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By Michael E. Miller
I have a friend who, while dying of cancer, insisted that a tape of Morrison singing "Into the Mystic" be played. Over and over, as he lapsed into unconsciousness. You could break that song down and find nothing there but the usual mathematical progression of chords, words that anyone has at their command, but there's nonetheless something magic about it.
He has said that after Astral Weeks, for which Morrison received little or no money, he was broke. As a result he decided that he'd have to ditch the creative abandon of that album and go commercial. He claims that his next album, Moondance, was meant to be a pop hit. Listening to it now, you can't help but bask in nostalgia for the early Seventies, when "commercial" art was this good. What other artist sells out and creates a pop album that contains songs like "Into the Mystic," "These Dreams of You," "Moondance," "Crazy Love"?
But with each subsequent Warner Bros. album it was apparent that inspiration was flagging. By 1974 Morrison decided to retire from the business, and then spent a happy two years in California. As we all know now, it didn't last. By the early Eighties he had returned to Ireland and signed up with Polygram. He returned as a mature artist ruminating openly about spirituality, yearning for transcendence.
What's been missing in his newer work (apart from the obvious feverish romanticism of a young man) was something in his voice, that manic quality when he'd draw out a note ("Wiiiiild night") or when he would start a rant. So much of his early work was done at a shout; he couldn't resist unleashing that full-throated bluesy yell. But there was joy in that sound.
There's no doubt that for the past ten years he's composed gorgeous music, and the texture of his voice is beyond comparison, but he mumbles the words. He growls and rumbles -- and it's beyond a natural, age-related deepening of tone; it's tied to his mood. It's no accident that several of Morrison's songs from this decade deal with depression; "Melancholia," from Days Like This, was just one. Alas, it has been a recurring theme. So on The Healing Game, when he suddenly rears back on "It Once Was My Life" and howls, it's quite a moment.
And so I decided that I'd been too hard on Morrison these past few albums. Of course, the older he gets the more he's going to cling to his old record collection. If you've grown up in a world before mass media trivialized art and literature and music, it must be hard to accept MTV and the banality of modern entertainment. Ersatz white-Brit jazz might, in the end, be preferable to alterna-ska or jungle. Right now it's too early to make that call. But I do know it's no feat to sing about what young lovers do when you're 23, high on the bliss of just being you. It's all the more poignant when an artist like Morrison -- battered around by life, and from all accounts totally unlucky in love -- dissolves into joy and projects it outward, via music. It's a wonder.
Van Morrison performs Monday and Tuesday, December 30 and 31, at the Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 NW 95th Ave; 954-741-7300. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $25, $35, and $50.