Hard Nose The Highway by Van Morrison

1973

Peer pressure is a big factor when determining why young people are prone to risk taking. The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex does not normally fully develop until people are in their twenties. This is an area of the brain that mature adults use when they need to cope with the negative emotions that arise when excluded by their peers. It helps adults cope with the distress caused by social exclusion. Thus it is more likely that the immature adolescent/young adult is likely to indulge in risky behaviour when egged on by their friends as they cannot rely on that part of their brain to restrain them. Another part of the brain, the lateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for evaluating risk and this is also slow to develop in young adults.

I don’t think I’ve ever been prone to taking risks but writing this stuff over the past year I can see that I haven’t always been as overly cautious as I am now. Whether it’s drink driving, playing dodge the traffic on the A30 after a brief (and unsuccessful) encounter or resigning from jobs, I can’t always claim to have carefully considered all the options available to me. Rather, there are times when I have been impulsive which is not a characteristic I would ascribe to myself in my mid 60s.

Considering some of the music I’ve listened to recently in the context of risk taking, I can see that I would have been the friend who created enough peer pressure to encourage Paul McCartney to make a weird side one of “Wild Life” or to tell Gillian Welch that she shouldn’t give a shit about marketing “Soul Journey” or to agree with Tim Buckley that an artist is under an obligation to not stand still when he recorded “Starsailor” or to concur with Neil Young about systematically destroying the base of his record buying public when he released “Time Fades Away”. If asked, I would have told Van Morrison that releasing a very strange set of songs on “Hard Nose The Highway” would do his career no harm at all. Acquiring a Top 30 album in the U.K. and the USA would have proved that my advice would have been vindicated.

“Hard Nose The Highway” was Van Morrison’s seventh album. It was released in August 1973 and the spectacular set of musicians on the album formed The Caledonia Soul Orchestra who performed with him live in concert. In particular, they were the musicians who played with him at The Rainbow in 1973, when I saw him for the first time, on two consecutive nights.

If anyone needs convincing that this is a strange album, try listening to the first song, “Snow In San Alsemo” which starts with a heavenly choir. Van Morrison starts singing almost immediately about the time that it snowed in San Anselmo for the first time in 30 years. What is immediately apparent is that he is on absolutely top form with the sensitivity and emotional depth of his singing. “Soulful” doesn’t begin to describe it. There are two wild jazz tinged saxophone solos which appear out of nowhere, changing the tempo completely. The Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus continue to give an ethereal feeling throughout the song. The climax of the song occurs when Van Morrison’s waitress tells him that the snow was laying on the ground. “MY WAITRESS! MY WAITRESS! My waitress said it was coming down”. No one ever said that Van Morrison ever wrote profound lyrics but the impact of this ludicrous moment is profound. What a strange offbeat start to the album. I wonder whether Van Morrison’s lateral prefrontal cortex was fully developed at this stage. After all, he was 27 years old when the album was recorded.

“Warm Love” is a lovely song with Van Morrison using the same falsetto voice he used on “Crazy Love” from “Moondance”. It was a single and is maybe the only “typical” Van Morrison song on the album. It sits alongside “Domino”, “Wild Night” and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” as a great song to hear on the radio.

The title track seems to be a song about Van Morrison feeling sorry for himself (“seen some hard times“) and also feeling proud of the emotion and true feeling in his songs. He compares himself to Frank Sinatra singing along with the Nelson Riddle Strings and then going on holiday. Despite the banality of the lyrics, there is a wonderful improvised coda to the song with some majestic singing. “Further on up. Further on up. Further on up. Further on up. The Road“. The song also features a lovely piano solo from Jef Labes and great saxophone playing from the awesome Jack Schroer.

“Wild Children” starts with Van Morrison singing “we were the war children“. He mentions Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, James Dean and Rod Steiger in the context of being heroes to Van Morrison’s generation, born in 1945. Another song with very peculiar lyrics but musically sensational with a jazz influenced piano solo and laid back vocals.

“The Great Deception” was described by Richie Yorke, in his unauthorised biography as “One of the most stinging indictments from any observer, let alone a rock artist, of the tragic hypocrisy of so many participants in the sub-culture, in particular the big-time rock stars of this era.” More strange lyrics but more wonderful music and a very strong vocal. John Platania’s guitar is very much to the fore with small fills after every line.

Side One of this album is varied, strange, musically great and features some of Van Morrison’s most emotional vocals. Side One of “Moondance” is often regarded as a perfect side of music but I would place Side One of “Hard Nose The Highway” alongside it.

“Bein’ Green” is a song from “Sesame Street”. Van Morrison said “That was just a statement that you don’t have to be flamboyant. If somebody doesn’t like you just because you’re a certain thing, then maybe they’re seeing the wrong thing.” Quite possibly, this is a song about racial tolerance.

“Autumn Song” is nearly 10 minutes long and is very laid back. It’s not my favourite song and when you consider the songs that were omitted to make room for this song, it seems like a misjudgement to me. ‘Madame Joy’, ‘Bulbs’, ‘Spare Me A Little’, ‘Country Fair’, ‘Contemplation Rose’ and ‘Drumshanbo Hustle’ were all recorded in the sessions for the album; some would appear on 1974’s “Veedon Fleece” and some would not appear until 1998’s compilation “The Philosopher’s Stone”. In my (humble(?)) opinion, these are all superior to “Autumn Song”.

Finally, “Purple Heather” is a version of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and features more extraordinary vocals from Van Morrison.

Side Two is not as dramatic as Side One, largely because “Autumn Song” is rather disappointing. Nevertheless, the whole album is a shot in the dark – there’s a feeling of not giving a shit about marketing, destroying the base of his record buying public and not standing still. In the context of Van Morrison’s remarkable catalogue, it’s one of his most interesting albums.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: