Today I listened to a radio interview with Van Morrison that was broadcast on the BBC last week. He does not sound obviously nuts, but I wouldn’t call it insightful, exactly; to say the interviewer is “fawning” would be an understatement. No hard questions are asked, though at one point it is mentioned that some of the song titles on Van’s new album are “weird.”
And I can sympathize with the desire to keep music and politics separate; I generally prefer to do the same. It would have been nice if Van had just written more songs about Tupelo honey and caravans, and he could have — no one put a gun to his head and said, “Write a song about who owns the media, and one about how Western man is losing ground to his inferiors.” At one point in the interview he is heard to claim that the songs are “satire,” a half-assed excuse if ever there was one. If this stuff is supposed to be funny, what is the joke exactly?
The interviewer makes much of the fact that, at 28 songs, Latest Record Project is Van’s longest studio album to date. (And Volume 2 is promised before the end of the year.) This reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous 1968 “revenge” or “contractual obligation” session. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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: