Uncommon One

The news that there's a new Van Morrison album out should be thrilling. But for some of us there have been so many Morrison discs in the last year alone that it's a bit anticlimactic. And if anyone mentions that Ronnie Scott or that Georgie Fame is on the album, we're apt to bolt for the door. It's a terrible thing to complain about too many Van Morrison albums, rather like you've been given too much money, or you have too many bottles of Dom Perignon.

But let's not get carried away. The two Morrison albums from this year with the shrink wrap barely torn off -- How Long Has This Been Going On and Tell Me Something -- are both collections of that early-Sixties, Brit-boho jazz he loves so much. So there are a few bottles of Champale in there amidst the vintage bubbly.

And while I'm the first to put on Georgie Fame's old single "Yeah Yeah" and have a little beatnik raveup, to truly appreciate what Van Morrison is doing when he puts on his jazz porkpie hat and swings with the boys, you have be British or Irish; you have to have grown up in the Fifties and been passionate about jazz in a way many Americans of that age group were not.

And you, the semicasual fan, you say you've just worked your way up to 1995's Days Like This? Okay, find a Van Morrison discography, realize how many albums you didn't even know about, let alone own, and weep. (Whatever you do, don't try to lift the discography; you'll fall over trying.)

But yes, Morrison's new album is due out in early March, and thankfully it's a collection of regular, nonjazz Morrison music, called The Healing Game. His busy label will next issue The Philosopher's Stone, a two-CD compilation of unreleased rarities, in the fall of '97, having been delayed a year. And that's not counting the forthcoming John Lee Hooker album Morrison has produced for Virgin, Don't Look Back, due in late February. The producer also sings on that disc.

And wait -- don't close your wallet yet: The seven Warner Bros. albums Morrison cut from 1971 to 1978, ranging from Tupelo Honey to Wavelength, are finally being re-released by Polydor after having languished out of print for some time. Have you seen your copy of Tupelo Honey lately?

Today the good news is that The Healing Game is vintage late-period Van -- mellow, mystical, and searching. And you must have it. For while one "Have I Told You Lately" every ten years is permitted, we prefer the Morrison who's wondering about the nature of love; musing wistfully about lost love; castigating current, faithless loves; or just mumbling incomprehensibly with his face away from the mike, not the guy who's penning anniversary songs for aging baby boomers.

In his lyrics and in interviews, Morrison has often lamented that he was born sad, that he's always had the blues. But musically that's when he's at his best, when he's questioning everything. There's a sharp cuff for a lover in a line on the new album, from a song called "It Once Was My Life." And because, like most Morrison fans, we secretly keep tabs on his personal life, we wonder, Is he chiding an actual former lover? Has he lost his faith, or found a new meditation? It's exactly for people like us that Morrison writes songs like "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher," to put us off the scent. It doesn't work. Because we know that he suffered a messy, public breakup last year with his girlfriend, a former Miss Ireland. And that afterward he was even more irascible than usual at some live shows. His performances bordered on erratic and were not altogether entertaining.

So what does the new music tell us? That he's still doubtful, still searching. If anything, he seems to have become a bit defiant in recent years about universal or unconditional love, a concept that both traditional religions and today's new-age-infused culture puts forth.

Morrison clearly struggles with the concept. Although his songs are on one level mystical, an "inarticulate speech of the heart," on another they're very specific, noncliched gropings toward uncomfortable, often unfashionable truths. While the whole world seems to be turning to angels and touchy-feely religions, Morrison is looking back as always to his beloved "ancients," wondering if he has any faith at all.

Another thing the artist is cranky about is how people interpret his lyrics, especially when they insist upon reading deep meanings into them. As he peevishly asserted on the tune "Songwriter" from 1995's Days Like This: "Please don't call me a sage, I'm a songwriter/I do it for a living/I'm a songwriter/And I write about men and women...."

And yet one of his most important gifts as an artist is that the meaning of his music can be grasped only in the gaps, when the listener has dropped all defenses and sunk into the "slipstream," to use one of the proper Morrisonian terms -- into the mystic or the astral plane.

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.

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.

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