Renaissance Van

At 59, Van Morrison is just hitting his stride

DAVID WILDPosted Jun 02, 2005 12:00 AM

Everybody loves a Van Morrison song -- even the leader of the supposedly free world. George W. Bush's second term peaked from a public-relations point of view in April with the announcement that "Brown Eyed Girl" -- the Belfast Cowboy's eternally soulful first solo smash, from 1967 -- is in regular rotation on the presidential iPod.

"I don't know if I heard it was his favorite song, but I heard he had it on his iPod or something like that," Morrison says before a sound check at a university gig in Coventry, England. "Yeah, it's good to hear things like that, you know. But I would have preferred if it was a new song."

For Morrison, the new songs keep coming. His recent album, Magic Time, is the latest in a new, mature phase of his career that brings to mind the late-period work of giants like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, in which creative pioneers made small-scale masterpieces that drew on the certainties of their sounds and styles.

"It's about working all the time," says Morrison, who has released eighteen records in the last twenty years. The last three, starting with 2002's Down the Road, have been a notable return to form. Down the Road looked back to the jazz, R&B, folk music and country that he grew up on, and out of which he fashioned a singularly mystic Celtic-soul sound more than forty years ago. The highlight of the album was a searching cover of "Georgia on My Mind," but the most interesting song was "Whatever Happened to PJ Proby?," about the Texas-born singer who had a huge hit in England in 1964 with the hip-shaker "Hold Me." "There's nothing to relate to anymore/Unless you want to be mediocre," sang Morrison, who has long made clear that he feels like an exile in the modern world. "Whatever happened to all those dreams a while ago/...And whatever happened to me?"

A year later, as if in answer to that question, came an even stronger album, What's Wrong With This Picture?, on the jazz label Blue Note. The music was full of horns, strings and organ, and Morrison's vocals unfurled with the warm bite of an alto-sax solo. The easy swing of "Evening in June" was a blast of sunshine; "Meaning of Loneliness" was classic Morrison brooding on the void ("Well, there's Sartre and Camus, Nietzsche and Hesse/If you dig deep enough/You gonna end up in distress"); and a cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Stop Drinking," jumped with a tight rockabilly beat. Overlooked at the time, it is consistently rewarding and frequently stunning.

The new Magic Time falls somewhere between the deep groove of Down the Road and the jazzy complexity of What's Wrong With This Picture? It runs from delicate soul ballads like "Celtic New Year" to a scat-filled cover of the standard "I'm Confessin'," made famous by Louis Armstrong. Throughout, Morrison presents music as he's always heard it: rooted in R&B, but without limits of any sort. It's a sound that began for him in childhood, during the Fifties in Belfast. His father, George, a shipyard worker, was an avid fan of American music. "That was my initiation," he says. "It was a combination of my father's record collection and my friends who were into music. When I was growing up, you didn't have all these categories. Jazz was a very broad term -- it covered all sorts of blues and folk and gospel. That's my kind of jazz. In those days, Woody Guthrie was sold in a jazz shop. Jazz included everything from New Orleans jazz to British traditional jazz to Leadbelly to Ray Charles."

Morrison and Charles duet on Morrison's "Crazy Love" (from 1970's Moondance) on Charles' final album, the Top Ten hit Genius Loves Company. Morrison also wrote a song for soul legend Solomon Burke's latest album, Make Do With What You Got. "If it weren't for guys like Ray and Solomon, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. "Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn't for that kind of music, I couldn't do what I'm doing now."

As for what that is, Morrison keeps it simple: "I'm basically a working musician doing the same thing as when I started out, except that I'm better and more successful. But I'm doing the same thing I've been doing for over forty years now. It's what I do. It's who I am."

[From Issue 976 — June 16, 2005]


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