‘… This is a song from the 50s .. It’s been recorded by hundreds of people … But not like this!’
(Van Morrison’s introduction to It’s All In The Game before performing it at The Albert Hall in 2014)
Van Morrison is a dweller on the threshold.Embed from Getty Images
An artist who delights in the sensual world of earthly love and light and linear time while understanding in the very core of his being that we are also citizens of co-existing realms beating to the rhythms of a different eternal drum.
In his art he seeks to demonstrate that there are no walls between these realms but rather permeable membranes we can pass through if we would but release the flickering fires of our imaginative and spiritual nature.
So, when Van heard the song, ‘It’s All In The Game’; bizarrely written in posthumous collaboration by a Noble prize winning Vice President of The United States (Charles Dawes) and a savvy professional songwriter (Carl Sigman) he recognised that this slight, sentimental ballad from the 50s was ripe for transformation into a kaleidoscopic revelation of the simultaneously transitory and eternal landscape where the travails of all of us as winners and losers in the dance of the love are truly all in the game.
Van’s performance here as a singer, arranger and bandleader is proof of his genius as an artist. Surely, listening to such a searching performance, each of us will find our own history stirred and evoked; often in surprising, potentially disturbing ways.
One of the great gifts true artists can offer us is the opportunity, through encounters with their art, to come to terms with our unresolved subconscious struggles to find integration and wholeness.
Each of us in our own unique way will discover that we know what they’re writing about and what Van is singing about!
Van recorded, ‘It’s All In The Game’ on his magisterial 1979 record, ‘Into The Music’ which is lit with incandescent grace throughout.
Characteristically he assembled a superb team of musicians who had the technical chops and the imaginative reach to follow where his arrangements and inspirations led.
Herbie Armstrong (rhythm guitar), David Hayes (bass) and Mark Jordan (piano) were Van veterans and in Peter Van Hooke (drums), Toni Marcus (violin) and Katie Kissoon (backing vocals) he found rhapsodically empathetic partners.
The extravagantly talented Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis on the horns added enveloping depth and colour to the sound.
Of course, as with every great Van Morrison record, it’s Van’s heart-stirring, heart-stopping vocals which cast the spell we have to surrender to.
Here, Van in a vocal tour de force seems to hold the song up to a series of shades of illumination and heat so that, ‘Your heart will fly away’ can move magically as the song progresses from barely perceptible, deeply tender, softly shimmering candle light to searing, inescapable white hot conflagration.
And, this is not achieved through dramatic changes of tempo but through the vocal and imaginative engagement which Van brings to individual syllables, words and phrases as he utters them – teasing them, testing them, for artistic, spiritual and emotional weight.
Van makes intuitive raids upon the hoard of popular song for the mysterious values bound up in the sheer sound of the words as well as their overt meaning.
Of course, Van knows that words can only take you so far. Sometimes it’s the silences between the words and the accents of their placement which are most revealing.
Van added his own coda to, ‘Its All In The Game’ with its segue into his own, ‘You Know What They’re Writing About’ where he brings it all back home to the landscapes of his Belfast youth which will always haunt his every hour.
To my mind it is a mark of Van’s spiritual, not to say mystic insight, that he knows that there is no need to travel to distant valleys or Himalayan hideaways to find illumination.
Sometimes there’s no more words to say but its all right there in front of you. Right in front of you, wherever you are – down by the river, down by the pylons, down by the pylons, down by the pylons …..
Van Morrison is undoubtedly the living custodian of the hallowed tradition of blues based singing. He has spent a lifetime listening to and learning from those he inherited this tradition from.
So, when Van takes on a, ‘Big ballad’ he draws upon and invokes the shades of Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon and Bobby Blue Bland with their ability to command a band, caress a lyric and move with fluent dynamism within a song from whisper to scream.
Van brings all this lore to his live performances of, ‘It’s All In The Game’ – each time setting forth on a new pilgrimage invoking the muse to descend.
It is possible to spend many days losing yourself while listening to epic performances by Van of this song (believe me I’ve done it!).
From the treasure trove I’ve chosen a performance from Dublin in 2015 where if you can’t see the muses of fire above his head you can certainly feel their presence.
What Van Morrison adds to the grand tradition he inherited is the product of his own unique Celtic soul: his gift for being at the dead centre of a song while being absolutely outside it at the same time.
So he is both hot and cool.
A relentless seeker and a still contemplative.
A dweller on the threshold.