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Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man

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The Primordial Soul Of Van Morrison
Friday, November 11, 2011

It can be a bit difficult when one stops to consider Van Morrison, the man. He's been described as "a mercurial genius at best, and a certifiable grouch at worst." As that relates to the everyday world, it might be tempting then to simply dismiss him as a practiced curmudgeon - "creative, but moody, unpredictable, perverse, and often downright willful." As an artist however, it's another matter all together. Morrison is indeed a gifted talent and a chronic grumbler. Despite his reputation as a difficult personality, he's also been responsible for writing some of the most evocatively soulful music within the rock idiom over the last 45 years. A superlative songwriter, Morrison has additionally proven himself to be an accomplished musician (playing guitar, harmonica, and saxophone), band leader, showman, and singer, although it's similarly difficult to categorize him strictly as the latter. His voice is not one that you might rightly describe as pleasing and mellifluous, although what it lacks in melody, it more than makes up for in expressiveness. In other words, Morrison's not a traditional vocalist in quite the same way that someone like Sinatra for instance was considered a singer, or that Nat King Cole was a singer, likewise with Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, or Johnny Adams. Vocally, what distinguishes Morrison from them and his generational peers is that Van was simply the very first 'rock' singer to emote with an uninhibited power. He possessed a voice that was every bit as emotionally charged as another soul brother, the late, great, Ray Charles. It's as simple as that. Making that quality even more substantial however was also the fact that he was not the dark-skinned man one might have imagined him to be, but rather a surly, 20 year old, red-bearded, Anglo-Celtic leprechaun of an Irishman who carried around nearly enough negative energy to create a black hole. In the early days of his music career, Morrison emitted an almost animal magnetism on stage, particularly when fronting, Them. He appeared almost threatening - snarling, spitting, stomping, and sneering more than actually singing. He injected his performances with sexual menace and unadulterated emotion, and the end result was something new - something raw, commanding, soulful, and completely mesmerizing. 

In the mid-1960s, Morrison and Them worked as the house band at the infamous Maritime Hotel in Belfast, Ireland, a gritty dance hall that was home to working class toughs. The band's residency at the hall proved to be a fortuitous workshop for the songwriter, performing night after night on the same stage, in the same room, in front of a growing and appreciative audience of regulars who welcomed his group of angry young men. The comfort of this setting allowed Morrison and his band to freely woodshed in an atmosphere that provided them not only with the artistic leeway to stretch the boundaries of their live performances, but also to receive immediate feedback on those experiments from an audience that fully supported their excursions. Frequently working without a net - no defined set list, no restrictions, no expectations - Morrison and the band often improvised, feeding off the energy of the moment and the tenor of the crowd. Essentially, they achieved the equivalent of musically painting on an open, empty canvas, and what young, aspiring, working artist wouldn't appreciate that luxury?

This is where the songwriter that we've come to call, the 'Belfast Cowboy' first developed his stream-of-conscience approach to lyrical content - a technique not as simple as it may at first seem. When he later embarked on his solo career here in America, he began expanding on these free association narratives - ruminations that seemed to spring from somewhere deep within his inner most psyche, "reflecting lifetimes behind it." This new technique added to the expressiveness of his vocalization, and signaled the beginnings of his own brand of unconventional poetry. Songs like 'Who Drove The Red Sports Car,' 'Beside You,' 'T.B. Sheets,' 'The Back Room' and 'Madame George' are all highly personal and symbolic reflections that showcase his new found voice. The lyrical content of those songs may not entirely make sense to us as third party observers, but then, the experiential window that Morrison provides us is intended to be from the perspective of our standing outside looking in. As Morrison continued to grow as a songwriter however, he perfected this approach, now shifting the viewpoint to us now being allowed on the inside looking out. Simultaneously, his narratives became something closer to meditations, or personal confessions. They were, and still remain very powerful tomes, and plenty soulful too. In fact as time when on, his approach even developed into its own self-named genre - 'Caledonia Soul.' Unlike blue-eyed soul, this was a classification applicable only to Morrison himself. One that was not only deep, artistic, heartfelt and expressive, but extremely sensitive and transcendental as well. These songs featured below showcase the genesis of his eventual journey into the mystic. Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you Van Morrison, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

'Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Vol.1'

1) Mighty Like A Rose
2) One Two Brown Eyes
3) Could You, Would You
4) Send Your Mind
5) Don't Look Back
6) I Can Only Give You Everything
7) Call My Name
8) One More Time
9) Here Comes The Night

 10) My Lonely Sad Eyes
11) The Story Of Them
12) Beside You
13) The Back Room

14) Chick-A-Boom
15) Hey Girl
16) Philosophy
17) Baby, Please Don't Go
18) Ro-Ro-Rosey
19) T.B. Sheets

'Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Vol.2'

1) Stormy Monday
2) Who Drove The Red Sports Car
3) Brown Eyed Girl
4) Gloria
5) Friday's Child
6) Little Girl
7) If You And I Could Be As Two
8) It's Alright
9) Spanish Rose
10) The Smile You Smile
11) Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12) Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)
13) Mystic Eyes
14) Joe Harper Saturday Morning
15) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
16) Richard Cory
17) Midnight Special
18) He Ain't Give You None
19) Madame George

Source material for 'Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Vols.1&2' comes from the following:
Van Morrison/Bang Masters (1991) 

Them/The Story Of Them (1997)


yotte said...

Thanks Miles! I've never delved into Morrison's earliest. This looks like a great place to start.

The Basement Rug said...

this is gonna be so good. I was always a huge fan of Them and the early days of Morrison's solo work. Some of his recent albums have been quite outstanding as well.

Johnny Pierre said...

Van has always been my favorite singer, primarily because at a young age I fell in love with his style of vocal phrasing. It always reminded me of how a horn player phrases his lines (which is probably because Van was a sax player before he became a singer).

Unknown said...

Hey man, it's Cal.
Dude, your blog is awesome. I am going start with vmorrison and work backwards. Im particularly excited to get to your collection of Sun Ra.

Keep it up amigo, this site is a treasure, thanks for sharing!

Leon said...

Right ON man, this is going to be fun. I have almost every note Van has ever recorded, with the exception of some of this early stuff, which is oddly hard to find. So this will be a real treat.

Thanks too for the essay. Good writing.

BillyG said...

Brilliant- soundtrack to my weekend.

Jeff Gee said...

Hey-- coupla a HIDDEN BONUS TRACKS in the first mix! "Here Comes the Night" and "The Back Room," and thanks for both of 'em. (I figured if there was going to be a hidden track it was going to be "Ring Worm.")

Miles said...


Thanks for pointing out my oversight in the track listing. Yeah, 'Here Comes The Night' and 'The Back Room' are stuck in there. How could they not? Both are essential, wouldn't you say?

Jeff Gee said...

Sure. Although it's kind of weird listening to "The Back Room," which was the last song on side one of my old 'Best of Van Morrison' LP, and not having to get up and turn over the record.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I spent a lot of time listening to Van Morrison...I almost forgot how good he is! Thanks Miles!--Bill

twofthrs said...

Nice job. Love VM, early and late, in the middle too.

Eric said...

Great to listen to the early work of Van the Man. What a voice!

Thanks for putting this collection together. I hope you will be able to do something similar with the later parts of Van's catalogue.

Miles said...


Thanks for your interest. I plan to, but all things in time.

Anonymous said...

Just found out about your blog - thanks so much for "Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man" volumes - wonderful!