I did an extremely un-me thing the other day. Come to think of it, I can’t think of too many music scribes who would have done it either. I dug out an old album and reversed my opinion. In a good way.
The waxing in question was A Period of Transition, one of the least beloved of all Van Morrison’s works and one I had not listened to in its entirety since its release in 1977. At the time, sure, I’d noted the exceedingly occasional less-than-weedy constituent – Heavy Connection, Cold Wind in August – but the overall sense of disappointment, after an interminable three-year wait since the superlative Veedon Fleece, had been overwhelming. No album had let my teenage self down with a bigger, more dispiriting bump.
Nor did it help that, after a painful promotional interview with Nicky Horne on Capital Radio, the Man Himself, having kindly signed my copy of Astral Weeks (now framed in gold and living large on the lounge wall), came across in person as the biggest grouch since The Grinch. How on earth, my sister and I wondered as we discussed this with his shortlived manager Harvey Goldsmith, could someone capable of such beauty be so…so…so…the opposite?
Four decades on, A Period of Transition sounded positively inspired. Maybe it was the fuller sound afforded by a combination of CD and iPod as compared with a wafer-thin slab of vinyl on a cheap record player, but here, in all its uncelebrated glory, is Van’s Stax album. Maybe, in this age of download and overload, the presence of a piffling seven songs, only one of them exceeding five minutes, now sounds refreshingly concise. Maybe, after a period during which he had dabbled with all sorts of unfulfilled projects that would have been eminently worth releasing officially by a less picky performer – plus some unreleased sessions with The Crusaders that at least in theory sound gobsmackingly mouthwatering – it was the shift from white musicians to black.
Gone were Jeff Labes, John Platania, David Shaar and Jack Schroer, instrumental heartbeat of the band that gave us the showstoppingly magnificent It’s Too Late To Stop Now, still my favourite live album; in their stead, alongside Dr John (keyboards and guitar), came Reggie McBride (bass), Ollie Brown (drums) and Jerry Jumonville (sax). From the opening You Gotta Make It Through The World, the result is mostly as funky as hell.
All this ultimately achieved, nonetheless, was to send me even further back, as ever, to Hard Nose the Highway, an album released 40 years ago this July and grudgingly granted a single star in my copy of the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide (ie. “poor”, a smidge above “worthless”).
If ever a record has been damned by received wisdom, Hard Nose has. How curious, then, to dig up the magazine’s original review by Stephen Holden, who not only characterised it as “psychologically complex, musically somewhat uneven and lyrically excellent” but praised the “cornucopia of understated, subtly-shaded and shifting instrumental textures that provide a sympathetic setting for Van’s vocal ruminations”. Then again, come the end of the Seventies, Van was about as hip as kaftans in Kansas.
In terms of the Morrison canon, Hard Nose stands as the ante-penultimate entry in an incredible sequence of recordings that saw him scale varying peaks of wonderment. True, Blowin’ Your Mind, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey all had their duff passages, but no other musician’s first nine albums (including the live It’s Too Late…) have so delighted this heart and soul upon first discovery. According to the law of averages and the knee-jerk school of popular music criticism, Hard Nose was predestined to incur wrath.
It was the fifth follow-up to Astral Weeks, whose folky dreamscapes had become a distant memory. Never mind the experimentation of Almost Independence Day and Listen to the Lion on the preceding album, 1972’s St Dominic’s Preview: the critics were primed to dump on the Belfast Cowboy’s increasing predilection for smooth R&B. The contemporary critical reception was perhaps best encapsulated by Clive James’s review in Cream:
“The blues originated in the compulsion to reveal anguish, the distortions of the sung word transmitting the emotion from which it sprang. Morrison, who has mastered a formidable range of blues effects, uses distortion to furbish triteness. In concealing artlessness with art, Morrison merely follows the trend of most of the sophisticated rock in recent years. The result is technique deprived of expressive force, and a general pleasantness of effect which leaves you convinced that prettiness is the enemy of the beautiful. Hard Nose The Highway is a wonderfully accomplished album which will do everything for you except engage your mind.”
Me? As someone to whom the blues per se never held much appeal, I couldn’t get enough of it, still can’t. Perhaps it helped that my introduction to Van was a crash course. Guided primarily by the pages and sages of Let It Rock, between May 1973 and October 1974 I bought, in turn, Moondance, Astral Weeks, St Dominic’s, It’s Too Late…, Hard Nose and Veedon Fleece. Half a dozen well-nigh perfect albums, none sounding more than a whit like its predecessor. That’s why A Period of Transition – which contained nothing remotely as gorgeous as the title tracks of His Band… and Tupelo Honey, let alone the joyous uplift of the former’s Crazy Face or the latter’s (Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball – was, initially, such a colossal letdown.
It felt somewhat apt that, in the process of transferring some 11,000 songs from iTunes to iPod late last year, The Great Deception, the worst track on Hard Nose by a mile, fell between the virtual cracks. Even then, the depth of anger and the lyrical message, a template for all those anti-rockbiz diatribes that would form such a self-indulgent thread to Van’s outpourings over the next three decades, rendered redundant all that followed.
The rest, to these ears, remains the epitome of the guilty pleasure (guilty only because so many of those I otherwise respect detest it). Pick a moment, any moment. The stonking, surging horns that take Snow in San Anselmo in the very opposite direction to the one you anticipate; the chirping flute and none-sweeter ache of Warm Love; Van referencing These Dreams of You on the title track as he wails inimitably through the closing bars; the combination of Platania’s echoey featherlight guitar, Labes’s delicate tinkling and that heartbreakingly tender vocal on Wild Children; and, to top all that, the gently understated three-punch majesty of the entire second side.
Unbelievers may regard the trinity of Green, Autumn Song and Purple Heather as Van’s first and worst foray into MOR – the first a take on Kermit the Frog’s Sesame Street lament, the last based on Wild Mountain Tyme, a 19th Century Scottish poem-turned-blues-folk standard, the second courtesy of the Man’s inner Sinatra. For me, they constitute my favourite side of vinyl. Better than side 4 of Tales from Topographic Oceans; better than side 3 of Quadrophenia; better than side 2 of Hejira or Low; better than Side 1 of Something/Anything? or even (sacrilege!) Astral Weeks Itself.
If I was confronted by the business end of a double-barrelled blunderbuss, I might just be persuaded to nominate a single slice of sorcery. It comes during the final third of the 11-minute spell cast by the sumptuously atmospheric Autumn Song, where the rhythm slows, almost imperceptibly at first, and Van’s voice, accompanied sympathetically and telepathically by bass, lead guitar, soft brushes, piano and vibes, gradually scales back to a stream-of-consciousness whisper. The following, none of which appears in lyrics printed within the album sleeve, is an extremely rough approximation of the utterings of his maestro’s voice:
Da da da, da da da, dah da-da – break out…you get what I’m saying…way out in the distance…way out in the distance… da da da, da da da, dah da-da…way over in the corrrr-nerrr…way out in the distance…a cable car…and I hear the church bells chime…and I hear the church bells chime…way out in the distance…hmmmmm a-mmmmmmmmm a-mmmmm a-mmmmm…annnnnnnnnnnn…infintessimal…beauty of your eyes…and just me in my starlight, gazin’…gazin’…bracing something…turn around…hand on my shoulder…it’s so peaceful…it’s so peaceful…inside…inside…inside…I believe I’ll…I believe I’ll…consider myself a child…consider myself a child…consider myself a child…da-da da-dow, da da da-da…dah..oww.
Amid this showcase for the most purely expressive voice in the business, a voice unbounded by the constraints of dictionary or sense, comes The Moment. Or, rather, The Moments. There are, after all, two of them. As his boss finishes the word “chimes”, Labes presses a single note, on what sounds suspiciously like an electric piano, with a clarity too exquisitely delicate and yes, too damned perfect to be adequately described. So I’ll stop right there – bar, that is, submitting the view that no song title – not Alan Hull’s Winter Song, not Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song, not The Who’s My Generation nor even Zeppelin’s Rock ‘n’ Roll – has ever done a finer job in anticipating its contents.
You were quite right, Clive, my dear old Antipodean thing: there isn’t much here for the mind – unless, that is, one counts an uncanny capacity to ease a troubled one at the end of the most trying of days. For this fiftysomething’s heart, soul and toes too, it still does the trick every time. I strongly suspect it always will.