Archive for the ‘Van Morrison’ Category

As occasionally happens even in the best of times, though a more frequent occurrence since the pandemic hit, I had a fitful night’s sleep on Thursday, with every descent into dream-laden REM sleep disrupted by jagged imagery. The next morning, as a result, I sought out sounds to cleanse the unquiet residue clogging my mind: one of my favorite Van Morrison albums, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, and the three studio albums that followed it: A Sense of Wonder; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; and Poetic Champions Compose.

I should mention that, although released in March 1983, I didn’t buy Inarticulate Speech of the Heart until the latter days of my college years, though why I can’t say for sure. I picked up Moondance on cassette in January 1983, so liked at least some of his music, and David Fricke gave Inarticulate Speech of the Heart a rave review in Rolling Stone’s April 28th edition the next month. Perhaps it had to do with me being knee-deep into my Lou Reed phase at the time and/or being distracted by high-school graduation, and then seeing Crispin Sartwell’s negative review in the July issue of Record magazine: “Listening on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, like listening to inarticulate speech, is a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding experience.” Whatever the case, as I said, I didn’t pick it up until a few years later, when I spent my summer and winter breaks working full-time in a department store – and many lunch or dinner breaks flipping through the racks at the Listening Booth in the same mall.

In many respects, it taps into the collective subconscious; as Fricke observes, “It captures in a simple phrase that desperate expression of pain and need, as well as the floundering over words inadequate to communicate one’s joy over a new love or a gorgeous country sunrise.”

The same delay between release and purchase isn’t true for Van’s next studio album, A Sense of Wonder. Released in the spring of 1985, Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh lavished it with praise in the pages of Rolling Stone in its May 9th issue and Ric O’Mitchell did the same in the May issue of Record magazine. I subscribed to both, so reading those reviews is probably why I picked it up on LP along with, on cassette, Van’s classic Astral Weeks on the 17th of the month. (Friday was also payday, of course!)

By year’s end, I was raving about its lyrical and soulful acumen with the poet John Haag, who was one of my favorite professors once I reached the Penn State mothership in State College. I frequented his office for one-on-ones quite often, and our conversations routinely diverged to topics beyond poetry. He was high on the album, as well, and like me impressed with how Van quoted the poets and philosophers of yore within metaphysical (and melodic) meditations on this thing called life.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was next on my aural adventure. Released in the summer of 1986, it quickly became another favorite – and another that Haag and I discussed once autumn came and classes resumed. David Fricke primarily focuses on the yin-yang dynamics at play in the 12-song set in his Rolling Stone review, as Van’s bitterness at “copycats” seems at odds with his quest for serenity. To me, however, his search is powered by his recognizing the rancor within; the discordant pieces fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, if you think about it.

A few years later, my father borrowed a low-tech gadget from a workmate that enabled one to transfer Super 8 home movies to VHS; it required one to position the projector in front of a gadget that then reflected the moving images into an internal lens that, in turn, captured the pictures on videotape. When I discovered that an external microphone could be used to add sound, I created a soundtrack to match the reels, then recorded to the videotape while the film was captured. No Guru’s “Foreign Window” accented our 1970 visit to London and Buckingham Palace – and, when I hear it now, I see those images in my head. (About 10 years back, I had the original Super 8 footage digitalized and then re-did the soundtrack, swapping out many of the songs due to having a much larger library to pick from – but “Foreign Window” remained.)

By the time Poetic Champions Compose was released in September 1987, I’d graduated college and was working as an assistant department manager in the same department store where I’d previously whiled away my time as a sales associate. If memory serves, it was among the first CDs I purchased after splurging on a CD player. Jimmy Guterman’s review in the December 3rd edition of Rolling Stone accurately summarizes it: “Like Neil Young — another restless veteran who has been prematurely blackballed, only to persevere — Morrison follows his muse wherever he likes. And every time, those who have committed themselves to the journey have been rewarded.” 

Anyway, after those four servings of yearning, meditative music – and also due to having little sleep the night before – I fell asleep with ease Friday night, and stayed asleep until the next morning, when a certain feline fellow patted me on the cheek to inform me that it was breakfast time.

Such is life in these odd times.

Make no mistake: We have been here before. The 1918-20 flu pandemic infected some 500 million people around the globe, with experts citing anywhere from 17 to 100 million succumbing to it. Social-distancing measures were employed in some U.S. cities, and while they fared much better health-wise than those that didn’t, they suffered economic downturns. Life looked like it might be forever changed. But it wasn’t. As this World Economic Forum article shows, once the flu faded away, life pretty much picked up where it had left off.

That doesn’t lessen the stress of today’s stay-at-home orders, grocery shortages, economic disruptions and the incompetent federal response, mind you, or the fear of falling victim to COVID-19. The days may blur into weeks and the weeks may soon morph into months, but we, as a people, will endure.

That said, to me it feels like we’re stuck in the opening stanza of “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings: “Stuck inside these four walls/never seeing no one…”

I haven’t been listening to much in the way of new music these days, preferring instead to treat the isolation blues with a heap of old favorites, including (but not limited to) McCartney, Rumer, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, Neil Young and, though she’s not “old” per se, Courtney Marie Andrews. There’s a comfort to be found in their tried-and-true grooves. They soothe the soul.

I thought I’d share select songs from some of them today.

Courtney Marie tapped into the collective unconscious for her 2016 Honest Life album, a set o’ songs I consider one of the best of the 2010s. “Put the Fire Out” slays me every time I hear it, especially when the backup voices come in on “hear the rock ’n’ roll at the Blue Moon Tavern.”

On a not unrelated subject, I experienced something of a spacetime anomaly in early March when I celebrated my 30th anniversary at my 23-year-old company. (I was grandfathered in during several takeovers, for those curious.) Anyway, the company doles out virtual tokens for such events, which can then be used to pick out a reward or rewards from a fairly extensive catalog. I used mine to get Diane the latest iPad Mini and both of us the Apple HomePod, as I’ve wanted one since it was first introduced. It may not be an audiophile’s dream, but the sound is excellent – and we subscribe to Apple Music, so it works out.

The first thing I asked Siri to play is a song I never tire of:

This morning’s picks included Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which flows through and buttresses the soul like few others. It’s been one of my favorites of his since first hearing it during my college years; the poetic “Rave on John Donne” with its literary references and floating saxophone stops time for me.

Last night, I watched the April 7, 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu, though not for the skits but the musical guest: Rickie Lee Jones, who performed “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” This morning, after Van, I played her debut for what must be the 1000th time in my life (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating!). It sounds as fresh today as it did in 1979.

Stay safe, people. 

I’m enjoying a much-needed “staycation” this week, the first extended time I’ve taken since Christmas (and that wasn’t much of a break – we moved from state to state). Among the things on my to-do list: re-watching Covert Affairs, a spy-thriller series that aired on the USA network from 2010 to 2015 that I thoroughly enjoyed; reading Nolan Gasser’s 700-page Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste; and what I’m doing now, tap-tap-tapping away on a blog post.

Nolan Gasser, for those who don’t know, is the chief architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project, and in the book he – to quote the book jacket – “breaks down what musical taste is, where it comes from, and what our favorite songs say about us.” I can’t weigh in on the tome as a whole, as I’m a mere 35 pages in, but it looks interesting and wonky – aka right up my alley. (For more, see the WYLI website.)

In some respects, the Music Genome Project (aka MGP) seems similar to a search-and-recommendation project I was involved with for a few years, though that focused on TV shows. (I found it a fun endeavor, as I have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of TV history, but others found it tedious.) 

That project is one reason why I find the idea of deciphering what makes (and breaks down) this thing called musical taste (or preference) fascinating. Yet, at the outset of the book, I have to admit that the predictive measures seem both obvious and slightly absurd. On the obvious side: It should boil down to artist, genre, sub-genre, era and fellow travelers, songwriters if an outside songwriter was involved, and include additional aspects of the songs, with all that data creating a pattern that’s as intricate, sticky and fragile as a spider’s web. On the absurd side: Given that many folks, myself included, have a wide range of musical likes that span multiple genres, how can those many facets be woven into a seamless listening experience? Or will it flow as thus: mid-tempo, mid-tempo, slow, mid-tempo, fast?

And, too, would the MGP follow Bobby Darin’s “If I Was a Carpenter” with Tim Hardin’s “A Simple Song of Freedom,” the Long Ryders’ “Looking for Lewis & Clark” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”? (There’s a chain there that astute music fans should ferret out.) In other words, it’s one thing to enjoy a sonically similar playlist, which is what the MGP seems geared to do, but another to be pulled in by subtextual sequencing.

But I’m not pre-judging. I’ll give Pandora a go for the next few mornings to see if it can actually predict my likes and avoid my dislikes.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Subtextual Sequencing…

1) Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row.”

2) Van Morrison – “Summertime in England.”

3) The Bangles – “Dover Beach.”

4) James McMurtry – “Too Long in the Wasteland.”

5) Natalie Merchant – “maggie and milly and molly and mae.”