A selection of Van Morrison songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on his Greatest Hits collection.
Astral Weeks It’s hard to believe that this 1968 album is still the standard by which many people continued to monitor the rest of Van Morrison’s career. It’s clearly a one of a kind from the depths of his soul, and though he practiced writing and performing in a stream of consciousness manner at times throughout his career, he only approached the way that all the songs on Astral Weeks seem to always have existed. It was as though Van Morrison simply came across these songs and downloaded them from the ether into this world. Which is kind of the model for any creative endeavor.
Caravan–Live Caravan was first featured on the Moondance album. The followup to Astral Weeks was well received and is still considered one of Van’s best. While the studio version is really great, the song became widely known for Morrison’s electric live versions. Many will be familiar with the version from The Last Waltz, where he performs the song with The Band wearing crazy tight pants and doing high kicks. This version, from the live set It’s Too Late to Stop Now (a great live album in its own right) features Jack Schroeder’s bright alto sax and a string section. The performances on It’s Too Late to Stop Now were recorded at The Troubadour in 1974. Van uses the song to introduce the band before charging into his final assault on the chorus, hitting it hard like a Celtic James Brown.
St. Dominic’s Preview After Moondance Morrison returned with St. Dominic’s Preview, an album where his lyrics were just as stream of consciousness, frankly, as on Astral Weeks. One difference is that more of the songs here have a solid rock & roll or R&B framework underneath the lyrical flights of fancy. The title track is supposedly based on a TV commercial Morrison saw for a revival meeting at a St. Dominic’s Church. Van floats between remembering his early days as a young man cleaning streetlamps, a theme he would return to on “Cleaning Windows,” to his current life as a successful recording artist (“and the company has paid out for the wine”). Also, I was thinking that those lyrics were “I hope that Joyce/don’t blow the hoist” (as in James Joyce). And there’s this: “Meanwhile we’re over in a 52nd Street apartment/socializing with the wino few/Just to be hip and get wet with the jet-set/But they’re flying too high to see my point of view.” With a crescendoing horn section, the song has some of the same energy as “Caravan.”
Snow In San Anselmo 1973’s Hard Nose The Highway is no one’s favorite Van Morrison album, in fact, some people consider it a total failure and one of his worst. I can’t agree there as there is a lot of good music on the record, though it definitely catches Morrison with nothing truly major to say. The album did have a fan favorite, “Warm Love,” which Morrison would continue to perform live for years. But it’s “Snow In San Anselmo” that has always caught my ears. The song is just Van making observations about what’s happening in San Anselmo as it snows there for the first time in thirty years. Like a haiku, it’s not just what’s on the page that makes up the poetry, it’s also what you bring as a listener to the song. I also enjoy the saxophone solo (by Jack Schroeder once again) and the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus, even though their background vocals are kind of cut and pasted into the mix. It’s just a poetic track that I find especially pleasing to listen to.
You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River Veedon Fleece was released in 1974. Most of the songs on the album were written in three weeks during a visit to Ireland. This album is the most frequently cited as being similar to Astral Weeks–the lyrics follow the stream of consciousness inspiration found on that record but the music is more directly influenced by Irish folk music. This particular track seems to start as a remembrance of childhood by a woman, then proceeds to break into a trip along the coast of Ireland with the Eternals and William Blake in search of the Veedon Fleece, a mythical spiritual touchstone that Morrison conjures up. Veedon Fleece is generally under-recognized, particularly since it was out of print for a number of years, yet many consider it Morrison’s finest album (Sinead O’Connor among them). The song is also influenced by Morrison’s readings in Gestalt.
Wavelength In 1978 Morrison made a play for a big radio-friendly record, and with Wavelength, he succeeded, though the album was critically seen as less than stellar. Actually Morrison was writing some good songs, it’s just that they were more pop-oriented than most of his listeners had grown used to. The title track with it’s bubbling synthesizer line and the sharp guitar solo was given a nice radio sheen by Morrison, who acted as producer. Van launched a tour with a large ensemble and performed in his native Belfast for the first time since leaving for the U.S. to record “Brown Eyed Girl.” Seeming relaxed and happy, Morrison performed the song on Saturday Night Live. Wavelength made it to #28 on Billboard’s U.S. Pop Albums chart.
Summertime in England For all those people who wanted Van Morrison to make another album in the mode of Astral Weeks, 1980’s Common One is probably as close as he would ever come. It’s a criminally ignored album, probably because it’s made up of long songs, some of them very slow and meditative. This one finds Morrison meditating on various English nature poets (“Did you ever hear about/Wordsworth and Coleridge?/They were smoking up in Kendall”) backed by a solid band that includes saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis plus a string section. The song goes through several tempo and mood changes with Morrison improvising off of various phrases from the song while interacting with the band and instrumental soloists. Clocking in a little over fifteen minutes it seems like it might be heavy lifting, but once you start to listen and get carried along in the stream of music and Van’s vocal musings it ends all too soon.
Cleaning Windows This song from 1982’s Beautiful Vision is jaunty and happy as Van reminisces about his life around 1961-1962. As a youth Morrison worked as a window cleaner while playing music gigs part-time at nightspots. This song remembers that time perfectly, but it has a deeper Zen-like meaning…”What’s my line/I’m happy cleaning windows.” Happiness comes not from one’s station in life but from performing useful service. The song also implies that one’s life is immeasurably improved by art, philosophy, literature, and music. Morrison is happy despite his seemingly routine life at the time because he enjoys lemonade and Paris buns at the local bakery, hears great blues music coming from the apartments around him, and has the ability to read books by thinkers such as Zen interpreter Christmas Humphreys or Jack Kerouac. Pee Wee Ellis and Mark Isham on horns, Rob Wasserman on bass, and some understated, tasty guitar work from Mark Knopfler.
Days Like This The title track from his 1995 album, this takes the old “Mama told me there’d be days like this” and gives it a positive spin…it’s just as shocking when everything goes right, when the ‘parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit.’ The album was what writers like to call ‘a return to form’ but it’s more that the songs were quite varied and recalled most of Van Morrison’s strengths without hitting on his weaknesses. There’s some of the R&B Van, the soul searcher, the Celtic mystic, the singer. His daughter Shana also appears on the album and was doing her own recording at the time. It’s only weakness is Van’s choice to play the alto sax solo–it’s pretty weak, but he performed this live a lot with other musicians taking the solo, so it’s all good.
Celtic New Year In 2006 Morrison released Magic Time and again critics fell all over themselves calling it a return to form, never realizing that Van Morrison never abandoned his form, is never weak, is never far from his muse. “If I don’t see you when I’m singing Jack of Diamonds/If I don’t see you when I’m on my lucky streak” Morrison sings to a long lost friend or lover, “I want you to come back/on the Celtic New Year.” The Celtic New Year is Samhain, the time when the spirits of the departed can travel back to this realm and interact with those they left behind. It’s a warm song defined by Morrison’s acoustic guitar, the electric guitar of Foggy Little (who passed shortly after the album’s completion), and the whistle playing of the Chieftans’ Paddy Maloney.
Van Morrison has continued to record and release new material regularly even up through last year’s outstanding Three Chords and the Truth. His music is timeless and his muse never stops. I’d love to hear what other people’s favorite Van Morrison tracks are and what you love about them.