Moondance. Van Morrison.
1970 Warner Bros. Producer: Van Morrison
Purchased ca. 1992
IN A NUTSHELL – Excellent songs with exceptional singing. Morrison is a true master of his instrument – his voice. The songs range from poppy and bouncy to mellow and romantic, and Van performs them all phenomenally. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It was more rockin’, but it’s not that style of music.
Mrs. Meyer taught me US History in tenth grade, and she was the inspiring type of teacher that kids remember 32 years after leaving her class and include in their little-read blogs about albums they like. She was a heavy-set woman with short reddish hair and she wore those owlish 80s eyeglasses with lenses large enough that folks used to personalize them with tiny monogram stickers. (Placing monograms on items was a big fad in the 80s, believe it or not – very preppy). She loved Teddy Roosevelt and the idea – frustrating as it was – that if people would just learn a little bit more about history, the depth of peace and love and understanding in the world would grow exponentially. She wasn’t a Dates and Names type of history teacher, she was a Big Picture type. And as she wiped tears from her face while teaching difficult lessons revealing the perpetual continuum of human brutality toward other humans, she would frequently ask us to remember her personal axiom that “there is always at least one good thing about every person.”
Considering the multitude of evil deeds and horrible carnage that a history teacher must learn, master, describe and contextualize for students, this statement is quite astounding. It probably says more about Mrs. Meyer – that she held out hope for humanity to build on small goods even in the face of huge evils; that she was a warm, optimistic teacher – than it says about history. This woman could teach about The Inquisition, European Colonialism and Western slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust … and yet find it within herself to pronounce, for example, “But remember! Everyone had at least one good thing about them … even Hitler helped establish the Volkswagen.”
Many people may be appalled by this statement, finding it reprehensible to throw a dumb car brand into the equation of the deeds of a man responsible for so much death and misery. But Mrs. Meyer wasn’t trying to balance historical scales or diminish horrific acts. She was just using a historical fact to provide some perspective to history and some insight into the complexity of human beings. And – I think – it made the lessons more bearable for her to teach. It also – whether intended or not – provided some of her students with insight into dealing with difficult facts in their own lives: find something good.
The Buddha, in his wisdom, stated that life is suffering, and while the meaning of this statement has been misinterpreted over time to make it sound like words from a depressed misanthrope, the truth remains that much of life is difficult – there can be no doubt. And it can be helpful to navigate the difficulty by looking for positives among the many negatives. This is especially true from adolescence to young-adulthood, when negatives seem to abound. And while it may be difficult, in the moment, to seek the One Good Thing about, for example, being a high school sophomore and getting an attack of diarrhea on the high school basketball team bus filled with juniors and seniors, while traveling to a game 21 miles away (by the way, let’s call that a hypothetical example) … 32 years later one may be able to mitigate the (again, hypothetical) humiliation and embarrassment of such a situation by asserting that at least it provided evidence of certain teammates’ thoughtfulness – people who unexpectedly could be trusted with secret information, like where soiled underwear might be hidden among teenage boys in a visiting (i.e. girls’) locker room. (If this were a true story, perhaps that place would be the small feminine hygiene product disposal trash can under the sinks.)
Some may call this One Good Thing technique pure rationalization. I call it looking on the bright side of life.
Looking back on one’s life, there can be a temptation to ask – over and over again – “why did I do that?” Or “why did that happen to me?” The shoulda-coulda-wouldas grab hold and invariably present one’s imagination with only the greatest of all possible outcomes from regretful moments in life. For example: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda gotten that record deal and then woulda had a bunch of hit songs and been millionaires!” Rarely does the imagination present the situation as: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda kept playing dive bars for another 8 years and I woulda been an alcoholic 33 year old still living with my parents.” Even less likely: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda driven into a lake in the middle of the night and woulda all died.” All three scenarios are equally as likely in the deep, dark forest of Whatmighthavebeen. But our minds like to torture us, so we only imagine the best.
A better way of reviewing such regrets (for we all have regrets, even Mrs. Meyer, I’m sure; like those big owl glasses, for example) may be to consider The Past as simply The Past, and tease out The Good from all that really did happen. For example: I played bass in a band in which I made friends for life, played songs I helped write to appreciative people, and now have fun memories and stories to tell.
Many people tend to beat themselves up particularly over past romantic relationships. “I shoulda stayed with X, I coulda gotten married, I woulda been happy,” or “I shoulda left X years earlier, I coulda spent the time more productively, I woulda gotten that MBA.” My own romantic regrets are not so grand, but are more along the lines of “I shoulda put a different song on that mix tape,” or “I coulda caught something from her,” or “I woulda broken up if I thought I coulda gotten another girlfriend.”
I myself have reconsidered my regrets over the few girlfriends I have had, and replaced the Shouldacouldawouldas with One Good Thing. Here are a few examples …
V. – first girlfriend. High school. I was a senior, V. was a sophomore. Both of us Marching Band members, our relationship consisted mostly of sitting together at football games, walking in the halls together and speaking on the phone. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve told her sooner that I was getting bored with sitting together, walking the halls and talking on the phone. Instead I just sort of blurted out one day that I was breaking up with her – and didn’t give a reason. Based on this, I can see why she may have thought that I broke up with her because “things weren’t physical enough” (which – much to her credit – she called me to ask me about directly a couple weeks afterwards). But honestly – I was actually terrified of things getting more “physical;” the goodnight kisses we shared were scary enough to a dork like me!! One Good Thing – V.’s house was the first place I ever tried microwave popcorn, and it was awesome.
M. – described somewhat in a previous post. Longest relationship ever (~18 months) apart from the 21+ year relationship with current wife. Regret I’ve Left Behind – That’s tough to whittle down. I guess that I should’ve been thinking more rationally during those ~18 months?
However, she was really very attractive (very attractive) and that made it hard for a dork like me to think rationally. One Good Thing – Introduced me to Woody Allen movie Manhattan and the music of Todd Rundgren. (For 18 months’ worth of distress all I could come up with was a movie I’ve seen twice and a guy whose songs I don’t turn off when they come on the radio.)
A. – So, I had known A. for many years. She had been my buddy Rick’s girlfriend (and as such caused me to miss most of Cheap Trick opening for REO Speedwagon at Hershey Stadium because she was late, and then I had to sit through REO’s entire set because somehow a foreign exchange student was with us and she was interested in them, thus ruining my first concert experience ever because I MISSED Cheap Trick and WATCHED REO Speedwagon) and she was very good friends with my buddy Josh. (Rick and Josh being two of the three previously-described “coolest members of the CCHS graduating class of 1985.”) At some point in my early twenties, while my confidence was at a high point, I thought, “I haven’t seen A. in a while. I always liked her. I wonder if she’d go out with me?” So I called her up, and sure enough we made a date to go see Batman Returns.
For the next three months or so we were kind of dating, but not really. It was very strange. We’d spend lots of time together, and stay at each other’s apartment sometimes, but then we wouldn’t speak for several days. At a certain point, I wished to better define our relationship (i.e. be a couple) and she wished to keep it as-is (i.e. not be a couple). So, that was the end of that. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve said “No,” when, months after we “broke up,” and having not spoken together in weeks, A. sweet-talked dorky me into driving her to the Philadelphia airport (1.5 hours away) to pick up her “friend,” who turned out to be pretty obviously her soon-to-be-new-boyfriend. One Good Thing – Moondance, by Van Morrison.
A. may have been the biggest music fan I ever dated (if that’s what you call what we did), and even though she was a bit too enamored of The Grateful Dead for my tastes, and I was too much into Nirvana and Pearl Jam for her, we did have a great deal of musical interests that overlapped. We played records for each other, which was lots of fun – except for the time I played her John Lennon’s album Plastic Ono Band, which closes with the song “My Mummy’s Dead,” Lennon’s childlike lament for his dead mother, only to find out that A.’s freaky reaction to the song and quick departure from my apartment afterwards was due to the fact that she’d tragically lost her own mother as a teen …
But anyway … A. was a BIG big fan of Van Morrison. She used to play many of his records, but the one that really stuck with me, the one that – even after that memorable 3 hours in the car spent a) hearing about how interesting her “friend” was (“Environmental Law! Portland, Oregon! Box of Rain!!”); and b) listening to this interesting fellow ignore me while flirting and giggling with A. in the back seat (“We haven’t seen each other in so long, do you mind if I sit back here with him??” “Uh … no! Of course not!”) – even after this, the album that I went out and bought so I could listen by myself, was Moondance.
After 16 albums on this list, I think its clear that a pattern is emerging in my favorite albums. They’re mostly bands, mostly guitar oriented, mostly rocking. I’ve also shown a proclivity for disregarding vocal ability, as many acts with acquired-taste singers, like Rush, The Hold Steady, and Sleater-Kinney, dot the list. Moondance completely obliterates this pattern.
It’s a solo record, with some guitar, but very understated and mostly acoustic, containing songs that have some bounce and pop, but that never really rock. And as for singing … Van Morrison is among the best singers I’ve heard. The sound of his voice is striking. Have you ever been to a wedding reception or other large party, and in the midst of enjoying yourself had a friend come by and introduce you to someone? And has that person ever been an incredibly beautiful woman or incredibly handsome man? I don’t mean just pretty or cute, I mean the type that – regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – makes you fumble a bit for words as you ask, “How do you know Mary and John?” The type that after he or she walks away, you and your date look at each other and – again, regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – say to each other, “Holy shit!” It’s happened once or twice to me. This is what Van’s voice is like. Just a few words at the beginning of any song, and I find myself thinking, “Whoa. Now this is singing.”
It’s not the technicality of the singing, or the perfection of the notes, and it’s not as if he’s performing vocal feats like covering multiple octaves or flying through difficult cadenzas. It’s that I feel what he’s singing, and it conveys to me what he’s feeling. It sounds weird to say it, but there’s a truth to it, an openness that allows the listener into Van’s world. But it’s never embarrassingly emotional, or burdensome to the listener – he somehow pulls off the emotion with a touch of restraint that leaves me wanting to hear more, not less. There are few artists whose voice I want to hear more of – I often think of the vocals as just a means to carry melody while I focus on guitar, bass and drums. But I feel like I could listen to simply the vocal tracks of Morrison’s and be perfectly happy with it. That being said, the backing band on Moondance is phenomenal.
The album opens with “And It Stoned Me,” a childhood slice-of-life subtly delivering a message on the wonderful joys of everyday life, and how the simple things can be divine.
The horns are pleasant, and the band sounds good, but I can tell I’m a fan of the singer because during the acoustic guitar and piano solos, which are very nice and light, (2:14 to 2:54) I find myself thinking, “okay, let’s get back to the vocals!” which is something I almost never think during an instrumental section! The structure of the song is basic, but I love how at the end of the pre-chorus (“Oh, the water … Oh, the water”) during the “hope it don’t rain all day” part, the song slows a bit, creating a tension that echoes the lyrics. The lyrics of the pre-chorus are different each time through, recalling the part of the story that has just been sung, and each time through Van’s evocative delivery, coupled with the slight change of pace, enhance the feeling of the lyrics and place you right in the boy’s mind. You can feel the story unfolding as if Billy was your friend, and you spent that day with him, fishing in the rain, swimming, drinking the water … and you can understand why such mundane activities were all so special. Through Morrison’s singing, magic is created out of something simple – and when you think about it, that’s the whole point of “And It Stoned Me.”
Another magical track, in which everything comes together to create something bigger than the sum of the parts, is the song “Into the Mystic.”
The lyrics conjure a romance as lasting as the sea, and as in “And It Stoned Me,” the music references and reflects the imagery perfectly. Supporting the magic this time is John Klingberg’s gentle-waves-lapping-the-shore bass line, rolling as insistently as the waves. Van’s voice starts softly and builds throughout first verses. Then the musical stakes are raised by the minor chord struck as Van sings of the fog horn blowing, and the payoff comes stunningly as he pounces on the “rock your Gypsy soul” line. This rarely fails to bring me chills. “Into the Mystic” is a song whose meaning I can’t express well in words, but that I understand when I listen to it. It’s about love, but it’s more than that. I suppose this inexpressible quality is what makes it sound magical to me.
Another sum-greater-than-the-parts song is “Everyone,” which has a simple, Elizabethan-sounding melody and so-inscrutable-they’re-almost-pointless lyrics
But somehow, held together by Van’s singing, a vision of hope and friendship and a happy future emerges in the song. It sounds downright jolly. It’s a song I find running through my head frequently even though I don’t think of it as a favorite on the record. It’s got too much flute, for one thing, and I’ve never been much for the flute as rock instrument. (Maybe okay for jazz, in certain settings.) But it’s catchy, and the words of the chorus are certainly easy to remember! (The title track, maybe the most famous of all of Morrison’s tunes, also uses the flute effectively. It’s also not a particular favorite of mine.)
My favorite song on the record is definitely “Caravan.”
The acoustic guitar behind the chorus, through the “turn up the radio/switch on the electric light” section, is my favorite guitar on the record. I love parts of songs that are easy to miss, that you might only catch on the third or fourth trip through the song. As always, Van’s singing is masterly, evocative. It brings so much clarity to a song whose lyrics’ meanings are obtuse, as usual, even wringing meaning out of the tune’s many “La la las”. And when the horns punctuate the bridge, and Van calls out “Turn it up! Turn it up!” my heart feels just what he’s saying – it knows exactly why we gotta turn up the radio, why this caravan is so special, and why I want that electric light on when I’m with Emma Rose – even if my head’s not really sure. I could listen to this song on a loop all day.
Although it’s a vocal record, the band behind Van is excellent. I’m not sure who all played what on every song, but two songs that feature the band nicely are the bouncy, bluesy “These Dreams of You” and “Come Running.”
It seems natural that someone who uses dreamlike imagery in most of his songs would write a song like “Dreams of You,” whose lyrics describe odd dreams of Canada and Ray Charles and a lover who’s let him down. There’s a nice sax solo, and the band sounds like it’s having fun playing the song. “Come Running” is almost a companion piece, it’s lyrics describing the hope for a lost love returning – in fact, running back. Again, the band sounds like it’s enjoying the poppy bounce.
Of course, Van Morrison’s voice lends itself beautifully to love songs and romance. That voice is always deeply suggestive of any subject matter, and easily bears the full weight of words’ meanings. This makes a love song like “Crazy Love” extra special.
If you listen closely, you can hear Van breathing and bumping the mike as he sings. It’s an intimate song, and he sings it that way. Morrison has a definite Motown sound that’s very evident on popular numbers of his like “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Domino.” And like these songs, “Crazy Love” – in the Quiet Storm vein of R&B – is a song one could imagine Smoky Robinson singing. The song and its performance make a guy like me think, “man, I’ll bet Van Morrison never had to worry about being a dork around girls. They were probably crawling all over him.” (Which isn’t to say he hasn’t had any relationship regrets of his own.)
The album closes with one of the best album closers ever, “Glad Tidings.”
Another bouncy tune, a fun and uplifting song that seems to be about staying positive, and having an optimistic outlook. There’s nice electric guitar work beneath the vocals, and the horn section and rhythm section sound great. But like the entire album, this song is all about Van’s incredible vocal ability. Once again, lyrics that are indirect are given clarity through his voice.
“But meet them halfway with love, peace and persuasion
And expect them to rise for the occasion
Don’t it gratify when you see it materialize
Right in front of your eyes
He asks the listener to look on the bright side, to not just find the good in others, but to expect it, and you’ll be surprised by the payoff when you do. It sounds like a sentiment Mrs. Meyer herself would have loved to hear.
“And It Stoned Me”
“Into the Mystic”
“These Dreams of You”
“Brand New Day”