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The Great Souls of Our Time: Van Morrison

But 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? We always look back. Seeing the shapes, getting the measure, going the distance, and finding that the safe harbors of your life require a spiritual sextant for sighting the fixed stars. It’s a ghost ship’s voyage with what lies ahead a blank white screen while what is behind fades into the smoke of the world well lost. On this voyage, there are shallows, shoals, and the fatal allure of Sirens and the lee shore. There are the times in irons, then the times in storms, then stretches of clear open ocean on a broad reach, but still with the sense of hidden reefs and an always unknowable destination. It helps to track others’ 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 then at least a similar trajectory.

Everybody navigates their life with 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 or wheezing and grunting in “Slams,” 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 transcendental 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 larger. 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…”

But that was later, and this is earlier, much earlier — previous, previous. Back before there really was “Van Morrison.” Back when he was just a singer. Back when he was one of 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

G-L-O-R-I-A (GLORIA)

Remembering that song 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 deeper work — “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 its 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.

It’s a song that first insinuates itself deep into your lungs and then crawls down your bones. It’s not for the tenderhearted:

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 here 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 — rarer still in the days of “Do you believe in magic/ in a young girl’s eyes?”

Not that Morrison could not rock it and kick it with the best of them. Here he is with the band that should have always been his back up band, The Band:

“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 live there. Don’t we?

But Van the Man does not live in the past. He lives on the threshold. He moves on; moves on ahead of his fans and the world, making it all higher, brighter, finer; singing his way out of hell and towards heaven with a soul that thrives on faith and freedom. His latest release here in the iron year is:

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brio November 11, 2020, 10:37 PM

    Dylan’s attraction is lost on me. I grew up hearing a few of his songs on the radio and liked them, but I was never a real fan and never spent a cent for his music. I roll my eyes whenever I (skim) read about highness on Althouse’s blog.

    But Van Morrison is on another level. I’ve never cared for Gloria, Brown-Eyed Girl, or Tupelo Honey. Too commercial? I don’t know.

    Sometime around 1993 or 1994, I bought Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, then Poetic Champions Compose, then Too Long in Exile, then Healing Game.

    I was trying to remember what prompted my first puchase of a Morrison cd in 1993 but I can’t recall. I do recall buying Poetic Champions Compose in Dallas while visiting a friend. I spent many raining days listening to that cd over and over, while my friend was at work, instead of exploring the city which was new to me.

    It is hard for me visualize everything that might have gone on in Morrison’s life to prompt his astonishing output. I recently read that he was livid about the lockdowns since he couldn’t book concerts.

    My music for a desert island: entire Van Morrison and Nina Simone discographies.

  • djmoore November 11, 2020, 10:41 PM

    Ah, but the one that chokes me up every time is:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFXRAfWDBmk
    These are the days of the endless summer
    These are the days, the time is now
    There is no past, there’s only future
    There’s only here, there’s only now
    ===
    And that, friends, is what the left desperately wants us to forget. No now, and most especially, no future.
    Only a gray, grainy past that they can twist to whatever they want.
    But always, always, they need us to forget “the love of the one great magician”, remembering only the hatred of the one great Adversary.

  • Auntie Analogue November 11, 2020, 11:11 PM

    Except for one album of his Van Morrison has never been my cup of tea.

    Without having heard any of it, I bought that one album. Was in the record store, just browsing, flipping, almost absentmindedly, through the rack of LP’s, and its cover photo did nothing for me but the title leapt out and grabbed me: Astral Weeks.

    Had no idea what “Astral” meant. Projection? Huh? But that album, I’ve loved it ever since. After playing it for the first time I looked up “astral.” The man, well, that man just . . . nailed it . . . :

    “If I ventured in the slipstream
    Between the viaducts of your dream
    Where immobile steel rims crack
    And the ditch in the back roads stop
    Could you find me?
    Would you kiss-a my eyes?
    To lay me down
    In silence easy
    To be born again
    To be born again.”

  • Doctor Jeyi November 11, 2020, 11:24 PM

    I had the amazing good fortune to have actually attended the Last Waltz. I loved Van Morrison before and since, but what really brought the house down that night wasn’t so much Caravan as it was Morrison’s singing “Tura Lura Lura, it’s an Irish lullabye”, which somehow didn’t make it into to Scorsese’s concert movie. A lot of great stuff that night didn’t.

  • John Venlet November 12, 2020, 4:09 AM

    I think you are spot in your analysis of the Morrison and Dylan, Gerard. Both are gifted wordsmiths, but when I look into my music collection, I see over a dozen of Van’s albums, but only one of Dylan’s albums.

    Another positive checkmark. Van Morrison’s rejection of this Chinese batflu lockdown madness, which he put into words and music.

  • Dirk Williams November 12, 2020, 6:37 AM

    Nov 25th 1976, I/We attended the LastWaltz.

    Was a brand new sailor, recovering from Hep A, ” my entire bootcamp company got it” and stationed at NAS Alameda. Was tasked with working special services, which housed ticket tron? They sold tickets. Lucy ” The manager’ received eight tickets to a Thanksgiving day show, to pass out to sailors marines.

    Lucy gave my first wife and me three passes, we almost didn’t go, Last minute we got in the 240z, and went. WOW. Was already a repeat attender of Winterland, what a venue! Fond memories!.

    Personally I think Bob Dylan and The Band stole the show. Heck just a wonderful time.

    I recently spoke with my ex. She called to, question me about the show, ” things were very fuzzy.” Was sharing memories, from her point of view. We were 19 and 21, life was good.

    Anyway I’ve never met anybody else who attended. Most have zero Idea what “The Waltz ” was, it’s place in Rock and Roll History.

    I remember being exhausted, slept well with a huge smile on my face.

    Good times.

    Dirk

  • Kevin in PA November 12, 2020, 7:19 AM

    Wow, Gerard, that is a terrific write-up on Van. Great comparison with Dylan and highlighting that longevity thing – “He endures”.

    I also share djmoore’s thought re; “The One Great Magician”, song titled “These Are The Days”, from Morrisson’s Avalon Sunset album. That song hooks me every time.

  • jwm November 12, 2020, 7:46 AM

    Speaking of great souls…
    We are all of us fortunate to be in the virtual presence of one such soul each and every day that we stop by here to see what you have in store for us here at American Digest. I can’t even look at the rest of the bookmarks these days. I stop here, and at Essays in Idleness, and call it quits.
    In the face of singularly horrible news you’ve let us pay a visit each day to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. It has been a breath of fresh air and a drink of clear water.
    Thank you, Gerard. You’ve made this world a better place for all of us.

    JWM

  • Gagdad Bob November 12, 2020, 7:59 AM

    Don’t even get me started on Van. As Sam Phillips exclaimed upon hearing Howlin’ Wolf sing, “This is where the soul of man never dies!”

    Sometimes it can look like he’s not enjoying himself. So check out this performance by Tom Jones of one of Van’s songs. Never seen him looking so happy.

  • Van Fan November 12, 2020, 9:37 AM

    This one does it for me… “A place—you know, that place, that special retreat we know next to the loveliness of the garden and the wall that sequesters us from the din and demands of the distant world.
    And a space, though not a physical space, but a speck in time, those magical moments of stillness and peace before the twilight and the dawn.”
    http://andrewhidas.com/van-morrison-and-the-deep-wisdom-of-the-leaves/

  • Phil in Englewood November 12, 2020, 10:30 AM

    Seconding jwm. I am so very happy to have this oasis to visit.
    “a breath of fresh air and a drink of clear water” indeed.
    Thank you, Gerard.

  • Joan Of Argghh! November 12, 2020, 1:41 PM

    Hubs and I started our honeymoon with “Starting a New Life” on the cassette player as we headed down the road. Brought up our boy hearing it as we ventured to Mexico for five years. We made it a part of his being and he, too, must play Van Morrison when the road ahead seems full of possibility. It’s our family travelin’ song.

    Veedon Fleece’s “Fair Play” is possibly the best of his love songs and his voice is a tender, sensual instrument of seduction… geronimo! I listened to almost nothing but Van for the three years I worked for the government; it was the only way to survive the madness around me.

    I come here for the anamnesis– the remembering to not forget– like being in Mr & Mrs Badger’s comfortable dwelling on the threshold between now and Christmas, waiting, waiting in the white silence of winter.

  • ghostsniper November 12, 2020, 2:41 PM

    Never made a red centavo off’n my ass.
    Just didn’t click.

  • ed in texas November 12, 2020, 5:33 PM

    I’ve always been partial to “Wild Night”…
    & “Cleaning Windows”
    (The theme of every 20 year old musician
    going to work every day so so he can
    make his gig on the weekend…)

  • Van Fan November 12, 2020, 7:18 PM

    You’re funny, Joan. 😁

  • Stephen Miller November 13, 2020, 11:15 AM

    Joan – so glad you mentioned Veedon Fleece. I absolutely love that album. Not many seem to know it. But I love almost every album Van has released. My fav might be Into the Music – what a great version of It’s all in the Game, rolling into You know what they’re Writing About.

  • bilejones November 14, 2020, 5:32 AM

    Three senses of my youth.
    The scent of Shalimar
    The look of a bias cut dress
    The music of Van the man.

    The three together were wonderful.