Exile/Legacy Recordings 88985428402
Curmudgeonly and unpredictable, at 73 Van Morrison has developed a late-career reputation that sadly overshadows his early triumphs. Like Bob Dylan, if you only judged him based on the man who shambles onstage and grumbles through an assortment of songs that are not necessarily among his best, you might well wonder why he’s considered one of the greatest singers and songwriters of the last 60 years.
Until this expanded edition of The Healing Game, the core of which Morrison originally released 22 years ago, I would’ve pointed a doubter to his superb 1974 live album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. In the future, I might choose a version of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” recorded in April 1996 for an Irish TV show and included here along with the original tracks from The Healing Game, outtakes from the sessions, a handful of collaborations, and a much-bootlegged performance from the 1997 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Produced by Irish folkie Dónal Lunny for the launch of the TG4 channel, this revival of the 1972 title track of Morrison’s sixth studio album is simply stunning -- showcasing some exceptional singing over highly textured instrumentation. Lunny plays bouzouki, creating an attractive harmonic bed spiked with compelling overtones, and Morrison enters strong, hitting every note and articulating clearly. Touching on his teenage job as a window cleaner, Edith Piaf’s soul, and his years in San Francisco, the lyrics of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” were written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise, and Morrison often slurs his way through the song, twisting and pulling the words. Here, though, he seems remarkably focused. As a complementary fiddle comes in, Morrison reacts, leaving a huge gap and making it evident that his singing is now as much of the moment as the original lyric-writing exercise. This is Van Morrison as jazz singer -- an absolutely original vocalist for whom guttural sounds and verbal tics are as much a part of a song as his spiritually driven words. As he dives into the stanza that begins “And it’s a long way to Buffalo / It’s a long way to Belfast City, too” he draws that “and” out into a warbled howl that defies musical notation. At this point, he’s barely two minutes into what will be a seven-minute performance, and the astute listener will have realized that this is a performance for the ages. As a tuneful harmonica, a sax, and background singer Mary Black join in, Morrison just keeps digging deeper and deeper into the song, delivering such a measured and varied performance that it’s clear how much he is enjoying what he’s hearing from the impromptu band and his own storytelling. If, by the time the horns lock into a march and Morrison shouts “Can I get a witness?” you’re still not convinced that Morrison is one of the great rock and soul performers, you’d best look elsewhere for your entertainment.
While there’s no question that this epochal performance is the high point of this three-CD package, there is much else to make a case for Morrison’s place in the pantheon alongside peers like Al Green, James Brown, and Bruce Springsteen.
The mid-’90s marked a particularly rich and varied period in Morrison’s career. He had chart hits -- The Best of Van Morrison (1990), Enlightenment (1990), and Too Long in Exile (1993) -- for the first time in years, and seemed to be finding balance between the extremes of the highly mystical work of the early ’80s and the commercial recordings later in that decade.
The pivot point seems to be Morrison’s connection with Georgie Fame, the British singer whose career ran in parallel to Morrison’s, minus the international success. Two years older than Morrison, Fame shared a background in R&B, so their union in 1989 seemed like a natural. While he appeared on Avalon Sunset (1989), it was a few more years before Fame would become Morrison’s musical director.
Other musical connections that began to grow in importance during this period were saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis -- best known for his late-’60s tenure with Brown, but also a figure in the jazz world who had studied with Sonny Rollins -- Haji Ahkba, a jazz flugelhornist also steeped in soul music, and Brian Kennedy, a singer born in Belfast a generation after Morrison. Adding another layer of jazz influence was bassist Alec Dankworth, the exceptionally talented son of British jazz stars John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.
By the mid-’90s, all these pieces were in place, and Morrison was touring extensively in support of his 1995 album, Days Like This. In late November 1995, Morrison stopped off in Bath and settled into The Wool Hall, the recording studio he had purchased the previous year.
In Bath, over three days, Morrison recorded stripped-down versions of “The Healing Game” and “Fire in the Belly,” which would find their way to his next album, a bluesy “Look What the Good People Done” and “Didn’t He Ramble,” a song inspired by New Orleans jazz tradition. The sessions find Morrison in fine voice and pushed to the front with minimal backing of piano, saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums.
As 1996 began, Morrison had moved south to Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin, to begin recording in earnest. “At the End of the Day,” featuring a dobro, Fame’s organ, and surging rhythm, and a second, very subdued version of “The Healing Game” were released as singles.
In hindsight, it’s fascinating to see these pieces coalesce and Morrison move decisively into more interesting territory -- making key choices to toughen things up here, dropping a Celtic influence there, and overall moving toward making a final album that would be a powerful combination of the elements that make Morrison unique.
The final version of The Healing Game, which Morrison continued at Windmill Lane throughout the early months of 1996 and finished that fall about a kilometer away at Westland Studios, didn’t initially receive great reviews and reached only Number 32 on the album chart in Billboard. Notably, one critic who did recognize its worth at the time was Greil Marcus, the San Francisco-based musicologist who had long cited Morrison as a musician apart. Using the title of the opening track -- “Rough God Goes Riding” -- as a metaphor, Marcus wrote that, “Like the rough god he sings about, Morrison is astride each incident in the music, each pause in a greater story, but often the most revealing moments -- the moments that reveal the shape of a world, a point of view, an argument about life -- are at the margins.”
What Marcus responded to was the immediacy of Morrison’s engagement in this music and the otherworldly power of his voice in both the lyrics and the non-verbal elements. Writing in his book Listening to Van Morrison, Marcus had compared Morrison to the Irish tenor John McCormack, who was associated with “the yarragh,” a term that means “when something happens that breaks through the boundaries of ordinary communication, of ordinary art speech.” In Marcus’s theory, Morrison possesses the ability in his best work to “(escape) from ordinary limits -- a reach for, or the achievement of, a kind of violent transcendence -- can come from hesitations, repetitions of words or phrases, pauses, the way a musical change by another musician is turned by Morrison as a bandleader or seized on by him as a singer and changed into a sound that becomes an event in and of itself. In these moments, the self is left behind, and the sound, that ‘yarragh,’ becomes the active agent: a musical person, with its own mind, its own body.”
In an earlier essay, in 1976, Marcus mused that Morrison’s song “Listen to the Lion” was actually about “the yarragh,” a song that sang him rather than the other way around.
Like no other critic, Marcus -- who has written powerfully about the transcendental powers of artists like bluesman Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis -- understands Morrison’s ability to meld ancient mysticism with the primal energy of R&B and rock.
There are a number of these types of transcendent moments during the original 54 minutes of The Healing Game -- musical signatures unique to Morrison, who defies you to capture them in mere words. His vocal gestures and linguistic quirks fall where least anticipated, and while at some stages in his career they have seemed like rote movements, when Morrison is on, as he surely is here, they are as exciting as a trumpet rip by Louis Armstrong or a blast of feedback by Jimi Hendrix.
Morrison had lost some of his audience in the ’80s, when he began to dig into the works of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and referenced them in his songs, alongside more recent poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. While many of those same critics lauded Patti Smith for alluding to identical sources, Morrison’s adoration seemed self-absorbed to them. More than a few writers posited that Morrison was putting himself in their company, something that is as absurd as believing that Morrison considers himself on a plane with Jackie Wilson or Sam Cooke just because he name-checks them.
While on albums like Common One (1980) he was clearly wrestling with what those poets meant to him, by The Healing Game he seems to have found a way to use poetic imagery to communicate his own view of life. Scottish folkie Robin Williamson seems to have been an influence, and Morrison borrows a memorable image of the “rough god” to create the specter of an avenging being who is concerned with contemporary issues. Over an instrumental bed spiked with Morrison’s rich chromatic harmonica and Leo Green’s tenor sax, Morrison and Kennedy combine their voices to sing:
I was flabbergasted by the headlines
People in glasshouses throwing stones
Gaping wounds that will never heal
Now they’re moaning like a dog in a manger
It’s when that rough god goes riding
And then the rough god goes gliding
There’ll be nobody hiding
When that rough god comes riding on in
On “Fire in the Belly,” over an attractive funk base, Morrison creates a snake-like chant that has no fewer than three trance-like incantations: one that repeats the phrase “crazy about you”; a second that repeats the couplet “gotta get through January, gotta get through February”; and a third, “talkin’ ’bout you,” that Morrison and Kennedy work over and over again. It may not quite reach the talking-in-tongues level of the original “Listen to the Lion,” but it is a close relation.
Add to that the doo-wop-derived sweetness of “If You Love Me” and the effective call-and-response gospel of “The Burning Ground” and you have an album that can proudly stand beside Moondance or Tupelo Honey.
In the months between the sessions for The Healing Game, Morrison went into the studio with two aging legends: John Lee Hooker and Carl Perkins.
From their days together in the Bay Area, Morrison and Hooker had a tight connection. Morrison’s attraction to Hooker was no surprise, given the elder man’s love of trance-inducing rhythm and his devotion to the repeated phrase. Hooker, I believe, recognized Morrison as a kindred spirit, one step closer to Celtic mysticism than his own black Southern peers like Skip James and Furry Lewis were, but definitely connected to the same muse. Hooker and Morrison have recorded more interesting collaborations than the two tracks included here.
Similarly, the four unreleased duets with Perkins, recorded in Morrison’s Bath studio, are pleasant and well played, but far from essential.
If this reissue of The Healing Game ended there, it might be just a nice refresher on an overlooked mid-career Morrison gem with some nice contextual additions. Add Morrison’s 78-minute set from Montreux and this set becomes essential.
Accompanied by a nonet, including many of the principals from the studio sessions, Morrison gives one of those performances that his fans cite as counterpoint to the many tales of seeing him when he seems to be counting down the moments until he can escape. While it does not reach the shamanistic heights of Morrison’s 1973 concerts or the joyous release of his short set at The Band’s Last Waltz in 1976, this is a taut, energetic performance.
From their many tours together, Morrison, Fame, Ellis, and Kennedy have a jaunty connection, and in parts this Swiss concert has the kind of boyish joie de vivre that one associates more with a live recording of Springsteen and his E Street Band. As is usual with Claude Nobs’s skilled crews at Montreux, the live sound is rich and full.
Now in control of his own catalog, Morrison is pumping records out at a rapid pace these days. Don’t miss this one in his flurry of contrasting music.
. . . James Hale