Incredibly, Van Morrison is 60 years old. Van the Man is now an old man, certainly old enough to kick back and enjoy the Avalon sunset if he so chooses. But don’t let him in on that secret. Most rock stars Van’s age, content to play the nostalgia game if they still play the game at all, criss-cross the world on their Oldies tours. In contrast, during the past three years Van Morrison has quietly released three new albums of original material that are some of the best of his monumental career. It is suspiciously sprightly behavior for a man who is supposed to be resting on his laurels.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than on “Listen to the Lion,” an impossibly idiosyncratic track from Van’s 1972 album St. Dominic’s Preview. For more than eleven minutes Van wrestles his lyrics like a dog worrying a bone, repeating the same phrases over and over in an incantatory prayer; whispering, moaning, cajoling, pleading, and ultimately breaking free of language altogether, soaring off into a scatting, stuttering frenzy, and finally roaring like the lion of the title before settling down again and morphing back to his normal, irascible self. I know people who hate the song, and who find it annoyingly self-indulgent. But for my blue money it is the quintessential Van Morrison moment, the most thrilling and thrillingly strange soul music, in all senses of the term, ever recorded. It is the sound of a man casting off all earthly bounds and battering down the gates of heaven.
It is further evidence, if any is needed, of what Van Morrison has always been, and of what he refuses to become. Don’t be fooled by the lion this time. You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the telltale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose.