B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
IT MUST BE fan adoration, or maybe respect for his patriarchal status, that keeps Van Morrison from being branded the most blatant hypocrite in music. The man has written and recorded spiritual songs for nearly 20 years, yet is an unapologetic and abrasive misanthrope of legendary proportion--quite at odds with the humanity-loving expectations of nearly every religion in the world, including all the ones he has dabbled in. No one is exempt from his wrath--not previous lovers, fans, or even other musicians (he has accused Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger of stealing his style).
Morrison can certainly spew anger and suspicion: His disgust with the expectations and deceitfulness of others, especially those in the music business, spills out in dozens of songs like "Why Must I Always Explain," "Professional Jealousy," "Take Your Hand Out Of My Pocket," and as far back as 1966, the cynical impromptu blues "The Big Royalty Check."
That he can follow such vicious diatribes with the likes of "Be Thou My Vision" or "Whenever God Shines His Light" without sounding ludicrous is amazing. He both spits and spiritualizes so artfully that we look forward to both, and we don't mind that one never addresses the other.
Morrison's newest--Days Like This--his twenty-fifth solo effort, drops the balancing act. His distaste for humanity remains as strong as ever while his spiritual searching is waning--not that the change is with the worse. Morrison introduces a new element, for the first time acknowledging the relationship between his depression and his displeasure with nearly everyone. That he struggles with lifelong depression is new information, the paralleling history of meanness definitely is not.
There are stories of his aloofness and assaultiveness from every stage of his career: He once threatened the keyboardist in Them with a microphone stand mid-concert, and intentionally infuriated an audience of England's tough Teddy Boys to near riot by repeatedly referring to them as "wankers."
On the heels of "Brown-eyed Girl," Morrison flagrantly wasted a studio session--the studio being an environment Morrison has always hated--by improvising throwaway songs about ringworm; how he wants a danish; and one whose only lyrics are, "You say France and I whistle, no, you whistle and I say France, no..." The inevitable problems with Bang Records eventually led to him accusing the label of tapping his phone and framing him for drug possession.
Although the private Morrison chose to marry, his isolative ways destroyed the relationship. Refusal to leave the house for anything unrelated to music resulted in divorce from Janet Planet, the woman on the cover of Tupelo Honey. His religious interest began shortly after, as if Morrison had decided that spiritual love was the only dependable kind.
The search for God did not diminish his disregard for others. A former band member related that his motto during this time was "The show does not have to go on." In 1973 he contributed so little to what was to be a two-hour Morrison tribute on English television that only 30 minutes were salvageable, with Morrison ignoring the interviewer and loudly strumming his guitar whenever asked a question.
Responding to an interviewer's question regarding 1988's Irish Heartbeat, he stated that "it doesn't really matter" how he hooked up with the supporting band, The Chieftains, and that it was "a stupid question, really"; and, as for the choice of songs, "there is no why."
Though he has long defended his behavior by insisting that his privacy is continually being invaded, there have been clues that Morrison's discomfort is at least partially an internal struggle involving only himself. His refusal at one point to allow PolyGram Records to release publicity photos was a curious move that didn't really protect his private life, but most certainly points to the likelihood of a very fragile self image.
Morrison has immersed himself in Christian mysticism, the teachings of Gurdijieff, Zen Buddhism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Rosicrucianism and Scientology--which can be seen either as an admirable study of religions or a desperate process of discarding one belief system after another for not having brought him peace.
He appears to have concluded that none of them ever will. "No Religion," the only cut on Days Like This that focuses on the spiritual, presents the attainment of spiritual values as an impossibility: "Some say why don't you love your neighbor," he sings. "Go ahead and turn the other cheek/ nobody on this planet/ that can ever be so meek."
And Morrison still has plenty of unloved neighbors. "Raincheck" assures the listeners that he "won't let the bastards get me down," and "Russian Roulette" refers to the potential loss of self when, through dangerously entertaining the values of others, "everything gets contracted/ and space gets confused."
What has replaced Morrison's frantic search for peace is a sense of resignation and introspection. "Underlying Depression" and "Melancholia" are much more psychologically revealing than one would expect from him, with Morrison admitting in the former song that he battles a lifelong depression that "started in my backyard" and that he was "born with the blues, my blue suede shoes, and underlying depression." And, he has concluded that melancholia "doesn't go away when the church bell chimes."
If these lyrics represent Morrison today, comfort has not been found in any of the faiths he has investigated, but may lie back at the door of the brown-eyed girl.
One of his discarded philosophies, Zen Buddhism, holds that enlightenment comes when the seeker gives up the search. Since his latest disc hints he's no longer relying on a furious spiritual quest as the cosmic antidepressant, it could be that his dismissal of religious searching will ironically bring him exactly what he is looking for.
What we listeners might hope for him is that Morrison acknowledge a second irony: that the thousands of nosy, obtrusive fans who bring out the ire in this Irishman also wish him peace.
Cutline: Shady character: Glaring contradictions between his life and his music make Van Morrison one of rock's most enigmatic idols.
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