Van Morrison- Veedon Fleece

26 08 2008

Released: October 1974

Track list: Fair Play, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man?, Streets of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Sure Push the River, Bulbs, Cul De Sac, Comfort You, Come Here My Love, Country Fair

Intro: By the time Morrison released Veedon in 1974, he was in a bit of a transitional period; his previous studio LP, 1973’s Hard Nose the Highway, had generated a top 40 hit with “Warm Love” but was no album sales blockbuster; critics regarded it as a aesthetic failure in general. His outstanding early ’74 double live set It’s Too Late to Stop Now had restored some of that luster, but it was a set of covers and back catalog tunes, with no new songs to be found. Fresh from a 1973 divorce, and with new girlfriend in tow, Morrison traveled to his home country of Ireland to perhaps reconnect with his musical roots. Muse secured, songs were recorded in late ’73 and early ’74 on both coasts; some with his road band that featured Dahaud Shaar, Jef Labes and David Hayes, and others recorded in New York with session musicians. It was released in October of that year to mixed reviews and underwhelming sales- Warner Bros. didn’t seem know what to think about such a personal and not-quite-radio-friendly record, which frustrated and angered Morrison, who feuded with Warners about how it was (and/or wasn’t, as the case may be) being promoted…then took three years- an eternity in those days- to follow it up. Initially underrated, Veedon Fleece has undergone something of a reappraisal over the years since its release, and now is generally regarded as one the best efforts from his classic period.

On initial listens, this album seems to be a return to the spare acoustic jazz of his Astral Weeks album of five years prior; however, this is the work of an artist who has grown in any number of ways. There’s a depth, scope and facility to VF that isn’t quite there in its celebrated predecessor.

Track by Track:

FAIR PLAY: Tentative piano notes, with brushes on snare and upright bass, introduce the midtempo lead track. It’s a jazzy, folkish cut; alternately a travelogue (the Ireland trip informs this track quite a bit), a love song and a tribute to many of the poets and writers he’d been reading. Yes, this is pretty much the place where all the namedropping started, with the lines

Tell me of Poe
Oscar Wilde and Thoreau
Let your midnight and your daytime
Turn into love of life

although he really didn’t get obnoxious with it for another ten years. To me, it’s evocative of Autumn afternoons, with leaves blowing in the golden sunshine and that feeling in the air…your impression might not be so idyllic, but it’s that kind of a song.

LINDEN ARDEN STOLE THE HIGHLIGHTS is a story song (or is it?) about an Irishman, a hard drinker but also religious sort who was fond of children. Apparently on the lam from some sort of trouble in San Francisco, when he discovers that the “boys” have come looking for him he decides to find them first and kill them before they can do the same for him. The song concludes by summing up that even though he seems to be above the law, he still seems to be resigned to a life of paranoid vigilance, “living with a gun” so to speak. This line deftly provides a segue of sorts into the next song. On the surface this appears to be, like I said up top, a story song (inspired by seeing a poster of a play, I seem to recall reading someone quoting Morrison as saying)…but looking a little deeper I have to wonder if it is also an early expression of another future Morrison preoccupation, that of how the music business and men with neckties have taken advantage of, and continue to seek out new ways to do the same to him. Substitute Van for “Linden Arden” and the “Boys from San Francisco” for the record company business execs, and this makes sense, I believe. Accompaniment for this one is spare, with barely felt upright bass and snare, Labes’ piano and some tastefully added strings towards the end making up the bulk of it. Van provides another impassioned vocal performance; growly at the lower end, falsetto at the end, singing the aforementioned last line with a weary sort of resignation.

WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN? finds Van doing his best falsetto Smokey Robinson impression in service of a track that deals lyrically with themes of loneliness and isolation, reflected in his ambivalence and distaste for the whole rock star scene- something which he had touched upon earlier in Hard Nose the Highway‘s “The Great Deception”.  It’s taken in a sluggish sort of tempo, mostly in a jazz/R&B feel but punctuated with Carl Perkins-like twangy guitar licks that echo the first few lines. There’s a nice part in the middle section that begins with “You can hang suspended from a star/or wish on a toilet roll” that’s carried along by the string section which to that point had been absent. No, I don’t really know what he meant by that line either. Regardless, it’s another atmospheric track which makes up for its paranoid, sour lyric by virtue of its lovely melody and strong arrangement.

STREETS OF ARKLOW is another travelogue; in this one Van’s back to singing about Gypsies with hearts on fire that love to wander and love to roam. Certainly inspired by the Irish trip and the town of Wicklow in particular, it’s given a moody, dark and beautiful arrangement, and it also introduces the secret weapon of this album: the recorder of Jim Rothermel, which dances all around and in and out of the strings and vocals. After all is said and done, this one’s pretty much my favorite track on the album.

YOU DON’T PULL NO PUNCHES (BUT YOU DON’T PUSH THE RIVER) is the album’s magnum opus, and over eight minutes it was longer than any other Van track to date, save for Hard Nose the Highway‘s “Autumn Song”. Concerned with the search for spiritual truth and fulfillment, as embodied by the Van-conceived “Veedon Fleece”, a sort of holy grail stand-in, he begins by addressing his female companion, singing about her childhood; then moves on to reference Ireland once more and the West Coast (of California, I assume, where they lived),  then begins namechecking a seminal influence- the poet, painter, and mystic William Blake, who is described as standing with the Sisters of Mercy, accompanied by the Eternals. I’ve read a little about Blake in my time, obviously Van has read more, I don’t know exactly what this refers to except by association. He went on to do this sort of thing a LOT more in the years to come. The title, it seems to me, refers to the tendency to aggressively seek enlightenment rather than let it come to you naturally, and how pains must be taken to remain patient as you search. The arrangement is an ambitious one, with a rolling, tumbling piano intro, joined by strings and Rothermel on flute. Van contributes some wonderful scatting in the last third of the song, repeating the title several times before the song eventually begins to fall apart, the swirling strings and flutes recede, and he quietly sings the title one last time over the soft string section. It’s quite a remarkable track, influenced by his studies then in gestalt theory.

BULBS was probably the most radio-friendly track on the album; it’s certainly the most up-tempo and positive-sounding, with a sort of Country/Western feel due to the twangy guitar licks that are heard throughout. Lyrically, not so positive- it seems to be a somewhat angst-laden account of burning out and leaving the country of your birth to move to America, something which Van must have spent a lot of time musing upon. It’s another song which seems to be about a character, but could be describing Morrison himself, which could make this another “hate the music biz and touring” type song. Only Van knows for sure. Regardless, the single was not a hit, possibly due to the discrepancy between the lyric sentiment and the upbeat accompaniment. Also, Van showed that he didn’t quite get American sports; he references “kicking off from center field” in the song’s first line, effectively mixing his baseball and football metaphors. Of course, American football teams do technically kick off from the middle of the field to begin the game, so perhaps that’s what he meant. Who knows. This is one of the cuts written for, but left off Hard Nose the Highway.

CUL DE SAC is a rollicking barrelhouse shuffle of a song, featuring the best vocal performance on the entire album from our boy, who scats and croons and yowls and shouts- it’s really something. Lyrically, it seems to be another song concerned with reminding himself to stay grounded and not get caught up in the glamour of the star game, as well as the desire for a place to “take your rest/and hide away”.

COMFORT YOU is a pretty much straightforward pledge of love and devotion to companion Carol Guida (one assumes). It’s another track with an easygoing jazzy shuffle tempo and a nice string arrangement and guitar solo.

COME HERE MY LOVE is another straightforward love song- this time a hushed ballad, lyrically a come-on with a spiritual flavor. It’s mostly vocal, with minimal acoustic guitar accompaniment. The second of the deferred Hard Nose cuts.

COUNTRY FAIR closes the record in pastoral splendor; it’s a quiet, moody, evocative song that reminisces about days gone by, in the setting of a country fair “in sweet summertime”. It looks back with a bittersweet, even regretful, sort of nostalgia- probably indicative of Van’s discontent with his rockstar lifestyle. It’s given another spare arrangement that works wonderfully; mostly acoustic guitar and Rothermel on recorder again, and a sitar-like drone of sorts that barely registers in the background, although there is no musician credit for that instrument on the sleeve. I think this is an overlooked gem, and one of Morrison’s best songs.

Outro: These days, I’m hot and cold on Morrison’s music. Still enjoy the Warners years, but since then he’s emphasized an ordinary R&B sound at the expense of all the other styles he employed back in the day, no folk, no jazz, no pop. Subject matter has grown increasingly narrowed in focus as well; for an awfully long time it seemed like when he wasn’t grumbling about what a shitty place the world and the music biz was, he was extolling the virtues of religious life and the writers and poets he’d been idolizing. At first, it was fine, and the namedropping actually started on this very album. But by the mid-90’s, it had become overdone and annoying. He’s downplayed these tendencies in recent releases, but the music remains uninspired and bland in my opinion. However, there’s no way I can under-represent the enormous effect this album has had on me. In a lot of ways, it changed the way I listened to music forever and opened up a lot of vistas for me that I had previously been unaware of…pretty much your basic horizon-expander. I first spotted it on the album rack at the town drug store in January of 1975; I had some Christmas money left over and was looking to spend it on some new music. Intrigued by the eye-catching cover with its tinted photo of Van sitting in front of a huge mansion he didn’t own and holding two Irish Wolfhounds that didn’t belong to him either, I bought the 8-track (I was having problems keeping surface noise off my records back then, and was buying tapes a lot instead) and took it home. It was very different from anything I’d heard before; I’d previously only stayed within my rock/Beatlepop comfort zone. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it, and didn’t care for it all too much…but repeated listens won me over. I didn’t go on a huge search for similar music, what with the limited reference resources I had then, but I did obsessively pick up the rest of Van’s back catalogue (on Warners, anyway)…and while I came to love many of them, Veedon remained- and remains- my favorite.

Morrison’s people are vehemently opposed to disseminating his work on the internet anywhere except for his offical website so I won’t be posting any sample tracks. If you’d like to hear some, let me direct you to the official site’s Veedon Fleece page; it has lyrics and credits as well as samples. Also helpful when writing this, the VF Wikipedia page.

I don’t plan for all of these to be so long in the future, but you never know. This is one album I’ve wanted to write about in detail for years, and I finally got to do so.

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