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:
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,1I will not under any circumstances miss a minute that Stephen Curry plays right now. and we’ll move on to new topics next time.
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:
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.
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.