words one uses but the force of conviction behind those words that matters. It is a sentiment that rings true throughout his recorded works, and like the others, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart speaks volumes in its own remarkable way.

Robert Christgau   -   In this troubled time, rock-and-rollers have every right to place their faith in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or even Scientology when they discover that Jackie Wilson didn’t say it all. But to follow one with the other appears weak minded, like praising Omar Khayyam in tandem with Kahlil Gibran. A hypothesis which the static romanticism of these reels-for-Hollywood-orchestra and other slow songs bears out.

Stereogum   -   The bizarre, but still thrilling Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart does its level best to defy categorisation. Awash in a placid stream of atmospherics, it barely touches on the rock and soul idiom that has so long been Morrison’s template. Like a distinctly Irish take on late period Roxy Music, the release seems eager to challenge the album form altogether. Gorgeous instrumental digressions morph into romantic pop, balladry and then digress formless again. Melodies occur seemingly haphazard and improvised and then reoccur as though conjured. Some believed Van had gone crazy by this point. Another interpretation is that he had finally figured out yet more things the rest of us don’t know.