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Domino

Music Review: A Look Back at One of Van Morrison’s Best Albums.

Van HIs Band front 458

A lot of attention has been focused over the years on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album from 1968, and the album that followed it, Moondance. I’m sure that many of Van’s fans would list one of these two releases as their favorite of his, but my personal favorite is His Band and the Street Choir from 1970.

Here are some track-by-track notes on this record whose songs offered a lot of variety in musical style, and were placed in near-perfect order.

“Domino” – A great rocker and album opener; Van with an eleven-piece band. John Klingberg’s fine bass work can be clearly heard on the 2015 remaster from Warner Brothers. I’ve always loved the lines: “There’s no need for argument/ There’s no argument at all/ And if you never hear from him/ That just means he didn’t call…”

“”Crazy Face” – A pre-Eagles Desperado-type song. “He stood outside the church yard gate/ And polished up on his .38 and said/ I got it from Jessie James…”

“Give Me A Kiss” – A bouncy number that sounds like Elvis Presley circa 1956. More sweet brass backing from the band.

“I’ve Been Working” – Van as a macho soul man. This has always been his best on-stage performance number, and there’s just a touch of Tower of Power, War and the Doors in the break.

“Call Me Up in Dreamland” – Ragtime meets Dixieland meets southern Belfast rock. The Band might have sounded like this if they’d been less heavy.

“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” – The haunting love poem that closed out side one of the L.P. His then-wife Janet Planet explained this best: “I have seen Van open these parts of his secret self – his essential core of aloneness I had always feared could never be broken into – and say… yes, come in here… know me.”

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“Blue Money” – Side two of the long player opened with this blazing tune. As much as I love “Domino,” “Wild Night,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” this has always been my all-time fave Morrison single. (I often wonder if this was the song that inspired Steely Dan’s “Peg”?) It seems that almost every time a “Best of…” Van Morrison collection has been released, there are numerous complaints because this song is not included. Janet Planet contributed the Linda McCartney-ish background vocals.

“Virgo Clowns” – A positive take on Jackson Browne’s irony. “Now you know exactly who you want to be now. Let your laughter fill the room.”

“Gypsy Queen” – Smooth as a slide across the ice… Van captures the spirit of Motown. Say it’s alright. (Van himself said in 2007, “It’s always been about soul.”)

“Sweet Jannie” – Back to the cradle, with a blues rocker featuring a B.B. King-style guitar lead. Elmore James had nothing on this.

“If I Ever Needed Someone” – Van’s “My Sweet Lord.” “To keep me from my sorrow/ To lead me on to givingness/ So I can see a new tomorrow.”

“Street Choir” – The closer. A great, downcast, tribute to a long-lost love; one who will not be accepted back. “Why did you leave… Why did you let me down?/ And now that things seem better… Why do you come around?/ You know that I can’t see you now.”

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Like all of rock’s best albums, from What’s Going On to Graceland to The Rising, this one is life affirming. My score: 89.5 out of 100 points.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: The 2015 reissue of His Band and the Street Choir, remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, contains five bonus tracks; alternate takes of five of the twelve songs.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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