Uncommon One

Into the gap is, of course, where Morrison sometimes goes as well, so perhaps he can't be held accountable; he doesn't know where he's going when he becomes immersed in a song. Even in his earliest period of Top 40 pop -- in songs such as "Brown-Eyed Girl" -- there's poetic transcendence of the mere words. Billy Joel could also write a sentimental song about a girl from his past he longed for, behind the stadium, but it wouldn't have the spiritual resonance of Morrison's song. Morrison brings the musicality and depth of heart that only a childhood steeped in R&B, blues, and jazz could create, infused with the poetic mysticism of an Irishman who loves language and is conversant with the great poets.

He was born George Ivan Morrison in Belfast, Ireland, some 50 years ago, just a block away from Cypress Avenue, although he might as well have been worlds away from that quiet, moneyed street. His parents were Seventh Day Adventists, and his electrician father collected blues and jazz albums. So it was that Morrison grew up hearing Lead Belly on the phonograph and Ray Charles on the radio.

His father bought him a guitar, which he played at school functions. By the time he was fifteen, Morrison had left school and was playing gigs around Belfast, mostly rock and roll, mostly the songs of Jerry Lee Lewis. Two years later he was playing military bases around the U.K. and the inevitable (for the time) club scene in Germany.

Morrison has said he finds analysis of the whys and wherefores of the next few stages of his career extremely annoying. He made some moves, he claims, to survive, not with any long-term plan in mind. We know that the group Them was formed, with Morrison, as a sort of house band for a Belfast hotel. With Them he was responsible for writing one of the definitive statements on teenage lust, "Gloria"; and his "Here Comes the Night" has more mystery and passion than most other rock of the time. But it was another Morrison-penned Them hit, "Mystic Eyes," that foreshadowed the visionary Morrison to come.

In 1966, after three years with Them, Morrison took off for the U.S. He recorded the now-mythical Astral Weeks in just two days in 1968, when he was 23 years old, backed by hired studio musicians. What exactly Morrison meant to accomplish with the album and what people take from it has been the basis for critical argument for years. In a famous 1979 meditation on the album, critic Lester Bangs claimed with utmost seriousness that the album saved his life when it was released in 1969. Just when the wildest part of the Sixties was in full throttle, Bangs, like many, sensed despair at the end of the party. Morrison was there waiting, with an album that was meant to comfort and soothe, not excite.

Bangs played it over and over, finding deep personal meaning in the words. For him the subject of "Madame George" was a transvestite betrayed by the opportunistic young boys he nurtures. Morrison himself has denied the transvestite interpretation (Bangs called this hogwash), although usually when he's questioned about the meaning of his songs, he refuses all comment. He especially likes to assume a brisk "it's just work" tack. It's his job, he asserts, something that's hard work, and he does it. He puts his songs out into the world and then he's done with it. He can't be responsible for what listeners do with his music. He's moved on, he doesn't care.

But sometimes the artist isn't so sure. He'll stammer and mumble, like this exchange with journalist Mick Brown, who merely asked if Morrison hadn't finally achieved his creative voice with Astral Weeks.

"I don't really know," Morrison replied. "I mean [whispering] ... found my voice ... [long pause]. Yeah. I probably -- yeah. Maybe I could say that. I suppose you could say that. Yeah. That's a way of putting it, yeah. Umm, yeah, uhh ... sort of, yeah. I think...." But then it's as if some node in his cerebrum will click into gear and he'll suddenly become lucid and verbose. Later in that particular interview, he suddenly started nattering away, admitting something astonishing -- namely, that the entire end of "Cypress Avenue" will take the listener through a meditation. He didn't want to say anything at the time, he told Brown; the times back then, the late Sixties, being so volatile, full of rock and roll and violence in the streets and all that. So he just did it, on that and several other songs.

Much later, in "The Garden" (from No Guru), he did it again, of course, only it's half a trick, so that he can yell "Boo!" at the listener. "No guru, no method, no teacher!" he growls, right at the moment the listener is about to glide into nirvanic rapture. But with "Cypress Avenue," while critic Bangs was all caught up in what he saw as the tragic longing of a man for a fourteen-year-old girl he saw walking down the street, Morrison was actually mesmerizing and healing him. It's something in the voice, something spiritual yet sensual, and it works on both sexes.

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