Author:Martin Buzacott and Andrew Ford
I’ve read a couple of books on a favourite artist where I have baulked on writing a review for the blog. Not because they are unworthy but because there is so much to say. Banning Eyre’s book on Thomas Mapfumo is one and the other more recent purchase was a book on George Ivan Morrison. Van the man, the source of great gushing and mockery on the blog.
The recent postings by an Astral Weeks neophyte and a review of Van’s latest have generated a lot of interest so it looks like we have got ourselves a Vanfest.
This book came out in 2008 and I was surprised to be unaware of it being a Van fan. I looked the book up to purchase and it was carrying a hefty price tag online, so I contacted one of the authors direct. Did he by chance have a box of said book cluttering his study and did he want to sell me one? Two days later a pristine copy arrived.
So, first -the authors. These blokes know their chops, but I was surprised that they wrote a book on Van given their pedigrees in the classical music field. Looking further into their CVs I see their tastes are far more catholic.
Martin Buzacott’s bio is here. Pretty impressive. https://www.abc.net.au/classic/martin-buzacott/7952752
Andrew Ford I am more familiar with as he has hosted a long running music show on ABC radio the Australian national broadcaster. The show is very eclectic, always informed, interesting and engaged, It attracts a consistent list of very accomplished musicians both international and local. I had some dealings with Andrew and his team when arranging and accompanying, separately, Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi for interviews and in-studio performances. He has written a number of books and is an accomplished music composer. His bio is here https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/andrew-ford/2913664
Why all this preamble about the authors? Well, it goes to the type of book this is. Music biographies are often hagiographies written by a fawning fan or by the professional music biographer priding themselves either in the minutiae of recordings and performances or the salacious, gossipy background to an artist. This book is neither. They know music and music theory, plus they cover philosophy, theosophy and drama where appropriate to the analysis. Certainly, they reference private goings on, but they are not dwellers on the private. For example, the Miss Ireland saga is only mentioned peripherally. Instead their focus is the songs. To quote the back cover, they “consider the themes and motifs that repeat throughout the singer’s career and they examine, album by album, how Morrison uses these as a form of musical and lyrical shorthand in his work” This description could serve as an abstract for a thesis and, indeed, there is quite a lot of academic sounding language but it is nicely balanced with some very direct, , even earthy language…..In the introduction they are drawing on Greek philosopher Archilochus to help explain a point while later in the book on the song Melancholia they write “….[it] is slow…and it makes you want to punch Brian Kennedy”.
While the authors are clearly admirers, they are by no means uncritical. Some of the put downs of songs, parts in songs, lyrical banalities would out do @Colin-H.
So, on to the book.
They argue that there are a few recurrent themes in his work that are repeated time and time again, themes that, if you read the review of his latest work here on the blog, are being used to this day. In large measure, they are the same themes that Colin uses when he is taking the piss out of Van’s stream of consciousness lyrics. Colin’s stuff is so funny because he is bang-on. The themes are Childhood, Musical heroes, Transcendence and religion, Nature and literature and finally, Complaints. Even though he returns to these themes time and time again, the same image, sometimes even verbatim, it is the voice that is critical. His voice ..”is a voice of distinction, instantly recognisable, yet it is remarkably flexible and diverse in its expressiveness”. Belter, guttural, growling, angelic falsetto, whisper, chat and something called Sprechstimme which the authors describe as speech singing used in the work of Schoenberg but, as they say, mastered in popular music by Van. (This stuff is where the breadth of musical knowledge of these authors really makes this book stand out).
The first 2 themes – childhood and musical heroes are fairly obvious. Nature and Transcendence and religion warrants more discussion Van has been searching, abandoning and revisiting ever since adulthood. I read somewhere that Van impatiently wants the epiphany, the revelation to use a word he uses often, but he is too impatient, not prepared to put in the hard work. Maybe, maybe not but it means there is a breadth of references in his work as a result of this searching. To quote, Morrison is a pantheist, a pagan a, nature-worshipper, a Christian, a Scientologist, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Zen Buddhist depending on which voice he employs… God and Van have been acquaintances on many albums but on each occasion they wear difference disguises , challenging each other to testify…..This spiritual shadow boxing has been a source of amusement for his fans, but for Morrison himself, it’s another source of torment. Ford and Buzzacott also assert that Van’s songs reveal an ongoing search “for the space in which time no longer matters, where silence and eternity reign in a world of perpetual wonder”. And when he pulls it off, time does seem to stand still.
Nature. Yep, we all get that one. Walking down a mountain track leaves wet with rain, beside a cool mountain stream in the glow of the autumn light.
Complaints, or as I would have put it – whingeing. As the authors say, “Morrison has a long list of people who have pissed him off, and they all feature in his songs”. Why must I always explain, Great Deception we all know them. From my own perspective, none of the songs in this category reach the heights of other songs.
So, there we have it the recurrent themes and I can’t argue with any of them.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
The other books on Van Morrison. But this one’s better.
One thing you’ve learned
Yep, it’s all about the voice