Morrison, Van (Contemporary Musicians)
Van Morrison remains one of the most elusive rock stars of the modern age. Despite the fact that he has released an album every year for three decades, he does not do many interviews. This elusiveness and his moodiness during live appearances often make Morrison seem distant, even gruff. His music is not easily defined by critics; he certainly will never be pigeonholed. Morrison himself is often at a loss for words when asked to describe one of his songs. His blend of spirituality and mysticism in his lyrics suggests that maybe he has divine intervention. One of his band members, Georgie Fame, suggested that people don't need to know everything about Morrison. He told Jeff Gordinier of Entertainment Weekly, "He's a wonderful Irish poet and a great musician. What else do you want?" The song "Brown Eyed Girl" is perhaps Morrison's best known, but critics agree that Astral Weeks is one of the best albums in rock history.
Many great musicians' styles cannot be labeled. Ray Charles' music is often described in print with a string of adjectives: jazz, pop, r&b, soul, country, etc. Morrison, who idolizes Charles, also creates music that is hard to categorize. His music is described in print with words like Irish-Celtic mysticism, folky rock, soul, r&b, and country. His creativity may have come from a background rich in musical styles. Morrison was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1945. His father introduced him to jazz, blues, and folk music at a young age. His mother was a jazz singer. Morrison also listened to country musicians like Hank Williams. By fifteen, Morrison played guitar, harmonica, and saxophone, and he quit school to pursue music full time. He joined several different bands like the country group Deanie Sands and the Javelins before hooking up with an r&b band in 1961 called the Monarchs. Morrison played saxophone and harmonica for them as they toured Europe. When the band finished touring, Morrison settled in Germany to act in a movie. The movie project failed, and Morrison returned to his hometown of Belfast.
In 1963, Morrison formed a band he called Them with some members from the Monarchs and some of his school buddies. Them was a turning point in Morrison's music career. He was the lead singer and songwriter for the r&b quintet as they became a locally renowned band. Their local fame led them to a recording contract with Decca Records. They recorded their first single in 1964 called "Don't Start Crying Now." In 1965, Them had a hit in Britain called "Baby Please Don't Go." The band settled in London to work with producer Bert Berns. In London, they recorded "Here Comes the Night," which broke the British and American charts. Another single, "Gloria," written by Morrison was not a major hit, but several rock artists like Shadows of Night, Patti Smith, and U2 released their own versions of the classic. Two albums were released by Them, Them and Them Again. In 1966, the band toured for several months in the United States but when Morrison became upset at the record company's marketing ploy to label the group as rough young rebels, he stopped performing and returned to Belfast. Them was released as The Angry Young Them in the United States. Morrison quit the band. This was the first sign of his unwillingness to comply with the record companies.
By 1967, Berns had formed his own record company in New York called Bang Records. When Berns heard that Morrison had quit Them, he begged Morrison to come to New York to record some singles. Morrison did, and "Brown Eyed Girl," released in 1967, marked the beginning of his solo career. "Brown Eyed Girl" was a major hit in the United States, so Morrison decided to tour again. While Morrison was on tour, Berns collected all of the new recorded singles and released them as Morrison's first solo album, Blowin' Your Mind. Berns didn't inform Morrison, who became irate when he learned that he had no part in the release. Berns died suddenly of a heart attack in December of 1967 and Morrison left Bang records.
Morrison eventually signed with Warner Brothers in 1968 while living in Cambridge, Massachussetts and touring the East Coast with a jazz trio. Morrison' s first solo album with Warner Brothers, Astral Weeks, was released in October of 1968. Astral Weeks took only two days to record but had a lasting impact. The album did not initially generate many sales, but it is known today as one of the most dynamic records of the sixties. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly called it "a veritable folkjazz mass full of incanatory power." Jay Cocks of Time said that Astral Weeks set a pattern for Morrison's music: "wild record, wild-eyed reviews, loyal but limited audience." The All-Music Guide's William Ruhlmann wrote, "[Astral Weeks] failed to chart but seems to have made every critic's all-time Top Ten list ever since." Many critics today believe that Astral Weeks was Morrison's most powerful album.
Morrison's first commercially successful album came in 1970 with the release of Moondance. The album sold over a million copies that year before eventually going platinum. Moondance was written and produced by Morrison, who by now had proven himself a true musical artist with an inclement temperament to match. One of the singles, "Into The Mystic," yielded the label that Morrison would carry with him throughout the seventies, that of a mystic. Morrison is known as an introvert who has no interest in achieving empathy with an audience. Cocks wrote, "Morrison, whether singing on the bright side of the road or deep from the heart of his dark and beautiful vision, does not hold out a helping hand to an audience. Reaching down into himself seems more important to him than reaching out."
Morrison's work in the seventies solidified his legendary status in the music world. His Band And The Street Choir, released in 1970, produced two top ten hits, "Domino" and "Blue Money." In 1971, Morrison moved to California with his wife, Janet Planet. That same year Morrison released Tupelo Honey, which eventually went gold and had the hit "Wild Night." Tupelo Honey reflected Morrison's happiness with marriage, containing many love songs to his wife. In 1972, St. Dominic's Preview was released to rave reviews and contained two very mystical songs. What makes Morrison's songs mystical are the lyrical journeys they take through spiritual discovery, a common theme in all of his music. Two more critically acclaimed albums were released in the early seventies, Hard Nose the Highway and a performance album It's Too Late To Stop Now. Hard Nose the Highway featured the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and had a hit with "Autumn Song." It's Too Late To Stop Now was a Morrison performance backed by an orchestra he formed called the Caledonian Soul Orchestra.
Morrison's personal life took a turn in 1973 when he divorced his wife and went back to his hometown of Belfast. He spent months in Ireland reflecting on his life and expressing it by writing new material. The result was the very personal Veedon Fleece in 1974, which some critics proclaimed was his best work since Astral Weeks. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly rated it an A and remarked that Veedon Fleece was "achingly moody, pitch-dark-night-of-the-soul ruminations on success and love." Morrison did not record another album until 1977. Some said he had writer's block, but he was in the studio often during those three years without an album. He returned in 1977 with A Period of Transition, co-produced by Dr. John, who also played piano on the album. Two more albums were released in the late seventies, Wavelength and Into the Music. The albums of the seventies were creative blends of Celtic music, r&b, and soul. Morrison was influenced not just by musicians like Ray Charles, but also by poets like William Blake. His live performances were inconsistent, sometimes temperamental, but he made his mark in the seventies, earning the respect of critics and colleagues alike.
The eighties and nineties went much the same way for Morrison. He released an album just about every year that critics positively reviewed, yet almost always with lukewarm sales. Each album is composed with personal and spiritual themes like the 1983 album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which mentioned Morrison's respect for L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology. However, with the release No Guru, No Method, No Teacher in 1986, Morrison seemed reluctant to accept his media label of spiritual mystic. Morrison finally had a breakout sales success with the release of The Best of Van Morrison, which sold two million copies in 1990. Hymns to The Silence went gold in 1992, much to the critics pleasure. Morrison teamed with the popular Irish band the Chieftains on Hymns to The Silence and on Irish Heartbeat in 1988.
Perhaps Morrison's biggest success is the respect bestowed upon him by leaders of the music industry. His admirers range from Bob Dylan to John Lee Hooker to Bono. Many of these industry giants have not only appeared as guests on Morrison's work but have re-made many of his tunes, taking them to great heights in sales. Two examples are John Mellencamp's version of "Wild Night," which hit number three in 1994, and "Have I Told You Lately," recorded by Rod Stewart in 1993, earning Morrison thousands of dollars in royalties. Morrison has produced several albums for friends over the years as well. In 1993, Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Morrison's reputation as a cantankerous personality continues today, but his live performances in the nineties have earned him new respect onstage. One of those performances was documented on the 1994 release A Night in San Francisco, which critic Marc Judge of America called, "the spirit of rejuvenation and rebirth." Morrison even seemed friendlier to the press in the nineties, but denied that he is more open to the public. He told Clive Davis of Down Beat, "More extroverted? I don't think so. I thought I was more that way in the early seventies." Morrison does seem more settled these days as he continues to release critically acclaimed albums like The Philosopher's Stone in 1998. His hair may have grayed, but Dan Ouellette of Down Beat noted the timelessness of Morrison's music. He said, "What's remarkable about The Philosopher's Stone is how well these songs, some recorded over a quarter of a century ago, have aged."
"Mystic Eyes," Polygram, 1965.
"Brown Eyed Girl," Bang, Warner Brothers, 1967.
"Domino," Warner Brothers, 1970.
"Tupelo Honey," Warner Brothers, 1972.
"Jackie Wilson Said," Warner Brothers, 1972.
"Moon Dance," Warner Brothers, 1977.
"Wavelength," Warner Brothers, 1978.
Them, Parrot, 1965.
Them Again, Parrot, 1965.
Blowin' Your Mind, Bang, 1967.
The Best of Van Morrison, Bang, 1968.
Astral Weeks, Warner Bros., 1968.
Moondance (includes "Into the Mystic"), Warner Bros., 1970.
His Band and the Street Choir, Warner Bros., 1970.
Tupelo Honey, Warner Bros., 1971.
St. Dominic's Preview, Warner Bros., 1972.
Hard Nose the Highway, Warner Bros., 1973.
It's Too Late to Stop Now, Warner Bros., 1974.
TA Period of Transition, Warner Bros., 1977.
Wavelength, Warner Bros., 1978.
Into the Music, Warner Bros., 1979.
Common One, Warner Bros., 1980.
Beautiful Vision, Warner Bros., 1982.
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Warner Bros., 1983.
A Sense of Wonder, Mercury, 1985.
Live at The Grand Opera House, Belfast, Polydor, 1985.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, Mercury, 1986.
Poetic Champions Compose, Mercury, 1987.
Irish Heartbeat (with the Chieftains), Mercury, 1988.
Avalon Sunset, Polydor, 1989.
Enlightenment, Mercury, 1990.
The Best of Van Morrison, Mercury, 1990.
Hymns to The Silence, Polydor, 1991.
The Bang Masters, Epic, 1991.
Too Long in Exile, Polydor, 1993.
The Best of Van Morrison Volume 2, Polygram, 1993.
A Night in San Francisco, Polydor, 1994.
Payin' Dues, Charly, 1994.
Days Like This, Polydor, 1995.
Songs of Mose Allison: Tell Me Something, Polygram, 1996.
How Long Has This Been Going On?, Verve, 1996.
The Healing Game, Polygram, 1997.
The Philosopher's Stone, Polydor, 1998.
Crampton, Luke and Dafydd Rees, editors, Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK Publishing Inc., 1996.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Romanowski, Patricia, editor, The New Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
America, October 29, 1994.
Down Beat, May 1996; August 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 1997.
Time, October 28, 1991.
All-Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com 1998.
Eyeneer Music Archives, 1997.
Palo Alto Weekly, (September 26, 1997).