I’m not a music guy.
I’ve never played an instrument; I’ve never sung in a choir. I can’t listen to music and do homework at the same time, and I never listen to music when I walk to class.
But music, like any art form, is not just about technique and ability, or fancy French words and tedious theory classes. Music is about imitating the Truth and Beauty that permeates life.
That’s why I listen to Van Morrison (and why you should too).
To put it simply, Van Morrison’s music is in love with life. It is passionate, entertaining, suspenseful, confusing, witty, and beautiful. It is nostalgic about the past and anxious about the future, and it puts a smile on my face, always.
I find that my own words can’t sufficiently describe it, so I’ll resort to those of others. Nick Hornby, a renowned author, said that Van Morrison’s music synthesizes all the “moments of joy or pure hope or clenched-fist triumph or simple contentment amongst all the drudgery and heartbreak and pain [of life].” In an article written for The New Yorker, Jon Michaud said that Van Morrison reaches the “spiritual plane” through his music, employing the themes of “transcendence and rebirth.” Jim Rothernel, a musician who played with Morrison, said that watching him perform was “like watching a tiger… he’s just so there that you’re completely drawn to it.”
Exhibit A: “Cyprus Avenue,” from the live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now. I implore you to listen to it on Spotify or watch the whole 9 minutes and 22 seconds on YouTube (you’ll see the tiger come out). What you’ll find is ten minutes of meandering, nonsensical, and sometimes unintelligible lyrics, all vaguely related to some street in Belfast, Ireland (where Van Morrison grew up). They don’t really make sense. Morrison would later say that he “didn’t even think about” what he was writing. It is just pure stream of conscious. No, that’s not quite right to me––it was a stream of soul. A stream of soul so powerful that you don’t even need to speak English to understand it.
The whole song, despite its surrealistic imagery, seems to speak to the reality of life. The lyrics wander from mansions on hills to leaves falling in autumn to cherry wine and white horses (you know, the usual mystical objects of life). The music swells and drops, and swells and drops again, mimicking the ups and downs of life, leading up to the four loud trademarked Van Morrison “BABY”s, accompanied by four loud horn crashes, and then silence. A perfect ending; a loud death.
But just when you think the song has ended, it begins again: an explosion of brass and percussion and vocals (“It’s too late to stop now!”) that is both unexpected and unsurprising. The music continues; life goes on. Morrison walks off the stage. The announcer says “Big hand for Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra and for yourself. Thank you. You were lovely.” The applause grows, then fades into silence.
The words are a eulogy, of course, acknowledging and praising the beloved departed and all those who helped him in life. It was a life of constant flux and emotion. It never knew what was coming next, but embraced it all the same. It was a life perfectly conveyed by Van Morrison’s stunning arrangement.
No, I’m not a music guy, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what makes the arrangement so stunning. But I am a human, and being human entails never quite knowing where the next challenge in life will come from. It means perpetually seeking Beauty and Truth, but struggling to find it.
Yet Van Morrison, in some incomplete way, helps me find it. He knows what it’s like to be human. His music accepts the anxiety and ignorance that comes with life and turns that anxiety and ignorance into something beautiful. And while he might not be the greatest musician alive, Van Morrison is, in fact, alive–just like me; just like you. Nobody needs to be a music person to recognize that.
John Burke is a sophomore from St. Louis, MO studying Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. When he’s not reading, he’s probably learning about the economy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.