Van Morrison is one of those performers who rock critic types like me — you know, the folks who worship at the altar of people like Dylan and Springsteen — are supposed to be in absolute awe of. But I’ve gotta tell ya’ the truth here:
I’ve never completely got Van.
What I can tell you is this. I absolutely recognize the fact that Van Morrison has an undeniably soulful voice that, at its best, can take you to some pretty amazing places — at least as far as going into the furthest reaches of the subconscious goes. Van is definitely that rare breed of vocalist whose emotive quality can transport you to places far, far away.
But for me, his catalog — vast as it is — has always been sort of spotty.
For the record, I’ve seen Van Morrison twice in concert.
The first time was in the late seventies. I think he was on his comeback tour for the album Wavelength, and I have to be honest here, the lure for me, like many on this night, wasn’t Van so much as it was his opening act. Rockpile fronted by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, were shit hot at the time.
Still, I was curious to see the guy who had built such a great reputation for amazing concerts. Now, I’ve gotta be fair here. The billing of Van Morrison, the great Irish soul singer, with Rockpile, the pub rockers with the New Wave pedigree of Elvis Costello producer Lowe probably wasn’t the best idea. Especially given the fact that music was particularly polarized along genre lines at the time.
Still, when Van did his entire set with his back to the audience — he was probably pissed because the Rockpile fans who comprised about one third of the audience had left — he didn’t exactly win me over.
The next time I saw Van was a few years later, at the urging of a fellow writer — and Van Morrison disciple — at Seattle’s music magazine The Rocket. Greg (God Bless him), pretty much dragged me out to see him. This time around Van was touring behind the great album Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. And unlike the debacle with Rockpile, the show was absolutely amazing — especially when Van went into his trance like reading of that album’s standout, spoken word poetry track, “Rave On, John Donne.”
This was an awesome performance. And by now I was almost ready to be 100% on board on the Van Morrison train.
Which brings me to that original problem.
Van has this amazingly huge, but very spotty catalog. There have been several songs and albums along the way which have genuinely moved me, but the thing that has always been lacking is consistency. If only there were a single album I could own with all of the songs I have loved from Van over the years — “Gloria” and “Here Comes The Night” from his years with Them; stuff like “Moondance,” “Wavelength,” “Crazy Love,” “Rave On John Donne,” and more recently, “Stranded” from his solo output.
Still On Top is almost that album. Almost.
As it stands, this is probably the most complete overview of the best of Van Morrison one could ask for. Many of those favorite songs of mine I mentioned are indeed here. You’ve got everything from those early hits with Them, all the way through his best solo stuff from albums like Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and Wavelength, to his more recent output like the aforementioned “Stranded.”
Still, what’s missing is somewhat frustrating. I can understand the exclusion of my own personal faves like “Rave On, John Donne.” The Inarticlate Speech record, while a personal fave, wasn’t exactly a big commercial hit. But what about the amazing Astral Weeks?
Now, that is what I would call a major hole.
Still, for casual Van fans like me — the ones who sit patiently on the fence waiting to be converted — Still On Top will do nicely for now.
At least until that comprehensive retrospective boxed set comes along.