Moondance by Van Morrison


“Desert Island Discs” is a great concept. Celebrities are asked to state which eight albums they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. But what criteria would they use? When Martin Carthy appeared on the show he chose eight very obscure songs which raised his credibility amongst his peers and presumably gave him pleasure to hear such classics as “Se Pelean En Mimente” by Paco de Lucia being played on mainstream radio. Far be it from me to doubt the sincerity of Martin Carthy but really? Stranded on a desert island, wouldn’t he rather hear “Ride A White Swan”? If I were ever to answer the question literally, the albums should be those I know quite well but still have hundreds of listens left in them. Maybe Big Red Machine’s latest album or Observatory by Aeon Station would qualify for me.

A more interesting question is which albums have I played the most? I think “Moondance” would qualify along with “Astral Weeks”, “Sgt. Pepper”, “Starsailor” and “On The Threshold Of A Dream”.

The first side of “Moondance” is one of the perfectly assembled 20 minutes of music ever made. It’s not just the immense quality of the five songs but the perfect way that they fit together.

Having recorded a unique outpouring of transcendental self confession over 48 hours to produce “Astral Weeks”, Van Morrison decided to switch sounds for his next album. He was living on the breadline after the commercial flop of “Astral Weeks” and needed some degree of commercial success. “Brown Eyed Girl” had been a big FM hit in 1967 but Van Morrison claimed he never received any royalties from writing or recording it.

The jazz musicians that appeared on “Astral Weeks” were not used on “Moondance” and, instead, he developed a more R’n’B style. Key players were Jack Schroer on alto and tenor sax, John Platania on guitar and Jef Labes on piano.

Many of the songs on the album are a lyrical and aural representation of moments of ascendant beauty. One of the key phrases on the title track of “Astral Weeks” occurs at a singular moment in time when Van Morrison is looking at his lover, while she is “taking care of your boy” (her son, Peter, from her first marriage), putting his shoes on for him and giving him clean clothes. He describes his love for her as trying to do his “very best” and tells her that if he “ventured in your slipstream”, he could be “born again”. Although being “born again” can mean to convert to Christianity, it’s more likely that Van Morrison is describing a regeneration of his soul. He was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and the belief of this version of Christianity is that individuals don’t have the ability to choose to be reborn; only God can select his followers. This interpretation may influence his descriptions of seminal moments in his life where divine moments are bestowed upon him.

I’m currently reading “The Gospel According To The Beatles” by Steve Turner which is surprisingly interesting. He theorises that religion had a profound effect on The Best Band In The World. Not just Eastern mysticism but the way in which children after the War were often sent to Sunday School. John Lennon’s comment about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus in 1966 was a well informed comment by a thoughtful guy whose upbringing had been steeped in the Church. It wasn’t an arrogant comment made by a rich entitled rock star.

A similar book on Van Morrison would be fascinating. My guess is that Van Morrison has spent his life in bringing together all the elements that are necessary to experience moments of rebirth in order to regenerate his soul. Sharing these moments with his audience has been a gift that we are foolish to ignore. Some of Van Morrison’s concerts include one or two moments like this. I can recall seeing him perform “Ballerina”, not one of my favourite songs. There were two or three minutes of extended improvisation with the band in a groove and Van Morrison extemporising over the top when I really thought that I was in a separate plane of existence. Waiting for those moments make listening to the one note dirge of “Dweller On The Threshold” or the crowd singalongs of “Gloria”, worthwhile.

Many of the songs on “Moondance” describe similar experiences: wondrous moments when he achieves transcendence.

Musically, a significant difference between “Astral Weeks” and “Moondance” is the use of a rock drummer, Gary Mallabar instead of a jazz drummer, Connie Kay. This may well have been as a result of Van Morrison’s wish to make a more commercially successful record. Apart from the drumming, “And It Stoned Me” could easily have been on “Astral Weeks”. The song describes a fishing trip that a 12 year old Van Morrison went on to Ballystockart with his friend, Billy. As with many of his songs over the next 50 years, his spirit is finely attuned to the healing powers of water and sunshine. At the start of the song, it is raining hard and the boys get soaked but when the sun comes out they hitch a lift from a pick up track to arrive at the lake. They jump in the lake and when they walk home, their singing makes them thirsty. Van Morrison says that they “went to this little stone house and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from a stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes, time stood still and I was in this other dimension.” The music does justice to this sublime moment of recollection. There’s no intro, Van Morrison goes straight into the verse but as soon as he mentions water, Jack Schroer’s saxophone bubbles up in perfect attendant accessorising. There is a beautiful instrumental break in which John Platania’s acoustic guitar and Jeff Labes’ piano play with understated empathy. As with every Van Morrison song, especially in the first 40 years of his career, the soulful timbre of his voice is the icing on the cake that makes me feel privileged to be able to listen to his songs. The whole song is a vocal tour-de-force. I can pick out one highlight – in the last verse, he recounts how the old man says “hey, here you are” and heartfelt emotional memory is pouring out of his soul.

A pedantic note: on the back cover of my record, this song is simply called “Stoned Me”.

I’ve heard the title track, “Moondance”, so often that I’d forgotten what an incredible performance Van Morrison and his band give. Live, it is much longer, and each member of the band plays a solo. That’s okay and typifies the democratic nature of the the performances. Van Morrison is always very generous to his band mates but live versions rarely achieve one of those moments that transport the audience to a different level of existence.

At 2:00 am this morning, lying here in this hospital bed with foot pumps, a catheter, an antibiotic drip and a brand new artificial hip, I experienced a moment of transcendence listening to “Moondance”. Nothing else mattered as I was transported onto a parallel plane of existence in which only this wondrous music mattered.

(I realise that some of these comments make it seem like the painkillers are kicking in, but ask me when I’ve recovered and running marathons for fun and see if I concur).

“Moondance” was originally tried out at the sessions for “Astral Weeks” but it was felt that, musically, it didn’t fit. Lyrically, though, it describes another glorious moment in his love affair with Janet Rigsbee (nicknamed Janet Planet). On the previous record there were songs of recollection (“Astral Weeks”, “Beside You”, “Cypress Avenue” and “Madam George”) along with straightforward expressions of devotion brought on by a single moment of clarity (“Sweet Thing”, “Young Lovers Do” and “Ballerina”). “And It Stoned Me” is an example of the former and “Moondance” is the latter. It’s an autumn evening, the stars are out, the leaves are falling from the trees. Van Morrison is struck by Janet Rigsbee’s beauty and yearns for a night of dancing and lovemaking. The whole song is a work of vocal majesty but one favourite moment is in the third verse when he sings “the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow”. He riffs on the melody, his voice is in a high register and oozes love, emotion and, possibly, foreboding that she may reject him (which wouldn’t happen until 1973).

The song swings along at a mid to high tempo with John Klingberg’s electric bass contributing to the jazz sound of the song. The instrumental break consists of a beautifully understated piano solo from Jeff Labes followed by a saxophone solo from Jack Schroer. Wikipedia describes the latter as “one of the most influential saxophone solos in popular music”. It’s certainly remarkable and so is his solo on Side Two’s “These Dreams Of You”

The word “crazy” has, possibly, fallen out of fashion recently. It can mean to act irrationally, even violently and it can also mean to be wildly enthusiastic. The word “mad” has the same duality of meaning. Van Morrison has released four songs with “crazy” in the title.

“Crazy Jane On God” was one of seven “Crazy Jane” poems written by Irish poet, WB Yeats. The estate of WB Yeats initially refused to give Van Morrison permission to release his version of the poem set to music the on 1984’s “A Sense Of Wonder” but relented for the retrospective “The Philosopher’s Stone” in 1998. The “chorus”, as sung by Van Morrison is “all things remain in God”. I’m no expert in poetry analysis but it seems to me that Jane is crazy in both senses of the word and is fatalistic about her life experiences, taking solace in God’s plan.

“Crazy Face” is from Van Morrison’s follow up to “Moondance” which was called “Van Morrison, His Band And The Street Choir”. It’s one of my favourite of his songs, mainly because Van Morrison plays a saxophone which for the first 15 seconds is just one note. The whole solo is one minute long, a third of the length of the song which has two verses before the solo and the same two verses repeated after the solo. The lyrics concern someone who is crazy or irrational, standing outside a church brandishing a gun and talking nonsense. Crazy, man!

By contrast, the meaning of the word “crazy” in “You’re Driving Me Crazy” is wildly enthusiastic. The song was originally written by Walter Donaldson in 1930 and first recorded by Lee Morse, Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees. It’s the title song of an album that Van Morrison recorded with Joey DeFrancesco, an American jazz player, in 2018. It’s about as far from transcendental music as it’s possible to get. In my opinion.

“Crazy Love” makes for a great musical contrast on Side One of “Moondance”. The only instrumentation is an acoustic guitar and some very restrained percussion. Van Morrison sings the song in a falsetto voice and is backed by Judy Clay and Emily Houston. The former had a hit with “Private Number”, sung as a duet with William Bell. As a young girl, she was taken in by a New York family and became good friends with their daughter Emily Houston who later formed The Sweet Inspirations. They backed Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and also sung on “Brown Eyed Girl”. Emily Houston’s stage name was Cissy Houston and, in 1963, she gave birth to a daughter, Whitney. It was a last minute decision to sing the song in a falsetto voice as Van Morrison decided he wanted to emulate one of his heroes, Curtis Mayfield.

“Caravan” is another song that seems to have been inspired by one unforgettable moment. When he moved to Woodstock, he lived in a remote house, a mile from his neighbour. There was a moment when he could clearly hear his neighbour’s radio as if it were in his own room. He combined this moment with his romantic view of gypsy life to produce a fantastic song about an exotic woman living in a caravan. (A year later, he recorded a song, simply called “Gypsy”). He sung “Caravan” at “The Last Waltz” and produced some of his trademark low kicks. I think they’re meant to be high kicks but he reaches about as high as I could right now with my painful prosthetic hip. The song has everything: verses, a chorus, what The Beatles would call a middle eight, a guitar solo, scat singing and an improvised fade out. The Band produced some pretty fantastic music themselves over the years, but it’s mesmerising to see the look on their faces as they wallow in the creation of four minutes of spiritual and emotional reawakening. The brief glimpse of Van Morrison’s face as he leaves the stage illustrates how he finds fulfilment from his life’s search for enlightenment.

Mentioning The Band, brings me, briefly, to a song on Side Two called “Brand New Day”. Van Morrison said “I looked up at the sky and the sun started to shine and a song by The Band (either “I Shall Be Released” or “The Weight”) came through my head. I started to write down the song, straight away”. Yet another glorious single moment in his life that he recreated in song.

“Into The Mystic” has ambiguous lyrics and even Van Morrison doesn’t know what the true words are. Sometimes, on the song, he sings “Into the mystic” and at other times he sings “Into the misty”. He is quoted as saying he doesn’t know whether the words include “I was born before the wind” or “I was borne before wind”. Is it “All so younger than the sun” or “Also younger than the sun”. Was “the Bonny boat” won or one? He concludes by saying that the song is about “the universe”. One of the many fantastic moments on the song is the saxophone note that Van Morrison plays immediately after singing about a time that a foghorn sounded and he knew that he was returning on a boat to his loved one. Another moment of intense beauty that inspired him to create a song that describes a moment of rebirth. Sometimes I’ve heard it wondered why Van Morrison rarely smiles during live performances. I believe that it’s hard to smile when trying to recreate a moment of pure bliss that inspired a song.

Before my surgery, I was told that I would be awake during the implant of a new hip and although I wouldn’t feel anything due to the epidural, I would be able to hear the sound of sawing. I determined to listen to music instead of the sounds of my body been cut open and part of my skeleton removed. I decided to listen to “Moondance” As it happens, I was knocked out and was, to all intents and purposes, unconscious throughout, thanks to the “mild” sedative. When reading about “Into The Mystic” on Wikipedia, I came across this: “According to a BBC survey, because of this song’s cooling, soothing vibe, this is one of the most popular songs for surgeons to listen to while performing operations”. I’m not making this up. It could have been that the surgeon and I were listening to the same songs to drown out the sound of sawing. Presumably, if I’d been awake at the time when he had cut into the muscle and deliberately dislocated my hip I could have heard my surgeon sing the last words on Side One: “It’s too late to stop now”.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

5 thoughts on “Moondance by Van Morrison

  1. Great album. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to request it when I was having my hip done. I seem to remember they chose an Ed Sheeran album for me to listen to which was ok, but not quite on the same transcendental plain as Van the Man. Here’s to a speedy recovery and a few high kicks in the not too distant future.


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