It Was All a Big Lie

I feel a bit silly now having gotten excited about the new Van Morrison album, though they kind of tricked me by releasing the least crazy songs first. “Only a Song” almost seems calculated to (ahem) inoculate you against whatever madness might follow.

Only a song, it’s not set in stone, it’s only a song
It’s only a poem that could change in the long run, it’s only a song
It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme
Could have been on my mind at the time
Putting paper to pen, it’s only a song, it’s only a song

But now that I look at them again, the song titles on Latest Record Project more than hinted that it was going to be a bumpy ride. They include “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” “The Long Con,” “Double Agent,” and “Duper’s Delight”; and of course there’s “They Own the Media,” which is tucked away toward the end but in retrospect flashes bright red with warning. And while I certainly agree with the sentiment of “Why Are You on Facebook?”, is it really a subject worthy of the author of “Madame George” or “The Philosopher’s Stone”?

This morning I am trying to listen to the album so I can know of what I speak. It begins pleasantly enough with the self-referential title track and “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” which is vaguely grumpy (“Need a real live audience to perform/Where have all the rebels gone?/I can’t find anyone”) but jaunty-sounding. “Psychoanalysts Ball” could be the grumblings of any disillusioned ex-patient.

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Who Owns the Media?

Some disturbing news came across the transom today concerning Van Morrison’s new album, which contains a song called “They Own the Media.” Here are the lyrics:

They tell us that ignorance is bliss
I guess for those that control the media it is
They own the media they control
The stories we are told
You ever try to go against them, you will be ignored
Because they control
They control
They control the narrative they perpetuate the myth
Keep on telling you lies, telling you ignorance is bliss
Leave it all and you’ll never get, never get wise
To the truth
Cuz they control
Everything you do
Everything you do
Everything you do
Everything you do

They control the narrative
They perpetuate the myth
Keep on selling you lies
Tell you ignorance is bliss
Believe it all and you’ll never get the truth
Never get wise
Wise to their lies
To their lies
They control the media
They control the media

It is never actually stated who the “they” is, but one has suspicions. We all know who is usually accused of “owning the media”; I don’t think I need to repeat it here.

Frankly I’m not sure I’m motivated to keep writing about the man after this. Anti-lockdown songs were one thing; this is another. Thoughts?

The Mountain, the Train, and the River

So the good news is that Steve Turner’s book is pretty easy going; I ripped through the first two chapters yesterday afternoon. The bad news is that he paints a slightly different picture of Van Morrison’s influences than Clinton Heylin did, which is going to necessitate a little bit of backtracking.

Turner puts particular emphasis on Mahalia Jackson, who was mentioned only in passing in Can You Feel the Silence? And in retrospect this seems like the missing piece of the puzzle — a sanctified female presence to balance out all those bluesmen and country boys. Says Turner,

It was while sitting in front of the family gramophone as a child that that George Ivan [Van] experienced the first of the intense feelings he was later to interpret as a form of spiritual ecstasy. His first memory of this happening dates back to when he was three years old and heard the voice of the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It forged an indelible link in his mind between music and a sense of wonder.

Turner also talks a lot about Charlie Parker as an influence, and I’m going to have to recuse myself from that discussion, as jazz is not my area. But speaking of horn players, I would be remiss if I neglected (again) to mention Jimmy Giuffre, whose 1957 British hit “The Train and the River” was instrumental (haw) in inspiring Van Morrison to learn how to play sax.

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Too Late to Stop Now

It is a sad but true fact that, after about a year of assiduous if intermittent effort, I have made it barely 30 pages into Clinton Heylin’s Van Morrison bio Can You Feel the Silence? It’s not that Heylin isn’t a skillful writer, but his book is so detailed and dense with references that it’s hard to make any headway. So I decided to take a flier on a different one by Steve Turner, whose Beatles book In Their Own Write was a valued source for The Beatles Plus 50.

When it arrived yesterday I was surprised but not displeased to find that unlike Heylin’s tome, which is squat but thick — not unlike its subject — Too Late to Stop Now is more of a coffee table book, measuring a generous 9 by 12 but clocking in at an economical 182 pages, with a lot of pictures. Maybe this is what I need — something more than a children’s book but less than a magnum opus. I will soon be cracking it open here on this glorious, sunny Sunday afternoon. Will report back later.

His Latest Record Project

Before we get into Van Morrison’s earliest recordings, let’s talk a little about his latest.

In 2020 he released three songs, and from their titles you can sort of get the gist of them: “No More Lockdown,” “Born to Be Free,” and “As I Walked Out.” I listened to a minute of each and they’re about what you’d expect. I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, because it’s true that some governments did get a little carried away with pandemic restrictions. I thought it was stupid that in some places you could only go for a walk if you had a dog. And even stupider to tell people they had to wear masks outside with no one around. Some authorities didn’t understand how a disease works and tried to stop all life on the planet just to be on the safe side, and I can see how that would make you mad.

To be honest I’m no longer interested in litigating who was right or wrong about any of it; it would be great to put the whole thing behind us. Of course it would be super helpful in doing that if everyone would get their goddamn shots, but everyone reading this probably knows that, so why get all worked up about it?

Here in 2021, Van has released three more songs from his upcoming album, which carries the helpful title Latest Record Project. One of them is the title track, which is pretty meta:

I have to say, I rather like it. It’s snarky but catchy. Some sample lyrics:

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Ray, Lonnie, and Muddy

OK, where were we?

I remember, we were talking about Van Morrison’s childhood influences. There were three more major ones, as I calculate it.

One was Ray Charles. I’m not going to open up a whole Brother Ray thread here, because it could easily consume the next few years. Chances are you are already pretty familiar with some of Ray’s work, and also that there is plenty more you don’t know about. But I’ll leave that to your own discretion.

The second was Lonnie Donegan, the man who invented skiffle. By adapting American blues and folk music into a form that was easy for young Brits to digest and to play, Donegan was an important building block for the Van Morrisons, Beatles, and Rolling Stones of the world. There was a little bit of a Pat Boone flavor to his borderline cultural appropriation, but I think he was sincere in his love of the music. An in-depth of this exploration of this topic may have to wait for another lifetime; in the meantime, here’s Donegan with his band performing a song called “Have a Drink on Me”:

And the third was Muddy Waters. I could happily do a couple of months on Muddy, but I probably shouldn’t. Instead I’m going to throw something together real quick before the Warriors game starts,1 and we’ll move on to new topics next time.

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A Brief History of “Drugs”

By way of a palette cleanser, let’s talk a little about “Drugs.”

At the same time I was making my way through the Josh White book, I’ve been reading Jonathan Lethem’s book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. The book, like the album, ends with the self-consciously bizarre track we know as “Drugs,” which makes for a fascinating case study in how a song develops.

It began life as an instrumental called “Electricity”:

By the time it acquired lyrics, it also had a subtitle:

As it became clearer what the song was about, the title and the subtitle changed places. (On the album, though not on the video, this version is listed as “Drugs (Electricity).”)

When it came time to record the canonical version that would appear on the album, David Byrne and Brian Eno decided to change things up. Says Byrne:

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Handsome in Death

The last chapter of Josh White: Society Blues is titled “Going Down Slow,” and though it doesn’t appear he ever recorded that particular blues chestnut (he may have performed it live), it is an apt description of his life in the latter part of the Sixties. He wasn’t really all that old, having turned 50 in 1964, but had done a lot of living in his time and seemed to just plain wear out.

Man, you know I done enjoyed things that kings and queens
Will never have
In fact, things kings and queens can’t never get
And they don’t even know about
And good times?
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin’
Oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow

As the decade wore on he spent less time on the road and more time at home, which may have helped his health but was not good for the family finances. He had never been one to put money in the bank.

Now look here, I did not say, I was a millionaire
But I said, I have spent more money than a millionaire
’Cause if I had kept all of the money I had already spent
I would’ve been a millionaire a long time ago
And women, well, googly moogly

Eventually his wife Carol was forced to take a job.

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Josh in the Sixties (Part 2)

One thing I missed in the last roundup was that in 1963 Josh White had his last significant recording sessions, for which he was “accompanied by a small combo including the Chicago harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson” (says Mr. Wald). They were apparently quite a departure in approach and sound and resulted in two well-reviewed albums, The Beginning and The Beginning: Volume 2. Oddly, though neither one is especially rare — there are many copies on eBay, some of which may soon be mine — neither is to be found on yer YouTube or Spotify, so you’ll have to use your imagination I guess.

In 1966 he was approached by a man named Charles Kaman, who was the owner of an aerospace company but also a guitar aficionado. Kaman had set his engineers to work creating space-age guitars using new designs and materials, and they were now looking for artists to test their products. First they went to a guitarist named Charlie Byrd, who liked the fiberglass model he was given, but explained that since he played nylon rather than steel strings he was not the ideal subject. Byrd suggested Josh White, whose reaction (as remembered by Kaman’s son Bill) was “This guitar has got the biggest motherfucking balls I ever heard.”

White signed on as Ovation’s first spokesman and Kaman’s people consulted with him to create a model made to his specifications, which became “the first signature guitar made for an African American.” (Wikipedia) When the engineers learned that White’s psoriasis of the fingernails was making it painful for him to play, they set out to solve that problem too, developing a process to make artificial nails. According to Society Blues,

Bill Kaman remembers Josh coming out to the (Ovation) factory every month or so. “We had to make a real slow mix of the material, and it would take about an hour to cure. Normally, you mix up the resin and the fiberglass and it cures in about five minutes, but it gives off an awful lot of heat. Since it was on his fingers, we had to slow it way. way down. In the early days, they’d make the nails and he’d sit around and play for them and drink. Toward the end he’d be eating a tub of yogurt and would say, “That’s all I can do now.” An Ovation guitar history adds that the special mixture they used to attach the nails would later be marketed as Super Glue.

And that’s probably a good segue into the next post, which will be the last one of this thread.

Josh in the Sixties (Part 1)

The rest of Josh White’s 1960s went something like this:

1961: Is invited to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, who has been a fan since college. Also appears on a TV show called “Dinner with the President.” In June, has a heart attack and is hospitalized. (As when he broke his leg in high school, he makes the best of a bad situation. Says his wife Carol, “There were times I walked into the hospital in Chicago and got very angry, because the doctor wanted him to rest and I’d walk up there and he’d have maybe six nurses sitting on his bed.”)

1962:

1963: Plays at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the Capitol Mall organized by Bayard Rustin, opening for Martin Luther King. “I admire Dr. King and the passive resistance movement,” he says. “But I don’t like to be hurt and if somebody jumps me, that business about turn the cheek isn’t for me.”

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