The Little Giant of Blue-Eyed Soul
I saw the danger, yet I walked
Along the enchanted way. . . .
“On Raglan Road”
More than three months now and I just can’t get the music of Van Morrison out of my heart and feet. After five full decades his voice, his songs, his high-art approach to backstreet blue ballads and stonegood rocking continues to astonish and humble and anchor. When I was young, I heard his hit “Brown-eyed Girl” and realized that I’d never heard such a singer, such a sound, which can only be described as rapturous, transcending me from my little radio to a full-moonlit flight or a skipping above the waters of the oceans with a freedom I’d never known possible and I got an indication of where I could find this feeling, here and only here, in music.
I didn’t know what this meant, or where it came from, this power, this hurricane of emotion; I still don’t. But I recognized it. And that was the summer I became a man, when I said,”You can do this, or something like it.” I stopped seeing, the better to listen. I resented fashion. I couldn’t understand school (not the subjects, the intent). But I did understand that the singer on that song was crafting something worth my complete attention.
The singer’s name was Van Morrison, and soon he came out with a new horn section and some stronger songs. “Domino” and “Blue Money.” “Crazy Love” and “Tupelo Honey.” “Caravan.” How could it be I heard both tight and loose? The singer threw so much air into the room that even a ponderous horn section ghosty-floated, and he did this with the energy and direction of his voice.
I’d heard some singers in Los Angeles: Nancy Wilson, Mark Murphy, Mickey Champion, Big Joe Turner, Stevie, Johnny Cash, Ray, Lou Rawls, Etta James, and had loved them all madly. Someone told me the singer was Irish. . . . would he come to my town and sing, did he stay in Ireland? As a transient, traveling brought comfort. I’d try to go where he was. It turned out he did shows around L.A. Occasionally. I got a ticket.
He drew a heavy crowd but there I stood, waiting to hear it all come alive. He’d brought his whole crew, horns and violins and impressive lady singers, even an alto saxophone. He led a heads-up band; Van (I later learned) didn’t stick to a set list and sang every song differently every time, changing keys and tempos and dynamics according to the moment of his inward ear. Since he often went into recitation/revelation/reveries, the band paid close attention to dynamics and could go to whisper-quiet instantly (I’d heard that he’d recited “The Lord’s Prayer” at a concert without any notice) and the band just provided for him a landscape to improvise over. Van seemed both becalmed and super-charged by this extension of his musical imagination, depending on the song and his desired effect. The rock reallyso rocked and the slower 4/4 with a 12/8 back convinced me that I was seeing that rarest of performers, a true musical artist, a genius of song.
The singer moved willy-nilly (so it seemed) between drums, saxophone, guitar, and the short Marine Band harp, rarely opening his eyes, never acknowledging his audience, only his band. The people kept very quiet so as not to distract him from the spell he was in, was putting us in. He committed himself completely to every word and sound as he moved us through his music into the mystic. Time disappeared. Distance and difference disappeared. I mean, he really delivered. I never again missed the chance to hear him, live or on record, and he always delivered, always transformed, always transcended.
I saw that he did a concert in March 2017, then heard it. And he still sings with full purpose and strength. His record with the Chieftains has become my favorite, for now at least. The adventurous “Street Choir” records stay fresh and wildly repay multiple listenings. And Hymns to the Silence you only need listen and hear. As the world says stop, he tells us to continue. Yes, I am so glad I got the chance to give attention to the transformative, liberating, enchanting qualities of Van Morrison’s music.
Dan Todd read literature at Colorado College and law at UCLA before returning to Colorado to teach and play music. He has taught at PPCC, his alma mater, since 1987.