For years I didn’t like Van Morrison. I saw him as a soul singer and I didn’t like soul music (I didn’t take the time to identify the difference between soul, blues, R&B or whatever). So I didn’t listen to him (though I heard Bright Side Of The Road on the radio a couple of times and thought it was OK).
A friend at college played me Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart one evening, and told me it was great, and I hated that too. I just didn’t get Van Morrison.
He was OK in The Last Waltz, but set alongside Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and so many other great talents, I wasn’t impressed by a chubby bloke high-kicking his way across the stage.
I eventually came to round to Van Morrison through an album he recorded with Irish folk band The Chieftains. Irish Heartbeat combined some traditional songs with some of Van’s own, and was utterly brilliant. I’ve always had a soft spot for Irish folk music, and was going through one of my occasional folk phases, and although I can’t remember exactly why I picked up this record (maybe I heard something on the radio and legged it down the record library) it grabbed me immediately.
The songs are wonderful – including She Moved Through The Fair, Marie’s Wedding and one of my favourite songs Carrickfergus – combining Van’s growling Belfast accent with The Chieftains’ exceptional musicianship.
Now I needed to see if I’d actually been missing something, so I got hold of Van’s latest album, Enlightenment – and I loved that too! And now I was on a roll – all of that back catalogue to go at, and now I finally “got” Van Morrison. As with Joni Mitchell, it just had to be the right stage in life.
My wife and I went to see him in concert and had mixed reactions. I thought the gig was a great evening of blues and soul (I apologise to soul music in general for those years of disdain – I was wrong) with a terrific band: she thought he was grumpy and rude for not speaking to the audience at any point in the evening – my response was that I’d gone to hear him play music, not give a lecture, but she does have a point. Maybe we were both right.
I’ve gone through various periods in the years since when I’ve listened to nothing but Van Morrison. It’s not all great – in fact, I don’t think he’s made a truly great album from start to finish, but some are almost great and most have some completely sublime moments. I’m excluding Astral Weeks – I know it’s supposed to be one of the great albums of all time according to critics’ polls, and I’ve really tried to like it, but it just does nothing for me.
So I got into Van Morrison by the back door – his one album of traditional Irish songs, recorded with a group of Irish musicians, not a note of blues, soul or R&B anywhere. But that was the gateway to a late appreciation of a truly brilliant musician.
And here are a few links:
Carrickfergus: From Irish Heartbeat. I love this so much. Actually, go and listen to the whole album, see how good it is.
Into The Mystic: This is the perfect illustration of what I’d been missing and what I eventually found – lovely gentle groove, horn section break, and a classic Van Morrison vocal.
Dweller On The Threshold: The Van Morrison track I come back to time after time. There are so many riffs running over each other, and the combination of horns and guitar with that groove at the back is close to perfection. And whether or not you’re a spiritual person, the lyrics carry meaning.
“Too late to stop now.”