It’s Van the Man’s birthday. Van Morrison was born in Belfast on the 31st day of August in 1945. One of the greats of the generation of singers/songwriters whose careers got underway in the Sixties, Van’s still going strong and, like most of his contemporaries, he’s had some ups and downs. His major phase lasts from 1968’s Astral Weeks, one of the best albums ever, by anybody, up to 1974’s Veedon Fleece, a major statement. He hit a better-than-average stride with three albums after that: Wavelength (1978), Into the Music (1979), and Common One (1980).
After those three LPs helped to consolidate his “later” work as he turned 35, my attention to his career gets a bit spotty. The Eighties, in general, were not so good for artists his age, who had been in the game for twentysome years. I’d still point to No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986) and Irish Heartbeat (1988), an album of Irish traditional music recorded with The Chieftains, as well worth having. Then, in 1991, came the magnum opus Hymns to the Silence, on which Van mused about his early years and caught a bit o’ Gospel glory—“A Closer Walk with Thee” needs to be heard. Too Long in Exile (1993) was a jazzier than usual LP by an artist who had always stretched rock and R&B into more extended and improvised forms. Today’s song—and I could’ve chosen any of a dozen for Van’s birthday—is from Back on Top (1999), an album that reminds me a bit of No Guru, which is to say it’s meditative, a bit elegiac, but also full of a crisp sense of how to “do” Van Morrison songs. Van has done so many long, searching musical journeys on his albums, rambling through stream-of-consciousness, grabbing onto a phrase as a talismanic fragment and repeating it in various inflections as if sounding it for any magic it possesses, vocalizing with abandon at times and, more often, with a consummate craftsman’s full awareness of his powers, creating a spellbinding space in which music happens to the listener as a transposition to an interior place, perhaps even as a transformational experience (“Madam George,” for instance, but that will be saved for another time). But in all that time, we must also admit that some of Van’s output only gestures to what other songs make manifest. He’s not always in true form, in other words.
Back on Top struck me as a revisit of “classic” Van Morrison but without being derivative. If I’d never heard another Morrison LP, I’d be amazed by it. Which is to say that, if it’s not top shelf, it’s only because truly remarkable Morrison albums beat its time. This is true of some subsequent albums as well, such as 2005’s Magic Time. (I almost selected something from that album because it came out the year of my only trip to Ireland and I saw a poster for it in Dublin, and got the album—which I liked even more than Back on Top—after getting back home.) I still need to get around to 2008’s Keep It Simple. I still find myself beguiled by Morrison’s ability to keep going, listening to the lion inside and getting it across.
“Reminds Me of You” fits the memory themes I’ve got going, and it features some truly lovely Hammond organ work by Geraint Watkins. It also features backing vocals, by Brian Kennedy, that create an interesting double vocal in which Van’s almost heartbroken tone gets matched by a voice less shaken by feeling. Call it water and rock, perhaps. Then there’s Pee Wee Ellis’s sax adding fills that are a bit breezy. It all adds up to a song that is laced with melancholy and a sense of past mistakes and misfortunes, and, maybe, a trust in a fulfillment to come, but that is also aware of joy, a tense, fitfully aware realization that keeps dawning and dimming. “Everything I do reminds me of you.” The memory is better than nothing.
“I miss you so much I can’t stand it,” the song begins and that’s its main coloration: I’m barely maintaining, I’m ready to go to pieces any second. And yet there’s a verse that, to me, makes us aware of what’s really going on: Seems like the spirit is pushing me onwards / I'm able to see where I tripped and went wrong / I'll just have to guess where my soul will find comfort / And I miss you so much when I'm singing my song. Each line has a strong caesura, as though the thoughts are being measured out, and the idea of being pushed to a realization, to seeing where he went wrong, feels palpable. There’s a groping sense in the “I’ll just have to guess” and the hope of finding comfort. Without “you,” it’s anyone’s guess if there is any solace to be found. But key is the phrase “when I’m singing my song.” This is a state of longing that comes with singing. It’s like saying that heartbreak is the basis of the song but that the song saves one from being heartbroken. The song is the comfort—and yet the song and singing it “reminds me of you.”
It’s also a song of divestiture: “I don’t have nothin’ to sell no more”; “ain’t goin’ down, no more, to the well.” What’s being refused, I guess, are easy remedies or activities that make for creature comforts. It’s time to stand face to face with, to use Ray Davies’ line, “what’s been taken from me.”
What makes me choose this song over others on the album—though I’m also very partial to “The Philosopher’s Stone,” “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” and “High Summer”—is the tension in the vocal. It walks such a tight line, distilling a lifetime of singing the blues into a vocal with no histrionics or emoting, just an unerring sense of pitch and diction.
Happy birthday, Van, many happy returns.
My soul demands it.