Thursday, 20 April 2017

Van Morrison Tropes : Part 1

Have you heard of tropes? Merriam-Webster defines trope as a "figure of speech." Apparently, a trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognise. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. They are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.  Tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.

Below are some of the examples of tropes in Van's canon:

Alliterative Title: Slim Slow Slider

The Band Minus the Face: Them, after Morrison left to pursue his solo career.

Body Horror: Implicit in TB Sheets. Truth in Television; Dying of Tuberculosis is NOT glamorous or "Romantic".

BowdleriseSome radio stations were skittish about Brown Eyed Girl because of the line "makin' love in the green grass", so Bang issued a (poorly) edited version replacing it with "laughin' and a-runnin', hey, hey" from earlier in the song.

A couple years earlier "she comes to my room" scared some radio stations away from playing Gloria. The cover by The Shadows of Knight eliminated that line and became a bigger hit than the Them version.

Breakup Breakout: Morrison's career began to soar to new heights after he left Them. His old group never recovered and sank into obscurity.

Call Back: Wavelength mentions "that song...about my lover in the grass", i.e. Brown Eyed Girl.

The Cover Changes the MeaningPatti Smith's inversion of the main lust-theme of Gloria on Horses.

Also Morrison's flat refusal to have anything to do with Dexys Midnight Runners' version of Jackie Wilson Said, which he loathed as a travesty. Amusingly, British TV show Top of the Pops also seriously changed the meaning: Morrison's horror at the cover version was probably not helped when a production crew prank meant DMR played the song live, to millions of TV viewers, in front of a massively blown up photo of darts legend Jockie Wilson. Bein' Green. Once you get past the oddity of Van Morrison covering Kermit The Frog, it seems like Van is singing about accepting his Mainstream Obscurity and how it frees him up to pursue his artistic vision without compromising.

Epic Rocking: A fair number of his songs are either over 10 minutes long or come close to it. A lesser known example comes from his contribution to the Gloriathon. In 1999, a live music venue in Austin, TX known as the Liberty Lunch was set to shut down and be demolished for the "modernisation" of the city; since the club was a staple of the city's music scene since the 1970's, several local musicians decided to send it off with a version of Gloria that played for a solid twenty-four hours without stopping. About eighteen hours in, Van Morrison himself called the club from his position onstage at a festival in Chester, England and played the song with the locals through the club's PA and a portable phone. The best part? Van Morrison hated Gloria, and for a long time he absolutely refused to play it live at all, however he made an exception for the Gloriathon.

Exhort The Disc Jockey Song: Domino turns into one of these at the end.
Well, mister DJ
I just wanna hear some rhythm and blues music
On the radio
On the radio
On the radio...

Freestyle Version: He tends to this whenever he does a cover version. His cover of It's All In The Game starts out as a conventional cover sticking more-or-less to the official lyrics, but by the end it has diverged so much that on the Into The Music album, the second half of the cover is listed as a separate track and given a new name (with songwriting credits for the lyrics given to Van).

Genre-Busting: To varying degrees on all of his albums, but Astral Weeks is a unique blend of Celtic folk, soul, blues and classical music with beatnik lyrics.

Genre Roulette: Saint Dominic's Preview. All the songs are the usual Morrison genre blends, but each one has a sound and style that doesn't get repeated on the album note . His other albums are also eclectic but usually have more of a uniform foundation.

Happy Rain: Rainy imagery is a motif in many of his songs, as in the "Fields all misty wet with rain" lines in Sweet Thing and The Way Young Lovers Do, both from Astral Weeks, as well as the whole theme of And It Stoned Me from Moondance.

Vandy Warhol
Intercourse with You: A few songs, but perhaps most obviously the song Moondance.

International Pop Song English: Morrison's singing voice is a smooth mid-Atlantic, unlike his natural strong Belfast accent.

Let's Duet: Whenever God Shines His Light, his collaboration with Sir Cliff Richard that topped the Christmas charts in 1989.

Live Album: Most famously It's Too Late to Stop Now, often considered one of the greatest live albums of all time. Also a couple of live albums recorded in Belfast, one recorded in San Francisco, and a complete concert performance of Astral Weeks done at the Hollywood Bowl.

Looped Lyrics: Blue Money is just one verse repeated several times, plus Scatting.

Lyrical Tic: Morrison has a whole vocabulary of expressively soulful grunts, moans and vocal expressions for when the words fail him. A classic example would be the conclusion of Moondance:One more moondance with you! In the moonlight! On a magic night... (presses microphone into fleshy underside of chin) Brrrrr...brrr-mmmmmm, ahhh, aahhhh, (moves mic back to more conventional singing position) In the moonlight! On a ma-a-a-agic night... Can - I - just - have - one - more - Moondance - with - you....... my love..... See also the middle section of Listen to the Lion.

Mic Drop: Morrison does this at the end of his triumphant performance of Caravan in the film The Last Waltz, dropping the mic and strolling off stage before the song is even done.

Mind Screw: You Don't Pull No Punches But You Don't Push the River starts as a coherent narrative, but becomes notably more surrealistic during the second part. "And the Sisters of Mercy, behind the sun. And William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy looking for the Veedon Fleece."

Mondegreen: Even he's not sure what some of his lyrics really are.
"Into the Mystic is kind of funny because when it came time to send the lyrics in WB Music, I couldn't figure out what to send them. Because really the song has two sets of lyrics. For example, there's 'I was born before the wind' and 'I was borne before the wind', and also 'Also younger than the son, Ere the bonny boat was one' and 'All so younger than the son, Ere the bonny boat was won' ..."
Mood Whiplash: The intense, cathartic Astral Weeks was followed by the bright, peaceful Moondance. Also, on his first album, Blowin' Your Mind, the lacerating, 9-minute TB Sheets was surrounded by mostly innocuous Pop and R&B songs.

Motif:"Caledonia", which is the ancient Roman name for Scotland. Morrison has Scottish ancestry on his father's side and it's referenced so often in his work that it's something of an Arc Word. It's even his daughter's middle name.
Radio is mentioned in a bunch of his songs.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Vanlose Stairway (1982)

Here’s a brilliant piece by Laura Barton, inspired by the song Vanlose Stairway.  You hear of doorways, windows or even porches immortalised in song but never stairways.

In my mind, the Vanlose Stairway of Van Morrison's song was always a majestic affair; not quite the full Scarlett O'Hara, but certainly something with a little grandeur. I'm not sure when I learnt that it was, in reality, not much more than a flight of stairs running to the fourth floor of a plain apartment block in Copenhagen, but when I looked up the picture again this week, I was struck by the building's ordinariness: pale brick, small balcony, broad, blank windows.

In the early 1980s, Morrison stayed at an apartment here with a girlfriend named Ulla Munch. She inspired much of the material from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision, including Vanlose Stairway. Morrison referred to this song as "a Twenty Flight Rock" – a nod to Eddie Cochran's fabulously euphemistic 1957 hit about climbing 20 flights to see his "baby", only to find on his arrival that he is too tired to "rock". Van's stairway song is a little more spiritual – sewn with references to Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible

And it's a little more romantic, too: "And your stairway/ Reaches up to the moon," he growls, "And it comes right back/ It comes right back to you." Here, alongside the moonlit wooing and the spirituality, there is even room for a few references to John Lee Hooker's Send Me Your Pillow and Little Richard's Send Me Some Lovin', too.

It is one of my favourite Morrison songs, a perfect ball of love and desire, belief and rock'n'roll, and, perhaps more oddly, one of the most frequently performed songs at his shows. (According to the Vanomatic site it comes in as the sixth most frequently played song in concert with 728 appearances.)

Beautiful Vision is not one of Morrison's most critically feted albums. In his recent book Listening to Van Morrison, Greil Marcus numbered it among the 15 Van albums he would happily write off, consigning it to "the endless stream of dull and tired albums through the 1980s and 90s, carrying titles like warning labels. 

There are Morrison albums I like better, but Beautiful Vision has never struck me as dull; on the contrary, its particular strangeness has always proved appealing – an exploration of Celtic heritage, distance, reminiscence, spirituality and the writings of Alice Bailey. Its most commercial track is Cleaning Windows, a wistful tale of a stint as a window cleaner, that marries the pleasures of physical work and sensory delights – bakery smells, Paris buns, and smoking Woodbines – to a time of expanding artistic and intellectual vision, of playing sax on the weekend, listening to Jimmie Rodgers on a lunch break, reading Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys, hearing Leadbelly and Blind Lemon on the street.

Cleaning Windows, like the rest of Beautiful Vision, seems to me an attempt to explain how a spiritual, emotional life does not exist in isolation, how the lemonade and Paris buns are as stirring as the Kerouac, and how the memory of both can be tethered to those "wrought iron gate rows". This has always been what I loved about Morrison: more than any other songwriter, he seems blessed with a transformational power, with the ability to bring a beautiful vision to even the most humdrum objects and events – the "clicking, clacking of the high-heeled shoe", the "crack in the windowpane", the "decent sherry" and the "drop of port", and "this letter-box behind this door here …"

And perhaps this spurs Vanlose Stairway, that dark horse of a song, perhaps it is simply the strange and beautiful majesty of finding the Gita, and the Cochran, and the moonlight, in the pale brick, small balcony, and broad, blank windows of an ordinary apartment block in Copenhagen

Friday, 7 April 2017

Van Morrison's Best 10 Songs?

Here’s the sort of article I really hate.  Granted Sam McPherson is just doing his job as a journalist who has to produce articles.  But you find his choices are so much the expected norm of basically the catchiest or the most familiar songs.  You get the feeling the producer of the list hasn’t listened to the dreaded “album tracks”.  

K Pop's Brown Eyed Girls
Is this where we’re going in modern music listenership? The era of downloads is re-focusing people on the “single” like in the bad old days before FM radio and artists’ commitment to making albums works of art. Once you start considering what was left off this list you realise that a lot of Van treasures are just unknown in the general community.  Where’s Justin? Where’s Madame George or Summertime in England? In the GardenBehind the Ritual? Etc. Anyway, here’s Sam’s 2014 opinions from the AXS website.   

The 10 Best Van Morrison Songs

10.  Did Ye Get Healed?   -   This 1987 song is best known for its catchy sax introduction and its smooth melodies that take a listener somewhere else other than where they are at the moment—and of course, the female backup singer's concluding lyrical question at the end.

9.  Sweet Thing   -   From Morrison's seminal 1968 solo album Astral Weeks - the effort that firmly put his solo career on the music map - this song exudes hopefulness looking forward, with a unique blend of wishful thinking and whimsical romanticism. It may be the defining song of the album itself, even though there is another song on this list from the record.

8.  Crazy Love   -   Softly sung, this 1970 ballad from the Moondance album has a sweet resonance, soft and repetitious. The backup vocals accentuate the lyrical content as well. Perhaps you remember British crooner Bryan Ferry covering it for the She's Having a Baby soundtrack in the mid-1980s.

7.  The Way Young Lovers Do   -   Also part on Astral Weeks, this amazingly perky song really captures a feeling we all want to keep forever. A listener can close their eyes and go back to that first kiss of youth and re-live it again—and again. Sharing it with a current loved one certainly can rekindle some passion, as well (try it). A notable cover by the late Jeff Buckley is quite popular as well.

6.  Domino   -   Written about Fats Domino, this 1970 song from Morrison's fourth album, His Band and the Street Choir, is valued for happy beats and jazzy overtones. Its snappy rhythms and lyrics have even been used to bring the modern-day single woman out of romantic funks ("And if you never hear from him, that just means he didn't call"). True story.

5.  Into the Mystic   -   Perhaps one of the most frequently heard Van Morrison songs, this is another track off Moondance. Its popularity stems from the feeling of universality expressed in the lyrics, that we are all one with the world and ourselves—at the same time. Into the Mystic has been used in a lot of movies over the decades: 1989's Dream a Little Dream, 1998's Patch Adams and 2003's American Wedding.

4.  Have I Told You Lately   -   This is a later song for Morrison, from 1989's Avalon Sunset. It defines his longtime romanticism, with the title and lyrics asking an age-old question often put forth by a thankful partner. Its beautiful melodies really can bring tears to your eyes when you listen to it in a certain mood. Rod Stewart covered the song with great success in the 1990s.

3.  Moondance   -   The title track from Morrison's third solo album probably is the first song of his you ever heard, a long time ago. The track blends styles and rhythms so effectively, making tough to define it. You can dance to it, for sure, but there are other things many listeners often do to its melodies. We might be able to blame the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London for that.

2.  Gloria   -   Reported written when Morrison was just 18 years old, this song from his Them days is still his signature song in many ways. Listen to the lyrics, and like many of these songs, they will take you back to your youth and the crazy machinations of love, romance and sex. The chorus also is one of the more memorable ones in rock 'n' roll history (move over, Lola). So, it's not from his solo career, but he plays it still to this day in concert. Why not? Everyone loves it.

1.  Brown-Eyed Girl   -   How could this not be at the top of the list, especially when it applies to so many women in the world? Every young woman with brown eyes learns this song, since those with blue eyes always seem to get more attention from the boys. And if you're dating a brown-eyed girl at any point in your life, you know the lyrics by heart, too. It's hard to listen to this song and not smile broadly. It is timeless, truly, even if a bit silly at times. Just dance with it, and don't think about it too much.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Hollow

Late last year The Hollow, a landmark featured in the lyrics of Brown Eyed Girl, was transformed in response to the growing Van Morrison tourism happening in Belfast.  Here’s most of Ivan Little’s Belfast Telegraph article about the renovations. 

Sir Van Morrison's fans have been invited to a party in his old backyard in Bloomfield, Belfast to celebrate the dramatic transformation of a landmark he made world famous in one of his most iconic songs.

The Hollow, just off the Beersbridge Road, features in the classic rock anthem, Brown Eyed Girl, which was written by east Belfast's self-styled 'blue-eyed boy of soul' nearly 50 years ago and which is now one of the most aired records on radio stations right around the globe.  The once-shabby and run down Hollow behind Abetta Parade, where the youthful Van and his friends used to play, has been completely refurbished as part of the £40m Connswater Community Greenway project.

New paths, landscaping, lighting and seats have been added and the Loop and Knock rivers which converge at the Hollow before becoming the Connswater River have been cleaned up, and a new channel cut through an old weir to improve the water flow. A small car park has been built to encourage more visitors and signs are going up to tell the history of the Greenway and the connections between Van Morrison and the Hollow.

The historic Conn O'Neill bridge in the Hollow has been re-pointed and made more accessible to the public. Several years ago Van was pictured on the bridge to publicise a new trail map signposting his legions of fans around his old Bloomfield haunts - which the Belfast Telegraph had campaigned to have recognised.

The EastSide Partnership is hoping that the newly-renovated Hollow will become a major new tourist destination for Van fans who regularly follow the trail around the places he frequented in his youth and which he has written about in songs like Cyprus Avenue and On Hyndford Street.

Hundreds of Vanatics, as they call themselves, frequently come to Northern Ireland from all around the world to see their hero in concert at hotels in Newcastle and Holywood and a series of walk tours around east Belfast is regularly sold out.

The Hollow is right beside Van's old primary school, Elmgrove, and it's rumoured that Morrison wrote Brown Eyed Girl about a girl who lived in Abetta Parade, though the singer has consistently denied it was about any one person.

Standing in the Hollow and re-running the lyrics of Brown Eyed Girl in one's head, it's all too clear that Van adopted more than a little poetic licence as he wrote about his childhood memories including youngsters "going down the old mine with a transistor radio". Contemporaries of Van the Man said the mine was actually an old water pipe which was just big enough for Van the Boy - and his pals - to squeeze through.

The waterfall in the song is hardly a rival to Niagara or Victoria Falls, but there are a number of watercourses in the Hollow, which is dominated by one of the massive electricity pylons that are referenced heavily in Van's compositions about the area in which he grew up.

Van, who's now 71, also sings about a rainbow's wall in Brown Eyed Girl - but the reality of his inspiration was somewhat less colourful. The wall was part of long-since demolished sweet shop called Rainbow's, at the corner of the Beersbridge Road and Hyndford Street, where Morrison lived at number 125.

The Hollow is a small part of phase three of the Greenway which will eventually have 10 miles of foot and cycle paths, 26 new or improved bridges, a CS Lewis themed civic square and a series of cleaned-up rivers.

Even though Brown Eyed Girl is a massive royalty earner through its millions of plays on the radio, especially in America, Van Morrison doesn't see a penny of the money because of the way the song was licensed back in 1967.

The song initially had to be re-edited into an alternative version to make it acceptable to American audiences, due to its references to "making love in the green grass behind the stadium". There's always been speculation that the stadium was Glentoran's Oval football ground, but Morrison's former associates believe he was singing about a cycle track in Orangefield Park, now part of the Connswater Community Greenway.

Morrison received his knighthood for services to the music industry and tourism in Northern Ireland from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in February and afterwards said it wasn't bad for a "blue-eyed soul singer from east Belfast".