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.

The Immortal Jukebox : An Introduction, A Manifesto and GLORIA!!

Red and green and yellow – buzzing and glowing with the neon primary colour promise of dangerous thrills and illicit pleasures.

A sensual blow to the solar plexus when in wonderfully mechanical operation.

The chosen 45 is lifted from the racks and placed with a hugely satisfying clunk onto the turntable and then the arm housing the magic needle descends and …..   Two or three minutes of temporal and eternal bliss.

Play that one again!

Maybe the jukebox is in a roadhouse just outside of Memphis where a truck driver who loves ‘all kinds’ of music gets to hear the singers who can wrap up heartache and joy and project them through the vinyl into the hearts and souls of the dancers and drinkers and the quiet girls in the corner.

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Maybe it’s in a dancehall in Hibbing where the iron ground vibrates with magnetic energy and the bitterly cold wind hits heavy on the borderline.

Here a tousle headed kid with a teeming head full of ideas and an unassailable sense of destiny has an epiphany when the lonesome whistle blows and he has no need to ask for a translation of Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!

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Maybe it’s in a coffee bar in Liverpool where two teenagers levitating with energy and talent and the desire to make the world anew can go when they are sagging off school and dreaming impossible dreams of songs with their names in brackets after the title.

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Maybe it’s in Detroit where an ex boxer and jazz buff with enough entrepreneurial ambition to found an empire has figured out that the empire could be built on the talents of the hometown teenagers of his own race – once he had organised them.

He understood that the white world was waiting, unknowingly, for a vision of a young America that he could manufacture and supply in the form of a production line of vibrant, electrifying   45’s … Are you ready for a brand new beat?

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More likely it’s in a thousand towns all over the globe where men and women meet to,drink and laugh and cry.  Where they go to find love, laughter and sex and temporary forgetting.

On the jukebox there’s always that song … The one that makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck … The one that makes your heart pump faster and faster … The one that makes you ask the first time you hear it ‘Who’s that!’ …

The one you’ll never forget as long as you live, the one that will always embody youth and hope and the promise of a better, bigger life.

The one to play again and again, learning every word , every riff and lick, the one you saved up to buy to play at home as loud as your neighbours would allow.

The Immortal Jukebox will celebrate 100 of those records.

Not the 100 best records of all time or my hundred favourite records.

These will be a 100 records that would turn your head when you hear them come blasting out of those jukebox speakers.

A 100 records that sound great whether you are drunk or sober.

A 100 records that pull you in whether you are in the giddy throes of new love or bemoaning the love you have just lost.

A 100 records to give you hope or consolation.

A 100 records that would have you reaching in your pocket for the money to play that song again.

A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’ A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’

 

Some songs have a brutally simple primal perfection.

Usually these songs are recorded at the very beginning of an artists career before they start to look into the rear view mirror and become conscious that they do indeed have a career, a legacy and a reputation to protect.

These are records that come at you full bore and demand that you listen now! Think of the primitive perfection of the last song recorded on the day the Beatles recorded their first LP. You want to know what The Beatles sounded like in Hamburg?

Listen to the raw bleeding magnificence of John Lennon’s vocal on, ‘Twist and Shout’ and the eyeballs out commitment of Paul, George and Ringo.

There was no way a second take could top that!

Think of the stupid beauty of the Undertones debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’ – a record that captured as few others have the thrilling intoxication of young love and lust.

Feargal Sharkey’s impassioned vocal (All right!) and the unrepeatable delirium of Damian O’ Neill’s guitar solo combine to create a miracle that comes up fresh every time and is endlessly replayable – which seems a pretty good definition of what I want from a jukebox single.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that throughout the 1960s that wherever and whenever a group of would be rock and roll stars gathered – in the family garage, in the basement or at a flea bitten church or municipal hall – very soon after they had plugged in they would launch, with wildly varying degrees of competence, into the daddy of all the primitive perfection songs, ‘Gloria’.

Puzzled passers-by must have wondered why such a simple name needed to be spelled out with such repetitive intensity, ‘ … And her name is G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’.

They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day .. G – L – O – R – I – A! G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’.

They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day ..

G – L – O – R – I – A!

It is likely that many of the groups who attacked the song made a fair fist of the instrumental ground of the song – three chords don’t take long to master.

A few of the lead guitar players will have matched Jimmy Pages fluency and prowess as demonstrated on the recording.

However, No-one, No-one, will have come anywhere near reproducing the frenzied intensity of Van Morrison’s pyrotechnic vocal.

This Van Morrison was not the superlative song stylist or the Celtic soul and blues master he would later become. This was a snarling, desperate, bewildered teenager who was reluctantly coming to terms with life and lust, the whole painful mess of it all.

A youth who looked down more than he looked up but who was nevertheless able to surprise himself with the ability to express vocally the gamut of emotions and frustrations he faced every day and every night.

But, from the very get-go in his career it was clear that there was no doubt who was leading and commanding the band. Van Morrison on the bandstand or in the studio acts as an emperor, a ruler by right of his eminent majesty as a singer and as a band leader. In this, as so much else, he took his cue from the high priest of soul – Ray Charles.

Gloria is the work of explosive youth, of wanting and yearning, of overwhelming mind and body dominating lust. Gloria may be the most purely male, testosterone fueled record ever made. Gloria, five feet four from her head to the ground, is the eternal lust object.

Van Morrison might say that she knocks upon his door and even more thrillingly comes to his room but the thrust of the song seems to me to be the solitary, devoutly told repetition of an oft returned to fantasy.

There may well have been a real Gloria but it is the dream of Gloria who knocks on Van’s door with such insistent force. Surely, if he could only chant her name with enough power she would indeed knock upon his door and make all his fevered dreams come true:

G – L – O – R – I A !! G- L- O- R – I – A !! G – L – O – R – I – A!!

The musical drive of Gloria is the relentless beat, beat, beat of male desire in all it’s sullen and obsessive purity. Gloria is the incarnation on vinyl of the desperate male imperative to be adultly carnal – its a boy desperately wanting, needing, to be a man.

Gloria has more tension than release – much like all young lives. This is no doubt why it appealed so powerfully to beat group boys all over the world.

Van snarls his way through the lyric with his uniquely salty Belfast tones alternately pressing and holding back – he already had a grasp of dynamics within song arrangement born of years of listening to Ray and John Lee and Leadbelly on the street where he was born.

Gloria is also as every listener who’s ever heard it knows one hell of a rush! It comes roaring out of the speakers and before you have time to catch your breath you are carried along on its tidal wave of rhythmic power.

Two minutes and thirty-eight seconds later you will be nearly as elatedly exhausted as Van Morrison himself.

Take a breath or two and maybe down a shot of Bushmills – then press A1 again – you know you want to.

Notes & Comments:

Gloria was recorded on April 5 1964 at Decca’s Studio in West Hampstead, London and released as the B side of Baby Please Don’t Go on July 6th.

Them members Billy Harrison (guitar), Alan Henderson (bass), Ronnie MIllings (drums) and Patrick McCauley (keyboards) were present in the studio when Gloria was recorded and all probably contributed to the single.

Also present were key members of London’s top session musicians of the time. Jimmy Page surely played the lead guitar and Bobby Graham (who would later play the on the equally epochal ‘You really got me’, must have played the drums). Arthur Greenslade probably played the organ.

There have been numerous cover versions. The most commercially successful being that by The Shadows of Knight which made No 10 in the US charts at the end of 1966.

The most artistically successful is Patti Smith’s reinvention of the song on her amazing debut LP ‘Horses’ in 1975.

Van Morrison’s solo career post Them is too extensive and contains too many Himalayan peaks of achievment for me to outline here.

However, his career as the leader of Them has too frequently been overlooked and/or under regarded. This is a pity as Them’s canon contains some wonderful songs and performances as well as tantalising auguries and intimations of his mature triumphs.

Here are 5 wonders you should seek out urgently!

1. Mystic Eyes – A supernaturally intense harmonica driven howl past the graveyard. Can a white man sing the blues? Damn right he can when he’s a visionary Ulsterman who doesn’t view the blues as adolescent rebellion.

Instead its virtually his first language. This track has the visceral power of a nightmare and would surely have raised a knowing smile of recognition from Sonny Boy Williamson or Little Walter.

2. My Lonely Sad Eyes – In which Van seems almost overwhelmed by love and longing as he surfs atop a gorgeous rolling melody. Almost, for Van has the rare gift of being simultaneously in and out of control – an artist and shaman who can be articulate even as he opens up the otherwhere beyond our everyday gaze.

3. Could You Would You – A wounded and yearning romantic ballad with Van seductively pleading his case to his love object. An early example of the tenderness and world weary longing he could evoke. In ballads Van can with a devotees fervour infuse a prayerful gospel hush into a song and still the heart.

Its clear that Van has been listening appreciatively to the wonderful Arthur Alexander’s reveries in song ( Dream Girl, You Better Move On). The track was memorably covered by the late Willy De Ville who also knew all about heartbreak in song.

4. Hey Girl – An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood. Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light. A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind.

The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped time.

5. All Over Now Baby Blue – Excepting Jimi Hendrix’s immortal take on All Along The Watchtower the greatest ever cover of a Bob Dylan song. Van has always respected Dylan’s songwriting genius and yet as a comparably gifted artist is not afraid of recasting the song as a rhythm and blues ballad drawing out the wistful regret and emotional depth of the song.

Van has always been able to make each song a voyage where he invokes, reveals and rides the dynamism of the waves of emotion within lyric and melody. The strikingly beautiful chiming guitar riff was later sampled by Beck.