Friday, June 17, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Van Morrison's Into the Music (1979)

If you are like me, the chronology of work produced by the great trinity of singer-songwriter solo artists -- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young -- is not difficult to recapitulate until the beginning of the Hippie vs. Punks period, 1975 - 1979. Then things get murky.

Most of us know Dylan's Desire (1976) and Neil Young's Zuma (1975), and hopefully we have all listened to Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece (1974) into the triple figures. But who can say whether Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars comes before or after Comes a Time? Or whether Dylan's Shot of Love antedates or follows Saved?

For Van Morrison this "Bermuda Triangle" period begins later because after the breakup-from-Janet-Planet album Veedon Fleece he takes a recording hiatus before reappearing in 1977, the big year for UK Punk, with A Period of Transition, basically naming the departure of the Aquarian Zeitgeist, which he then follows up the next year with the successful "New Wave" album, Wavelength.

The murkiness of Van the Man's discography begins, for me at least, with his last album of the 1970s, Into the Music (1979). I have always been under the impression that Beautiful Vision (1982) follows Wavelength. It doesn't. Beautiful Vision actually follows the Celtic rocker, Common One (1980).

I say all this to emphasize the point made last week in relation to Wavelength. The late-70s were a confusing time. Old verities were vanishing. And a simple sort of satori to bring this home is the attempt to chronologize the oeuvre from this period of the trinity of our modern masters, Dylan-Morrison-Young.

Apropos of this, the last few weeks I have traveled directly into the "heart of darkness," immersing myself in Into the Music. Though I would identify myself, like my father, as a Van Morrison man, I was not familiar with this record. I think I might have heard it once or twice back in the day. If I reach way back I might have a vision of a sun-bleached album cover and the smell of lavender perfume so strong it makes me gag.

The backstory of Into the Music is that Van, alienated by Wavelength, went for a reboot. So he traveled to the English countryside and walked the fields at dawn, getting into the music by plucking out songs on his guitar. The result, as the 1970s come to a close and Jimmy Carter greases the skids for the Reagan-Thatcher lurch to the right, is -- believe it or not -- a critic's choice album of the year (#4 on Robert Christgau's Pazz & Jop Dean's List for 1979).

I say "believe it or not" because the album is so sugary and earnest it is hard to hear it as anything other than a precursor of the Boomer nostalgia, perfectly captured by the Big Chill (1983), that is about to burst forth in the 1980s as Reaganism takes hold.

But Into the Music provides an amazingly accurate template for the type of record that Morrison would perfect in the 1980s once he leaves off his Celtic Scientology synthesizer voodoo (an album that I never tire of, 1983's Inarticulate Speech of the Heart).

You can hear it all in two tracks -- "Troubadours" (above) and "And the Healing Has Begun" (below).

In "Troubadours" Van introduces the piccolo trumpet and stroviola (not your usual rock'n'roll instruments) to go along with the strings and other horns to create a signature "neo-Avalon" sound that would become a staple of  '80s albums like No Guru and Poetic Champions, an ideal accompaniment for the one-time Hippie now a solid burgher drinking his delicious Peet's coffee and scanning the morning business page.

From there it gets worse. "And the Healing Has Begun" is the type of Vegas showtune that Van has been able to extrude for the last 30 years as if he is the artistic equivalent of a plastic injection mold. Listening to it with its caws and whoops and "yeows!" one can't help but see the lads and lasses hoofing a Riverdance while the aging Boomers sip white wine in the audience and smile.

Of course we must doff our caps because it is after all 1979 and none of this was visible back then. Though it is hard to accept that Christgau was being sincere when he labeled Into the Music a pick hit, awarding it a rare A, and describing it as "Van's best album since Moondance."

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