I am, or at least try to be, a Van Morrison fan. Van is a notoriously “difficult” character — known for an ornery persona with labels, promoters, the press and fans alike. I have no problem with any of that. In fact, truth be told, I sort of like his wariness and mistrust of celebrity and of the music industry. And I’m certainly more than OK with the idea of loving the art, not the artist.
So, it wasn’t Van’s personality that made it tough to be a fan. Instead, it was simply the fact that his catalogue was a mess. The back-catalogue had fallen into incredible disrepair. For the last 15 years or so, a good portion of Van’s music was out of print on CD, and absent from streaming services like Spotify and Slacker. You literally could not listen to pristine versions of life-changing albums like St. Dominics Preview or Into The Music without breaking the law or breaking your bank account.
So, I approached the news that Sony was cleaning up and readying the Van Morrison catalogue with realistic expectations. Van Morrison was a self-professed music industry hater, grappling with a digital era that he certainly couldn’t feel much natural affinity with.
Yet, here we are. Sony has done a nice job, under no doubt difficult circumstances. The new Essentials CD is well curated, combining tracks from Them, the Warner titles, and Sony’s newly licensed stockpile into a worthwhile overview.
More importantly, they have at least plugged the gaping digital hole that was Van Morrison’s streaming catalogue. 3 of the 4 Warner albums and these 33 Sony titles are now available for streaming. For depth of emotion, commitment to chasing the muse, and pure musical delight these albums represent a catalogue of music that rivals any solo artist in the history of rock.
Van creates a unique musical mix of R&B, Rock and Roll, Celtic folk, Soul, New Orleans blues and jazz, all while he searches for transcendence. It is art of the highest order. It is the only music I know that sounds simultaneously completely spontaneous, and yet inevitable. And its all so intimate, so personal, as to make almost every other artist sound artificial.
Griel Marcus breaks this down:
People take Van Morrison personally. Incidents from his music enter the events of their lives – events in their love lives, their family lives, births and especially deaths – and people feel as if he put those incidents in their lives. As if, in some way, he’s there. Not in any magical sense – just in the manner in which art is supposed to work: it touches you. And won’t let go. People have always talked about the certainty they had that when Elvis Presley sang – on record, especially in person, but even on television – he was singing directly to them. This is different. It’s a feeling people get that Morrison has already lived the events that they’re living out or have lived out – or haven’t yet lived out, but may – that he’s been there first, and put those events into songs, into music, into an emotional form that can be transferred into a thing, a record, an LP or a CD or a download on a computer or an iPod, something you can physically refer to, that produces an apprehension of the real, the tangible. In other words, not he’s singing to you; in a certain sense, he has lived your life for you.
Listen to Van Morrison on Slacker here.