Sweet Thing - Van Morrison
Van Morrison left the Belfast band Them in 1966 and relocated to America, to embark on his career as a solo artist. Given that his first solo album release, "Blowin' Your Mind" on Bang records, was put together and brought out against his wishes, his second LP, "Astral Weeks", recorded in New York's Century Studios and released on his new label, Warner Brothers, was effectively his first. Van always has the demeanour of a tragic hero, perhaps because he started with this, his greatest work, a record which, deep down inside, he must have always known would be almost impossible to better.
Warner had trouble finding a producer to work with Morrison on the album, as all those approached were expecting to be making music like his 1967 US hit with Bang, "Brown Eyed Girl" and couldn't relate to his by-then current style since developed playing with only two accompanists in the small folk clubs in Boston. Their tenth candidate was one Lewes Merenstein with not much of a stellar back catalogue, but good experience in and understanding of modern jazz, and he immediately "got" Morrison's r&b style vocals and intensely personal, poetic words, recognising that their freeform feel needed the backing of jazz musicians who could "go with the flow" and react to the feeling in the singing.
So, employ jazz musicians he did, and the result is history, creating a record that is as poetic and as atmospheric as anything Dylan, Cohen or Joni Mitchell ever produced. I could have chosen any track from "Astral Weeks" but went with Sweet Thing as it is a perfect example of all the styles and themes that make up the album: the jazz musicians led by the amazing double bass playing of Richard Davies, the traditional Celtic feel of the rhythm and the wonderful string section and, crowning it all, Van's immensely soulful vocal and his lyrics of almost heart stopping beauty:
"...and I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry,
'well, it's me, I'm dynamite and I don't know why'
and you shall take me strongly in your arms again
and I will not remember that I even felt the pain;
we shall walk and talk in gardens all misty wet and misty wet with rain
and I will never, never, never grow so old again...."
The most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature is Louise Glück, "for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal". Glück, born in New York, is a poet who is conscious of being part of an oral tradition dating back to Homer, not infrequently invoking stories and characters of ancient Greece to throw modern feelings and situations into sharp relief. Take for example the final lines from her poem "The Empty Glass":
"....Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate-
What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbour, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy."