The ferry was waiting to dock in Santorini just after sunrise. The overnight trip from Piraeus had been a blast and I had caught little sleep. A young American guy I was travelling with had finally got the Odyssey as we passed shadowy Aegean islands and I am always up for a discussion on Homer. My sleeping bag ended up adjacent to an attractive German woman (Man, my luck was in). She worked as a magician’s assistant. The conversation we had about the mechanics of being sawn in half made a very pleasant change from the usual Eurotrash platitudes. Athens had been good, sleeping on the roof of the hostel with new friends was fun. I was looking forward to island life so I took a little time for myself, gathered my pack, put on the headphones and listened to this.
What a result. In those pre-I pod days I took along Van Morrison’s “Poetic Champions Compose” LP because I loved the positive, philosophical, poetic Celtic sensibility that the singer had developed in the 80s. I had forgotten that Van had been reading Greek philosophers before he wrote some of these songs…perfect. “I saw the lights of Ancient Greece” he sings in “The Mystery”. “You’ve got to dance and sing. And be alive in the mystery. And be joyous and give thanks. And let yourself go”. Well alright, that’s why I’m here.
“I Forgot That Love Existed”,with it’s name-checks for Socrates and Plato fitted right in there too. Such a simple and beautiful thing built on a simple piano hook and a saxophone solo by Van the Man “If my heart could do my thinking and my head begin to feel. I would I look upon the world anew and know what’s truly real”. OK, let me off this boat and onto this historic volcanic outcrop, I’m ready.
“Cleaning Windows”, the class of a classy field from “Beautiful Vision” (1982). A funky, nostalgic romp back to a simpler, happier time . The days before rock and roll when Van was in Belfast, a “workingman in my prime” just “blowing saxophone at the weekend in that down joint”. I am so on this description of a young working guy enjoying the “craic” at his day job with a soundtrack of blues legends while reading Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys ( a leading British barrister and judge who founded the Buddhist Society and was a leading proponent of the religion in the West). There is an authenticity about this bantering slice of Belfast working class culture. The job may be mundane but the music and the books are not and they are as much a part of his life as the buns, the lemonade and the Woodbines. As a teenager I worked on a friend’s construction firm. There was a satisfaction about using all that energy and about being part of a working community for the first time. Van Morrison captures this perfectly in this song and reminds us not to forget it.
I could do these things about Van Morrison every day through the Winter there are so many good songs. The one about the wonderful blue-eyed soul singles of the 70s is just too obvious. If you don’t know and love the delight of “Jackie Wilson Said” then you are missing out. So this last choice is a return to the soul rave, from 1990, “Real Real Gone”. Van wrote so many songs about joy, the search for it and it’s many physical and spiritual forms. His quest has produced some of the most passionate, convincing and moving articulations of how human beings are. That first LP I bought, “Moondance”, I bought it again recently. Now this computer has all this music inside it “Moondance” may be the last one I buy. That’s a circle coming round that I am completely happy with.
“Real Real Gone” is a fine reduction of how love and joy can make you feel. It checks for Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Gene Chandler and Don Covay, others who have attempted and inspired attempts to tell it like it is while a funky horn section aids and abets. Soul music…music for the soul.