Want a Danish from Van Morrison?
I knew from repeated experimentation — and subsequent disappointment — that Van Morrison records had stopped being worth owning sometime between Veedon Fleece and Wavelength — and even that mid-70s block was a marginal, iffy period. To have a truly psychedelic experience with Van required a large supply of candles and a Mexican Talavera candlestick, a painful breakup or some other source of profound melancholy, and an evening or two of total, incense-drenched immersion in Astral Weeks or a few of the more floaty tracks from Moondance or The Bang Masters. Van at his apex was a powerful force – the passion of Joe Cocker, mind-melded with the mysticism of Nick Drake.
Creem Magazine rock writer Lester Bangs on a live Van performance from the Astral Weeks era:
Just those words, repeated slowly again and again, distended, permutated, turned into scat, suspended in space and then scattered to the winds, muttered like a mantra till they turn into nonsense syllables, then back into the same soaring image as time seems to stop entirely. He stands there with eyes closed, singing, transported, while the band poises quivering over great open-tuned deep blue gulfs of their own.
It all went downhill from there. It’s not that there was never any Van worth hearing after 1974, only that he had trouble getting back to that altered state he did so well. He searched, he stayed open, he pecked at solid ground for rabbit holes into which he might descend. But as years went by, he found fewer and fewer of them. There are beautiful tracks on nearly every Morrison record, but nothing like the kick-you-in-the-heart poetry of “T.B. Sheets” or the truly funky blues of “The Back Room.” I’ve been trying to figure out exactly when Van jumped the shark for good, and have subjectively pinned it at Common One, just as the twilight’s last gleaming transformed the 70s into the 80s. As Roger described it, Van started “mailing it in,” even going as far as to have guest singers take the lead parts from time to time.
But I still believed, mostly as a result of consistent hearsay, that live Van was a whole different thing. People returning from his shows would use words like “out of body experience” and “the room turned inside out” to describe his shows well into the early 90s. I never had the pleasure, but foolishly believed this was still the case. Then I caught an hour of live contemporary Van on Austin City Limits the other night. Excited to catch up on everything I’d missed, I settled in with a bowl of crunchy trans-fats, ready for my annual injection of soul food and… was absolutely crushed. Warmed-over, middle-age blues crap played before a warmed-over, middle age blues audience so excited to witness an idol in action that they pretended to have a good time, acted like nothing was wrong. But something was desperately wrong – there was no there there. No spontaneous levitation, no syllables repeated like percussion to lift you out of your head, no proof of God’s existence. Just warmed-over blues crap. Van was mailing it in. He just. Didn’t. Care.
So what about that Danish?
Van’s been mailing it in, off and on, for a long time now. But the way he mails it in today is very different from the way he mailed it in in 1967. Once upon a time, Bang Records had Van on contract to generate a certain number of tracks in a certain time period. Your classic Contractual Obligation. According to WFMU:
In order to fulfill his obligation to his early solo label Bang Records, Van Morrison sat down in 1967 or so and cranked out 31 songs on the spot, on topics ranging from ringworm to wanting a danish, to hating his record label and a guy named George.
The lyrics he came up with, apparently without any forethought whatsoever, beat the hell out of anything on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart or Too Long in Exile. Take “Ringworm,” for example:
I can see by the look on your face
that you’ve got ringworm.
I’m very sorry to have to tell you, but you’ve got ringworm.
It’s a very common disease.
You’re very lucky to have … ringworm
because you may have had … something else.
Van Morrison – “Ringworm”
Fascinating to hear this proto-version of mailing-it-in. The difference between the 1967 approach to not caring and the 2007 version? He used to do it with style, and a healthy dose of dada. It gets better:
Want A Danish
You want a danish?
No, I just ate,
I’ve just ate.
Like, I want some bread up front.
Oh, bread up front. You want a sandwich?
Have a danish.
Want a sandwich?
Have a sandwich.
Have a seat.
Have a seat,
Have a sandwich,
Have a danish.
Van Morrison – I Want a Danish
Need more proof of just how good “mailing it in” can sound? WFMU has graciously posted all 31 tracks, ready for download. And someone else has graciously transcribed all of the lyrics, no matter how complicated.
The truth is, in 1967, Van’s version of not caring rocked. No — it punk rocked. Today, Van’s not caring is just more milquetoast. Trouble is, the vector’s all messed up. In ’67, Van was not caring in the direction of his record label. Today, he’s not caring in the direction of you. There’s a difference. Rumor is, Van still lifts off for parts unknown … but you never know when or where it’s going to happen. Until either “T.B. Sheets” or “Ringworm” are on the regular menu again, I’m laying low.