Why do I like collecting things? Why am I more than a little obsessed with making my collections “complete”? Why is it that, last year, I spent £20 buying four second hand Dylan compilations even though I had all the tracks on other CDs. In my mind, I did this because I wanted my collection to be “complete”. I haven’t played these CDs. I’ve looked at them and put them in the correct order on my Dylan shelf. (At the end, after the studio albums and after The Bootleg Series, in the compilation section. Thanks for asking).
Excitingly, I’ve found a website called “Intelligent Collector” which some people may take to be an oxymoron. On this website, there is a list of reasons why people collect. To summarise, the reasons include a) knowledge and learning (yes), b) relaxation (yes), c) pride of ownership (sadly, yes) d) social interaction with fellow collectors (no) e) competitive challenge (no) f) recognition by fellow collectors (no and this blog only invites ridicule) g) altruism (no – my niece and nephew have no idea of the pain I will inflict upon them when they have to dispose of all these CDs and records) h) “The desire to control, possess and bring order” (sadly, yes) i) nostalgia (no) j) accumulation of wealth (er, no, definitely not).
In the Nineties, I started collecting Van Morrison bootleg tapes. I think there was an advert in MOJO and over the course of four or five years I bought about 50 cassettes of rare Van Morrison studio tracks and live shows from a bloke in Northern Ireland. Most of them were badly recorded and unlistenable but there were one or two gems. I still have them in a box in the loft, never to be played again. Obviously, I can’t throw them out. The best tape included songs from sessions with Frank Zappa, or so I thought. There were five songs recorded in around 1975 and had strange titles like “Dead Girl Of London”, “I Ain’t Working For You” and “I Have Finally Come To Realise”. The first of these, I now know, was written by Frank Zappa and sung by Van Morrison. Record label disputes meant that Zappa was unable to release the version with Van Morrison singing for over thirty years (Zappa recorded his own vocals for release). Although, this is not on “A Period Of Transition”, It’s well worth a listen.
I don’t know much about “I’m Not Working For You” apart from the fact that it’s excellent with just one issue. Van sings the n-word. Not in a way that was offensive at the time but it probably is now. Here’s a link but the clip is likely to disappear soon.
I’m reasonably confident that these two songs along with “I Have Finally Come To Realise” (which was officially released on “The Philosopher’s Stone” in 1998) were recorded around 1975. This was an interesting time in Van Morrison’s career. In 1974, he had released “Veedon Fleece” which remains a masterpiece of literate, lyrical and musical beauty, rivalling “Astral Weeks” in its intensity and originality. However, it was not met with critical acclaim and it would be three years before Van Morrison released another album. This was quite a gap, considering that he had released eight albums between 1970 and 1974. During this time, he may or may not have tried to record albums with many different people. He may or may not have suffered from writer’s block. He may or may not have contemplated quitting music altogether. Information is hard to come by.
When he finally came to release a new album in 1977, it was heavily criticised. I like some of Greil Marcus’ writing but I have to take issue with him when he writes that this album is “a lot of neo-R&B huffing and puffing”. Robert Christgau wrote that this is “an unexciting record”. Peter Knobler wrote that “the agonies of Morrison’s earlier works are submerged.” Which all goes to prove that some people don’t listen properly. Expectations were high after a gap of three years and Van Morrison spoke very tellingly about expectations. “I think I needed to break a lot of that expectancy down. I know from experience that I go to see some artists expecting a particular thing. If they don’t come up with that then I’m disappointed, but if I have no expectations they usually do something I haven’t heard before and I’m turned on. The moment you expect something, you never get it.” Mismatched expectations are at the root of all communication breakdowns. In my opinion.
Somewhere in the loft I have a recording that I made of an interview that Van Morrison did with Nicky Horne on BBC Radio London to promote this album. I loved listening to Nicky Horne – he was an enthusiast for the sort of music that I loved. Van Morrison gave him a really hard time. Doctor John is also on the interview as Van Morrison because he plays on the album and he was the co-producer alongside Van Morrison. Nicky Horne asks how the two of them met and Van Morrison tells a very long story about driving along a road and seeing a ball-bearings factory and arranging to meet Doctor John there. Obviously, completely fabricated, possibly very funny to Van Morrison but immensely frustrating to me. And Nicky Horne, who later said that this was the most excruciating moment of his career.
The record is only 34 minutes long but there are no duff tracks. The first track is “You Gotta Make It Through This World”, which has a low key beginning, with guitar, bass and drums before Van starts howling. His voice is really strong, emotional and spiritual. There’s a great saxophone solo and the band fall into an excellent New Orleans groove with Van Morrison’s vocals dominating. This is a return to his very best music after a period of transition. When asked about what he was transitioning from or to, his deliberately obtuse reply was that the title of the album referred to the photo session for the cover where he looks miserable for thirteen photos and happy for the fourteenth. Yeah.
“It Fills You Up” is my favourite track on the album. More very strong vocals. Lyrically, it concerns something (“but you don’t know what it is”) which fills you up. It has been interpreted that “it” is the intense spiritual feeling that listeners can find in his music. There are great horns in this song along with typical Doctor John piano. His performance on this song is as good as any in his career – it’s a showcase for the full range of emotion that his voice can conjure up.
“The Eternal Kansas City” starts in a seriously weird way. A heavenly choir sings “Excuse me do you know the way to Kansas City” six times before the song kicks in after seventy seconds. Doctor John is quoted as saying that this is “the song that Van got the whole album hooked up around. It was a real deep thing for him to focus on. It goes from a real ethereal voice sound to a jazz introduction and then into a kind of chunky R&B.” There are lots of references to his jazz heroes including Charlie Parker, Count Basie Lester Young, jimmy Witherspoon, Jay McShann and Billie Holiday. Another very strong song and that’s the end of Side One. Three great songs. Fifteen minutes.
Side Two starts with “Joyous Sound” and “Flamingoes Fly” which are upbeat songs in the spirit of “Domino” or “Wild Night”. They were recorded a year before the rest of the album, without Doctor John. They are Van Morrison at his poppiest best and I can think of no higher praise.
“Heavy Connection” is a more mid tempo spiritual song. Van Morrison is on excellent form as he is on every song on the album and the vocal performances are stunning. The meaning of this song escapes me. For example: “I remember when I got your message in Amsterdam. I was going through my letters and found a picture-postcard of the Reeperbahn.” If I remember my Beatles history correctly, the Reeperbahn is a street in Hamburg near The Star Club, The Kaiserkeller and The Top Ten Club where John, Paul, George, Pete and Stuart played. So Van was in Amsterdam and got a postcard from John Lennon in Hamburg and they made a real heavy connection. A spiritual connection. No. That’s nonsense but it’s nice to think that’s what the song is about.
Finally, here’s the reason that I started thinking of this album. The last song is called “Cold in In August” and the idea of a cold wind seems like bliss to me at the moment. This is the third day of temperatures over 30 and we have at least three more days to come. Oh for a cold wind! I love this song. I remember one review called it “ponderous” but it’s not – it’s slow paced, his vocals are magnificent and the feeling fills me up. Doctor John said that this song is a “cross current from forties to seventies music. It’s like where Ray Charles left off. It’s a real tear-jerker that gets back to the basics of music.”
It’s a great song but not as great as the cold wind in August that I’m dreaming of.
4 thoughts on “A Period Of Transition by Van Morrison”
I was talking to Ed, my saxophone teacher, recently about notable sax players. I remarked on how Van Morrison likes to play sax during some of his performances, but I wouldn’t describe him as an accomplished player. Ed disagreed: he said that although Van might not be technically accomplished, he plays sax like he sings; straight from the soul. And that’s the thing with Van Morrison I think: music flows through him naturally; he plays how he feels and that’s what makes him such a genius.
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I agree. That stuttering vocal trick (“into, into, into the mystic”) is replicated when he plays harmonica (“mystic eyes”), guitar (“lonely avenue”) or saxophone (“crazy face”). To misquote The Beach Boys, “music is in his soul”.
Hadn’t understood the Dr John involvement. This is good news! Was a fan from The Night Tripper days! Was that on ‘Gris, Gris’? Only other thing to say is that ‘A Cold Wind in August’ was a Jackie Collins style of novel of quite explicit nature regarding a hot relationship between a young teen and an older, married woman! I might still have a copy somewhere!
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…and there I was thinking you read Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy.