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                           Muses on The Music

Van the Man’s an All-Song Shuffle

June 21, 2012

Struggling Weekly, June 21, 2012

            Most people who know me, know that most lunch hours, I can be seen out walking my (not-quite) daily constitutional.

            Most days, the ear buds from my iPod or iPhone will be plugged into my aural receptors. (If they’re not, I’m probably practicing Masonic memory work.) And quite often, the MP3 player is on a Van Morrison all-songs shuffle.

            For those readers not familiar with Van the Man, he’s a native of Northern Ireland who arrived in America kind of on the second wave of the British Invasion, the pop music influx from the United Kingdom. He was the front man for a group called Them, best known for singles like “Gloria,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Here Comes the Night.”

            A couple of those songs were minor hits, and “Gloria” had the dubious distinction of being banned by some AM radio stations. (The reason for that is sort of quaint, when compared to what happens in popular music these days.) But Morrison was soon out on his own with a song that even most people who don’t follow rock music know, “Brown-Eyed Girl.”

            BEG caught my ear, like it did for a lot of young Americans back in the summer of 1968, not the least because I had what I considered to be a brown-eyed girl back then. (She insisted they were hazel, but that was not the last of the disagreements we had.) So when Morrison’s album “Moondance” showed up on FM rock radio a couple years later, I was already inclined in his favor.

            “Moondance” remains my “desert island” album — the one LP that, if I was stranded and allowed just one album, that I could listen to repeatedly. It’s pretty much all hits and no misses, topped off by some really great tunes: the title cut, “Caravan,” “And It Stoned Me,” “Into the Mystic,” “Crazy Love and “Brand New Day.”

            That album led me to Morrison’s previous release, his first solo (not counting a contractually thrown-together collection that included BEG) album, “Astral Weeks.” While it didn’t have the no-misses song list of “Moondance,” AW was an amazing work; I was awed and entranced by songs like “Madame George” and “Cypress Avenue,” obsessed to the point where, on a bike hike in 1973, I took along a bottle of cherry wine, just in case we went “walking by the railroad.”

            I kept up with Morrison’s output for a while, buying the next three or four albums. There were songs on each that I really liked — “St. Dominic’s Preview,” “Listen to the Lion,” “Tupelo Honey,” among them — but none had the overall strength of the first two. I hit a stretch when my musical tastes changed, I didn’t buy many albums at all, and I fell way behind on Van the Man.

            When I starting buying CDs, I replaced most of the Morrison albums I had — I had pretty much worn out the first two — and started adding some of his more recent works. “Poetic Champions Compose” became one of my new favorites, and the other albums all had several songs that reminded me of why I liked the artist so much.

            For one thing, Morrison is musically both a polymath and a chameleon. He grew up in working class Belfast, in a neighborhood and a home where he heard a lot of different musical styles, including — like the other British Invasion musicians — American rhythm and blues. But he was also influenced by American folk, Celtic music and lots of other genres.

            That shows in his music, which varies widely in style and pace even within each album. His lyrics challenge the listener to think, whether it’s the mystic allusions in “Astral Weeks” or lines like “If my heart could do my thinkin’, and my head began to feel,” from “I Forgot that Love Existed.” You’ll find several bits from his songs among the “Favorite Quotes” on my Facebook page.

            Morrison has long been on my “bucket list” of performers I’d like to see sometime. He doesn’t tour much, and when he comes to the U.S., tends to play the same venues — the Masonic Theatre in San Francisco is one of them.

            He’s also known as a hit-and-miss act — he’s either brilliant, or just mailing it in. He cut what many consider to be the best live album of all time, “Too Late to Stop Now,” which features riveting performances of great arrangements of many of his best songs and a wonderful backup band in the Caledonia Soul Orchestra.

            A couple years back, though, for the 40th anniversary of the release of “Astral Weeks,” he did the legendary album in its entirety, live in concert. It’s an uninspired performance, to put it kindly — nowhere near as powerful as “Too Late to Stop Now.”

            Still, he’s one of the most protean artists of pop/rock music. I’m behind on his music, and catching up is hard — he still records regularly — but I’ll be adding Van the Man numbers to that all-song shuffle.

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