Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Man

Forget Rod the Mod. Let’s talk about Van the Man. I don’t listen to him for months at a time. And then I remember. And I’m always glad I do. I remembered last night.

Here is the sort of magical alchemy that happens when I put on his records (and yes, these are records for me; you can’t beat vinyl). I come home from work, dog tired, brain dead, I mumble incoherently to Kate and Rachel for a few minutes, then I retire to the den. I put on, in quick succession, St. Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, and Tupelo Honey. I don’t play the entire records. I only play the title tracks from these three albums. At some point I start whooping, because this is what Van does for me. The music critic’s gotta scream and holler. It’s all good. And I emerge fifteen minutes later re-energized, invigorated, ready to face the whole suburban tableau, ‘cause I got soul.

I’d say that the first eight solo albums are essential. That would be Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and Veedon Fleece. It’s an incredible run. Van is at the top of his vocal powers here, which means, in my opinion, that he’s simply the greatest, most soulful singer of the rock ‘n roll era. He makes masterful use of strings and horns. And he generates a few dozen masterpieces along the way. A Greatest Hits album really cannot do justice to the scope of the greatness here. You really do need them all. But if forced to choose, I’d probably go with St. Dominic’s Preview, which contains several straightforward R&B/Irish soul classics, and one very unstraightforward, weird-as-hell song called “Listen to the Lion” in which Van froths at the mouth for upwards of eleven minutes, repeating his lyrics like rosary beads until he enters what surely sounds like a trance-like state and simply starts, well, roaring like a lion. I love it. I know people who hate it. But I think it’s the strangest and greatest singing I’ve ever heard.

After the first eight, it’s spotty. The albums I’d outright avoid are as follows: A Period of Transition (1977), Too Long in Exile (1992), Days Like These (1993), A Night in San Francisco (1994). None of these are terrible, but they do sound like Van is going through the motions at times. The latter is a live album in which Van turns over the vocal duties to various backup singers. It sounds like a Las Vegas Revue. You’ve always wanted to hear some unknown backup singer sing “Moondance,” right?

At the peak of his commercial success, Van chucked it all away to follow his Muse. I respect him for that, but it hasn’t always led to the most approachable music. There are moments of greatness everywhere, but also moments of headstrong rants against the music industry (Van’s favorite target) and moments so mystically strange that they threaten to float away into the ether. For the past 25 years Van has been obsessed with childhood and childhood memory, revisiting the haunts of his youth in Belfast, pursuing communion with God in orthodox and unorthodox ways. Don’t come looking for creedal truths, but I respect his dogged pursuit of God even as I scratch my head at some of the directions he’s turned. Some of the highlights: Common One (1980), in which Van rants about T.S. Eliot and William Blake for fifteen minutes at a time, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1982), one of his most beautiful and mystical albums, Irish Heartbeat (1987), his wonderful collaboration with The Chieftains, and Avalon Sunset (1989), a collection of fine love songs. His last four albums – Down the Road, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Magic Time, and Pay the Devil – represent a return to the more straightforward R&B/folk of his early albums, but with slightly diminished vocal powers. It’s not a big deal, because slightly diminished Van is still very, very good indeed.

I do love his music, and, along with Dylan and Al Green and Bruce Cockburn, Van probably comes as close to Musical Hero status as anyone in my life. I’ve never seen him live, and I want to very much. He doesn’t tour much anymore, rarely in the U.S. and never in Ohio, so Kate (another big Van fan) and I have tossed around the idea that for our upcoming 25th anniversary we’ll simply go wherever Van is. Hopefully he’ll sing his own songs and not turn them over to the backup singers. These are the things we do for love, love, love, crazy love.


Zena and Joshua said...

i was raised on van. i remember when my dad put the big ol' headphones on me and we sat side by side on the couch. my feet barely dangled off the edge of it as i heard 'into the mystic' for the first time. he wanted me to know what good music was.

i think it worked.

i like 'days like these' as a whole album, though.

gotta get through january, gotta get through february,

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Zena. Great to hear from you. I like your dad, and I've never met him. Big ol' headphones on small children are a wonderful thing.

I think that "gotta get through January/gotta get through February" lyric is from "This Weight," which is on "The Healing Game." I like that album, too, especially "Rough God Goes Riding," which is as fine a metaphor for the Christian life as I've ever heard. I'm not as crazy about "Days Like These."

Zena and Joshua said...


you are right.

healing game, i mean.


Anonymous said...

Jan and I saw Van once in concert in the late 70's-early 80's in an old movie theatre in Petaluma, CA. He was living nearby at the time, and I think he basically just wanted to try out some new material on a live audience. Although, as you know, I am almost a big a fan of his as you are, and Jan is also, we were disappointed through most of the concert with Van's lack of communication with the audience. Looking back, it may have been that he was just in some sort of analytical mode, test driving the material. Anyway, as he was about to wrap up, the folks in the audience began demanding the hits, and it was like Van shifted gears. He even did G-L-O-R-I-A. We went home puzzled and somewhat disappointed that the concert wasn't the high point we had expected. So, be warned: as you know, the man follows his muse, so if you find a time and place to catch him live, pray that the muse is in a playful mood.

You might want to go with something that's more of a sure thing for the 25th anniversary.

By the way, my personal album favorites are Irish Heartbeat and Into the Music. However, a sub-par Van Morrison album is till generally worth at least 3.5 stars out of 5. I don't know of anyone else who's done as much music as Van who has been any more consistently excellent while continuing to walk out to the edge.

axegrinder said...


Thanks so much for the Van primer. I have a random assortment of his songs on my iPod. Your breakdown gives me some direction. I really like most of what I've heard of him thus far. Talk about great mood music for a date.


I remember the big headphones, too. My parents played Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John, Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond.

Jason Kranzusch

Andy Whitman said...

For what it's worth, I still have the big ol' headphones.

I went out and bought the little headphones, and felt naked. So I traded them in for a pair of big ol' honkin' Koss headphones, where each earpiece is the size of a cereal bowl.

I love them because they completely block out all other sound. They sound great, and they're particularly helpful for those nights I'm up late, or for those weekend mornings when I'm up early, and when the teenaged/young adult kids are still sleeping. Music before noon is still a headphones-only activity at my house.

jackscrow said...

John Repsch, in "The Legendary Joe Meek" recounts that upon hearing Stewart sing, Meek rushed into the studio, put his fingers in his ears and screamed until Stewart had left. -- Joe Meek Wikipedia entry.

HCJoel said...

Like Zena, I grew up with Van Morrison playing in the house and car. My dad is a huge fan going back to the days of Them. While easily his most commercially-successful song, 'Brown-Eyed Girl' is one of my favourite songs of all-time as I heard it early and often in my life. I re-discovered Van The Man a couple years ago during a road trip from Winnipeg to Calgary. 'Moondance' was in regular rotation and I searched for it when I got home (believe it or not, it was difficult to find). I think it is the greatest make-out album ever. Put that bad boy on and Van will lead you 'into the mystic'. You know you want to go. And the ladies will find it romantic too.


PS Anyone else think Rod Stewart should be emulsified for doing such damage to Van's 'Have I Told You Lately'? Rod, I haven't told you that I hate you. I do, though.