Van Morrison : Don’t Look Back

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers in love. But always meeting ourselves.’ (James Joyce)

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (William Faulkner)

‘Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

Van Morrison like all true artists carries an Eden within him that he returns to over and over again when he needs spiritual refreshment and musical inspiration.

This home place contains: the real and imagined streets and avenues of 1940s and 1950s Belfast; the boats in the harbour; the creeping morning fog and the booming foghorns; the scent of Shalimar and beeswax; the sounds of the musical saw and the real as prayer voice of Mahalia Jackson coming through the ether.

Off to the side a radio is always playing tuned in to AFN delivering the blessings of the High Priest or the Goons on the grand old BBC.

Hank Williams and Leadbelly are telling their eternal truths on the record player downstairs and somewhere almost in and almost out of sight a young girl, the young girl, is incarnating the vision of eternal and temporal beauty.

As he walks along the avenue the leaves on the trees tremble and dance and all the strings in heaven are harmonising (though he knows they can break too).

The energy contained within this Eden will be enough to power a vocational life with half a century or more of singing, songwriting and veil tearing live performances.

For he has the artists and pilgrim’s faith that the path that has been set out for him must surely lead him through triumphs, trials and tribulations eventually back to that first Eden again.

So when he is attracted to a song he hasn’t written himself it’s because he recognises some echo or intimation within the song’s imaginative structure; the melody, rhythm and lyric that promises to open a doorway to the longed for, never lost but never wholly present Eden.

The Eden whose essence he can reach out for and sometimes grasp in performance.

That’s what motivates him a thousand times more than the applause of the adoring fans or the plaudits of the critics.

The music of the great John Lee Hooker has often provided this doorway for Van. They share a cussed, defiant belief in their own individual visions and a refusal to tailor those visions to the demands of fashion or contemporary taste.

Van and John Lee were separated by twenty eight years in age, the Atlantic Ocean, race, the great depression and a World War.

However, this was mere happenstance for in the deepest levels of their musical being they were very close kin who knew the blues in the very marrow of their bones.

They were and in music still are to use the lovely Celtic expression Anam Cara – soul friends.

And, the blues is a diverse music embracing all the moods we are heir to including joy, sadness, despair and reverie.

Which is to say the blues is music that calls to the heart night and day through good times and bad; in our youth and in our old age.

It’s a companion and comfort on our pilgrimage through life. Van recognised the humanity and power of Hooker’s songs and that they were gifts that would keep on giving.

For a really great song’s power and mystery can never be exhausted but only further explored.

Each version melding the truths of the song with the character and personality a true artist will bring to the work and that will inevitably change over time.

Time, time, time: inexorably ticking on, beating on, surging through our lives; driving us forward while reminding us of its former presence and our former life all the time – all the time.

We can’t go back to that former time but we can’t, won’t, wholly leave it behind. We can’t shed the mind skin we are clothed in.

Every day contains the present, the past and the future and coming to terms with that is a key task of a well lived life – and it’s a hell of a subject for a song.

John Lee Hooker released Don’t Look Back as a single on Vee Jay in 1964. Van, always an assiduous listener, picked up quickly on it and his utterly ravishing version with Them was released in June 1965 on their debut LP.

It is said that Van considered his vocal here to be his best on the album and I agree with him.

The song is treated as a, ‘hold your breath and let me stop the world from turning while I tell you this’ dream ballad which only the greatest singers can ever really bring off.

And, Van triumphantly brings it off here. I can hear echoes of the way Arthur Alexander stills the heart with his understated passion.

Van Morrison’s respect, love and affection for the song and it’s composer is etched into every syllable of his scrupulously careful vocal which glows with inner fire.

The languid piano part, probably played by the late Peter Bardens, affects an electrically charged otherworldly sound that foregrounds Van’s lingering, beautifully imagined and controlled blues croon.

He sings the song, in this version, with infinite gentleness like a man singing to himself looking out the nighttime window as he waits for the sun to appear over the horizon and start another day.

Listen to the tenderness with which he phrases the lyric revealing the sureness and sadness at the heart of the song.

I remember hearing him sing, ‘… Stop dreaming … ‘ for the first time and having an intense out of body experience.

Van’s performance here is astonishing in its authority and audacity; especially for a youth barely out of his teens.

But, genius answers only to itself.

Before his performance of this luminous song was captured again, on his tour of Ireland in 1979, he had transformed himself from the wondrously gifted callow youth of 1965 into a completely realised master of his chosen craft.

He had produced at least four albums that can safely be accounted masterpieces.

The work of profound spiritual grace that is Astral Weeks; the incandescent Moondance; the exploratory revelations of St Dominic’s Preview and the blazing house wrecking testimony of Too Late To Stop Now.

He had also become a superb band leader who could choose talented, sympathetic musicians and mould them into crack outfits able to switch genres and animate arrangements with fluid power and ease.

He had clearly studied the Ray Charles and James Brown bands; noting the way they used horns and back up singers to heat and dramatise their performances.

Above all he needed listening musicians who would recognise, respond and surrender to those moments when he would become inspired and launch into extended improvisation that could take a song far beyond any rehearsal’s imaginings.

The 1979 band included Peter Van Hooke on drums and fellow Ulsterman Herbie Armstrong on rhythm guitar who would be faithful and watchful long term lieutenants.

Pat Kyle and John Altman gave the horns swing and sensuousness while Katie Kissoon and Anna Peacock sang their hearts out following or prefiguring their leaders vocal stylings.

Bobby Tench played gorgeous spiky guitar fills while Mickey Feat anchored the sound with his bass.

Peter Bardens was back after many musical adventures at Van’s side and showed he still knew how to second guess his mercurial leader’s thoughts.

A new sound (surely a response to the presence of Scarlet Rivera in Bob Dylan’s band) was provided by the entrancing violin playing of Toni Marcus.

With these resources at his command Van now gave, Don’t Look Back’ a more dynamic, searching blues and soul review arrangement that supported his stupendous vocal tour de force.

When he is on this kind of form he seems to control not just his brilliant musicians but also the forces of time, temperature and gravity affecting the audience and the venue.

You might observe that he becomes lost in the music but it seems to me it is rather that he steps away from the everyday into an old home – a magical, edenic realm where for those few minutes everything is in balance, where all is well and all shall be well.

No one can do this easily or guarantee a performance where this will occur.

All the more reason to treasure those occasions when we become with him dwellers on the threshold able to contemplate ascending the staircase that stretches all the way to moon.

Listen to John Altman’s imperious sax solo, the swelling power of the call and response vocals, the sweetness of the violin and the tidal power of the arrangement but above all marvel at the way Van incarnates the vision of the song in his powerful, tender and subtly nuanced vocal.

It’s one of his greatest performances comparable to his legendary, incendiary triumph singing Caravan at the Last Waltz.

So hear him sing a song that summons up the past that surrounds us all. Board the boat that’s ceaselessly borne back; meet the ghosts and the giants of your own life and recognise that the past is never past.

As a matter of fact try to live in the here and now.

Then go on and live into the future.


Don’t forget, if you haven’t already to read the previous posts on Van – featuring his performances of Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria.

In fact, I recommend checking out the archive generally if you’re new to the Jukebox.

Thanks to the premier Bob Dylan website ‘Expecting rain’ for providing a link to this post.

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