On the stage at Wolf Trap recently, Van Morrison was both lost and found in an ancient song.
He had already transformed "It's All In the Game" -- a genteel ballad written in the early 1900s by a future vice president of the United States, Charles Dawes, and revived as a polite R&B hit by Tommy Edwards in 1958 -- into a sly celebration of adolescent romance. But toward the end, the lyrics ran out and the song started singing Morrison.
"I don't wanna lose myself, I don't lose myself, I don't wanna lose myself . . . "
Propelled by one of the most expressive and resonant voices in pop, the warm, liquid lines crashed into themselves like overlapping waves, until suddenly Morrison broke off to begin a different incantation: "Make it real . . . make it real . . . make it real . . . one more time!"
Losing his self, seeking the real -- for almost 20 years now, Van Morrison has brilliantly inhabited the paradox these lines imply, mixing visionary meditations with nitty-gritty roots. A copy of no one, an influence on many, the Irish singer and songwriter remains one ld,10 SW,-2 SK,2 of the essential vocal stylists, drawing audiences into his mysterious world with music that gets inside a listener in a manner few singers can match.
Hardly the most prepossessing of stars, Morrison is short and plump, his once fiery thatch of rust-red hair thinning and even whitening in certain strands. The brow seems forever furrowed, the eyes restless, intense, wary, with the look of a man who has too many things on his mind.
Which, of course, he does.
As elusive in his public persona as he is allusive in his work, Morrison is a swirl of contradictions -- at times paranoid, prideful, obsessive, aggressive, introverted, bitter and reclusive. Like a great painter whose breakthrough came in advertising art, he seems angry to have come out of rock 'n' roll, as if it will always anchor him in the wrong harbor.
talks about it, he leans into his thoughts, biting off certain phrases the way he does in concert.
"I'm compelled to do this," he says simply. "I don't really know why myself. I've been trying to understand it for 20 years. It's a job, work, for one thing. I just feel that I'm driven to do this."
In those years, he's recorded innumerable classics -- ebullient songs like "Domino," "Blue Money," "St. Dominic's Preview" and "Into the Mystic"; masterwork albums like "Astral Weeks," "Moondance," "Veedon Fleece," "Into the Music" and "Common One." All in all, it's as distinguished a body of work as the past two decades have produced. But Morrison, who is currently playing to his biggest American audiences ever as a headliner, says he doesn't think so much in terms of songs and albums anymore.
"You sort of do songs and you become identified with songs and then, over so many years, people think that's what you're actually doing -- you're just up there singing songs and making albums. What I really do is much more than that."
*His art, he says, "is actually behind the songs, based on repetition. That's the essence of what I'm trying to communicate -- a meditative principle based on repetition . . . now realizing how to do that."
Morrison started trying to open up and restructure his music with "Common One" (1982), think I achieved it. I achieve it more playing live." But in the end, he says, he found a simple key.
"A friend of mine asked me, 'Has this got something to do with the songs?' And it suddenly clicked . . .When you write songs and record albums, you rely on a song's pattern, but that's not really what I do when I play live at all. In fact the whole thing is geared to the parts in between, the extensions of the songs, beginnings or endings more than anything else.
"The songs are great for jumping off on, but they're really the background to what I do -- the repetitions. That's what I'm really about."
Born in Belfast 41 years ago, Morrison benefited immensely from his cultural milieu and the eclectic tastes of his parents, who helped shape a vision mixing Celtic roots and American obsessions. His mother was a jazz and opera singer with a penchant for country and western and gospel, while his father was a blues aficionado.
Little wonder then that Morrison developed a passion and empathy for rhythm and blues and soul music (evident in many references to soul giants like Ray Charles and in joyful songs like "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)." In fact, Morrison's own music has often been described as Celtic soul, one of many descriptions he finds patronizing and misleading.
He was consumed by music early on, picking up guitar and saxophone and playing in local skiffle bands at 11. At 15, he dropped out of school, joined a rock band and toured Europe before eventually opening up his own rock club in Belfast.
In 1965 came Them.
Like their British compatriots, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, Them (or the Angry Young Them, as their record company called Morrison's band), championed a raucous, blues-based rock 'n' roll that was most appropriate to the working class bars and dances they played. It was loud music that demanded strong voices and simple statements, and Them contributed a couple of genre standards -- "Here Comes the Night" and "Gloria" -- before the band dissolved in a frenzy of bickering.
In 1967, Morrison had a solo hit with "Brown-Eyed Girl." But what came next (out of the blues, many thought) established him as more than a rock singer.
"Astral Weeks," released in 1968, stands as one of the masterpieces of its decade. A long, intricate, impressionistic cycle of song-poems, it was built on the hypnotic vocal style Morrison has spent the subsequent years refining: elastic syllables and repetitions of short musical and lyrical phrases that subtly shift without really changing shape so that the listener no longer seeks correspondence between meaning and sound but surrenders to the sensuality of it all.
In some ways, Morrison's style (particularly in performance) evokes those masters of dynamics, the black evangelical preacher and the gritty soul man. As the music surges and subsides, Morrison plays out mood after mood, working his audience up, calming them down, slowing the pace, lowering the sound, manipulating his phrasing and accentuation, using repetition to sustain emotion. On some songs, each verse can be a mini-epic of dynamics, each chorus a new revelation.
Often enough, it comes together in a way that transcends language, style and place -- supporting composer George Crumb's suggestion that music must have been the primitive cell from which language, science and religion originated. Morrison's world is a place where words become irrelevant to pure feeling.
"It just came naturally to me," Morrison insists. "I didn't listen to any preachers, though I did hear gospel music a lot when I was a kid. I was aware that I was doing that kind of thing, but there was no conscious effort. It came when I followed my instinct."
Although Morrison's stage demeanor is the antithesis of the soul man's -- his body language is as leaden as his voice is quicksilver -- fans and critics have often drawn parallels between Morrison and the great soul singers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. And while the horn sections and black backup singers he uses have become de rigueur in rock circles of late, Morrison is one of the few white singers to have ever seemed comfortable with the company he's kept.
Surprisingly, such soul talk makes him bristle. "That's why it's been so difficult to pinpoint," Morrison says, "for the record companies, in particular. How do we promote this particular artist? It's not R&B, it's not Stax-Volt, that's not what it is at all. It might be based on those things, but it is really far removed. It's much more controlled, much more subtle.
"The approach is more like playing jazz. It's so far removed from pop or standard R&B. I don't mean to be snooty about it, but it's got nothing to do with any of those contemporary forms. This is something I invented. It's actually based on not playing; there's more based on the space in the music than there is in the playing . . .
"Call it Zen; that's the closest I can get."
While its impressionistic aural and lyrical effects mesmerized listeners, and while its melding of folk, blues and jazz elements wowed the critics, "Astral Weeks" also established some themes that Morrison would return to again and again: the quest for transcendence (here to there, now to then, dark to light, knowledge to consciousness); the importance of rediscovering the things you already know; first love; separation from home; the presence of the past ("definitely an Irish problem; they're always looking back, it's just built in"); and especially a yearning for those childlike qualities of wonder, intensity of feeling and acceptance.
When Morrison sang, "to be born again/in another world," he was voicing a theme that would echo though the body of his future work.
"This is something that anybody creative should experience," Morrison says, launching into a rambling Morrisonian repetition on the theme of consciousness. "You start off completely unconscious doing your thing. And you can either remain unconscious or maybe the way things are in your life you become conscious and then you start doing it consciously. That's what happened to me. I was writing songs unconsciously, completely, and then when I was in my mid twenties, I got to the age where I was becoming more aware of everything that was happening and what I was doing.
"At that point I had to find out about myself. It's an ongoing process."
His early influences may have been easily indentifiable -- Leadbelly, Charles, Cooke, Redding, John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams -- but the new ones were less common to the pop world: William Blake; Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey; Eliot and Yeats and Seamus Heaney.
Of course, sometimes his new obsessions got out of hand, as on "Rave On, John Donne," which seemed a catalogue of arcane references. But if Morrison sometimes lapsed into vague metaphors and cosmic allusions, or disjunctive, deliberately obscure lyrics, he often succeeded in evoking a world not unlike that of the painter J.M.W Turner.
Like Turner, whose visionary art was preoccupied with light and the idea of freedom gained through intimacy with nature, Morrison insists on landscape in his songs: Country farms and fields of wonder are always wet with rain, cooled by redemptive breezes, sustained by flowing rivers. Listening to them is like entering a painting or a poem, with a definite yet timeless sense of place, what Morrison once described as "a place where our souls were clean and the grass did grow."
Morrison says that the poets and painters who enthralled him were all concerned with consciousness and making one consider the overlooked world, and that the landscaping of his lyrics offers a landing, albeit temporary, on "a river of time."
*"It took me years to get to that," he says, "because I was going through the labyrinth of trying to analyze what the songs were about, comparing one song with another, comparing one review with another, comparing one critic with another. And that didn't go anywhere. It was a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. I ended up at this knowledge through listening to my inner voice."
His mission, as he finally saw it: "To use the songs as a vehicle to get people to a meditative place where they might feel a bit easier about life and contemplation . . . "That's what it's about, that's what I'm doing."
If there had always been a sense of the spirit, and of spiritual reawakening, in Morrison's songs, it became personal and palpable from "Common One" on, with Morrison espousing his gratitude to the Creator even as he celebrated the glory of art and love.
Unlike his friend Bob Dylan, Morrison was never dogmatic or condemning; music was not a weapon of persuasion, but a vehicle into the mystic. In fact, a later song, "Summertime in England," brought his concerns together -- religious faith, romantic love and the nature poets were all celebrated as catalysts for Morrison's own sense of radiant peace.
He read comparative religion as well as poetry, and much of it seeped into the music. "But I'm not coming out and saying 'This is religious music,' Morrison says warily, "because if I do, nobody'll want to know. I'm not trying to hit anybody over the head, either.
"People pay too much attention to the things I write, rather than to the way I write," he says. "If you want to pin it down, it's 'faction' . . . partly about my own experience but mostly not . . . I give the songs a meaning beyond what they really are, most of the time. And it's always different every time I do a song."
While he no longer does his old Them hits, Morrison seems at ease with many songs that have become so loved since "Astral Weeks": On the current tour, his band can slide into any of 44 songs that reflect his long and honorable career.
He's much less at ease talking about his experiences in the business of music and his dealings with the press and record companies. The memory of one Rolling Stone piece in particular -- which reported he had been dropped by his longtime label, Warner Bros., when he had simply moved to Polygram, for whom he'd been recording in Europe for years -- still burns. A correction was run, but Morrison thinks his ability to get work was affected by the article.
"All these people who always praise me, where were they when I was broke, when I couldn't get work?"
At one point on his new album -- which carries the provocative title "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" -- Morrison rips into the people who steal his style. It's a well-gnawed bone of contention, though many rugged individualists -- from Bruce Springsteen and Joan Armatrading to Elvis Costello -- have openly acknowledged his influence.
"The way I see it, I've got to be ahead of my time because there are so many people copying me," he says, with pride overpowering ego, though barely. "I'm getting a picture of what has to happen further on down the road, otherwise there wouldn't be so many people copying me. You could have a dictionary of people who copied me or ripped me off in one form or another and are presenting themselves as being original. To this day they're still waiting on my next album, even though they're huge and big and famous."
Morrison doesn't see the imitation as flattery. "Up to a point," he concedes grudgingly, "but when they keep doing it year in and year out . . . Obviously I'm part of the future, that's my answer to that one."
What he's definitely not part of is the past.
"I'm not one of these people who still believe in rock 'n' roll or anything like that," he says. Rock was useful in the '50s "because it was rebellion against the complacency and apathy of that period. And that was a good time, and the '60s was a good time and maybe even the early '70s was a good time. But I think rock 'n' roll is for a specific age group, say 15 to 20, that's what it's about. After that I don't think it's got any purpose.
"I don't want to see men over 30 playing rock and roll, it doesn't do anything for me."