When I was 14 years old, I had a secret admirer. One day I opened my front door to find a single red rose and a Van Morrison cassette tape. It happened in the first weeks of my freshmen year, and I was attending a large school with lots of new people. My admirer, whom I had never met, somehow found out that I was a Van Morrison fan. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, that gesture was one of the most innocently romantic things anyone has done for me. It was old school, puppy-love-style romantic. I’m glad he didn’t know that I was also a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, because the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tape on my front door just would not have conveyed the same sentiment.
Van became my first true musical love a few years before that that cassette found its way to my doorstep. I had heard a Van Morrison song in a movie, asked my parents who it was, and promptly raided their music library for his albums. I instantly fell in love with Van’s words. Some kids doodle through their boring classes – I scribbled his lyrics. I believe his ability to weave phrases that, not only conjure pictures in the mind’s eye, but also convey emotion through imagery, is what makes him a great songwriter. His frequent reference to nature – running water, tree-lined streets, rolling greenery, misty landscapes - give even his up-tempo songs a tranquil quality. Listening to his songs and recounting his words was my teenage escapism. And it‘s my adult escapism.
However, more impressionable to me than his words was the impact of his voice. The effect his sound initially had, and still has, on me can only be compared to a mythological siren call. When I hear that voice, it intensifies whatever emotion I may be feeling. Van has punctuated the fullest and happiest moments in my life - the moments when I am dancing, sharing wine, laughing, and making love. His voice has also carried me through my emptiest, loneliest moments – offering the cathartic release needed to push through the sadness. It amazes me how Van sounds like celebration, grief, joy, isolation, gratitude, and empathy all rolled together. In Van’s music, I don’t hear anger, bitterness, or spite. Perhaps that is why whatever the mood - elated or forlorn - he always offers comfort.
At the risk of sounding like I have any religion whatsoever, I will admit that – particularly when listening to various musical artists – I entertain the plausibility of reincarnation. Of Old Souls and Young Souls. Van feels to me like a soul who has lived many lifetimes. It is my preferred explanation for how - at 23 years old - he wrote Astral Weeks, an album with all of the heartache and pain, hope and compassion, and a depth of understanding of the human experience that 23 years of living could not possibly yield. And not just the lyrics - his delivery of the album, with its vocal ebbs and flows and bizarre repetition of words and lines, suggest an intuition for how the listener needed to experience the album. Van seemed, from very early in his career, to have a fundamental understanding of how we feel music and he crafted delivery that would have the greatest impact. The vocal, the cadence, and the lyrics marry perfectly to define the emotion of a song.
I don’t know much about Van Morrison, the man. I don’t think many people do. He is reclusive, suffers from stage fright, and has been rumored to be temperamental and hard to work with. His songs reveal a fragile soul, lonely and isolated, but they also reveal an understanding that we are all lonely and isolated at times. His songs are equally a celebration of joyous moments and the small, beautiful details that occur in daily life and must be observed and savored.
Well, there you have it. In five paragraphs I managed to cover teenage secret admiration, reincarnation of the soul, and one legendary songwriter. Proof enough that I did none of those topics the justice they deserve. That’s OK, I’ve got time in the future to elaborate - maybe even lifetimes.