A Van for All Seasons

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

His father bought him a guitar, which he played at school functions; by age 15, Morrison had left school and was playing gigs around Belfast. It was mostly rock and roll, mostly the songs of Jerry Lee Lewis. By the time he was 17 he was playing military bases around the United Kingdom and the required (for the time) club scene in Germany.

Morrison has said he finds analysis of the next few stages of his career annoying; he made some moves, he claims, to survive, not with any long-term plan in mind. We know that the group Them was formed with Morrison at its core as a sort of house band for a Belfast hotel. With Them, he was responsible for writing "Gloria," one of the definitive statements on teenage lust, and "Here Comes the Night," which has more mystery and passion than most rock of the time. But it was another Morrison-penned Them hit, "Mystic Eyes," that foreshadowed the visionary he was to become.

In 1966, after three years with Them, Morrison took off for the U.S. He recorded the now-mythic Astral Weeks in just two days in 1968, when he was 23 years old, backed by hired studio musicians. What exactly Morrison meant to accomplish with Astral Weeks, and what people take from it, has been the source of critical argument for years. In a famous 1979 meditation on the album, Lester Bangs claimed no less than that Astral Weeks saved his life. When it came out, the wildest part of the '60s was in full throttle, and many such as Bangs sensed despair at the end of the decade's party. Morrison was there waiting, with an album that was meant to comfort and soothe, not excite. Bangs played it over and over, finding deep personal meaning in the words.

When questioned about his songs, Morrison usually refuses all comment. He likes to assume a brisk "it's just work" tack. It's his job, he asserts; he puts his songs out into the world and then he's done with them. He can't be responsible for what listeners do with his music; he's moved on, he doesn't care.

But sometimes he isn't so sure. He'll stammer and mumble, like in an exchange with journalist Mick Brown, who merely asked if Morrison hadn't finally achieved his creative voice with Astral Weeks.

"I don't really know," Morrison replied. "I mean [whispering] ... found my voice ... [long pause]. Yeah. I probably ... yeah. Maybe I could say that. I suppose you could say that. Yeah. That's a way of putting it, yeah. Umm, yeah, uhh ... sort of, yeah. I think ...."

But then it's as if something in his cranium clicks into gear, and he suddenly becomes lucid and verbose. In that same interview, Morrison suddenly started nattering away, admitting something astonishing: that the entire end of Astral Weeks's "Cypress Avenue" will take the listener through a meditation. He didn't want to say anything about it at the time, he told Brown, the times then being so volatile, so full of rock and roll and violence in the streets and all that. So he just did it, on that and several other songs.

Much later, in "The Garden" off No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, he did it again. Of course, there it was only half a trick, so that he could yell "boo" at the listener. "No guru no method no teacher!" he growls, right at the moment the listener is about to glide into nirvanic rapture.

But Morrison can be mesmerizing, and he can be healing. It's something in the voice, something spiritual yet sensual. I have a friend who, while dying of cancer, insisted that a tape of Morrison singing "Into the Mystic" be played. The song was repeated over and over as my friend lapsed into unconsciousness. You could break that song down and find nothing there but the usual mathematical progression of chords and words that anyone has at their command. Nonetheless, there's something silent and magical about it.

Morrison has said that after Astral Weeks, for which he received little or no money, he was broke. As a result, he decided to go commercial. He claims that his next album, Moondance, was meant to be a pop hit. Listening to it now, you can't help but bask in a nostalgia for the early '70s, when "commercial" art was this good. What other artist sells out and creates an album that contains tunes such as "Into the Mystic," "These Dreams of You," "Moondance," "Crazy Love" ... you can, if you wish, list all the songs.

But with each subsequent album it was apparent that Morrison's inspiration was flagging. By '74, he had decided to retire and spend happy time in California. It didn't last. By the early '80s he'd returned to Ireland and signed with Polygram. He returned as a mature artist ruminating openly about spirituality, yearning for transcendence.

What's been missing in his recent work (apart from the obvious feverish romanticism of a young man) is something in his voice. It's that manic quality when he'd draw out a note, like with "wiiiiild night," or when he'd start a rant. Much of Morrison's early work was done at a shout; he couldn't resist unleashing that full-throated, bluesy yell. And there was joy in that sound. But while there's no doubt that for the past ten years he's composed gorgeous music, and that the texture of his voice has been beyond compare, in the '80s he started to mumble his words. Now he growls and rumbles. It's something beyond a natural, age-related deepening of tone; it's tied to his mood. It's no accident that several of Morrison's songs of this decade have dealt with depression. "Melancholia," off Days Like This, was just one. It has, alas, been a recurring theme.

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