Being a Van Morrison fan is a frustrating business. It's hard to believe that more than half the world knows him only as the guy who sings "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moondance," as well as "Into the Mystic" because it was in some movie. Granted, none of those are egregious tunes. (Not nearly as bad as any song from the Billy Joel catalog.) But to anyone who's plumbed the depths of Morrison's catalog, who's sat up late at night mourning with Astral Weeks, Veedon Fleece or Common One, it's common knowledge that the man reaches a rarely attained enlightened state of performance. And even though "Into the Mystic" is a distillation of that magic, it's an abridged version.
Fact is, Van himself doesn't always get there from here. He's accepted that. Those rare insightful interviews with the man confirm it. He's admitted to being at a complete loss to explain what much of his songwriting means. When he gets literal, he falls flat. What's worse than "Songwriter"? "Get the words on the page/Please don't call me no sage." El sucko. Still, when he gets weird and elusive, it's weird and elusive magic.
I listened to "Fair Play," the lead-off cut from 1974's Veedon Fleece album, for 20 years before it struck me that I had no idea what he was singing about — not just the literal meaning, but the actual words. Loved the song. Played it hundreds of times. Searched the Internet and discovered that the opening lines are "Fair play to you/Killarney's lakes are so blue/And the architecture I'm taking in with my mind/So fine." He goes on to namecheck Poe, Thoreau and Oscar Wilde. News to me. The next tune, "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," which I always assumed had something to do with a guy who ripped off children's magazines from dentists' offices, turns out to be about a drinking man who went to church on Sunday and cut a couple of guys' heads off with a hatchet — but he loved the little children. The part about the hatchet went past me for two decades.
Unlike Dylan, his only real contemporary, Morrison's never been about lyrics. Early in his career he focused on them a bit more, but by the time of 1970's Moondance album he'd become more interested in finding little trills and phrases to build the tension. He fixated orally and would repeat a phrase until it turned into something else. Left unchecked, this kind of trick turns into Jeff Buckley. Done right, it means every performance has a chance of going some place you've never been.
I've been a naysayer when it comes to old heroes like Van still being able to pull off the magic in concert. I've seen Dylan twice in my life, and both times he ranged from competent to boring, his voice a frayed wire that could barely carry the melody when he bothered to care in the first place. Van's live albums haven't provided much positive evidence. A Night in San Francisco features his daughter Shana and singer Brian Kennedy in the spots where you expect the big man to pull his weight. It wasn't until I surfed YouTube that I witnessed some recent (2000 and onward) proof that whatever he's lost in vocal range — years of cigarette smoking combined with life itself long ago dulled the high end of his register — he makes up for with a spectacular sense of phrasing that's equaled by perhaps only George Jones.
Morrison sees himself as an R&B singer, a jazz singer, a country singer … anything but pop or rock & roll. It irritates him. He's gone so far as to wrap up his hits in one medley to get them out of the way. "Gloria," "Here Comes the Night," "Brown Eyed Girl," Moondance" — all presented together so he can spend more time with "Listen to the Lion" or a work fresh from his studio. This may disappoint the legions who long to hear him offer up "Have I Told You Lately?" But for anyone who's been lost in the high weirdness of the two-disc Hymns to the Silence or clung to all 11 minutes of "Almost Independence Day," well, there's always hope.
Will tonight be the night Van sings while resting on top of the piano? Will he stubbornly refuse to say a single word to the audience? Will he sing old blues tunes from his youth? As they say, you pay your money and you take your chance.