45. VAN MORRISON – VEEDON FLEECE (1974)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Mystic Celtic Soul, Rock Music

The ‘other’ Van Morrison album you should own is not Moondance but Veedon Fleece. I say this not because Moondance is a weak album – it is in fact, hugely impressive – but rather because Veedon Fleece outshines it in every department, being the only other occasion in the entirety of Van’s recording career where he sailed close to the magisterial heights of Astral Weeks. Its continual exclusion from Classic Albums lists is akin to inaugurating a Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and omitting to include Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker, and is at once a great injustice. Classic album it certainly is. So might there be a way to convince a mass of Moondancers to switch allegiance and become fully fledged Fleecers?

Inspired by a trip to the Emerald Isle he made in October 1973, Morrison composed this set of songs, where a Blakeian romanticism inhabits the spirits of ancient Irish Saints and mystics, traversing old streets and monastery ruins, everywhere leaving echoes of its ghostly presence. It is truly one of its kind. But it is more likely to hinder my case if I begin by drawing attention to two songs which, situated incongruously in this most organically Celtic of albums, are US-flavoured fugitives,  defectors from another time another place, that clearly do not belong here: ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Cul De Sac’. The former of the culprits, featuring John Tropea’s countrified guitar and a jarring accelerating tempo, is particularly disconsonant; the latter, a rigid, plodding rewrite of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ adds little save a frown on this listener’s brow. Of themselves, they are not bad songs any more than Moondance is a weak album, but feel completely at odds with the remainder of the record.

So instead, let me wax lyrical over the remainder, all of which is worthy of the highest commendation. The beautifully judged opener ‘Fair Play’, features stately piano over a gilt-edged acoustic strum – this time by Ralph Walsh who plays sensitively throughout. And that voice! It is sometimes easy to forget that Van possesses one of music’s most towering voices – by turns lion’s growl, fragile falsetto or at times an almost gut-wrenching open-throated bellowing of blues’n’soul. Here, his performance is both restrained and gorgeously melodious: (“Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau/Let your midnight and your daytime/Turn into love of life/It’s a very fine line/But you’ve got the mind child/To carry on/When it’s just about to be/Carried on.”)

If Astral Weeks was the sound of ‘a man in pain’ (gratuitous link to Lester Bangs’ unsurpassed review – https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.), then on Veedon Fleece we hear a new man, a man who is in love and in love with life (his new fiancée Carol Guida accompanied him on the Irish vacation where he wrote most of the songs). Van has always insisted that to write enduring music one has to feel happy, and there is a sense of that inner fulfilment permeating the record’s atmosphere.


‘Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’ is punctuated by a series of repetitive rising piano lines – no chorus – with strings bursting in at 1:42, lifting the music to new heights. Purportedly about an Irish ex-pat living in San Francisco – autobiographical? –  with an ominous closing line hinting at a darker underbelly, “now he’s lonely living with a gun“, the onomatopoeic piano tinkle imitating breaking glass is courtesy Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, released the year before. If the guitar on ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ is intricate and understated, Van’s vulnerable delivery is a thing of beauty, so much so that one can forgive the more dubious choice of metaphor, “…or wish on a toilet roll” (whoever imagined they would hear that line in a song? A rival to Arthur Lee’s “Oh the snot has caked against my pants“).

Meanwhile, ‘Streets of Arklow’ introduces atmospheric flute – once again building on a repeated rhythm – this time slightly lengthier, with a dramatic orchestral sweep. Like many of the songs, it’s joyous stream of consciousness poetic impulse contains no chorus, no hook, but draws you in helplessly to its alluring depths. Morrison recalls reading books on Gestalt therapy at the time of the recording and there’s no mistaking the depth of emotion in the music. At the end of Side One, the epic ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River’ soars at the crest  of a group of songs sometimes considered a ‘suite’ (though not spliced together fragments as on Side Two of Abbey Road), but which are rather linked thematically through an evolutionary passage of music of such ravishingly mysterious beauty it sounds like it’s heading inexorably towards some divinely eschatological revelation – which could be the mythical Veedon Fleece of the album title… “We’re goin’ out in the country to get down to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people/…We’re gettin’ out to the west coast/Shining our light into the days of bloomin’ wonder/Goin’ as much with the river as not/…Blake and the Eternals oh standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy/Looking for the Veedon Fleece“.

The closing trio of songs represents a high watermark in Van’s career. The masterful ‘Come Here My Love’ is one of Van’s most enduring love songs. The antithesis of the rent-a-party floor filler that is ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, it is a song where he sounds entranced by spouse, nature, poetry and life itself. “Come here my love/And I will lift my spirits high for you/Id like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating the fields and leaves and talking about nothing/Just layin down in shades of effervescent, effervescent odors/And shades of time and tide/And flowing through/Become enraptured by the sights and sounds in intrigue of natures beauty/Come along with me/And take it all in/Come here my love“. It was covered by This Mortal Coil in 1986, but their version stripped it of its transcendent beauty (very unlike them) with Van’s very much the superior take.

Van’s capacity to make the simplest arrangement and verse sound utterly profound is illustrated most clearly on ‘Comfort You’ – any analysis of the song’s structure and content would be notable only for its brevity. By contrast the song seethes into one’s consciousness to be recalled time and time again. Contrast too, the way the spirit moves in the closer ‘Country Fair’, liberated from the technical virtuosity of ‘Cul De Sac’ where the highly accomplished playing is cold and static. Here the sparse sound creates spaces for free form flute, double bass (the songs work better without bass guitar) and washed out ghostly choir, recalling the voices in Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. It could fit comfortably on to Astral Weeks and I can pay it no higher compliment.

Listening to the album on CD could be a potentially dissatisfying experience, there being no pause between the album’s centrepiece, the nine minute ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Pull The River’ (how about that for a dressed-up poetic title for a song where someone is receiving a pretty harsh dressing down?) which closes Side One, and ‘Bulbs’ which on vinyl would open Side Two. At least, lifting the needle could afford the listener a momentary pause and an opportunity to avoid such an abrupt rupture in the album’s flow. But get your mitts on whichever format is accessible to you and hear the blues howler, the jazzman, the mystic folksinger, the poet and Celtic Soul Brother make one of the best albums ever recorded. By anyone. (JJ)

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29. TIM BUCKLEY – STARSAILOR (1970)

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Jazz Rock, Singer-Songwriter

Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)

It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.

Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/

I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:

“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”

And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970)  – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his  self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.

The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s]  Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.

Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness. 

It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…

On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.

Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.

The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the  aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.

The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go. 

PostScript: A Personal Footnote

[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!

Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those  Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.

 

I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)