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.
And it was as a sax player, not a vocalist, that he made his first appearance on record. After playing guitar and sax in a series of short-lived skiffle bands like the Sputniks and the Javelins, he had settled in with a semi-professional group called the Monarchs. It was during this period that, after failing to catch on as an apprentice pipe fitter, meat cleaner, or chemist’s assistant, Van started a window-cleaning service with his friend Sam Woodburn. Which is where we came in, and maybe a good place to take a little breather.