Tag Archives: Van Morrison

Why Does It Always Rain In Songs?

It’s been raining here for the past day or so and if the weather forecast is any indication, it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Rain is such a powerful force of nature – it can be destructive, but it can also regenerate. Rain can symbolize depression, or in the sense of a spring rain, happiness and joy.

Bob Dylan has probably gotten the most use out of rain just in song titles alone – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Buckets of Rain”, “Rainy Day Women #12 & “35” and “Rainy Day Afternoon” plus a live album named Hard Rain.

On “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Dylan uses it as a metaphor for an impending destruction. Dylan has stated that the song isn’t about a nuclear fall-out, but rather  just a really hard rain. It’s hard to take that into account when he sees travesties such as “a new-born baby with wolves all around it” and a “young woman whose body was burning”.  Dylan’s visions are so chilling that’s impossible to envision the rain in the song as anything but destructive.

Besides song titles, Dylan uses rain throughout his lyrics. “Shelter From the Storm” off of Blood on the Tracks is much more personal and the storm is entirely metaphorical. Over a soft acoustic guitar, Dylan recounts travels he has under taken, and let in by an unnamed woman who offers him shelter.  Though the song seems sincere – she’s offering him shelter – I’ve always thought of the song as ironic. Everything seems perfectly fine until Dylan admits “there’s a wall between us and something has been lost”. Perhaps he got “his signals crossed” and misunderstood her motives. Each that each time Dylan repeats the chorus after that he seems increasingly bitter and betrayed. His tone on the words “give you” turns into “give ya” that cuts like a knife. At the end of the song the listener is left wondering where “the storm” actually is, and whether there is actually any shelter at all.

Similar to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fail” John Fogerty used rain to vent his frustrations on the Vietnam War and the Woodstock generation on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain”.  “Long as I remember, the rain been comin’ down,” Fogerty laments in the folk-rock classic. “Clouds of myst’ry pourin’ Confusion on the ground.” He sees that there is no end in sight and wonders, “who’ll stop the rain”?

Prince’s “Purple Rain” might very well be his masterpiece (both musically and lyrically). Throughout the song Prince tries to rectify relationships that have been torn apart – his girlfriend, his father, and his band members. “Purple Rain” represents a sort of redemption for Prince. It’s aching beautiful and heartfelt. While “Purple Rain” is certainly an anthem, it shouldn’t be interpreted as “Purple Reign” as a couple of Baltimore bars seemingly do after the Ravens win a game.

For Van Morrison, rain evokes peace and renewal on “Sweet Thing” off of Astral Weeks. The slow jazz inspired number even sounds like a spring rain. Throughout the song Morrison wanders through “gardens all wet with misty rain” with his love. On album filled with looking backwards, “Sweet Thing” is the only song that looks to the future, and the only one with a hint of happiness.

Rain is also a major theme of The Who’s 1973 double-album Quadrophenia. The main character Jimmy is a raging alcoholic and pill-popper, who constantly questions his identity (he even has multiple personalities). At the end of the album, Jimmy finally comes to terms with himself in the pouring rain. The song even opens with an extended collage of rain and thunderstorms.

Fran Healy of Travis famously asked, “Why does it always rain on me?”. Unlike the other artists mentioned, the narrator doesn’t get it. With self-loathing lyrics like that, the rain and sadness will never stop.

 

 

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Songs About America: “Old Old Woodstock” – Van Morrison

For decades Woodstock, New York has been something of  a safe haven for many musicians.  Famous residents have included Jimi Hendrix, Theonius Monk, and David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Band. It’s a secluded area, yet only a two-hour drive to the city.

Away from the busy lifestyle the city breeds, creativity was reaching new heights. The sounds coming out of Woodstock reflected the easy-going lifestyle.  Bob Dylan and The Band’s home-recordings were loose and fun. The Band became equally inspired, and their debut became one of the cornerstones of what would later be called Alt-Country. New life was breathed into American music through this small town and the nature surrounding it.

For these musicians, work and domesticity were one and the same in Woodstock. No one knew this better than Van Morrison who retreated there in the early 1970s.

He was recently married, and enjoying his new bride and young daughter.  The songs he wrote during his time reflected a happiness not normally found in Morrison’s works. It was a time of joy and inspiration.

Like his contemporaries in this upstate hamlet, Morrison looked to the past for musical inspiration. His mix of soul and Irish mysticism has been dubbed “Celtic Soul.”  His lyrics may state closer to his Irish roots, but his voice was more like a white Sam Cooke.  At Woodstock, Morrison adopted country and folk to his already wide ranges of influences.  His original idea was to record an album full of country and western songs that was eventually scrapped.

As a result, Tupelo Honey ends up being one of Morrison’s most relaxed affairs. Gone are the sonic Impressionistic styles of Astral Weeks.  Gone are the grand statements like “Into the Mystic” found on Moondance. Instead, Tupelo Honey is the soundtrack to happiness in the simple life, with touches of country, jazz and soul.

“Old Old Woodstock” is the song that best exemplifies the sounds of upstate New York and Morrison’s carefree attitude with its gentle piano and jazzy rhythms. It starts off slow and unassuming – just like Woodstock itself.  Yet the song pulls you in with its cymbal washes and light snare by Connie Kay. “Feel the breeze blowing through your coat,” Morrison croons.  His voice opens up like trail leading into the forest.

It’s Morrison’s voice that truly makes the song.  His voice is powerful, but restrained.  It’s full of joy, but never lazy.  He whispers through the verses, slowly building in the chorus when he announces that he will “give my child a squeeze”.   His voice is full of love and simplicity.  Nothing else matters in that moment, except this embrace, and the natural surrounding.  He’s found a new beginning both creatively and personally. “Going down to old, old Woodstock,” Morrison sings in the chorus.  “Feel the cool night breeze.”  The musical past of America is conjured up as the bridge opens up to a lengthy jazz-inspired piano break.   Halfway through Morrison lets out an exuberant shout.  His “Hey!” is off the cuff, but is commanding.  If you haven’t listened earlier, you should.  “Listen,” He sings at the beginning of the next verse, which is a repeat of the first verse reinforcing his love for his child.

“Old Old Woodstock” can easily be overlooked as a small ditty.  But like Woodstock itself, the song captures a lifestyle at ease.  Work isn’t a chore when inspiration is right outside your doorstep.

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5 Albums For A Rainy Day

It’s raining here in Baltimore –  it’s the perfect day to sit down and read a book while listening to good music.  One of the great things about music, is its ability to pick up on a particular mood and can seep into your subconsciousness.   The mood of a song may feel like raining coming down, even if its lyrical content has nothing to do with the weather.

The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues

Fisherman’s Blues is the ultimate rainy day album. With the exception of the title track, and “World Party”, it’s a largely stripped down affair with emphasis on violins (or is it fiddle in this case?) piano and acoustic guitars.  The rhythm of “Strange Boat” unfolds at a snail’s pace.  Elsewhere, their cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”  brings tension like a torrential rain, but also leaves room for the inevitable clearing of the skies – reenforced by a coda that includes bits of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”.   The lyrics of “The Stolen Child” are adapted from WB Yeats, but with the dominating piano and mystical-sounding flute, its the soundtrack to the dreams you have on a rainy morning when you hit snooze and don’t want to get out of bed.

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

The Unforgettable Fire is largely remembered as the album that contained the hit “Pride (In The Name of Love)”.   Thanks to Brian Eno’s production, it is also an album that finds U2 exploring sonic textures perfectly suited to a gray and wet day.  Bono is more hushed on this than any other U2 album – “Promenade” is  a whisper from the band that almost goes unnoticed if you don’t pay attention.  While the band occasionally slides into louder territory (“Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky” in particular) most of the album is a quieter affair with the emphasis on The Edge’s guitar effects as a musical paintbrush.

Bob Dylan – Modern Times

Modern Times finds Bob Dylan for exploring old blues records while also incorporating jazz influences. Even the blurry cover and title (which is a homage to the Charlie Chaplin film of the same name) suggest Dylan’s fascination with that era, which leads to one of his mellowest albums to date.  Even the rocker “Rollin and Thumblin” has a shuffle to it, never allowing the song to quite break through and roar. The album perfectly suits what Dylan’s voice has turned into in the past decade – a long, smoky drawl.   Dylan’s interpretation of “When the Levee Breaks”, titled “The Levee’s Gonna Break” travels at a speed which hints at the disaster up ahead, but never actually descends into it.  There might be a storm outside, but you can take comfort with this album.

Fleet Foxes

If I have any criticisms of Fleet Foxes, and their self-titled debut, it’s that their songs are hard to distinguish from one another.  But as a whole, their debut unfolds with lush harmonies and laid-back acoustics rarely since the early days of Crosby, Stills and Nash.  It’s the sound of a band searching for an overall feeling and mood as opposed to a killer single.  That may bother some, but Fleet Foxes manage to impress while being unassuming.

Tom Waits – Closing Time

Closing Time is not only one of the best debut albums of all time, it’s also one of the best of all time.  The combination of folk and jazz lends itself to just simply lounging around.  The trumpets and piano on “Virginia Avenue” and “Midnight Lullaby” get inside your soul in the way that the best jazz compositions do.  While Waits covers a lot of topics on this album, the arrangements and music say just as much.  This is the type of album where you just want to sit inside, look out the window at the rain, and simply listen.

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Top 20 Concerts – The Final 5

5. The Pogues (March 2006, Washington DC – 930 Club)

Is there a better way to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day then going to the see the originators of Irish-folk punk?  Last year was an exception, but since 2006 I’ve been going to see the Pogues every March when they tour the East Coast.  Some years I even went twice.  Shane MacGowan’s vovals might be more warbled than they are on record, but the musicianship of the band more than makes up for it.  The Pogues can easily tear through songs such as “Streams of Whiskey”, “The Sunnyside of the Street”, and “Bottle of Smoke” with reckless abandon that can cause even the squarest of concert-goers to let loose.

Even the slower songs as such as “The Old Main Drag” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes” truly come alive in concert.  “Thousands Are Sailing” a lament about the troubles of Irish immigration becomes a triumph, when the song’s writer Phil Chevron takes over on lead vocals (MacGowan uses this a break to take a piss – I’m not joking).  The fan-favorite “Body of An American” can become something of a bit of bro-mance – when was the last time you saw so many dudes with their arms around each other’s shoulder singing loudly?

4. U2 (June 2001 Washington DC – Verizon Center)

I personally think that the 2005 Vertigo Tour had better performances (saw them twice that year) but on the 2001 Elevation Tour U2 showed not only were they back after the disaster that was Pop, but proved that concerts can be an uplifting and cathartic experience.  U2 perhaps more than any other group, excel at this.

This was the first U2 show I went to, after years of trying.  I had desperately tried to buy tickets several times, only to find Ticketmaster inform me that the show was sold-out.  Less than a week before the show, I read on a U2 fan-site that leftover tickets were being released.  Nervous that I would be locked out again, I quickly logged on.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I snatched up a pair of tickets for my older brother and I.

By June, even the newer songs off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind seemed like classics – particularly “Beautiful Day”, “Kite” and “In a Little While”.  Even the classic warhorses seemed to gain a new life.  Whatever you may think of him, Bono remains one of rock’s greatest frontmen – restless, until he reaches out to every single person in the arena.  It’s rare that a band seems to be so aware of every single person in a 20,000 person arena.  And The Edge’s ice-y guitar chords never sounded so glorious.

One of U2’s strengths has always been to make their old songs, relevant and contemporary.   The bridge of “I Will Follow” linked the past to the present as Bono recalled playing clubs in DC during the group’s early days.  “Bullet the Blue Sky” included an anti-gun rant, and “One” shed light on the troubles in Africa.

I just wish I had seen the post 9/11 shows when U2 songs seemed to be a soundtrack for a wounded nation.

3. Elvis Costello (May 2007, Washington DC – 930 Club)

I should probably pick the Costello show with Allen Touissant.  But, I only remember half of the show, so I don’t think that should count.  As I stated many times during this list, I’m in in love with small venues.  And seeing Elvis Costello, five feet from my face at the 930 Club is about an intimate as you can.  Being this close to one of your heroes is an experience that has evaded me until this show.

It wasn’t just the closeness that made this show great.  Costello was touring behind a collection of his “rock” songs, and as such the show centered around material from his earlier days when he looked liked and act like a pissed off Buddy Holly.  While Costello has mellowed a bit in his songwriting, the performances retained every bite and sting he left on record.  “Lipstick Vogue” was particularly snarling with its length instrumental bridge.  “There’s No Action” was a little tighter than the version found on This Year’s Model, but still seemed on the verge of veering out of control.

“Shabby Doll” was even darker than its studio counterpart, and the live favorite “Watching the Detectives” was given an extended reading, which suited the song’s reggae feeling.  Costello is often known for his love of The Beatles, and the group’s rendition of “Hey Bulldog” was a highlight.

2. Leonard Cohen (May 2009, Columbia MD – Merriweather Post Pavilion)

For a man that doesn’t tour very often, Leonard Cohen put on one hell of a show.  And like Willie Nelson, Cohen also seemed to be enjoying himself through the over 3 hour set which included all of his best known songs, “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne” “Tower of Song” and of course “Hallelujah”.  As for Cohen himself, he seemed a lot more animated than you would expect a 75 year old man to be.  He also seemed extremely humbled to be in the presence of “friends”.

The constant rain didn’t seem to do anything for the atmosphere.  Despite being soaked for most of the night, the show could have gone on for 3 more hours and I wouldn’t have cared.  Unlike Bob Dylan, your chances of seeing Leonard Cohen live are few and far between.

1. Van Morrison (February 2009, New York City – Wamu Theater)

(Note: I couldn’t find a video from the Astral Weeks tour)

A once in a life-time show.  I’m usually not lucky enough to go to “special performances”, but I did manage to get tickets for this sold out show (at a hefty, but extremely worthwhile price).  Like Cohen, Van Morrison doesn’t tour very often but in late 2008 he surprised everybody by not just playing a few shows, but by performing Astral Weeks in its entirety.

For me, Astral Weeks is a life-changing album, and I had no doubt that seeing Morrison perform Astral Weeks live would be a life-changing experience.  Usually, I’m not a fan of concerts where you have to sit down, but this was one concert where sitting back, taking in the music was a perfect suit.  In its original incarnation, Astral Weeks a reflective mood piece – one that commands you to sit down and listen.  And the same went for the show.

The first half of the set contained many standard Van Morrison songs. While he was every professional, Morrison seemed to plow right through the set (“Domino” was particularly short winded).  I wouldn’t suggest that he was actually bored with own material, but it was clear that he really wanted to do the Astral Weeks set.  In contrast to the first set, Astral Weeks was given a slow jazzy treatment that didn’t take on the songs original arrangements, but retained the spirit of the record.  “Slim Slow Slider” was given an expanded ending with Morrison repeatedly chanting, “I start breaking down”.  It’s a song that I never gave enough attention to on the record, but it became one of the highlights for me.

Astral Weeks has always existed in its own plane.  It’s not rock, it’s not folk, and it’s not jazz.  It can be a combination of these things – but it’s also about the passage of time – looking back and seeing the past.  Morrison made many great records since Astral Weeks, but he never made a better one.  And in 2008 and 2009, Morrison finally looked back into the past and finally admitted what everyone already knew – Astral Weeks isn’t just a record, but an experience.

 

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Fall Songs: “Moondance” – Van Morrison

This week’s theme might, as week might as well be moon, since yesterday I reflected upon Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, and today I’m going to take a deeper look at Van Morrison’s “Moondance”.

A friend of mine commented on yesterday’s post that “Harvest Moon” was a classic; on it’s way to becoming a standard.  I don’t entirely disagree, but I feel that “Moondance” has already been a standard – and with the exception of “Brown Eyed Girl” – the song that is most associated with Van Morrison.

Morrison’s music has sometimes been described as “Celtic Soul” – and “Moodance” is probably the epitome of that description.  The music swings and sways like jazz.  Morrison croons, but the flute that plays underneath him gives the song a Celtic feel – linking the song musically with the lyrics.  There’s no other song like – and it’s almost like it doesn’t quite belong in this world.  And yet, just as Morrison takes his love to the forest “Neath the cover of the October skies” – it feels entirely familiar.

Like “Harvest Moon”, the lyrics of “Moondance” centers on autumn.  For Morrison, autumn is a magical time – “and all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush”.  The “leaves on the trees are falling to the sounds of breezes that blow”.  If Neil Young was interested in taking his companion out into the countryside to get away from the world, Morrison is taking his love into another world.

At the beginning of the song, Morrison is full on romantic.  The drums and the piano slide in as Morrison hooks the listener in: “Well it’s a marvelous night for a Moondance, with the stars up above your eyes, fantabulous night for a romance.”   It would be hard to resist lines like that.  By the time Morrison arrives at the second chorus, his love has given into his romantic gestures.  Most of “Moondance” is romantic and full of sincerity, but when Morrison tells his love that she trembles every time he touches her, there’s almost a hint of sexual menace in the delivery.  But the listener has no time to consider, because after the chorus there’s an extended jam, and then Morrison goes on full scat at the end of the song before delivering the final “my love” as the music ends abruptly.

 

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“Highway 61 Revisited” Turns 45

Cover of "Highway 61 Revisited"

Cover of Highway 61 Revisited

(Weekly song selection will continue tomorrow.)

Today (August 30th) marks the 45th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Being only 28, it’s impossible for me to imagine the impact that it had on music and popular culture at the time of its release.  But Highway 61 seems to exist on its own time-line.  It is at once the product of its times, and also timeless.  “Like a Rolling Stone” is the tipping point where rock came into its own existence. Almost every single artist at the time became influenced by the 6 minute single.  But no one could better it, because “Like a Rolling Stone” changes every time you listen to it.  Each time the put downs get far worse, and Dylan’s sneer gets more demonic.  “How does it feel? is both sympathetic and damning.

And even if that was all that Dylan recorded for “Highway 61” he would have left a mark on popular music.  If were left wondering about “Napoleon in rags and the language that he used” at the end of “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan had an entire albums worth of Biblical, historical, and literary figures doing all sorts of bizarre things.  Every single song on Highway 61 is a masterpiece because every single song contained multiple layers – “Highway 61 Revisited” could either be the most hilarious song Dylan ever recorded with lyrics about Louis the King having “too many red white and blues shoe strings and a thousand telephones that don’t ring” or the most perverse depending on how you read into the lyrics about the second mother being with the 7th son.

And of course, Dylan was always quick to dismiss his critics before they even could even take a shot at them.  “Ballad of a Thin” goes beyond a fuck off.  Dylan embarrasses his victim (a would-be journalist according to legend) by having him ridiculed by freaks – the lowest form of society.  And freaks are also the center-piece of “Desolation Row”, the 11 minute track that closes the album.  Everyone from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to Robin Hood, and even Ophelia are stuck on Desolation Row – a place where all of these “lame” people are damned to, and cannot escape.  Dylan himself is there at the end of the song – it’s unsure whether he was put there or not – but it’s as if he was saying that he aligned himself with these literary characters.

I’ve often said that I am blown away by both Highway 61 and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. While The White Album or Abbey Road might be better albums – though not by much – Astral Weeks and Highway 61 Revisited were created by one man.



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1965 Songs: “Gloria”

(Before you read this, I’m aware that I might technically be cheating as “Gloria” was recorded in 1964, and released as the B-side of “Baby Please Don’t Go“.  However, it gained popularity when it rereleased in 1965 as an A-side, thus making it  a song of 1965.)

“Satisfaction” and “You Really Got Me”, “Louie, Louie” be damned, “Gloria” is the ultimate garage anthem.  The song is propelled by a distinctive three-chord riff that accentuates the ode to sex and lust.  Throughout the first verse, most of the tension is built upon Morrison’s growling Howlin’ Wolf imitation.

In “Gloria” isn’t just telling you that he got laid, but rather is sticking it to you about how good it was.  “Like to tell you about my baby,” he declares at the beginning of the song, as if you actually asked.  “She make me feel so good, she make me feel alright,” is the kind of line where you tell the person to shut – that they’ve given away too much information.  Who wants to hear the details of sex?  When Morrison first spells out Gloria’s name – it seems like a kind of joke.  But when he blows through it the second time – there’s a menace and lust.  It’s as if by shouting her name, he’s taken possession of her.  By publicly declaring her name in the streets, she is his.  Later she appears at his door – and she makes him feel alright again.

Them: “Gloria”

Van Morrison Performing “Gloria”:

“Gloria” has been covered many artists, and it has become a concert staple for many groups because of its sing-a-long chorus.  Patti Smith completely rearranged the song – transforming it into a punk anthem. U2 frequently performed ‘”Gloria” (not to be confused with their own completely different song “Gloria”) at the tail end of their song “Exit” during the Joshua Tree tour.

And then of course there’s Bruce Springsteen cover “Gloria” with the best-bar in the world:

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