It's become clear lately that my love affair with the work of Van Morrison is three parts soul and two parts magic. I don't think it would be possible to explain how profoundly Astral Weeks affected me, how much it seemed to change the way common objects look or the way people seemed somehow to move differently through their lives after hearing it. I'm not even sure the sun is the same sun i watched fall each evening before that record came into my life. Somehow i connected to people in conversation in a much more subtle way in the days and years that followed my discovery.

I had been listening to Van for years. All the hits were fine and i enjoyed them accordingly, but it was the songs between brown-eyed girl and moondance that really captured me.

I came across this compilation album called "Brown-eyed Beginnings" which i think the labels put out as a way of selling tracks they thought were unsellable by putting them on disc with brown eyed girl. The record company has been using this strategy for years. That track is included on some 190 different albums. What's odd is that I wasn't interested in that song. I knew and liked it fine, but what i wanted buying this double album was two things. firstly, i wanted a copy of what is probably my all-time favorite Van song, TB Sheets. It might be the most depressing song ever made about the journey of watching the love of your life waste away from tuberculosis in strange, sterile hospital. There was no question, at the time, of her living, it was only a matter of how long the pain and misery would last before she went. Throughout the song, you really begin to see the face of a man who is trying to be strong and positive around her while she's going, doing everything he can not to let her see his sadness. The days become a vague collection of him turning away from her to clear tears from his eyes or wandering through the park in an attempt to walk off his sadness before going in to see her. The song is long, around nine minutes and you find yourself actually experiencing how long it takes her to go and how hard every day is while always seeming to get worse. It is truly a unique musical experience and if you haven't yet walked that yard with Van, I highly recommend it.

The second thing I wanted was an alternate version of Astral Weeks' mighty Madame George, a song about neighborhood kids' abuse of and ultimately their brutality towards an aging transvestite in the neighborhood. How he makes evil so sad is one of his great powers.

What I found instead, was a collection of tracks so wonderful, i could hardly listen to them. The first disc is essentially what was later released as Bang Masters including the above songs in top form and a host of other virtually forgotten masterpieces like "Beside you" and "chick-a-boom." Every song is aching with what makes Van the only one who does what he does, but more than that, they represent Van before he could afford the studio time to layer the songs with all of that wonderful swinging soundscape that he does so well. No, these songs have the feel of songs that were sort of shuffled out in a basement where some tired old four-track was catching them and writing them down forever. None of the songs are polished, they are mostly live recordings in that everyone just stood around a mike and played the song. It's truly a thing to behold.

The second of the discs is not really songs as much as expressions of sound. It's made of a bunch bits of things and fragments of themes bounding from track to track while Van simply looked for musical space to explore in whatever the band was playing. It doesn't really matter what he's saying on these tracks because they're not meant to be singles, they are just musical journeys through whatever sonic territory came up. What happens is that you get all these wonderful little lyrics that he's pulling off the top of his head that make very little sense but are certainly interesting. The two and half dozen tracks on this record are seldom more than a minute or two long and are filled with lines like "I'm sorry my friend, but you've got ringworm" or a sweet little blues jam about waiting for his royalty check that hasn't come for over a year. All of that's offset when he spends a few minutes arguing with himself on mic about whether the band should say "france" while he whistles or whether it should be the other way around. The entire thing is whimsical and beautiful at the same time. The lyrics don't go anywhere on the second disc, you're just watching him discover other approaches to song ideas and play with them, and that is always what Van was best at. Give the track "up your mind" a spin when you've got a minute, and find a pretty little thing that never did get pulled into finality, but rather is just a series of sweet little notions.

This kind of thing isn't for everyone, in fact, it's probably only a few people's cup of tea, but i'm one of them. It shows the beginnings of the kind of musical approach that spawned masterworks like Astral Weeks and Moondance and the many more to follow.

Why listening to Van seems to remind me of what music should be is the part that's magic. However far i stray in my musical journeys, he is always a home base i can return to and remember what it is when it's just a guy with soul and some sounds stretching out behind him. what else is music for anyway?

2008-02-10 | 11:53 a.m.
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