Sunday, 8 September 2019

Van Music for Choirs?

Here’s an article by Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun in 1992.

When Van Morrison was an orange-haired lad of 18, he punched out one of the era’s biggest pop hits, Gloria, with an Irish band called Them, thus helping to lead the British rock invasion. More than two decades later, Van (The Man) Morrison has proven his staying power, turning out albums that consistently make the charts. He’s won a bunch of Grammy awards and appeared on stage with performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Lee Hooker and Neil Diamond.

Despite his spiritual inclinations, Morrison is not the kind of guy you’d expect to hear in a church. But an innovative little congregation on Quadra Island that doesn’t chain itself to tradition recently made Morrison the focus of an entire service. Quadra Island United, a tiny, picturesque sanctuary on an Indian reserve, follows the beat of a different drum. Where most churches place crosses behind the altar, it commissioned a carving of two salmon, created by Bill Reid, the great Haida sculptor. The blue stained-glass window features fishboats, illustrating both Christian themes and the working lives of the people.

Financially, the church has always struggled. And a few years ago a budget crunch forced the congregation to say goodbye to its minister. A handful of dedicated church members took over, organising a monthly service. Juaneva Smith, a kindergarten teacher, helped out. And she’d always thought it would be inspiring to create a service based on the religious explorations of Morrison’s songs. It seemed like a natural. It turned out to be a spiritual hit. Would that it were the beginning of a trend.

Morrison was born into a Jehovah’s Witness family. But his spiritual journey took him far afield. He studied Eastern, European and romantic philosophy, practised meditation and spent a brief time examining Scientology. All the while, he considered himself a Christian.

“I’m into all of it, orthodox or otherwise. I don’t accept or reject any of it. I’m not searching for anything in particular. I’m just groping in the dark for a bit more light,” the reclusive composer said in a rare interview, one of several which Smith unearthed for her service.

Morrison sounds like many spiritual people in this pluralistic age. “His entire catalogue of songs,” said one music analyst, “represents a creative struggle to unite many different influences: the mythical world of his Celtic ancestors; the inherent beauty of nature; the expressive musical freedom of jazz, blues and soul music; the inspiration of the great visionary poets and the intimate truths hidden in the teachings of the Christian mystery schools.”

Unlike the Paula Abduls, George Michaels and MC Hammers of music, Morrison has long been admired by music critics for standing outside the mass-market pop scene, treating it with sublime indifference. “His passion for music and his bemusement with the contradictions inherent in being famous,” one music critic said, “have led him to deeply question many of the underlying attitudes of our age.”

Morrison wonders why most musicians fail to explore the spiritual. “Contemporary musicians never seemed to attempt to communicate on that deeper level,” he has said. “Maybe gospel music does, but most musicians are very egocentric. You know – stars. I had to dig my way out of all that and get into real forms of music.”

The mystically coloured poetry of Wordsworth, Yeats and Blake touched him deeply. “Blake was a big one. He seemed to perceive, in a direct way, some form of reality outside the ordinary one. He could put the indescribable into words.”

While most musicians desperately look for high-powered agents and catchy musical hooks to claw their way into the top 40, Smith told the congregation that Morrison searches for transcendence while creating music, a process in which Morrison says he tries not to think, but lets himself go.

“Transcendent can mean a number of things really, but in my case it’s where you switch off the mechanism, switch off what’s referred to as the constant voice. That’s what meditation is supposed to do – turn off the constant voice, all those thoughts you have. The refrigerator hum. Did I leave the lights on? What about my tax problems? When you switch off that, that’s what I mean by transcendence.”

Music is Morrison’s form of prayer, of shared devotion. Boldly setting himself apart from most pop entertainers, Morrison has said his music is “not meant to be exciting. It’s not meant to be rock and roll. It’s meant to be a meditative experience.” Between playing recordings of Morrison’s songs for the Quadra Island congregation, Smith talked about how she cherished Morrison’s healing blend of biblical images, unashamed spirituality and “celebration of the sacred in a culture which ignores and dishonours it.”

Although Morrison considers himself a Christian, many churches might not judge his music appropriate. Some aren’t comfortable with a person whose religious quest seems so open-ended. But Morrison’s work seems to be stating the obvious: spiritual journeys never end. Although there is beauty in some centuries-old hymns, their often-dour tones and authoritarian lyrics can be a turn-off to those both inside and outside the church. Many congregations have already grown weary of most standard hymn books and look elsewhere for musical inspiration.

Morrison isn’t the only name artist whose tunes could be adapted by choirs. Dylan, U2, Sting, Bruce Cockburn, Sam Phillips, T-Bone Burnett, John Lennon, the Neville Brothers, John Hiatt, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Hank Williams have all put out songs that lean heavily on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Church people, and anyone else, searching for new musical ways to express spirituality are on a worth-while mission. Why restrict them?

Church-music directors of the world: Let yourself go.

Reader Comments

Diotima   -   One thing I’d love to find out is, in Van Morrison’s darkest moments, what pulled him through? I have a feeling that his hesitancy to express his faith with conviction is a way of aesthetically distancing himself from religious/political circles. Yes, I’d love to know, in his darkest hours, what it was that spoke to him. What pulled him through? I think what makes him brilliant is that he doesn’t name it. Into the Mystic is a song that encompasses all forms of religion/spirituality. And for that it is truly brilliant.

Jonn Mick   -   VAN MORRISON is a genuine musician right from GLORIA all the way through to today. One of my favourites. I listen to him in my own church almost daily. He’s the only hippie musician I never tire of. All the rest of ’em have gone by the board in my opinion. But Sam’s right. Van Morrison was never a star live performer. But I prefer to hear music rather than see music. I wish Van Morrison a long musical life.

Sam Lockhart   -   I have come out of The Search retirement in the interests of issuing a Word of Caution to fans of the Van Man. Enjoy him off Astral Weeks and Into The Mystic. But do NOT — I repeat, do NOT — spend hard-earned after-tax dollars to see him “live”. I put the word in quotes because of his show a year or so back at The Garage. His performance range now spans the gamut from moribund to comatose. Try to imagine Gloria or Bright Side of the Road sung an octave lower than the original. OMG. Now in his 65th year, no question the Van Man is an icon who deserves musical apotheosis. But do NOT — I repeat, do NOT — spend hard-earned after-tax dollars to see him “live”. You have way better ways to blow $150 (per ticket) than to see such disappointment.

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