Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

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Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they have been waiting for.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting on the waterfront for the one, miraculously found, to return.

Waiting, worrying, wondering why she had to go.

Waiting, never understanding why she had to go.

Waiting, rheumy eyed, obsessively scanning the horizon for her to return.

Waiting, waiting, covering the waterfront.

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

Bluesmen. Brothers in The Blues.

Initiates. High priests. Orphean adepts.

Anam Cara – soul friends.

Sounders of the depths. In their music they tap the source. The energy they draw upon seems to come, direct, from the very core of the Earth.

In touch with such power is it any wonder that they are often described as, ‘glowering’ and, ‘moody’.

I Cover The Waterfront looms in our imaginations like a fevered dream. The great Booker T on organ sets up a heat shimmer from which Van and John Lee emerge like royal travellers from some mysterious distant land bringing testimony of great import.

Some say the purpose of art is to stop time. Well, here, Van and John Lee do a wonderful job of making time eddy and meander as they dig deep into the song. They are both able to lead us away from the tyranny of everyday time into new dimensions of being.

Ships leave harbour and the coast vanishes as they voyage into the open sea. Beside the vastness of the sea humans seem small, insignificant. Yet, the sea is bound by the shore while the human imagination knows no such bounds. With their voices, their intense vocal and imaginative presence, Van and John Lee take us far beyond the mere realms of cartography and circumnavigation.

Their music at its best always opens new territory bringing us visions, emotional insights and dare one say it – mystical revelations.

They bring it on home while we are waiting.

Waiting for someone to reply to the message in a bottle thrown in the sea those many years ago.

Waiting for the knock on the door – sometimes in hope, sometimes in dread.

Waiting before you go out with seed for the sowing.

Waiting before you return carrying your sheaves.

Waiting for forgiveness.

Waiting in vain for the Raven’s return.

Waiting for the Dove to return with an Olive leaf.

Waiting for a miracle.

Waiting for Ahab to sail The Pequod, laden with Whale, back into Nantucket.

Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for The Dodgers to come home to Brooklyn.

Waiting for this terrible day to become tomorrow.

Waiting for the slow train coming around the bend.

Waiting for the full moon to rise.

Waiting for two riders to approach.

Waiting for the barkeep to pour one scotch, one bourbon, one beer.

Waiting for the foghorn to blow.

Waiting for the dawn to break.

Waiting for the wind to howl.

Waiting for the circle to be unbroken.

We are all waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Whatever you are waiting for I hope it will have been worth the wait.

And, as each of us waits, for our own reasons, the music of Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker lends us peace and perspective.

Notes:

The version of I Cover The Waterfront featured here comes from the John Lee Hooker record, ‘Mr Lucky’. I’m sure of few things but I am sure you can never have too many John Lee Hooker records.

This post largely written on the decks of the M/S Lily and S/S Ukkopekka as they sailed in blazing sunshine between Turku, the Island of Vepsa and the town of Naantali in Finland.

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.

Footnote:

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.

Voyages Around Van : Introduction

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Van Morrison, twinned with Bob Dylan, has been the pole star illuminating my love of twentieth century popular music. Untold hours, since I was a teenager, spent listening to the treasure house of his recordings and attending scores of live performances have given me some of the signal pleasures of my life.

The powerful nourishing river of his music, fed by deep tributaries, has carried me into love and appreciation of many, many great musicians and the traditions they came out of and worked within. His deep respect, love and practitioner’s knowledge of the blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul and folk music which he has demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career have been an education and a blessing.

From the first moment I heard Van sing, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in the early 1970s on the Saturday lunchtime show of the estimable, ‘Emperor Rosko’ on BBC radio and was catapulted into transcendent joy I have been an obsessive follower of his musical journeys and a grateful beneficiary. ‘Voyages Around Van’ will be a series tracing some of those journeys.

When Van Morrison at his best sings a song, one of his own or one from one of his approved forebears or contemporaries that has somehow called to him, you are forced to stop, take heed and listen with true bodily and spiritual attention rather than the mere overhearing it can be so easy to lapse into when listening to lesser music. The rewards more than justify the effort.

Certain songs from other artists have clearly captivated Van’s imagination to the extent that he has felt compelled to record them and return to regularly in concert – mining them for deeper levels of meaning throughout his career. One of these is the bewitching ballad, ‘Dont Look Back’ Van found within the catalogue of an artist who has profoundly influenced him; his elder brother in the blues, John Lee Hooker. A discussion of that song will follow very shortly! In the meantime as a treat on a glorious summertime in England day here’s Brown Eyed Girl – the original lightning strike that lit a still blazing flame.