Saturday, November 10, 2012

Looking for the Veedon Fleece


If anyone has earned the right to belt out the Sinatra anthem “My Way,” it’s Van Morrison, though to my knowledge Van has never publicly uttered a stanza of those Paul Anka-penned lyrics. Whether howling the blues, evocatively crooning a soulful ballad, immersing himself in a jazz workout, cranking out a cynical, seemingly obligatory paean to the music biz, or plumbing the depths of his Celtic soul to meld all of those disciplines into some kind of empyrean sound of his own creation, he seems to have done exactly what he has wanted to do, while ignoring or outflanking the conjecture of critic and fan alike at every turn. As one expositor, who has as much of a handle on Van as anyone, Greil Marcus, has said, “Morrison remains a singer who can be compared to no other in the history of rock & roll, a singer who cannot be pinned down, dismissed, or fitted into anyone's expectations.”

Taken as a whole, there’s practically nothing to which the music of George Ivan Morrison can be likened. Alternately defined by critics as rock, pop, blues, folk, jazz, jazz fusion, soul, blue-eyed soul, Irish soul, or Caledonia soul, it has always, throughout Morrison’s nearly fifty years of recording, defied any specific genre classification. He came by this ability to evade pigeonholing naturally, as his musical influences (thanks to a father who could boast of the most expansive record collection in Ulster, Northern Ireland in the 1950s) ranged from itinerant bluesmen Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters to Scottish skiffler Lonnie Donegan to country and western troubadour Hank Williams to original soul men Ray Charles and Solomon Burke to divine gospel wailer Mahalia Jackson—all of whom, incidentally, Van would eventually either refer to in song or perform with in person. Consequently, his music has influenced the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, U2, Sinéad O'Connor, and several others.

And there’s that voice: both guttural and celestial, piercing the air and stirring the soul while soothing it at the same time . . . a matchless force of nature. Again, Greil Marcus put it best: “As a physical fact, Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. ”

For my taste, Van as spiritual, soul-searching Irish mystic—an incarnation he doesn’t seem to be able to assume at will—has produced his most resonant works: Astral WeeksSaint Dominic’s PreviewVeedon Fleece, Common OneNo Guru No Method No Teacher. Of these scattered, transcendent few, Veedon Fleece stands out. Recorded in 1973 and ’74 after his divorce from his first wife and a visit to Ireland, it is one of the most richly ethereal, metaphysical creations of any artist in any musical genre you’d care to name.

Van performs Bulbs live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, June 30, 1974.

When broaching the prospect of discussing Veedon Fleece, one comes up against the same difficulties as with attempting to discuss Pet Sounds, or the works of Terrence Malick: one finds oneself pondering the imponderable, and words simply don’t cut it. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort, even if skirting the fringes is the best that can be hoped for. A wistful, stream of consciousness song cycle, there is a haunting, impenetrable mystery to all of the pieces, which are all of a piece.

The album itself seems to ponder the imponderables of human existence. What exactly is the Veedon Fleece of the title, referred to in the contemplative “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River”? Is it a tangible thing, like the Golden Fleece of Jason’s quest? Or is it the object of a quest for spiritual enlightenment? The latter is a subject explored often in Morrison’s later work, and it’s part of a continuum of pastoral images and essences, characters and places, that flow throughout this album and the rest of his oeuvre. “You Don’t Pull No Punches” gives the impression, musically, of floating inexorably down a river, an elliptical piano prologue eliciting images of swirling eddies before the tempo changes and we are set on our bass-driven, violin and flute-augmented course. Never one to shy away from literary, cultural, or religious references, Van evokes William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy, who are indeed “looking for the Veedon Fleece.”  

It is “Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Thoreau” who are ruminated on (with a passing nod to the Lone Ranger) in “Fair Play,” the album’s laid-back, brushed snare opening track, a Pre-Raphaelite idyll in which, as opposed to a river with a strong current, we float peacefully across “Killarney’s lakes,” gently urged to “Let your midnight and your daytime turn into love of life.”

Van’s voice soars more passionately in the poignant, achingly beautiful “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights,” a reflective, haunting tale of a violent man, compassionately told to the accompaniment of a softly meandering piano, before a swathe of strings embraces the final bars. Where “Linden Arden” leaves off—with a lonely man living with a gun, who “put his fingers through the glass”—“Who Was That Masked Man” picks up: while still lonely and toting a gun, he is now “all encased in glass.” Similarly, the stately “Streets of Arklow,” spearheaded by Jim Rothermel’s melancholy, medieval-sounding recorder, walks “In God’s green land,” to prepare the way for the album’s cornerstone, the enigmatic, rolling “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River.”

“Bulbs” comes up like a sunrise—or at least it did on the original LP, as it kicked off side two—strumming its way into an up-tempo, catchy, country-flavored ditty with Van in Belfast Cowboy mode, providing the A-side of the album’s only single. The majestic, world-weary, supremely bluesy “Cul de Sac” features some wicked, primal Van-screams, while the somnambulant, mantra-like “Comfort You” ruefully turns us homeward. 

With fiancee Carol Guida in Ireland during the cover shoot for Veedon Fleece.
Photo by Tom Collins.

The penultimate “Come Here My Love” may be the album’s most spellbinding track. As intimate as a whisper in an Edwardian boudoir, a lover is invited to “become enraptured by the sights and sounds, in intrigue of nature’s beauty,” over Ralph Walsh’s elliptically picked guitar. Its companion piece, “Country Fair,” closes the album, a pensive recorder conjuring up ancient pipes being played on a faraway hillside, evoking, for me anyway, the sylvan antiquity of John Constable’s English countrysides. It lingers in the air in some distant, mourned, barely remembered past, disappearing just as we float into the mystic.

What does it all mean? Well, as with most great art, we don’t really know, probably don’t really want to know. The knowledge, assumed or assured, of something the artist himself can’t quite grasp, and which he continues to search for, would impede our journey—or worse, render it not worth taking ever again. If anything, Veedon Fleece continues to reward with repeated listening, continues to pull us along with its current, meeting us on the river of time. 

Though much of Van Morrisons music points back toward childhood and home“Celtic Ray,” “Cry for Home,” “Got to Go Back,” “Song of Being a Child,” “Take me Back,” “Redwood Tree,” “On Hyndford Street,” et al.Veedon Fleece dwells relatively sparingly on those core Van themes, at least on the surface. Yet whenever I listen to this album, when I get lost in the music (as I invariably do), fleeting, impressionistic images of my earliest memories float up into my consciousness like ancient trinkets from a lost treasure on the ocean floor, glimpses of a past reality, from a time when I was perhaps closer to a pure understanding of the imponderables than at any time since. Veedon Fleece takes me nearer to that time and place. Nearer to home, wherever or whatever that may be or may have been.


© Jon Oye, 2012

5 comments:

  1. Your writing is gorgeous. I was the muse for Veedon Fleece.Yes, I was there before, during and after. From the furtively scribbled lyrics on Irish hotel notepaper, through the recording process that had Van directing the musicians by suggesting colors and tempos, I was there. And yet, I don't think that I could ever describe this album as well as you have. Gratitude to you and your gift of prose. -Carol Guida
    Marin County, Ca.

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  2. Thank you, Carol. I'm honored and humbled, both by your visit to my page and your very kind words.

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  3. Thank you, Jon Oye, for this review. It has always been one of my favourite collection of songs from Van Morrison, and one of my favourite albums period. One question is - what is the origin of the title?

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  4. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Morrison is characteristically obscure regarding the title's origins: "I have a whole set of characters in my head that I'm trying to fit into things. Veedon Fleece is one of them and I just suddenly started singing it in one of these songs. It's like a stream of consciousness thing" (from Celtic Crossroads: The Art of Van Morrison by Brian Hinton). According to Steve Turner's book Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now, Van once told an inquiring fan simply that he "made it up."

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  5. Thank you so much for that Jon. A searingly pleasurable read which truly captures the flavours and so accurately articulates the various dimensions of this unique album. I smirked knowingly and nodded throughout; in appreciation and admiration for your writing.

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