Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison

1974

Two friends of mine have told me that they can’t get to sleep at night unless they have the radio on. One of them has Radio 4 in his earbuds all night and the other has Radio 5 Live Sports Extra quietly playing all night without any objection from his long suffering partner. I can understand this and, on the few occasions I’ve been away without Roo recently, I’ve done the same. Is this a way of warding off loneliness or avoiding contemplating the meaningless of our lives? Who knows.

I am detecting very slow progress with my hip after the operation 10 days ago but sleeping is a problem. I either have to lie on my back (something I’m not used to), or sleep on my side with a pillow between my legs (which is quite an awkward manoeuvre). I am getting some sleep but I’m waiting up exhausted and I’m in pain. The quality of my sleep seems poor. In contrast, during the day, I am having at least two naps, lasting from 30-60 minutes which are truly blissful. The trick is to listen to an album I know well, and search for new moments to focus on. I normally listen to the first two or three songs and wake up when the album has finished and Spotify is playing something else. In hospital, the album I listened to was “Moondance” by Van Morrison. For the first few days at home I played “Blue Afternoon” by Tim Buckley and, since Sunday, I’ve been playing “Veedon Fleece” by Van Morrison.

In the first half of the 1970’s, Van Morrison was running hot. He released five studio albums in fewer than four years and he assembled one of the greatest live acts of all time, the 12-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. In early 1974, he released the double album, “It’s Too Late To Stop Now”, which raised the bar on the sound quality the public could expect from a live record. In April 1974, he played two phenomenal shows at The Hammersmith Odeon which were so exciting that the audience (including me) refused to leave, even after the fire curtain was lowered.

During late 1973, Van Morrison visited Ireland for a vacation. The “Troubles” prevented him from travelling to his native Belfast and his time was spent in Southern Ireland. He had recently divorced Janet Rigsbee (Janet Planet) and was accompanied by his new fiancée Carol Guida.

In my opinion, (one that isn’t shared with any other review that I can find), the songs on this album fall, lyrically, into one of three categories. “Fair Play”, Streets Of Arklow”, “Comfort You”, “Come Here My Love” and “Country Fair” describe the joy and enchantment he felt on his Irish holiday. “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac” describe the breakdown of his marriage with Janet Rigsbee. Finally, “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights”, “Who Was That Masked Man” and “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River” are heavily influenced by his newly found interest in Gestalt Therapy.

Gestalt therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps clients focus on the present rather than dwell in the past or worry about the future. One aspect of the therapy involves re-enactment of past events to observe how a client’s thought patterns block true self-awareness. Past emotions must be actively experienced in the present. Anyone who fails to understand why their own behaviours cause discomfort and unhappiness is supposed to be suitable for gestalt therapy. One feature of the therapy is a role playing exercise (called “The Empty Chair”) that allows the client to imagine and participate in a conversation with another person or a part of themselves.

A therapist called Barry Stevens published a book in 1970 called “Don’t Push The River (It Flows By Itself)” which describes her investigation of Gestalt therapy. She believed that unconscious feelings could surface, given the right circumstances.

In 1987, Van Morrison released an album called “Poetic Champions Compose”. One of the best songs on this album is called “Alan Watts Blues” and part of the lyrics read “I’m cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown, sitting up on the mountain top in my solitude where the morning fog comes rolling in”. Alan Watts was an ordained minister from San Francisco and was an influential promoter of the Zen philosophy. In a 1960 essay called “This Is It”, he wrote “The central core of the experience of cosmic consciousness seems to be the conviction that the immediate ‘now’, whatever it’s nature, is the goal and fulfilment of all living”. This identification, acknowledgment and celebration of transcendental moments is at the core of the best Van Morrison songs. Moments of rebirth occur when he watches Janet Rigsbee care for her son in “Astral Weeks”, when he appreciates the fabulous autumnal evening in “Moondance”, when he hears a foghorn in “Into The Mystic” and when he is out in a snowfall in “Snow In San Anselmo”. Whether these moments can be described within the context of Gestalt therapy or Zen philosophy is irrelevant. Van Morrison’s search for the moments of rebirth, of transcendence, of temporary elevation to a higher plane, is what makes some of his records and many of his live performances so enthralling. It’s as if we are witnessing an artistic genius communing with a higher power.

Van Morrison has stated that “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River” was heavily influenced by Gestalt therapy. The song is, quite possibly, the most remarkable and experimental of all his work. Before discussing the lyrics, it’s worth bearing in mind that the nine minutes of this song contain a fantastic arrangement, great dynamics and an astonishingly powerful and emotional vocal performance. Even by Van Morrison’s own high standards, it’s beyond superlatives. The music includes a dramatic string arrangement by Jef Labes, the keyboard player with The Caledonia Soul Orchestra.

The lyrics to this song are complex and can’t be interpreted literally so I’m going to offer my own analysis. When Van Morrison sings “you don’t pull no punches”, I like to imagine him in therapy, talking to himself in “an empty chair” and acknowledging that he has a reputation for speaking his mind and often being difficult to get along with. Bear in mind that the song was written around the time of his divorce from Janet Rigsbee. The second half of the phrase is “but you don’t push the river” which I interpret as him telling himself to be pro active about finding happiness. Gestalt therapy would allow him to find happiness, fulfilment and enlightenment. His search for transformation to a higher plane of contentment would result in him exploring William Blake, The Eternals and The Sisters Of Mercy, all of whom are mentioned in the song. William Blake wrote about The Eternals and their search for the truth about creation in “The Book Of Urizen” in 1794. The Sisters Of Mercy are an Irish religious order. The ultimate goal is to find the “Veedon Fleece” which is a phrase made up by Van Morrison to represent the ultimate moment of rebirth, a concept he explored on “Astral Weeks”.

“Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” and “Who Was That Masked Man” are linked insofar as the last line of the former (“Now he’s living with a gun”) lead into the first line of the latter (“Ain’t it lonely when you’re living with a gun”). These are two gentle songs with dramatic vocals. Van Morrison screams out the lines in the former song and adopts a wonderful falsetto for the latter. Ostensibly, the lyrics are nonsensical but, again, my own interpretation is of Van Morrison addressing himself in an “empty chair”, admonishing himself for his former attitude in which he exuded aggression and hid away from happiness. “You can’t trust anyone. You sit there like a butterfly. You’re well protected by the glass”.

“Fair Play” is the opening song on the album and is a work of astonishing beauty. Apart from Van Morrison’s soulful vocals, the most arresting aspect of the track is the piano playing of James Trumbo. He was the original keyboard player in the Caledonia Soul Orchestra before being replaced by Jef Labes after three months. It’s possible to regard the entire six minutes of the song as a piano piece with some vocal backing. The inventiveness and sensitivity of James Trumbo’s performance doesn’t fade with repeated listening.

Lyrically, “Fair Play” evades literal interpretation. Here is my interpretation. Fresh from experiencing Gestalt therapy, Van Morrison is determined to find fulfilment in the present and he has one of the moments of rebirth that inspired so many songs on “Moondance”. He is on holiday in Ireland, walking around the lakes of Killarney with Carol Guida, and she is coming out with clichés from her childhood such as “tit for tat”, “hi-ho silver”, “Geronimo” and “Fair Play”. As these phrases emerge, Van Morrison is suffused with love for her. There’s a particular moment when they are walking through a meadow which he sings as “there’s only one meadow’s way to go and you say ‘Geronimo’”. This phrase captures the feeling exactly, which is why he repeats it eight times.

(Although Geronimo was a leader of the Bedonhoke band of the Apache people in the 19th century, the use of the phrase in this song is more likely to derive from the exclamation of exhilaration used by US paratroopers when jumping from a plane. The first platoon to use parachutes in August 1940 had relaxed the night before by watching a 1939 film, simply called “Geronimo”. “Hi-Ho Silver” is a common mishearing of “Hi-Yo Silver”, a cry from The Lone Ranger while exhorting his horse, Silver, to take him and Tonto to their next adventure. The phrase “Fair Play” first came to Van Morrison’s attention when his Irish friend, Donall Corbin used it. It is a saying that implies approval and encouragement.)

“Streets Of Arklow”, “Comfort You”, “Come Here My Love” and “Country Fair” were all written during Van Morrison’s holiday in Southern Ireland and are blissful evocations of love, harmony and contentment. “Come Here My Love” is fairly unusual in his canon of work insofar as the only musical accompaniment is an acoustic guitar, thus allowing us to wallow in the emotional depth of his extraordinary voice.

The first two songs on Side Two of “Veedon Fleece” are “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac”. These are more up-tempo and have a different feel to the other eight songs on the album. They were recorded at different sessions with a different band. An attractive feature of the running order is how the two pairs of similar sounding songs (“Linden Arden Stole The Highlights”/“Who Was That Masked Man” and “Bulbs”/“Cul De Sac”) are placed together.

One of my favourite radio DJs was Andy Kershaw and at some time in the early Nineties, he introduced a Van Morrison song by saying “I wish Van Morrison would go into a studio and just roar.” I know what he means because in the second part of his recording career, Van Morrison has kept things in check a little. His voice continues, even in 2021 at the age of 76, to be strong but mostly he keeps the emotion on an even keel. This was not the case on “Veedon Fleece”. There are countless moments where he lets it all out. He may not roar but he certainly screams. One of my favourite moments occurs after four minutes of “Cul De Sac”. He repeats “you know”; the guitar player responds; he scat sings and finally screams uncontrollably before the song fades out to more repeated noises that I can only describe as “Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw haw”. (Writing about music is similar to dancing about food). The whole of the last two minutes of this song are a magnificent improvisation.

In 2008, when the album was re-released an alternative version of “Cul De Sac” was included. I’m not normally a fan of alternative versions as, more often than not, all they do is confirm that the original decision as to which recording to include, was probably the correct one. However, in this case, the alternative version is equally brilliant. It’s shorter, slower and more mournful and includes a truly masterful vocal performance (but with no screaming).

Lyrically, “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac” may well be about emigration to America (according to Wikipedia) but I prefer to regard these as sad epitaphs to a failed relationship with Janet Rigsbee. The cul de sac represents the dead end of a marriage with nowhere to go. The bulbs in the relationship have blown and she is left screaming in an alleyway.

When I started reading up on the background to this album, I came across a wonderful post by Winston which shows more insight and understanding than I can muster.

Works of such sublime beauty and majesty bear repeated listening. I can’t imagine a time in my life when I will ever tire of listening to this music.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

2 thoughts on “Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison

  1. Thanks. Once again you’ve drawn my attention to a brilliant album which, for some reason, I haven’t played for ages. Like you, I’ll probably be playing it all the time now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for linking to my Veedon Fleece album review, and for contributing your own thoughtful insights into this neglected masterpiece.

    Reading your post certainly provides some interesting details that compliment and flesh out some aspects of the album that my review has perhaps glossed over or not emphasised sufficiently, although I think it is fairly safe to say that we are largely on the same page as far as our understanding of the subtext behind Morrison’s lyrics and their metaphoric associations.

    Anyway, always a pleasure to correspond with someone who appreciates music like this, which stands in stark contrast to much of what passes for musical expression in the last two decades.

    Fair play to you, Mick. Hope the hip gets better. The first couple of months are pretty rough.

    Winston

    Liked by 1 person

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