December 5, 2007

The Great Souls of Our Time: Van Morrison

Morrison9.jpgBut darlin', those days are gone
Oh yeah
Stop dreaming
And live on in the future
But darlin', a-don't look back
Whoa, no-no
Don't look back

-- John Lee Hooker

Ah, but we do, don't we? Seeing the shapes, getting the measure, going the distance and finding -- if only for a moment -- the safe harbors of your life requires a spiritual sextant sighting the fixed stars. It's a ghost's navigation with what is ahead a white blank screen, and what is behind fading into a fog. There are shallows, shoals and the lee shore. Times in irons, then storms, then stretches of clear open ocean on a broad reach, but always with the sense of hidden reefs and no known port. It helps to track other voyages, to follow similar arcs, to watch if they pass, or seem to pass, the same checkpoints. Some are siblings, others are friends and lovers, still others are artists that, at some point, strike us as sharing if not a life, at least a similar trajectory.

Everybody has a different set of charts, but some overlap. Among these are the singer-songwriter / poets of our era. These are our troubadours, the most influential of which in our time, is Bob Dylan. Indeed, I've often thought that it must gall the endless pile of disposable poets stashed in the academy that, for all their pallid effort, the greatest American poet of this era is Dylan. But Dylan, for all his protean output and achievement, misses the music as much as he hooks the mind.

For my money, the singer-songwriter-poet among my contemporaries, that both hooks the ear and brings the music is Van Morrison. Not only for his ability to play his voice like some transoceanic jazz choir, nor his manner of mining the blues and jazz traditions and his own life, but also because -- like Dylan -- he endures. Not only that, but he reports back. And like a few others in music, painting and writing, the arc of his life seems to resonate with mine. It may be just a fluke of years lived in the same unfolding history, but it seems like more. It seems, as it always seems with the great souls, that there's an emotional and spiritual concordance happening, as one bell might pick up the tone of another nearby even though it has not itself been struck.

"Take me back, there, take me way back there..."

Here's Morrison playing at a very low level, just backing and filling behind John Lee Hooker in 1989.

But that was later, and this is earlier, much earlier. Before there really was "Van Morrison." When he was just a singer. When he was one of THEM.

Filmed 19th of October, 1965 in Olympic,Paris. Called
'Les Them'.

Comes a-walkin' down my street
When she comes to my house
She knocks upon my door
And then she comes in my room
Yeah, an' she make me feel alright


Looking at that the first thought is "Who, but who, was ever that young?" But of course we all were. And the number of times that the 45s of Mystic Eyes and Gloria were spun on the turntables in those years pretty much surpass memory. I do recall they made for some long and fine white nights. Gloria, played at the right time, could pretty much close the deal.

"The cool room, Lord, is a fool's room."

Make-out songs weren't the only thing in Van Morrison's bag, even in those years. Something else was there. Something that lived in the deep and would insist upon rising.

Within two years Morrison left "Them" and soloed, releasing the trendily titled Blowin' Your Mind! from Bang Records. The hit on that album was "Brown-Eyed Girl" and it has, thanks to the continuing and increasing supply of brown-eyed girls in the world, stayed pretty much a perennial since then. Boomers used it first for seduction and later for lullabies.

But there was another song on that first album that foreshadowed Morrison's work much more deeply, "T. B. Sheets." This is a dark and haunting evocation of death and sickness. Junkies like to think it's about them, but junkies think everything is about them. It's bigger than that. Much bigger. And it is, in its provenance as well as it's lyrics, nothing like any pop song that came before, and very little like any that came after. In the other songs on Blowin' Your Mind! you hear a young singer pulling out everything he knows in quest of a hit, any hit. But "T. B. Sheets" is vastly different. In it you hear the song of an old soul, one that has been here before; one that knows the deal and has paid the bill.

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, here it is at its original length. Long enough.

And no, it doesn't move on the screen. But it does insinuate itself deep in your lungs and from there moves down the 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 her later,
You know we got John comin' around
Later with a bottle of wine for you, babe.

So much for the easy pop songs from a handsome young jazz singer who had gotten mixed up in rock-and-roll. There's Milton's "darkness visible" writhing at the center of that song, something seldom seen in pop music -- especially in the days of "Do you believe in magic/ in a young girl's eyes?"

"Darkness visible." That was to be a recurring image in Van Morrison's work. That and a search for the light as well.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

-- Traditional hymn, recorded in Hymns to the Silence, 1991

Light seen sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the past. But always with a sense of trying to learn, in the end, what he hears from John Lee Hooker:
Don't look back
To the days of yesteryear
You cannot live on in the past

Ah, but we do. Don't we?

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Posted by Vanderleun at December 5, 2007 10:10 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

For me, it's "Cleaning Windows".
(working in a machine shop days, playing bass on the weekends...)

Posted by: ed in texas at December 5, 2007 7:52 AM

Darn good stuff.

Posted by: bird dog at December 5, 2007 9:26 AM

Lately, for me, with the unruly middle child getting ready to have her day in court, and me wondering: Is she going to Juvy or will it be boot camp? Perhaps it will only be house arrest. At any rate, "Shadow of Doubt" is the all-encompassing theme of my life these days. Bonnie Raitt, accompanied by her slide guitar, and rhythmic foot stomp and harmonica player do this song great justice.

Shadow Of Doubt

Just another homesick child
Tired of running wild
Ready to stand trial and move on
Though I'm guilty in your sight
Have some mercy tonight
I can't make it through the fight alone

Oh but lord, no don't make it easy
Keep me working till I work it on out
Just please shine enought light on me
Til I'm free from this shadow of doubt
Keep me out of the Shadow of Doubt
As I try to make some sense
Of this world I'm up against
Well I know my best defense is your love
When the struggle gets insane
And the lesson's full of pain
Keep me calling out your name with Love

Oh but lord, no don't make it easy
Keep me workin' till I work it on out
Just please won't you shine
Enough light on me
Til I'm free from this shadow of Doubt

Well I whisper in the dark
From the bottom of my heart
And I'm searchin for one star to shine
I will shout from mountain high
And I'll reach into the sky
Til you open up my eyes so blind

Oh but lord no, Don't make it easy
Keep me workin' til I work it on out
Just please, please shine enough light on me
'Til I'm free from this shadow of doubt
Keep me out of the Shadow...

Posted by: Jauhara al Kafirah at December 5, 2007 9:32 AM

For Van-o-philes out there, his entire back catalogue is being remastered and released with bonus material beginning in January '08. Also of interest is an excellent, career-spanning 3 CD compilation that isn't available domestically, but can be gotten through Amazon UK for under $30, including shipping (like the American release it's also called "Still on Top").

Yes, both Dylan and Morrison seemed to come out the chute artistically fully formed. When all is said and done, they are easily the greatest artists of the rock era. However, from a purely musical standpoint, some of the instant live concert CDs of the revitalized Allman Brothers Band have to be heard to be believed. Their two guitarists, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, are from another planet.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at December 5, 2007 9:50 AM

Another one you might enjoy: Why Van Should be Taught in Our Schools

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at December 5, 2007 11:12 AM

Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

Posted by: TerryH at December 5, 2007 7:06 PM
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