- 29 Sep 20
Van’s third decade as a recording artist built steadily towards another masterwork, in the extraordinary shape of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Pat Carty raves on with words on printed page.
Van Morrison had a far better time of it in the eighties than any of his contemporaries. Grimace in pain as you remember Dylan’s Down In The Groove or Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog. Even Leonard Cohen, a man who could nearly always be trusted, dropped the ball slightly on I’m Your Man by dousing a fine set of songs in a production that instantly dated them. Mind you, Van Morrison doesn’t really have any contemporaries. He ploughs his own furrow.
His first release in the decade taste forgot was 1980’s Common One, a toe-dip in jazzier waters, after the glorious R&B soul of Into The Music. It has its advocates, like Jim Sheridan here, and it's growing on me too, especially ‘Haunts Of Ancient Peace’, the Miles Davis In A Silent Way-evoking 'When Heart Is Open', and the fifteen-and-a-half minutes of ‘Summertime In England’, which all warrant investigation, the latter in particular espousing Van’s musical philosophy: “It ain’t why, it just is.” Don’t ask questions, dig it.
Beautiful Vision ranks - to my mind at least - as his second greatest album of the decade. In discussing it, we could go on about the influence of the theosophical writings of Alice Bailey, who expanded the Hindu notion of divine rays as the creative forces in the universe. You can hear ‘Celtic Ray’ as an evocation of the ray of the ancient voices, calling to those of us lucky enough to have been born in the Celtic hinterlands of these islands, and Bailey’s ideas also illuminate ‘Dweller On The Threshold’ and ‘Aryan Mist’.
We could do that, but put aside what you think of theosophy and just enjoy one of Morrison’s great collections of tunes. ‘She Gives Me Religion’, ‘Beautiful Vision’ and ‘Vanlose Stairway’ work as love songs, divorced from any more esoteric concerns; and ‘Cleaning Windows’ will always warm the heart of anyone who has ever longed to get back from a day job to their own world of music and ideas, of Kerouac and Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers and Christmas Humphreys.
Rave On Through Time And Space
Though the title Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983) is a beautiful phrase, perhaps influenced by George Bernard Shaw, that perfectly sums up the magic of music, I’m not sure about the notion of a Celtic Jazz hybrid, towards which the music leans. But the songs are there all the same. ‘Rave On, John Donne’ and ‘The Streets Only Knew Your Name’ in particular are of the highest calibre – although they would ultimately sound better on Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast and The Philosopher’s Stone.
The ghosts of poets past are a tangible presence too on A Sense Of Wonder (1985). It opens with ‘Tore Down a la Rimbaud’ – a lyric that Van is said to have been playing around with since Veedon Fleece; and there are two songs – ‘A New Kind Of Man’ and ‘Let The Slave’ – which are directly inspired by, and even adapted from, William Blake, the English poet/seer who had inspired Morrison to the highest of heights on ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River’.
Recorded with Moving Hearts (who also feature on the instrumental ‘Boffyflow and Spike’), the title-track is a stand-out. ‘The Master’s Eyes’ – a favourite of fellow Celtic soul disciple Liam Ó Maonlaí – came from a friend’s mystical experience, when he was ‘visited’ by a master of Rosicrucianism, the old order who had access to ancient truths hidden from normal men, and saw through his eyes, and his “questions all were answered.” Speaking of poets and visions and the like, Mose Alison’s ‘If You Only Knew’ was added at the last minute to replace Van’s arrangement of Yeats’ ‘Crazy Jane On God’ as W.B.’s estate felt that only classical music was good enough for his precious phraseology, although they would later relent, and the track appeared on the 2008 CD reissue.
Rave On Fill The Senses
And then came another masterpiece. In short, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986) is more than fit to stand beside Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. Everything that Van Morrison had been experimenting with, and building on, throughout his career was brought together here.
The opening lines of ‘Got To Go Back’ recall his youth, sitting in school, dreaming out the window, and then going home to listen to Ray Charles. It’s a similar declaration to ‘Cleaning Windows’: we can be lifted beyond the ordinariness of the everyday by art and dreams. We’ve got to go back to that state of bliss. “For the healing,” he sings, “go on with the dreaming.”
Recorded in Sausalito and London’s Townhouse Studios, the music is gentle, with a return to the intimate style of Veedon Fleece. Jeff Labes was back behind his rolling piano, and joined by Kate St. John’s oboe, with not a lot of takes within which to overthink things.
The ideal of healing through nature and art is a seam that runs through Van Morrison’s work – one need only bask in the glory that is ‘And The Healing Has Begun’ from Into The Music to be cured, for a few minutes at least, of whatever ails you – and it is here on ‘Oh The Warm Feeling’. Van is returned to a childhood state of bliss by sunshine and the sea; it is the goddess of nature who smiles on him; it is she who gives him religion. ‘Foreign Window’ deals with redemption through suffering, according to Van himself, although there may be something here too about the Indian notion of reincarnation – possibly passed down to the Celts through a slave of Pythagoras – in the lines, “If you get it right this time, you don’t have to come back again.” Lord Byron and Rimbaud are also on the premises, and maybe Bob Dylan – when Van recalls: “You were singing about Rimbaud.” Dylan went on to blow harp on this song with Van for a 1989 documentary shot on the Hill of the Muses in Athens, titled One Irish Rover.
The Celebration Will Be Held
Two months before No Guru, No Method, No Teacher was due to be released, the Self Aid concert took place in the Royal Dublin Showgrounds, an event modelled on Live Aid with the aim of highlighting Ireland’s chronic unemployment problems during that chaotic decade. While many in the crowd might have hoped that Van would throw out the “hits”, he was having none of it, and instead played three songs that no one had yet heard: ‘Thanks For The Information’, ‘Here Comes The Knight’ and ‘A Town Called Paradise’. Introducing the latter, he referred to himself in the third person. “If Van Morrison was a gunslinger,” he said, “there’d be a terrible lot of dead copycats. There are absolutely no copycats in paradise, just a little corner I’ve carved out for myself.”
Who was he addressing? Bob Geldof has always acknowledged Van Morrison’s influence. Bono, Paul Brady, Shane MacGowan and Elvis Costello, also on the bill, have all tipped the cap to Van along the way. The truth is that it would be virtually impossible to find a musician or songwriter who hasn’t been influenced by Van. Luckily, for the listener, these songs – plus the album’s jaunty closer ‘Ivory Tower’ – sport melodies and arrangements that dispel any sense of rancour or unease.
‘In The Garden’ occupies the same position here as ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches’ on Veedon Fleece. Positioned at the end of side one, it is the centrepiece of the record and similarly lays out Morrison’s philosophical stall. The delicate piano reflects the gentle summer rain in the lyrics, as the writer finds solace in nature, a healing and a rebirth, a creature all in rapture with the key to their soul and a childlike vision. The double-bass, piano and acoustic guitar gently make room for the words in a way that’s similar to Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, and then almost slip away as Morrison gets to his central tenet. He whispers and growls, revealing the truth he has found: “No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I in nature, and the father in the garden. Listen.”
Rave On Thy Holy Fool
The “most wonderful aura” of Krishnamurti, the son of a clerk at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in what was formerly know as Madras in India, was first noticed by one of Madame Blavatsky’s stuffed baboons, self-proclaimed clairvoyant, Charles Webster Leadbeater, in 1909. The society, with its stated basic aim of universal brotherhood, and its belief in the notion of spiritual adepts know as masters, took in Krishnamurti and raised him to be a world teacher, establishing the Order Of The Star In The East around him. As a young man, Krishnamurti dissolved the order. “The moment you follow someone, you cease to follow truth,” he said. “There is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no master, no saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything. And to understand is to transform what is.” This is where Morrison’s searching had led him. Call it God, or nature, of the universe, or art, but Morrison had emerged from all the side streets of investigation that had distracted him, gaining hard-won awareness that his own soul, and love, were the only guides he really needed.
More gardens are wet with rain as souls are made young again in the mythical land of eternal youth, ‘Tír Na nÓg’, a song lifted by a string arrangement for Labes, which makes you wonder what might have been had he been let loose in a similar fashion elsewhere. A US tour in the month of the album’s release, culminating in a show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, which was broadcast on American radio, featured a Labes string arrangement for ‘In The Garden’. The bootleg hints at something beautiful that Van should consider releasing.
‘Here Comes The Knight’ finds Morrison slipping some Yeats past the estate (“They say cast a cold eye on life, on death”), in a love song that succeeds, despite its jokey title, in conveying the notion of a “love that will surely last forever.” ‘One Irish Rover’ could be about Van himself, as wandering musician. It’s just another layer ripe for speculation, on an album rife with meaning. No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is Van Morrison’s most successful melding of music and ideas since Veedon Fleece.
Rave On Let A Man Come Out Of Ireland
On Poetic Champions Compose (1987), Van is perhaps less involved in wrestling with ultimate truths. ‘Someone Like You’ is as good a love song as you’ll hear any day of the week, and ‘Queen Of The Slipstream’ is equally hard to resist. Zen makes a return in ‘Alan Watts Blues’. And on ‘Did Ye Get Healed?’, on a jazz flow that has major 7ths to the fore, Van asks the question directly: “I wanna know did you get the feeling…” But that isn’t all. “Sometimes, when the spirit moves me,” he confesses, “I can do many wondrous things/ I want to know when the spirit moves you/ Did ye get healed?”
Van took his affinity for Irish music to its logical conclusion by collaborating with The Chieftains on the marvellous Irish Heartbeat. The title-track seems a much better fit here than it was on Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart, and ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, ‘My Lagan Love’ and most especially ‘Carrickfergus’ have an affecting sparseness and soul to them to match anything that ever sprang from Memphis, as Van’s voice finds a natural home in the peerless playing of Ireland’s great trad orchestra. Those in search of more Van/Chieftains action are advised to seek out the great version of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ on Hymns To The Silence.
Avalon Sunset kept a streak going that even a duet with Cliff Richard could not derail. It’s a beautifully arranged, orchestrated, and produced record, and was a deserved hit. ‘I’m Tired Joey Boy’ graced several Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concerts and Rod Stewart’s cover of the lovely ‘Have I Told You Lately’ must have paid for a few philosophy books. It was also the first song at my wedding, but I can hardly blame Van for how that panned out. ‘Coney Island’ is its own kind of poetry, and the album – and the decade – end with ‘These Are The Days’. While lines like “There’s only here, there’s only now” might hark back to his interest in Gestalt therapy during the glory day of Veedon Fleece, it’s really more a song of belief in something better, allied to an apparent contentment in where he’s found himself.
People – and I’m one of them – quite rightly speak in hushed tones about Van Morrison’s seventies output, but, and whisper this too, pound for pound, his 1980s were just as artistically – and spiritually – rewarding.
Rave on, rave on, rave on...