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A Van for All Seasons

Van Morrison's getting older, grouchier and, with his latest CD, better again

The news that there's a new Van Morrison CD out should be thrilling. But for some of us, there have been so many Morrison discs in the last year alone that it's a bit anticlimactic.

Of course, it's a terrible thing to complain about too many Van Morrison CDs. It's rather like whining that you've been given too much money, or have too many bottles of Dom Perignon to drink. But let's not get too carried away. The two Morrison releases from 1996 with the shrink-wrap still barely torn off -- How Long Has This Been Going On and Tell Me Something -- are both collections of that early '60s British boho jazz he loves so much. So there are a few bottles of Champale in there amidst the vintage stuff.

And while I'm among the first to put on Georgie Fame's old single "Yeah Yeah" and have a little beatnik rave-up, to truly appreciate what Van Morrison has been doing when he puts on his jazz porkpie hat and swings with the boys, you have to be British or Irish; you have to have grown up in the 1950s; and you have to have been passionate about jazz in a way most Americans of that age group were not. And you, the semicasual fan, you say you've just worked your way up to 1995's Days Like This? Okay, find a Van Morrison discography, realize how many albums you don't even know about, let alone own, and weep. Only whatever you do, don't try to lift the discography. You'll fall over trying.

But yes, Morrison's new album is due out next week, and thankfully, it's a collection of regular, non-jazz Morrison music called The Healing Game. Then in the fall, his busy label will issue The Philosopher's Stone, a two-CD compilation of unreleased rarities that has been delayed for a year. And of course there's Don't Look Back, the soon to be released John Lee Hooker CD Morrison produced for Virgin. The producer also sings on that disc.

Wait -- don't close your wallet yet. Polydor is re-releasing, finally, the seven Warner Bros. albums Morrison cut from 1971 to 1978, ranging from Tupelo Honey to Wavelength. Have you seen your copy of Tupelo Honey lately?

But for today, the good news is that The Healing Game is vintage late period Morrison; mellow, mystical and searching. And you must have it. For while one "Have I Told You Lately" every ten years is permitted, I prefer the Morrison who's wondering about the nature of love, musing wistfully about lost love, castigating current faithless loves or just mumbling incomprehensibly with his face away from the mike, over the guy who's penning anniversary songs for aging baby boomers.

So what does Morrison's new music tell us? That he's still full of doubt, still searching. If anything, Morrison seems to have become a bit defiant in recent years about universal or unconditional love, a concept that both traditional religions and today's New Age-infused culture puts forth. Morrison clearly struggles with the idea. Although his songs are on one level mystical, an "inarticulate speech of the heart," on another they're very specific, non-cliched gropings toward uncomfortable, often unfashionable truths. While the whole world seems to be turning to angels and touchy-feely religions, Morrison is opting out, looking back as always to his beloved "ancients," wondering if he has any faith at all.

Morrison himself probably wouldn't support that statement; he's always been cranky about how people interpret his lyrics, especially when they insist on reading deep meanings into them. As he peevishly asserted on "Songwriter" from Days Like This: "Please don't call me a sage, I'm a songwriter / I do it for a living / I'm a songwriter, and I write about men and women ...."

And yet one of Morrison's most important gifts as an artist is that the meaning of his music can only be grasped in the gaps, when the listener has dropped all defenses and sunk (to use the proper Morrisonian terms) into the slipstream, into the mystic or the astral plane.

Into the gaps is, of course, where Morrison sometimes goes as well; he doesn't always know where he's headed when he becomes immersed in a song. Even in his earliest Top 40 pop such as "Brown-Eyed Girl" there's a poetic transcendence. Billy Joel could also write a sentimental song about a girl from his past he longed for behind the stadium ... but it wouldn't have the spiritual resonance of Morrison's song.

Morrison brings to his songs the musicality and depth of heart that only a childhood immersion in R&B, blues and jazz could create, infused with the poetic mysticism of an Irishman who loves language and is conversant with the great poets. He was born George Ivan Morrison in Belfast, Ireland, 51 years ago, just a block away from Cypress Avenue, although he might as well have been worlds away from that quiet, moneyed street. His parents were Seventh-day Adventists, and his electrician father collected blues and jazz albums. So it was that Morrison grew up hearing Leadbelly on the phonograph and Ray Charles on the radio.

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