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« Slow Fitness? | Main | Rough Encounter »

September 20, 2006

Hard to Watch, Great to Hear

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The one time I saw him perform live, Van Morrison struck me as one of the most awkward on-stage presences imaginable. It was a dismal evening, and it put me off his music for years. Still ... Hard though I may find it to watch Van, there's still something about "Tupelo Honey" that makes me want to hit the Endless Repeat button.

Mournful yet romantic, folklorishly-droning yet sweetly-melodic -- what a strange and wonderful gift that man has.

Related: Van duets with Bob Dylan on "Crazy Love." The classic Van Morrison albums, as far as I'm concerned, are this one, this one, and this one. Here's the website of John Platania, whose haunting guitar work added so much to the sad/joyful tone of "Moondance" and "His Band and the Street Choir." Here's an interview with Janet Planet, the onetime flower-child and muse who was the inspiration for much of Van's early music, including "Tupelo Honey" and "Brown-Eyed Girl." She left him in 1973. "I was confusing the music with the man," she says -- not the first music-lovin' girl to make that particular mistake! "The music was everything you could hope for as a romantic. The man was a prickly pear."



UPDATE: Interesting to learn -- from an Adam Sweeting review of a Johnny Rogan biography of Van -- that "virtually nobody is willing to offer a ringing endorsement of [Van's] personal qualities, and he is depicted as having been self-centred and unsociable virtually from birth ... One of Rogan's themes is the contrast between the sublimity of Morrison's finest music and the ugliness of his behaviour offstage. It's peppered with incidents in which Morrison abuses or physically attacks some of his closest friends (remarkably, he has some), as well as a couple of episodes apparently so grotesque that lawyers suppressed them."

posted by Michael at September 20, 2006


Astral Weeks is one of the most incredible albums of popular music of the 20th century. His vocals are somehow heavily influenced by John Coltrane and his modal take on chord changes, and yet pleasingly melodic at the same time. And the lyrics are fantastic as well. I've listened to that album probably 300 times and I never get tired of it.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 20, 2006 1:46 PM

Forgot to add: I saw him live about 7 years ago and it was awful.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 20, 2006 1:47 PM

When I saw him in 1979, he was awful too, but concert kept provoking the "oh-yeah-he-wrote-that-song-too" reaction as he played about 20 really good songs, so I came away with a similarly strong regard for his songwriting without wanting to see him again.

My one experience of seeing Bob Dylan was similar. It was in 1986 when Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his opening act and used them as his backup band. The problem was that Petty is such a likeable, hard-working entertainer, while Dylan is charisma-free and ungenerous on stage that you came away liking the journeyman Petty more than the genius Dylan.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 20, 2006 3:55 PM

Both Dylan and Van Morrison have a reputation for being wildly variable performers, swinging from horrible to dazzling depending on inspiration, energy, etc.

I wonder if Dylan is more shy than ungenerous...unlike Morrison he does not have a reputation for being a jerk on a personal level, maintains an incredibly exhuasting tour schedule even when he is out of the spotlight, and has nurtured long-standing relationships with backup bands. But he is also notoriously reclusive and hates celebrity.

So long as I can listen to them instead of having to be married to them, I'd take ten of Van Morrison or Dylan over one Tom Petty.

Posted by: MQ on September 20, 2006 4:42 PM

Very early Van Morrison.

A lot of people love the guy. I have never "heard it."

Posted by: Lexington Green on September 20, 2006 5:47 PM

This one seems to work better (same thing).

Posted by: Lexington Green on September 20, 2006 5:49 PM

I saw Van back in the mid-late seventies at Tanglewood and the show was a sheer delight. Saw Dylan a couple of years ago and loved every minute, he and the band he had were absolutely on the top of their games. Both Van and Dylan have contributed immeasurably to (pop?) culture as major artists and both are extremely difficult personalities. Kinda gets back to that theme that keeps cropping up on 2blowhards culture threads; can you enjoy the art of an a##hole, doesn't it? I answer yes.

Posted by: Chris White on September 20, 2006 6:16 PM

An friend of mine in SF managed a couple of Van Morrison tours in the 80s. She loathed him. I didn't see her during that period. When we met afterwards, only a visible effort at self control kept her from flipping out at me when I mentioned how much I loved the gorgeous Celtic/Christian-inflected stuff he put out in the late 80s.

Van was obviously a hardcore alcoholic. The mystic longing of his songs goes hand in hand with the booze. What a voice though, and what fine close observation of longing and epiphany.

Is Van somebody who women like more than men? I wouldn't guess so, but his voice is liquid sex. The liquid being scotch.

Posted by: robert on September 21, 2006 3:07 AM

"Music... everything you could hope for" vs "prickly pear": it's not as if Frank Sinatra hadn't been billboarding that lesson for quite a while.

Posted by: Monte Davis on September 21, 2006 7:31 AM

You know, I didn't make that connection (booze) with Morrison, maybe because I'd never read much about his personal life. I remember hearing that Gary Hart, for example, had a drinking problem when he imploded politically in the 1980s, and I thought "Oh, yeah. . .makes more sense now". And you'd think I'd pick up on these things better, because my late brother was an alcoholic for years.

But I vote for "Astral Weeks", too. It's one of those works that I look at and realize that I never could have done anything like it, never would know where to start. I enjoy music, I can read music, I can learn musical instruments, but I cannot, as far as I can tell, create any of it on my own.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 21, 2006 9:29 AM

May I just take this opportunity to say that Bob's new record is a masterpiece? Thank you.

Posted by: Brian on September 21, 2006 7:49 PM

"Music... everything you could hope for" vs "prickly pear": it's not as if Frank Sinatra hadn't been billboarding that lesson for quite a while.

Miles Davis comes to mind as well.

I saw Morrison in concert twice once, he was pretty rote and was obviously phoning it and and the second time he was fantastic and gave the best concert I have ever seen.

As for his personal life who cares other than the people who had to be around him. His catalog of music is as consistently great as any singer-songwriter ever and I include Dylan in that assessment.

Posted by: grandcosmo on September 21, 2006 8:15 PM

"Van was obviously a hardcore alcoholic. The mystic longing of his songs goes hand in hand with the booze."

Interesting comment, Robert. But I wonder: Which comes first, the booze or the mystic longing?

When I think of writers who express deliriously intense (mystic?) longing, I think of Hart Crane (total boozer) and Mark Helprin (doesn't go near the stuff).

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 21, 2006 11:18 PM

"Saint Dominic's Preview" is pretty amazing too.

Posted by: Andy on September 22, 2006 10:01 AM

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