Back in Oregon From New York City

ELDER MUSIC: Van the Man

Tibbles1SM100x130This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.

Today is the time for one of the most important artists of the last 50 years, the Belfast Cowboy himself, VAN MORRISON.

Van Morrison

Van's father had a vast record collection and the young Van grew up listening to jazz and blues records, especially Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Leadbelly and Solomon Burke. He said that this was the music that got him started in the first place.

His father noted his interest in the music and bought him a guitar. He learned to play that instrument and was also attracted to saxophones. He acquired one of those too and it became his main instrument. He became proficient on piano and bass as well.

After he left school, Van played in various show bands and rhythm and blues combos. He even did a stint in Germany, possibly crossing paths with The Beatles (there's no evidence for that; I just threw it in as a possibility).

One day, back in Belfast, he answered an advertisement for a sax player for an R & B group. He was accepted and he soon took over the lead singing role as well. That group morphed into THEM.

Van Morrison

They got a gig at some local place and the first week they had about 60 people along. The second maybe twice that. The third week you couldn't get in. Them made a number of recordings, including a song that's become a rock classic, Gloria.

♫ Them - Gloria

Them fell apart due to personnel changes and poor management. After leaving Them, Van moved to California, went solo and recorded an album for a small record company that produced the song, Brown Eyed Girl and little else of consequence, although other Van-istas rather like the rest of the album.

Van Morrison

♫ Van Morrison - Brown Eyed Girl

Van Morrison

After that rather ordinary effort, Warner Brothers bought the company to which Van was signed. Not a great deal was expected of him and he was allowed just three sessions to produce an album that became “Astral Weeks.”

Rather than go the usual route playing rock & roll or blues, Van got together a crack jazz band and came up with one of the most extraordinary albums ever. An album that took popular music where it had never been before (or since).

"Astral Weeks" should be a mandatory inclusion in the collection of any person who likes fine music. From that album I've selected Cyprus Avenue.

♫ Van Morrison - Cyprus Avenue

Van Morrison

His next album, “Moondance,” is just as good as its predecessor, but quite different musically. He returned to his rhythm and blues roots for this one and it was a more cheerful and optimistic. Here is the first song on that album, And It Stoned Me.

♫ Van Morrison - And It Stoned Me

Van Morrison

Although I knew about Them when they were popular, I first discovered Van as a solo artist when I was living in San Francisco in 1970. He had already released the albums "Astral Weeks" and "Moondance" and "His Band and Street Choir" had just come out.

I bought all three of them at the same time and I still rather regard these three as parts 1, 2 and 3 of the same album. They are quite different in mood but that still doesn't disabuse me of the idea.

From the third of those comes the song, Street Choir, which resonated with me at the time and still does.

♫ Van Morrison - Street Choir

Van has always been supportive of other artists, even sharing his stage with them. This is particularly so of those he loved as a boy, particularly Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Wells and most especially, JOHN LEE HOOKER.

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker

John Lee said that he'd be happy to perform with Van any time at all (and they did appear together quite often). Here they sing one of Van's songs that turned up on an album they recorded together imaginatively titled "Together.”

The song is The Healing Game.

♫ Van Morrison & John Lee Hooker - The Healing Game

In 1998, Van brought out a double CD, called “The Philosopher's Stone,” of outtakes from various albums and a few alternate takes as well. Most of the songs had not seen the light of day before. For just about anyone else, this would be an indulgence.

Van Morrison

Some of the songs are so good it's hard to imagine why they were omitted from the earlier albums. Of course, when you check back on those you'd be hard put to think of any song that could be kicked off to make room for one of these.

So, this release was especially welcome rather than having the songs molder in some vault. The song I've selected is Not Supposed to Break Down.

♫ Van Morrison - Not Supposed to Break Down

The song Moondance, as those who are conversant with Van's oeuvre know, came from the album of the same name. However, it wasn't the only time he recorded it.

Van teamed with GEORGIE FAME and they performed it more in the style of bebop than the original rock/blues. It's such a good song that it works no matter how it's performed. Or by whom.

Van Morrison and Georgie Fame

♫ Van Morrison - Moondance

JAMES HUNTER is an English soul and R&B singer whose voice takes you back to the days of Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter. Van championed him in his early career and appeared on his first album, duetting on a couple of songs.

Van Morrison and James Hunter

James deserves to be much more widely known, he's a terrific performer. From that initial album, he and Van sing Ain't Nothing You Can Do.

♫ James Hunter and Van Morrison - Ain't Nothing You Can Do

Van Morrison

I'll end with a very long track indeed, so if you get bored with it you can go off and do something else, make a cup of tea or whatever. Of course, if you're like me you'll never get bored with Van.

This isn't his only long track, he was quite fond of them back in the mid-seventies. The song Listen to the Lion was the last tune of side one (remember when records had two sides?) of the album Saint Dominic's Preview. Side two ended with the equally lengthy, Almost Independence Day.

♫ Van Morrison - Listen to the Lion


I had forgotten how much I used to love Van Morrison's music. Thank you for this post and the memories it triggered.

'into the mystic' is one of my all-time favorites. listened to van since the beginning.

Adore his music. Adore, not too strong a word. Have seen him in concert - not one of his great efforts unfortunately. He did a collaborations with the Chieftains that's just brilliant.

I adore Van Morrison's ,music too. His performance in the The Last Waltz is amazing--he goes off the stage high kicking like a Rockette. The highlight of the film for me.

One of my all time favourites, but seeing him live is a crapshoot. Occasionally warm and generous, but also sometimes performing with his back to the audience the whole time, or barely singing at all. James Hunter is terrific live, electric.

Great line up of music. When G.L.O.R.I.A. came on, I swear the smell of Hi Karate (a popular American Cologne of the time) wafted through the room! Really enjoyed 'Listen to the Lion' but couldn't get it to play all the way through, sadly. I'll try one more time. Thanks for this quality time with Mr. Morrison!

Ha, thanks for that. Just listened to Gloria. My favorite version/adaptation is by Patti Smith on Horses.

After illness and convalescence, I ventured out to my long-neglected garden, to rebuild. Van was my constant companion. Every morning I would suit up -- gloves, hat, iPod loaded with Van. He encouraged me, whispered to me, made me dance, brought me back.

It must be a sign of age: either I am older than the other commenters or I have forgotten more than I think. I don't recall ever having heard of Van Morrison. Oh, well.

Peter, thanks for presenting Mr. Morrison.
Good stuff!

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