Van Morrison (George Ivan Morrison, OBE, born 31 August 1945 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) is a critically acclaimed singer and songwriter with a reputation for being at once stubborn, idiosyncratic, and sublime. His live performances at their best are seen as transcendental and inspired; while some of his recordings, such as the studio albums Astral Weeks and Moondance, and the live album It's Too Late to Stop Now, are acclaimed as among the greatest ever made.
Known as "Van the Man" by his fans, Morrison started his professional career when, as a young teenager in the late 1950s, he played a variety of instruments, including the guitar, harmonica, keyboards, and saxophone, in a range of Irish showbands who covered the popular hits of the day, before rising to prominence in the mid-1960s as the lead singer of the gritty Northern Irish R&B band Them with whom he recorded the garage band classic, "Gloria". His solo career began under the pop-hit oriented guidance of Bert Berns with the release of the hit single "Brown Eyed Girl" in 1967. After Berns' death, Warner Bros. Records bought out his contract and allowed him several sessions to record Astral Weeks in 1968. Even though this album would gradually garner high praise, it was initially poorly received; however, the next one, Moondance, established Morrison as a major artist, and throughout the 1970s he built on his reputation with a series of critically acclaimed albums and live performances. Morrison continues to record and tour, producing albums and live performances that sell well and are generally warmly received; sometimes collaborating with other artists, such as Georgie Fame and The Chieftains. In 2008 he performed Astral Weeks live for the first time since 1968.
Much of Morrison's music is structured around the conventions of soul music and R&B, such as the popular singles, "Brown Eyed Girl", "Moondance", "Domino" and "Wild Night". An equal part of his catalogue consists of lengthy, loosely connected, spiritually inspired musical journeys that show the influence of Celtic tradition, jazz, and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as Astral Weeks and lesser-known works such as Veedon Fleece and Common One. The two strains together are sometimes referred to as "Celtic Soul".
Morrison has received considerable acclaim, including six Grammy Awards, being inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and appearing on several "Greatest Artists" lists.
Early life and musical roots: 1945?64
George Ivan (Van) Morrison was born on 31 August 1945, in Bloomfield, Belfast, Northern Ireland as the only child of George Morrison, a shipyard worker and Violet Stitt Morrison, a singer and tap dancer in her youth. Van Morrison's family roots descend from the Ulster Scots population that settled in Belfast. From 1950 to 1956, Morrison, who began to be known as "Van" during this time, attended Elmgrove Primary School. Morrison's father had what was at the time one of the largest record collections in Ulster (acquired during his sojourn in Detroit, Michigan in the early 1950s), and the young Morrison grew up listening to artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Lead Belly, and Solomon Burke; of whom Morrison later said, "If it weren't for guys like Ray and Solomon, I wouldn't be where I am today. Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn't for that kind of music, I couldn't do what I'm doing now." His father's record collection exposed him to various musical genres, such as the blues of Muddy Waters; the gospel of Mahalia Jackson; the jazz of Charlie Parker; the folk music of Woody Guthrie; and country music from Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, while the first record he ever bought was by blues musician Sonny Terry. When Lonnie Donegan had a hit with "Rock Island Line", written by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Morrison felt he was familiar with and able to connect with skiffle music as he had been hearing Lead Belly before that.
Morrison's father bought him his first acoustic guitar when he was eleven, and he learned to play rudimentary chords from the song book, The Carter Family Style, edited by Alan Lomax. A year later, when he was twelve years old, Morrison formed his first band, a skiffle group, "The Sputniks", named after the recently launched Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1. In 1958, the band played at some of the local cinemas, and Morrison took the lead, contributing most of the singing and arranging. Other short-lived groups followed ? at fourteen, he formed Midnight Special, another modified skiffle band and played at a school concert. Then, when he heard Jimmy Giuffre playing saxophone on "The Train and The River", he talked his father into buying him a saxophone, and took lessons in tenor sax and music reading. Now playing the saxophone, Morrison joined with various local bands, including one called Deanie Sands and the Javelins, with whom he played guitar and shared singing. Later the four main musicians of the Javelins, with the addition of Wesley Black as keyboard player, became known as the Monarchs.
Morrison attended Orangefield High School, leaving in July 1960 with no qualifications. As a member of a working-class community, it was expected that he would get a regular full-time job, so after several short apprenticeship positions, he settled into a job as a window cleaner? later alluded to in his songs, "Cleaning Windows" and "Saint Dominic's Preview". However, he had been developing his musical interests from an early age and continued playing with the Monarchs part-time. Young Morrison also played with the Harry Mack Showband, the Great Eight, with his older workplace friend, Geordie Sproule whom he later named as one of his biggest influences.
At age 17, he toured Europe for the first time with the Monarchs, now calling themselves the International Monarchs. This Irish showband, with Morrison playing saxophone, guitar and harp, in addition to back-up duty on bass and drums, toured steamy clubs and US Army bases in Scotland, England, and Germany, often playing five sets a night. While in Germany, the band recorded a single, "Boozoo Hully Gully"/"Twingy Baby", under the name Georgie and The Monarchs. This was Morrison's first recording, taking place in November 1963 at Ariola Studios in Cologne with Morrison on saxophone; it made the lower reaches of the German charts.
Upon returning to Belfast in November 1963, the group disbanded, so Morrison connected with Geordie Sproule again and played with him in the Manhattan Showband along with guitarist Herbie Armstrong. When Armstrong auditioned to play with Brian Rossi and the Golden Eagles, Morrison went along and was hired as a blues singer.
Main article: Them (band)
The roots of Them, the band that first broke Morrison on the international scene, came in April 1964 when Morrison responded to an advert for musicians to play at a new R&B club at the Maritime Hotel ? an old dance hall frequented by sailors. The new R&B club needed a band for its opening night; however, Morrison had left the Golden Eagles (the group with which he had been performing at the time), so he created a new band out of The Gamblers, an East Belfast group formed by Ronnie Millings, Billy Harrison, and Alan Henderson in 1962. Eric Wrixon, still a schoolboy, was the piano player and keyboardist. Morrison played saxophone and harmonica and shared vocals with Billy Harrison. They followed Eric Wrixon's suggestion for a new name, and The Gamblers morphed into Them, their name taken from the Fifties horror movie Them!.
The band's strong R&B performances at the Maritime attracted attention. Them performed without a routine and Morrison ad libbed, creating his songs live as he performed. While the band did covers, they also played some of Morrison's early songs, such as "Could You Would You", which he had written in Camden Town while touring with The Manhattan Showband. The debut of Morrison's "Gloria" took place on stage here. Sometimes, depending on his mood, the song could last up to twenty minutes. Morrison has stated that "Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel," believing that the band did not manage to capture the spontaneity and energy of their live performances on their records.
Dick Rowe of Decca Records became aware of the band's performances, and signed Them to a standard two-year contract. In that period, they released two albums and ten singles, with two more singles released after Morrison departed the band. They had three chart hits, "Baby, Please Don't Go" (1964), "Here Comes the Night" (1965), and "Mystic Eyes" (1965), though it was the b-side of "Baby, Please Don't Go", the garage band classic, "Gloria", that went on to become a rock standard covered by Patti Smith, The Doors, Shadows of Knight, Jimi Hendrix and others.
Morrison's garage rock classic was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. As described by Paul Williams: "Van Morrison's voice a fierce beacon in the darkness, the lighthouse at the end of the world. Resulting in one of the most perfect rock anthems known to humankind."
Building on the success of their singles in the States, and riding on the back of the British Invasion, Them undertook a two month tour of America in May and June 1966 that included a three-week residency at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. The Doors were the supporting act on the last week, and Morrison's influence on The Doors singer, Jim Morrison, was noted by John Densmore in his book Riders On The Storm, "Jim Morrison learned quickly from his near namesake's stagecraft, his apparent recklessness, his air of subdued menace, the way he would improvise poetry to a rock beat, even his habit of crouching down by the bass drum during instrumental breaks." On the final night, the two Morrisons and the two bands jammed together on "Gloria".
Toward the end of the tour the band members became involved in a dispute with their manager, Decca Records' Phil Solomon, over the revenues paid to the band; that, coupled with the expiry of their work visas, meant the band returned from America dejected. After two more concerts in Ireland, Them split up. Morrison concentrated on writing some of the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks, while the remnants of the band reformed in 1967 and relocated in America.
Start of solo career with Bang Records and "Brown Eyed Girl" ? 1967
"Brown Eyed Girl"
Morrison's classic 1967 hit single which appeared on the album Blowin' Your Mind!. In 2007, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Bert Berns, Them?s producer and composer of their 1965 hit, "Here Comes the Night," persuaded Morrison to return to New York to record solo for his new label, Bang Records. Morrison flew over and signed a contract he had not fully studied. Then, during a two-day recording session at A & R Studios starting 28 March 1967, eight songs were recorded originally intended to be used as four singles. Instead, these songs were released as the album Blowin' Your Mind! without Morrison being consulted. He said he only became aware of the album's release when a friend mentioned on a phone call that he had just bought a copy of it. He later commented to Donal Corvin in a 1973 interview: "I wasn't really happy with it. He picked the bands and tunes. I had a different concept of it."
However, from these early sessions, emerged "Brown Eyed Girl". Captured on the 22nd take on the first day, this song was released as a single in mid-June 1967, reaching number ten in the US charts in 1967. "Brown Eyed Girl" became Morrison's most played song and over the years it has remained a classic; forty years later in 2007, it was the fourth most requested song of DJs in the US.
Following the death of Berns in 1967, Morrison became involved in a contract dispute with Berns' widow that prevented him from performing on stage or recording in the New York area. The song, "Big Time Operators", released in 1993, is thought to allude to his dealings with the New York music business during this time period. He then moved to Boston, Massachusetts and was soon confronted with personal and financial problems; he had "slipped into a malaise" and had trouble finding concert bookings. However, through the few gigs he could find, he regained his professional footing and started recording with the Warner Bros. Records label. The record company managed to buy out his contract with Bang Records. Morrison fulfilled a clause that bound him to submit thirty-six original songs within a year by recording thirty-one songs in one session; however, Eileen Berns thought the songs "nonsense music ... about ringworms" and didn't use them.
Astral Weeks ? 1968
Main article: Astral Weeks
"Astral Weeks is about the power of the human voice ? ecstatic agony, agonising ecstacy. Here is an Irish tenor reborn as a White Negro ? a Caucasian Soul Man ? pleading and beseeching over a bed of dreamy folk-jazz instrumentation: acoustic bass, brushed drums, vibes and acoustic guitar, the odd string quartet ? and of course flute."
Barney Hoskyns ? Mojo
A mix of folk music, jazz and stream of consciousness but ultimately in a music genre of its own, Astral Weeks (1968) is often considered one of the best albums ever made.
The 1968 title song featuring the opening lines of the album: "If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream". His early voice was described as "flinty and tender, beseeching and plaintive".
His first album for Warner Bros. Records was Astral Weeks (which he had already performed in several clubs around Boston), a mystical song cycle, often considered to be his best work. Morrison has said, "When Astral Weeks came out, I was starving, literally." Released in 1968, the album eventually achieved critical acclaim, but it originally received an indifferent response from the public. To this day, it remains in an unclassifiable music genre and has been described variously as hypnotic, meditative, and as possessing a unique musical power. It has been compared to French Impressionism and mystical Celtic poetry. A 2004 Rolling Stone magazine review begins with the words: "This is music of such enigmatic beauty that thirty-five years after its release, Astral Weeks still defies easy, admiring description." Alan Light would later describe Astral Weeks as "like nothing he had done previously?and really, nothing anyone had done previously. Morrison sings of lost love, death, and nostalgia for childhood in the Celtic soul that would become his signature." It has been placed on many lists of best albums of all time. In the 1995 Mojo list of 100 Best Albums, it was listed as number two and was number nineteen on the Rolling Stone magazine's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.
From Moondance to Into the Music: 1970?79
Morrison's third solo album, Moondance, which was released in 1970, became his first million selling album and reached number twenty-nine on the Billboard charts. The style of Moondance stood in contrast to that of Astral Weeks. Whereas Astral Weeks had a sorrowful and vulnerable tone, Moondance restored a more optimistic and cheerful message to his music. The title track, although not released in the US as a single until 1977, received heavy play in FM radio formats. "Into the Mystic" has also gained a wide following over the years. The single released was "Come Running", which reached the American Top 40. Moondance was both well received and favourably reviewed. Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus had a combined full page review in Rolling Stone, stating that Morrison now had "the striking imagination of a consciousness that is visionary in the strongest sense of the word." "That was the type of band I dig," Morrison said of the Moondance sessions. "Two horns and a rhythm section ? they're the type of bands that I like best." He produced the album himself as he felt like nobody else knew what he wanted. Moondance was listed at number sixty-five on the Rolling Stone magazine's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In March 2007, Moondance was listed as number seventy-two on the NARM Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "Definitive 200".
Over the next few years, he released a succession of albums, starting with a second one in 1970. His Band and the Street Choir had a free, more relaxed sound than Moondance, but not the perfection, in the opinion of critic Jon Landau who felt like "a few more numbers with a gravity of 'Street Choir' would have made this album as perfect as anyone could have stood." It contained the hit single "Domino", which charted at number nine in the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1971, he released another well-received album, Tupelo Honey. This album produced the hit single "Wild Night" that was later covered by John Mellencamp. The title song has a notably country and western feel about it and the album ended with another country tune, "Moonshine Whiskey". Morrison said he originally intended to make an all country album. The recordings were as live as possible ? after rehearsing the songs the musicians would go into the studio and play a whole set in one take. His co-producer, Ted Templeman, described this recording process as the "scariest thing I've ever seen. When he's got something together, he wants to put it down right away with no overdubbing."
Released in 1972, Saint Dominic's Preview, revealed Morrison's break from the more accessible style of his previous three albums and moving back towards the more daring, adventurous, and meditative aspects of Astral Weeks. The combination of two styles of music demonstrated a versatility not previously found in his earlier albums. Two songs, ("Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" and "Redwood Tree") reached the Hot 100 singles chart. The songs "Listen to the Lion" and "Almost Independence Day" are each over ten minutes long and employ the type of poetic imagery not heard since Astral Weeks. It was his highest charting album in the US until his Top Ten debut on Billboard 200 in 2008.
He released his next album Hard Nose the Highway in 1973 receiving mixed, but mostly negative, reviews. The album contained the popular song "Warm Love" but otherwise has been largely dismissed critically. In a 1973 Rolling Stone review, it was described as: "psychologically complex, musically somewhat uneven and lyrically excellent."
During a three-week vacation visit to Ireland in October 1973, Morrison wrote seven of the songs that would make up his next album, Veedon Fleece. Though it attracted scant initial attention, its critical stature grew markedly over the years?with Veedon Fleece now often considered to be one of Morrison's most impressive and poetic works. In a 2008 Rolling Stone review, Andy Greene writes that when released in late 1974: "it was greeted by a collective shrug by the rock critical establishment" and concludes: "He's released many wonderful albums since, but he's never again hit the majestic heights of this one." "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River", one of the album's side closers, exemplifies the long, hypnotic, cryptic Morrison with its references to visionary poet William Blake and to the seemingly Grail-like Veedon Fleece object.
Morrison would not release a follow-up album for another three years. After a decade without taking time off, he said in an interview, he needed to get away from music completely and ceased listening to it for several months. Also suffering from writer's block, he seriously considered leaving the music business for good. Speculation that an extended jam session would be released either under the title Mechanical Bliss, or Naked in the Jungle, or Stiff Upper Lip, came to nothing, and Morrison's next album was A Period of Transition in 1977, a collaboration with Dr. John, who also appeared at The Last Waltz. It received a mild critical reception and marked the beginning of a very prolific period of song making.
Morrison sings the opening lines in falsetto and synthesizers mimic the sounds of the short wave radio stations that he listened to as a boy.
Into the Music: "The album's last four songs, "Angelou", "And the Healing Has Begun", and "It's All in the Game/You Know What They're Writing About" are a veritable tour-de-force with Morrison summoning every vocal trick at his disposal from "Angelou's climactic shouts to the sexually-charged, half-mumbled monologue in "And the Healing Has Begun" to the barely audible whisper that is the album's final sound." (Scott Thomas Review')
The following year, Morrison released Wavelength; it became at that time the fastest-selling album of his career and soon went gold. The title track became a modest hit, peaking at number forty-two. Making use of 1970s synthesizers, it mimics the sounds of the shortwave radio stations that he listened to in his youth. The opening track, "Kingdom Hall" evoked Morrison's own childhood experiences attending church with his mother and foretold a religious theme that would be more evident in his next album, Into the Music.
Considered by Allmusic as "the definitive post-classic-era Morrison", Into the Music, was released in the last year of the 1970s with songs on this album that alluded to what would become recurring themes: "religious redemption, Celtic myths and the redemptive power of music." "Bright Side of the Road" was a joyful, uplifting song that would appear on the soundtrack of the movie, Michael.
Common One to Avalon Sunset: 1980?89
With his next album, the new decade found Morrison following his muse into uncharted territory and merciless reviews. In February 1980, Morrison and a group of musicians traveled to Super Bear, a studio in the French Alps, to record (on the site of a former abbey) what is considered to be the most controversial album in his discography; later "Morrison admitted that his original concept was even more esoteric than the final product." The album, Common One, consisted of six songs, each of varying length. The longest, "Summertime in England" lasted fifteen and one-half minutes and ended with the words,"Can you feel the silence?". NME magazine's Paul Du Noyer called the album "colossally smug and cosmically dull; an interminable, vacuous and drearily egotistical stab at spirituality: Into the muzak." Even Greil Marcus, whose previous writings had been favourably inclined towards Morrison, said: "It's Van acting the part of the 'mystic poet' he thinks he's supposed to be." Morrison insisted that the album was never "meant to be a commercial album." Biographer Clinton Heylin concludes: "He would not attempt anything so ambitious again. Henceforth every radical idea would be tempered by some notion of commerciality." Later the critics would reassess the album more favourably with the success of "Summertime in England". Lester Bangs wrote in 1982, "Van was making holy music even though he thought he was, and us rock critics had made our usual mistake of paying too much attention to the lyrics."
Morrison's next album, Beautiful Vision, released in 1982, had him returning once again to the music of his Northern Irish roots. Well received by the critics and public, it produced a minor UK hit single, "Cleaning Windows", that referenced one of Morrison's first jobs after leaving school. Several other songs on the album, "Vanlose Stairway", "She Gives Me Religion", and the instrumental, "Scandinavia" (on which Morrison plays piano), show the presence of a new personal muse in his life: a Danish public relations agent, who would share Morrison's spiritual interests and serve as a steadying influence on him throughout most of the 1980s.
Much of the music Morrison released throughout the 1980s continued to focus on the themes of spirituality and faith. His 1983 album, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart was "a move towards creating music for meditation" with synthesisers, uilleann pipes and flute sounds and four of the tracks were instrumentals. During the 1980s Morrison studied Scientology and dedicated an album to L. Ron Hubbard.
A Sense of Wonder, Morrison's 1985 album, pulled together the spiritual themes contained in his last four albums, which were defined in a Rolling Stone review as: "rebirth (Into the Music), deep contemplation and meditation, (Common One); ecstasy and humility (Beautiful Vision); and blissful, mantra like languor (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart)." The single, "Tore Down a la Rimbaud" was a reference to Rimbaud and an earlier bout of writer's block that Morrison had encountered in 1974. In 1985, Morrison also wrote the musical score for the movie, Lamb starring Liam Neeson.
Morrison's 1986 release, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, was said to contain a "genuine holiness...and musical freshness that needs to be set in context to understand." Critical response was favourable with a Sounds reviewer calling the album "his most intriguingly involved since Astral Weeks" and "Morrison at his most mystical, magical best." It contains the song, "In the Garden" that, according to Morrison, had a "definite meditation process which is a 'form' of transcendental meditation as its basis. It's not TM". He entitled the album as a rebuttal to media attempts to place him in various creeds. In an interview in the Observer he told Anthony Denselow:
There have been many lies put out about me and this finally states my position. I have never joined any organisation, nor plan to. I am not affiliated to any guru, don't subscribe to any method and for those people who don't know what a guru is, I don't have a teacher either.
After releasing the "No Guru" album, Morrison's music appeared less gritty and more adult contemporary with the well-received 1987 album, Poetic Champions Compose, considered to be one of his recording highlights of the 1980s. The romantic ballad from this album, "Someone Like You", has been featured subsequently in the soundtracks of several movies, including 1995's French Kiss, and in 2001, both Someone Like You and Bridget Jones's Diary.
In 1988, he released Irish Heartbeat, a collection of traditional Irish folk songs recorded with the Irish group, The Chieftains, which reached number 18 in the UK album charts. The title song, "Irish Heartbeat", was originally recorded on his 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
The 1989 album, Avalon Sunset, which featured the hit duet with Cliff Richard "Whenever God Shines His Light" and the ballad "Have I Told You Lately" (on which "earthly love transmutes into that for God."(Hinton)), reached 13 on the UK album chart. Although considered to be a deeply spiritual album, it also contained "Daring Night" which "deals with full, blazing sex, whatever it's churchy organ and gentle lilt suggest."(Hinton) Morrison's familiar themes of "God, woman, his childhood in Belfast and those enchanted moments when time stands still" were prominent in the songs. He can be heard calling out the change of tempo in the ending of this song, repeating the numbers "1 4". He refers to the chordal changes in the music he wants to hear, (the first chord and the fourth chord in the key of the music). He often completed albums in two days, with first takes frequently being the norm.
The Best of Van Morrison to Back on Top: 1990?99
The early to middle 1990s were commercially successful for Morrison with three albums reaching the top five of the UK charts, sold out concerts, and a more visible public profile; but this period also marked a decline in the critical reception to his work. The decade began with the release of The Best of Van Morrison; compiled by Morrison himself, the album was focused on his hit singles, and became a multi-platinum success remaining a year and a half on the UK charts. Allmusic determined it to be "far and away the best selling album of his career." After Enlightenment which included the hit single, "Real Real Gone", another compilation album, The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two was released in January 1993, followed by Too Long in Exile in June, another top five chart success. The 1994 live double album A Night in San Francisco received favourable reviews as well as commercial success by reaching number eight on the UK charts. 1995's Days Like This also had large sales ? though the critical reviews were not always favourable. This period also saw a number of side projects, including the live jazz performances of 1996's How Long Has This Been Going On, from the same year Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, and 2000's The Skiffle Sessions - Live In Belfast 1998, all of which found Morrison paying tribute to his early musical influences.
In 1997, Morrison released The Healing Game. The album received mixed reviews, with the lyrics being described as "tired" and "dull", though critic Greil Marcus praised the musical complexity of the album by saying: "It carries the listener into a musical home so perfect and complete he or she might have forgotten such a thing existed." The following year, he finally released some of his previously unissued studio recordings in a two-disc set, The Philosopher's Stone. His next release, 1999's Back on Top, achieved a modest success, being his highest charting album in the US since 1978's Wavelength.
Recent years: since 2000
Van Morrison continued to record and tour in the 2000s, often performing two or three times a week. He formed his own independent label, Exile Productions Ltd, which enables him to maintain full production control of each album he records, which he then delivers as a finished product to the recording label that he chooses, for marketing and distribution.
The album, Down the Road released in May 2002, received a good critical reception and proved to be his highest charting album in the US since 1972's Saint Dominic's Preview. It had a nostalgic tone, with its fifteen tracks representing the various musical genres that Morrison had previously covered?including R&B, blues, country and folk; one of the tracks was written as a tribute to his late father George, who had played a pivotal role in nurturing his early musical tastes.
Morrison's next album, Magic Time, debuted at number twenty-five on the US Billboard 200 charts upon its May 2005 release, some forty years after Morrison first entered the public's eye as the frontman of Them. Rolling Stone listed it as number seventeen on The Top 50 Records of 2005. Also in July 2005, Morrison was named by Amazon as one of their top twenty-five all-time best-selling artists and inducted into the Amazon.com Hall of Fame. Later in the year, Morrison also donated a previously unreleased studio track to a charity album, Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now, which raised money for relief efforts intended for Gulf Coast victims devastated by hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Morrison composed the song, "Blue and Green", featuring Foggy Lyttle on guitar. This song was released in 2007 on the album, The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3 and also as a single in the UK. Van Morrison was a headline act at the international celtic music festival, The Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway Outer Hebrides in the summer of 2005.
He released an album with a country music theme, entitled Pay the Devil, on 7 March 2006 and appeared at the Ryman Auditorium where the tickets sold out twelve minutes after they went on sale. Pay the Devil debuted at number twenty-six on The Billboard 200 and peaked at number seven on Top Country Albums. Amazon Best of 2006 Editor's Picks in Country listed the country album at number ten in December 2006. Still promoting the country album, Morrison's performance as the headline act on the first night of the Austin City Limits Music Festival on 15 September 2006 was reviewed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top ten shows of the 2006 festival. In November 2006, a limited edition album, Live at Austin City Limits Festival was issued by Exile Productions, Ltd. A later deluxe CD/DVD release in the summer of 2006 contained tracks from the Ryman performance. In October 2006, Morrison had released his first commercial DVD, Live at Montreux 1980/1974 with concerts taken from two separate appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
A new double CD compilation album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3 was released in June 2007 containing thirty-one tracks, some of which were previously unreleased. Morrison selected the tracks, which ranged from the 1993 album Too Long in Exile to the song "Stranded" from the 2005 album Magic Time. On 3 September 2007, Morrison's complete catalogue of albums from 1971 through 2002 were made available exclusively at the ITunes Store in Europe and Australia and during the first week of October 2007, the albums became available at the US ITunes Store.
Still on Top - The Greatest Hits, a thirty-seven track double CD compilation album was released on 22 October 2007 in the UK on the Polydor label. On 29 October 2007, the album charted at number two on the Official UK Top 75 Albums?his highest UK charting. The November release in the US and Canada contains twenty-one selected tracks. The hits that were released on albums with the copyrights owned by Morrison as Exile Productions Ltd.?1971 and later?had been remastered in 2007.
Keep It Simple, Morrison's 33rd studio album of completely new material was released by Exile/Polydor Records on 17 March 2008 in the UK and released by Exile/Lost Highway Records in the US and Canada on 1 April 2008. It comprised eleven self-penned tracks. Morrison promoted the album with a short US tour including an appearance at the SXSW music conference, and a UK concert broadcast on BBC Radio 2. In the first week of release Keep It Simple debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number ten, Morrison's first Top Ten charting in the US.
A smiling Van Morrison performing at the Marin Civic Center, 2007.
By 1972, after being a performer for nearly ten years, Morrison began experiencing stage fright when performing for audiences of thousands, as opposed to the hundreds as he had experienced in his early career. He became anxious on stage and would have difficulty establishing eye contact with the audience. He once said in an interview about performing on stage, "I dig singing the songs but there are times when it's pretty agonizing for me to be out there." After a brief break from music, he started appearing in clubs, regaining his ability to perform live, albeit with smaller audiences.
The 1974 live double album, It's Too Late to Stop Now, has been on lists of greatest live albums of all time. Biographer Johnny Rogan states that "Morrison was in the midst of what was arguably his greatest phase as a performer." Performances on the album were from tapes made during a three month tour of the US and Europe in 1973 with the backing group The Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Soon after recording the album, Morrison restructured the Caledonia Soul Orchestra into a smaller unit, the Caledonia Soul Express.
Morrison performs in 1976 at The Band's final concert filmed for The Last Waltz.
On Thanksgiving Day 1976, Morrison performed at the farewell concert for The Band. Morrison's first live performance in several years, he considered skipping his appearance until the last minute, even refusing to go on stage when they announced his name. His manager, Harvey Goldsmith, said he "literally kicked him out there." Morrison was on good terms with The Band as near-neighbours in Woodstock, and they had the shared experience of stage-fright. At the concert, he performed two songs, including "Caravan", from his 1970 album Moondance. Greil Marcus, in attendance at the concert, wrote: "Van Morrison turned the show around...singing to the rafters and ...burning holes in the floor. It was a triumph, and as the song ended Van began to kick his leg into the air out of sheer exuberance and he kicked his way right offstage like a Rockette. The crowd had given him a fine welcome and they cheered wildly when he left." The filmed concert served as the basis for Martin Scorsese's 1978 film, The Last Waltz'.
It was during his association with The Band that Morrison acquired the nicknames: "Belfast Cowboy" and "Van the Man". When Morrison sang the duet "4% Pantomime" (that he co-wrote with Robbie Robertson), Richard Manuel calls him, "Oh, Belfast Cowboy". It would be included in The Band's album Cahoots. When he left the stage, after performing "Caravan" on The Last Waltz, Robertson calls out "Van the Man!"
On 21 July 1990, Morrison joined many other guests for Roger Waters' massive performance of The Wall - Live in Berlin with an estimated crowd of between three hundred thousand to half a million people and broadcast live on television. He sang "Comfortably Numb" with Roger Waters, and several members from The Band: Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. At concert's end, he and the other performers sang "The Tide Is Turning".
Morrison performed before an estimated audience of sixty to eighty thousand people when US President Bill Clinton visited Belfast, Northern Ireland on 30 November 1995. His song "Days Like This" had become the official anthem for the Northern Irish peace movement.
Van Morrison continued performing concerts in the 2000s throughout the year rather than touring. Playing few of his best-known songs in concert, he has firmly resisted relegation to a nostalgia act. During a 2006 interview, he told Paul Sexton:
I don't really tour. This is another misconception. I stopped touring in the true sense of the word in the late 1970s, early 1980s, possibly. I just do gigs now. I average two gigs a week. Only in America do I do more, because you can't really do a couple of gigs there, so I do more, 10 gigs or something there.
Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl
The 2008 titled song, "Astral Weeks (I Believe I've Transcended)" with the opening lines: "If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream" shows "a deeper, louder roar than the blue-eyed soul voice of his youth ? softer on the diction ? but none the less impressively powerful."
On 7 and 8 November 2008, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, Morrison performed the entire Astral Weeks album live for the first time. The Astral Weeks band featured guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on the album that was released forty years previously in November 1968. Also featured on piano was Roger Kellaway. A live album entitled Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl resulted from these two performances. The new live album on CD was released on 24 February 2009, followed by a DVD from the performances. The DVD, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl: The Concert Film was released via Amazon Exclusive on 19 May 2009.
Morrison began a week of Astral Week Live concerts, interviews and TV appearances with concerts at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City in late February 2009 and at the Beacon Theatre in early March with a twenty-four minute interview to Don Imus on his Imus in the Morning radio show on 26 February. Listen Midway between the scheduled concerts at the WaMu and Beacon, he made a guest appearance on Jimmy Fallon's debut show as host of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on 2 March 2009 performing "Sweet Thing" from the Astral Weeks album. Morrison also performed "Sweet Thing" and "Brown Eyed Girl", on Live with Regis and Kelly the next morning on 3 March 2009. Morrison continued with the Astral Weeks performances with two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London in April and then returned to California in May 2009 performing the Astral Weeks songs at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley and the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Morrison filmed the concerts at the Orpheum Theatre so that they could be viewed by Farrah Fawcett, confined to bed with cancer and who therefore could not attend the concerts. On 6 May 2009, Morrison appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno performing the updated version of "Slim Slow Slider (I Start Breaking Down)" from Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
In addition to It's Too Late to Stop Now and Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Morrison has released three other live albums: Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast in 1984; A Night in San Francisco in 1994 that Rolling Stone magazine felt stood out as: "the culmination of a career's worth of soul searching that finds Morrison's eyes turned toward heaven and his feet planted firmly on the ground"; and The Skiffle Sessions - Live in Belfast 1998 recorded with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber and released in 2000.
A documentary film to be released in early 2010 entitled To Be Born Again will feature a full year of footage from Morrison's Astral Weeks Live performances, rehearsals and interviews starting with the Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008 and running through the 2009 year of live performances of the album's songs. It will be from ninety to one hundred twenty minutes long and will be directed by Morrison working with filmaker Darren Doane.
Morrison will be one of the performers at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary concert to be held in Madison Square Garden on 30 October 2009.
During the 1990s, Morrison developed a close association with two vocal talents at opposite ends of their careers: Georgie Fame (with whom Morrison had already worked occasionally) lent his voice and Hammond organ skills to Morrison's band; and Brian Kennedy's vocals complemented the grizzled voice of Morrison, both in studio and live performances.
The 1990s also saw an upsurge in collaborations by Morrison with other artists, a trend continuing into the new millennium. He recorded with Irish folk band The Chieftains on their 1995 album, The Long Black Veil. Morrison's song, "Have I Told You Lately" would win a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 1996. He also produced and was featured on several tracks with blues legend John Lee Hooker on Hooker's 1997 album, Don't Look Back. This album would win a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1998 and the title track "Don't Look Back", a duet featuring Morrison and Hooker, would also win a Grammy Award for "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals" in 1998. Morrison additionally collaborated with Tom Jones on his 1999 album Reload, performing a duet on "Sometimes We Cry", and he also sang vocals on a track on Mark Knopfler's 2000 album, Sailing to Philadelphia. In 2004, Morrison was one of the guests on Ray Charles' album, Genius Loves Company, featuring the two artists performing Morrison's "Crazy Love".
Featuring his characteristic growl?a mix of folk, blues, soul, jazz, gospel, and Ulster Scots Celtic influences?Morrison is widely considered by many rock historians to be one of the most unusual and influential vocalists in the history of rock and roll. Critic Greil Marcus has gone so far as to say that "no white man sings like Van Morrison." As Morrison began live performances of the 40 year old album Astral Weeks in 2008, there were comparisons to his youthful voice of 1968.?His early voice was described as "flinty and tender, beseeching and plaintive". Forty years later, the difference in his vocal range and power were noticeable but reviewers and critic's comments were favourable: "Morrison's voice has expanded to fill his frame; a deeper, louder roar than the blue-eyed soul voice of his youth ? softer on the diction ? but none the less impressively powerful." Morrison also commented on the changes in his approach to singing: "The approach now is to sing from lower down so I do not ruin my voice. Before, I sang in the upper area of my throat, which tends to wreck the vocal cords over time. Singing from lower in the belly allows my resonance to carry far. I can stand four feet from a mic and be heard quite resonantely."
Songwriting and lyrics
Morrison has written hundreds of songs during his career with a recurring theme reflecting a nostalgic yearning for the carefree days of his childhood in Belfast. Some of his song titles derive from familiar locations in his childhood such as: "Cyprus Avenue" (a nearby street), "Orangefield" (the boys school he attended), "On Hyndford Street" (where he was born). Also frequently present in Morrison's best love songs is a blending of the sacred-profane as evidenced in "Into the Mystic" and "So Quiet in Here". Beginning with his 1979 album, Into the Music and the song "And the Healing Has Begun", a frequent theme of his music and lyrics has been based on his belief in the healing power of music combined with a form of mystic Christianity. This theme has become one of the predominant qualities of his work. His lyrics show an influence of the visionary poets William Blake and W. B. Yeats and others such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Biographer Brian Hinton believes "like any great poet from Blake to Seamus Heaney he takes words back to their origins in magic...Indeed, Morrison is returning poetry to its earliest roots ? as in Homer or Old English epics like Beowulf or the Psalms or folk song ? in all of which words and music combine to form a new reality." Another biographer John Collis believes that Morrison's style of jazz singing and repeating phrases preclude his lyrics from being regarded as poetry or as Collis asserts: "he is more likely to repeat a phrase like a mantra, or burst into scat singing. The words may often be prosaic, and so can hardly be poetry." Morrison has described his songwriting method by remarking that: "I write from a different place. I do not even know what it is called or if it has a name. It just comes and I sculpt it, but it is also a lot of hard work doing the sculpting."
"Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along...It's the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed."
Critic Greil Marcus argues that given the truly distinctive breadth and complexity of Morrison's work, it is almost impossible to cast his work among that of others: "Morrison remains a singer who can be compared to no other in the history of rock & roll, a singer who cannot be pinned down, dismissed, or fitted into anyone's expectations." Or in the words of Jay Cocks: "He extends himself only to express himself. Alone among rock's great figures?and even in that company he is one of the greatest?Morrison is adamantly inward. And unique. Although he freely crosses musical boundaries?R. and B., Celtic melodies, jazz, rave-up rock, hymns, down-and-dirty blues?he can unfailingly be found in the same strange place: on his own wavelength." His transcendental signature style came into full expression with his 1968 classic, Astral Weeks. This musical art form was based on stream of consciousness songwriting and emotional vocalizing of lyrics that have no basis in normal structure or symmetry. His live performances are dependent on building dynamics with spontaniety between himself and his band, whom he controls with hand gestures throughout, sometimes signaling impromptu solos from a selected band member. The music and vocals build towards a hypnotic and trance-like state that depends on in-the-moment creativity. He has said he believes in the jazz improvisational technique of never performing a song the same way twice and except for the unique rendition of the Astral Weeks songs live, doesn't perform a concert from a preconceived set list. Morrison has said he prefers to perform at smaller venues or symphony halls noted for their good acoustics. His ban against achoholic beverages, which made entertainment news during 2008, was an attempt to prevent the disruptive and distracting movement of audience members leaving their seats during the performances. In a 2009 interview, Morrison stated: "I do not consciously aim to take the listener anywhere. If anything, I aim to take myself there in my music. If the listener catches the wavelength of what I am saying or singing, or gets whatever point whatever line means to them, then I guess as a writer I may have done a day's work."
The music of Van Morrison has encompassed many genres since his early days as a blues and R&B singer in Belfast. Over the years he has recorded songs from a varying list of genres drawn from many influences and interests. As well as blues and R&B, his compositions and covers have moved between pop music, jazz, rock, folk, country, gospel, Irish folk and traditional, big band, skiffle, rock and roll, new age, classic and sometimes spoken word ("Coney Island") and instrumentals. Morrison defines himself as a soul singer.
Some of Morrison's music has been classified in a genre of its own and referred to as "Celtic soul" or what biographer Brian Hinton referred to as a new alchemy called "Caledonian soul." Another biographer, Ritchie Yorke quoted Morrison as believing that he has "the spirit of Caledonia in his soul and his music reflects it." According to Yorke, Morrison claimed to have discovered "a certain quality of soul" when he first visited Scotland (his Belfast ancestors were of Ulster Scots descent) and Morrison has said he believes there is some connection between soul music and Caledonia. Yorke relates that Morrison "discovered several years after he first began composing music that some of his songs lent themselves to a unique major modal scale (without sevenths) which of course is the same scale as that used by bagpipe players and old Irish and Scottish folk music."
Morrison's influence can readily be heard in the music of a diverse array of major artists and according to The Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll (Simon & Shuster, 2001), "his influence among rock singers/song writers is unrivaled by any living artist outside of that other prickly legend, Bob Dylan. Echoes of Morrison's rugged literateness and his gruff, feverish emotive vocals can be heard in latter day icons ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello". His influence includes U2 (much of The Unforgettable Fire); Bono ("I am in awe of a musician like Van Morrison. I had to stop listening to Van Morrison records about six months before we made The Unforgettable Fire because I didn't want his very original soul voice to overpower my own."); John Mellencamp ("Wild Night"); Jim Morrison; Joan Armatrading (the only musical influence she will acknowledge); Rod Stewart; Tom Petty; Rickie Lee Jones (recognises both Laura Nyro and Van Morrison as the main influences on her career); Elton John; Graham Parker; Sin?ad O'Connor; Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy; Bob Seger ("I know Bruce Springsteen was very much affected by Van Morrison, and so was I." from Creem interview) ("I've Been Working"); Dexys Midnight Runners ("Jackie Wilson Said"); Jimi Hendrix ("Gloria"); Jeff Buckley ("The Way Young Lovers Do", "Sweet Thing"); Nick Drake; and numerous others, including the Counting Crows (their "sha-la-la" sequence in Mr Jones, is a tribute to Morrison). Morrison's influence reaches into the country music genre, with Hal Ketchum acknowledging, "He (Van Morrison) was a major influence in my life."
Morrison's influence on the younger generation of singer-songwriters is pervasive: including Irish singer Damien Rice, who has been described as on his way to becoming the "natural heir to Van Morrison"; Ray Lamontagne; James Morrison; Paolo Nutini; Eric Lindell and David Gray are also several of the younger artists influenced by Morrison. Glen Hansard of the Irish rock band The Frames (who lists Van Morrison as being part of his holy trinity with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) commonly covers his songs in concert. American rock band, The Wallflowers have covered "Into the Mystic". Canadian blues-rock singer Colin James also covers the song frequently at his concerts. Actor and musician Robert Pattinson has said that Van Morrison was his "influence for doing music in the first place". Morrison has shared the stage with Northern Irish singer-songwriter Duke Special, who admits Morrison has been a big influence.
Overall, Morrison has typically been supportive of other artists, often willingly sharing the stage with them during his concerts. On the live album, A Night in San Francisco, he had as his special guests, among others, his childhood idols: Jimmy Witherspoon, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells. Although he often expresses his displeasure (in interviews and songs) with the music industry and the media in general, he has been instrumental in promoting the careers of many other musicians and singers, such as James Hunter, and fellow Belfast-born brothers, Brian and Bap Kennedy.
Morrison lived in Belfast from birth until 1967, when he moved to New York after signing with Bang Records. Facing deportation due to visa problems, he managed to stay in the US when his American girlfriend Janet (Planet) Rigsbee agreed to marry him. Once married, Morrison and his wife moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he found work performing in the local clubs. The couple had one daughter Shana Morrison, who has become a singer-songwriter. Morrison and his family moved around America, living in Boston; Woodstock, New York; and a hilltop home in Fairfax, California. His wife appeared on the cover of the album Tupelo Honey. They divorced in 1973.
Morrison moved back to Europe in the late 70s, first settling in London's Notting Hill Gate area. Later, he moved to Bath, where he purchased Wool Hall Studios.
The name "Caledonia" has played a prominent role in Morrison's life and career. Biographer Ritchie Yorke had pointed out already by 1975 that Morrison has referred to Caledonia so many times in his career that he "seems to be obsessed with the word." As well as being his daughter's middle name, it's the name of his first production company, his studio, his publishing company, two of his backing groups, and he also recorded a cover of the song, "Caldonia" (with the name spelled "Caledonia") in 1974. Morrison used "Caledonia" in what has been called a quintessential Van Morrison moment in the song, "Listen to the Lion" with the lyrics, "And we sail, and we sail, way up to Caledonia". As late as 2008, Morrison used "Caledonia" as a mantra in the live performance of the song, "Astral Weeks" recorded at the Hollywood Bowl concerts and featured on his live album, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.