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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.

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.

So on The Healing Game, when he suddenly rears back on "It Once Was My Life" and howls, it's quite a moment.

After listening to Morrison's latest, I decided that I'd been too hard on him these past few albums. Of course the older he gets the more he's going to cling to his old record collection. If you grew up in a world before mass media trivialized art and literature and music, it must be hard to accept MTV and the banality of modern entertainment. Ersatz white British jazz might, in the end, be preferable to alterna-ska or jungle. It's too early to make that call.

But I do know that it's no feat to sing about what young lovers do when you're 23, high on the bliss of just being you. It's much more poignant when an artist such as Morrison, battered around by life and from all accounts totally unlucky in love, dissolves into joy and projects it outward. When someone like him does something like that via music, it's a wonder.

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