Turn it up

Winding into a holiday weekend, it can’t be wrong to remember that Van Morrison — singer, songwriter and artist — celebrates his sixty-seventh birthday today. Morrison is an artist who has absorbed all the strains of American popular music and recapitulated them in his own unique voice. Born in Belfast, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the greats in the pantheon of the Cosmic American Music.

Beginning with Astral Weeks in 1968, Morrison experienced a tremendous burst of creative energy that is also reflected on Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey and Saint Dominic’s Preview.

“Caravan” is one of the intriguing fantasy songs from this period. The song represents Morrison’s take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” as well as a a tribute to radio and to the music that has inspired him. “Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, radio,” goes the chorus. Why? “So you know it’s got soul” is one answer.

“Caravan” is not only one of the highlights of Moondance, it’s also one of the two songs that Morrison performed with the Band at the Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Band’s Robbie Robertson had to talk him into the other song he performed that night, a beautiful version of “Tura Lura Lura.”

Martin Scorsese documented Morrison’s performance with the Band on film in The Last Waltz (video above). Morrison overcame a major case of stage fright, first to save the show and then to steal it. Greil Marcus covered the show for Rolling Stone. Marcus described Van’s performance:

Van Morrison made his entrance and he turned the show around. I had seen him not many minutes before prowling the balconies, dressed nondescriptly in a shirt and jeans, scowling; but there he was onstage, in an absurd maroon suit and a green top, singing to the rafters. They cut into “Caravan” — with [producer] John Simon waving the Band’s volume up and down, and the horns at their most effective — while Van burned holes in the floor. He was magic, and I thought, Why didn’t he join the Band years ago? More than any other singer, he fit in, his music and theirs made sense together. It was a triumph, and as the song ended Van began to kick his leg into the air out of sheer exuberance, and he kicked his way right offstage like a Rockette. The crowd had given him a fine welcome and they cheered wildly when he left.

Scorsese’s camera caught Van with the barest hint of a smile as he exited stage left. “Hey, Van the Man,” Robbie Robertson exulted.

Van is still going strong, both in writing and performing. I saw him last when he came through Minneapolis in December 2007. By my lights he remains a riveting, essential and enigmatic artist live and on disc.