The Astral Travels of Van Morrison

A brilliant and mercurial singer revisits perhaps his finest hour, 40 years later

Where he's going is, as often as not, into a stream-of-consciousness reverie where a single album cut is deconstructed and reassembled into a trancelike epic often lasting a quarter-hour or more. In the '70s, songs like "Caravan" and "Cyprus Avenue" were regularly subject to such reinvention, while more recently, Morrison has favored the likes of "In the Afternoon" (from 1995's Days Like This) and "Burning Ground" (from 1997's The Healing Game). These are the moments-the bedrock of any Morrison gig-in which the "healing" about which he has so often sung really begins.

"If you study psychology and philosophy, and you look at various types of religion, what you find out is that people call this these different names," says Morrison. "Carl Jung would look at it one way, and Alfred Adler would look at it another way. Aristotle would maybe look at it a different way, Sartre would look at it some other way, and Beckett would look at it a different way. If you go through all this, what I end up with is energy, and I can't name it, and no one can really say what this energy is. So the healing thing is tapping into that energy, because I can't find a name for it, and I can't find it in any books. There was a time when I read everything I could get my hands on because I was looking to find out what this is-is anybody writing about this energy? And not really."

The course that a concert takes depends on a couple factors, says Morrison. "One is, if you feel like the audience can go with you, then I can stretch out more. [The other is] finding key songs where I can get these particular musicians to go along with me, because every band combination is quite different. A lot of times, you can get musicians, but they don't have a rapport, so you have to build the set around where we can go. Some bands I've had can do anything, go anywhere, you know? Other bands can only do certain songs in a certain way. It just depends."

"The only thing I love is the music. The rest of it is pure shit."
EMI Music North America
"The only thing I love is the music. The rest of it is pure shit."

Even on less celebrated Morrison works like Days Like This or 1987's Poetic Champions Compose, you can find yourself enraptured by the dense networks of interconnected images and allusions in his songs, struggling to make some mental geography out of the mystical yet entirely tangible places he frequently sings about: an ancient highway, a town called Paradise, the viaducts of his dreams. Nearly all those tropes, however, date back to Astral Weeks, which begins with its first-person narrator venturing into the slipstream and ends some eight tracks later with the funereal assertion, "I know you're dying/And I know you know it, too/Every time I see you/I just don't know what to do."

Whether Morrison was describing the real Belfast he knew as a child or building an imagined, Joycean universe of private meanings upon its foundations, the yearning for a distant, irrecoverable past is profoundly felt, and something that continues to resonate throughout his music of the subsequent 40 years, up to and including the epic album-closer "Behind the Ritual" from last year's Keep It Simple, wherein he sings of "drinking wine in the alley . . . in the days gone by." Indeed, if Morrison has rarely seemed eager to look back over the course of his own discography, his music itself is very much about conjuring a personal and collective past, hovering just out of reach and threatening to displace the present. It's a feeling that extends to the myriad cover/tribute albums he's produced in the past 15 years, honoring traditional country with Pay the Devil and jazz with How Long Has This Been Going On, while elsewhere tipping his porkpie hat to such influences as Mose Allison, Lonnie Donegan, John Lee Hooker, and Solomon Burke. It is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay those albums to say that Morrison's original compositions are frequently indistinguishable from the "period" songs written by others decades earlier.

"Well, if you take it as a river, then it's got offshoots-this stream and that stream, north stream, south stream, slipstream. All sorts of streams, you know?" Morrison says. "But it's all connected to the source. All that stuff that I picked up in the formative years is what I've been able to put together as my own thing, so to speak. For me, it's [about] going back to the source. That's where I first got the word, or heard that sound. You can't really say it is 'X,' because it just ends up being another word or a cliché. But that initial energy was turned on in me, and I was lucky enough to get to know some of the people-like John Lee Hooker, who was a very good friend over the years."

Since Astral Weeks, Morrison has issued more than 30 albums of new material, penned hundreds of songs for himself and other artists, and managed to put an enviable distance between himself and the record company executives who've been a regular (and hardly undeserved) object of scorn and derision in such Morrison songs as "Saint Dominic's Preview," "Drumshanbo Hustle," and "Showbusiness." Having recently parted ways with his latest label, Universal, which, he says, did little to promote Keep It Simple despite it being the highest-charting domestic release of his career, he remains characteristically circumspect "not so much about the business" itself, but "about the kind of people that the business and fame sometimes attract."

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