I recently edited a book titled The Neuroscience of Preference. Unsurprisingly, this got me reflecting on my own preferences. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that few have endured the ebb and flow of time. In fact I often experience what I suspect is a common phenomenon: private embarrassment at these temporal disjunctions in taste. A recent example was seeing a model of car that I owned in the late 1970s. At the time it seemed desirable and the essence of modernity. What presented itself to my eyes all these years later was nothing short of a hideous box awkwardly balanced on four wheels. When it comes to preferences, an awful lot of them are evanescent, a fact that is perennially exploited by the fashion industry.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there are some constants. For me, one of these is an enduring passion for the music of Van Morrison. No other human voice has such power to arrest my attention and compel me to listen. This is a preference that has endured for more than 40 years.
I can precisely pinpoint the moment at which I fell for this seductive sound. It was the Christmas school vacation of 1969. I was lying in bed, well past midday, listening to music echoing through my childhood home. Its source was the record player belonging to my older brother, who had an obsession with British R & B bands - a cool antidote to the mind-numbing pop music of the time. One piece of music caught my immediate attention, a sound like no other I had ever heard; it was Morrison’s Astral Weeks. I had no idea as to the identity of the singer but I was acutely aware that I had never heard anything quite like this voice. A voice, I later discovered, that was steeped in American music; the blues, jazz and country music that made up his father’s extensive collection. What struck me was that the voice and its unique accompaniment were perfectly entrained, most evident when stylistic vocal hesitations were echoed by one or other of the supporting musicians. There have been many attempts to describe the character of this record but one I read recently is as apt as any; that it is the aural equivalent of Last Year in Marienbad.
I spent the next two weeks playing the first two tracks over and over again, going no further. I suspect I was forestalling a familiar disappointment conditioned by so many records (or LPs as they were known then) having one or two good tracks among fillers of aural fluff. When I finally sampled the remaining tracks I was a convert. Unusually, this record included extended songs that defied the conventional standard of three to four minutes; songs such as Ballerina and the enigmatic perfection that is Madame George. The latter has invited endless speculation as to its meaning. To me it has thematic links with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, charting a transition from adolescence into adulthood where, in both instances, the artist expresses an urgency to set out on a journey of self-discovery. This is captured in the closing refrains of this truly entrancing song, in which the singer announces with pained emotion that he is “leaving on the train” while drying his eyes for Madame George. The landscape of course is not Dublin but Belfast, evoked in place names such as Ford, Fitzroy and, of course, the now infamous Sandy Row. A recent listen provided reassurance that the magic is undiminished, Morrison’s ageless voice set against the gentle pulse of Richard Davis’ double bass.
The record has rightly acquired legendary status. There are also extraordinary facts surrounding its genesis. Musicians at the time had a self-indulgent habit of spending up to a year in the recording studio. By contrast this perfectly constructed sequence of songs was recorded in a New York City studio over the course of just two afternoons. What is equally remarkable is that this precocious 23-year-old, exiled from the simmering hate engulfing his native Belfast, is the commanding musical presence among an ensemble of highly distinguished musicians whose pedigree included Miles Davis (Richard Davis), The Modern Jazz Quartet (Connie Kay) and Charles Mingus (Jay Berliner).
This thing of beauty left me craving for more. I spent the following summer of 1970 living with my uncle in northwest London and habitually frequented the Saturday street market in Shepherd’s Bush. I remember the intense rush of anticipation when, rummaging through the import section of a record stall, I stumbled across Morrison’s follow-up recording, Moondance. The album presented a surprisingly different, but equally compelling, musical landscape. The common denominator with its predecessor was the intimacy and perfectly restrained emotional expressiveness in the voice. The musical arrangement was a distillation of delicious acoustic guitar, blues inflected piano and sensual horns. If the music of Astral Weeks had mined a deep vein of human pain then Moondance provided an acute contrast, being in equal measure romantic, life-affirming and celebratory. This mood finds its perfect expression in the song Caravan, a rapturous ode to the alluring magic of radio. What was also showcased in Moondance was the artist’s unique skill with horn arrangements that would become a recurrent musical signature. Listen to And It Stoned Me, where the singer recounts a day spent fishing rounded off by him and his companion jumping into the torrent, and the ensuing physical epiphany expressed in a delicious saxophone chorus as the singer exclaims, “Oh the water, let it run all over me”.
It was a period in my life when I attended an unforgiving Catholic boys’ boarding school, St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, County Galway. The institution is referenced in song by an old school friend (John Hoban) who likened it to “a real hard station”; the song also recounts his own experience of seeing Morrison deliver a powerful live performance in San Francisco in 1993.
“Jarlath’s” was a place devoid of distractions apart from longing peeps over the 8ft wall separating us from the adjoining Sisters of Mercy girls’ convent. If pleasures of the flesh were off limits then the liberating chant of music provided a compensating retreat. The conduit was a secretly smuggled transistor radio. I spent endless late nights underneath the blankets listening to David “Kid” Jensen on Radio Luxembourg, often staying awake until 2am hoping he might play a snippet from a new Van Morrison album. This is how I heard his third album for Warner Brothers, His Band and the Street Choir. My experience on first hearing the plaintive harmonica solo that ends the title track is etched into my memory, a sound that gave full expression to the deep loneliness that is the indelible mark of my five years in boarding school.
Here I need to acknowledge that listening to Morrison provided me with a formid-able musical education in jazz and blues music. His lyrics provide a rich, sometimes obtuse, acknowledgement of the veritable giants on whose shoulders he stands. Over the trajectory of his first eight records this led me to seek out the music of Leadbelly, Ray Charles, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Hank Williams and Jackie Wilson. In the song The Eternal Kansas City from A Period of Transition, he recounts with boyish excitement a mythic train journey back in time to relive Kansas’ musical heritage while joyously anticipating encountering Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Jay McShann and Jimmy Witherspoon. Hearing this song had me hunting down every available recording of these musicians until I fully understood what he means when he says, “and the City is eternal, can’t you see, it is inside you and inside me”.
I first saw Morrison play live in 1973 at a famous concert at the now defunct Rainbow Theatre in London. Playing with a band that included a string quartet, he gave a remarkable performance that pitched accomplished musical arrangements against breathtaking vocal improvisations. I was convinced that I had discovered a uniquely gifted musician, one capable of producing mercurial recordings and accomplished live performances. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen him play live, except to note that they have included locations as diverse as the Montreux Jazz Festival, New York’s Madison Square Garden, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and a tented marquee in Ross-on-Wye. In fact, over the years I have tried to stitch his live performances into my love of mountain walking. Once I rounded off a five-day Alpine hike to rendezvous with my (then heavily pregnant) wife by catching a joint billing of Morrison and Ray Charles in Montreux. Here, I recall, Van delivered a perfect soulful arrangement of A Fool for You as tribute to “Brother Ray”.
Morrison is first and foremost a working musician and band leader. Over a 40-year period he has averaged between 50 and 100 gigs a year. The finest are serenely uplifting experiences in which the singer takes you with him on his quest to find uncontrived musical peaks. Live, his craft is that of a jazz musician where otherwise familiar songs serve as a template within which he explores hidden and new shadings in the music. This is most evident in his vocal performance, where his incompar-able style is simultaneously gruff, defiant and exquisitely tender. No contemporary singer is so self-consciously aware of the dramatic possibilities in the voice. The live repertoire includes ecstatic yelps, inarticulate mumbles and banshee-like moans (often delivered for dramatic effect through the harmonica).
Some great live moments are captured on YouTube. These highlights include his playing acoustic guitar accompanied by Bob Dylan on harmonica, both sitting outside on a rock with the Parthenon in Athens in the background. As Morrison later reflected, one of the songs he performed (Foreign Window) is a commentary on Dylan’s own restless musical quest (“I spied you from a foreign window/Bearing down the suffering road/You were carrying your burden/You were singing about Rimbaud”). There’s also a truly sublime duo with John Lee Hooker, performed on the banks of the Mississippi, with Van playing subtle understated guitar while both deliver a moving version of Hooker’s Don’t Look Back. It is also worth noting in this context that Morrison is an extraordinary interpreter of other people’s music. Listen to the pained intensity he brings to Lonely Avenue, his stately funereal arrangement of Saint James Infirmary, the existential abandonment he brings to Motherless Child or the emotional empathy expressed in I’ll Take Care of You.
More than 40 years of listening, and in excess of 40 records later, his music remains vital to my ears. This durability is helped by a formidable thematic and stylistic range. He celebrates landscape (Redwood Tree, Country Fair, When Heart is Open, Somerset), his Northern Irish roots (Solid Ground, Choppin’ Wood), seasons (Autumn Song, Snow in San Anselmo, A Sense of Wonder, When the Leaves Come Falling Down), friendship (Behind the Ritual, Coney Island, Real Real Gone, Joyous Sound, Magic Time), travel (The Eternal Kansas City, Santa Fe, Street Theory) and, of course, love (Come Here My Love, Crazy Love, Contacting my Angel, Tupelo Honey, Sweet Thing). He has documented despair (Fast Train, Reminds Me of You) and the suffocating experience of witnessing death (T. B. Sheets, Slim Slow Slider). He has extolled virtue in work (Cleaning Windows, Ordinary Life, I Have Finally Come to Realise), strength in maintaining a clear focus (You Gotta Make it Through the World) and the importance of eschewing petty emotions (Professional Jealousy, This Weight). He has charted exile and longing for home (Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, St Dominic’s Preview, Down the Road, Song of Home). Above all, he brings to his art an ineffable restless seeking after transcendence (Listen to the Lion, Flamingos Fly, Into the Mystic, Haunts of Ancient Peace, Ancient Highway, In the Garden).
I have long stopped asking what it is about listening to Van Morrison that I find so satisfying. Yes, it is the quality of his voice, now deepened and resonant with age, the unforced musicality and the yearning emotional intensity. But what is important is that I still love the music. As he says in a song celebrating the glories of an English summer, “It ain’t why, it just is”.