Making it the Way it Is: Van Morrison’s Mysticism

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Van ‘The Man’ Morrison

I don’t know about you but in my book when the music and self-help industries try to sell ‘uplifting’ music they get it all wrong.  You either get Christian rock and breathy chants or waterfalls and mellow Moog loops.  Pretty dire.

I happen to love music. I also like to be inspired to enjoy a better human existence.  And while an 8 hour track of gentle musical gurgle may be useful to get me back to sleep at 330am, when it comes to listening to music I need something with meat and gristle on its bones.

And there is no shortage of inspiration to be had all across the spectrum: rock, pop, folk, classical, even rap, for goodness sake. Music by terrific artists, singers and writers who refuse to water down the music just to get a message across.

Here is just one example from the great Irish mystic Van ‘the Man’ Morrison.

This has been one of my favorite albums since I first heard it way back nearly 40 years ago. Van has always been touched by the Celtic spirits and it would be hard to identify any of his records that is completely devoid of the spiritual touch.  But in the early 80s he released a number of albums that put the whole mystical/spiritual quest right up front. This is the first, and in my opinion, the best of them.

Common One, as the title suggests, points to the Universal Spirit that permeates everyone, everything as well as all time and space. It is the one thing we all share in common. In this respect the record is a hymnbook to that non-religious ‘godhead’.  Opening with the stunningly beautiful Haunts of Ancient Peace and closing with a dreamy When Heart is Open, Common One takes the listener on a journey of spiritual discovery and longing.   The album shimmers with the dappled light and shade of jazz and lush orchestration. The tempo is generally leisurely, much like a tramp across the highlands on a long summer’s day which is not to say it is monotonous. The music builds and collapses, slows then rushes frantically forward again throughout the album, often in the same song.   Summertime in England is a perfect example of changes in pace and intensity.

Each song is finely and specially constructed to deliver and elicit a particular emotional response. We hear Van whisper prayers of desperate loneliness  (Spirit) as well as lose himself in trances of mystical delirium (Summertime in England) chanting the names of long dead muses. But lest you think this is all pretty heavy and depressing he pops up with joy and delight too.

Such is the song Satisfied. 

Let’s go walkin’ up that mountainside
Look down in the valley down below
And we survey this wondrous scene
Wait a minute
Hold that dream.
Hold that dream.
Don’t want to change my name and write a book
Just like Catcher in the Rye
Settle down in a shady nook
Talkin’ to my baby now
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is.
Satisfied (Satisfied.)
Inside.
Go to the mountain
Come back to the city
Where a whole lot of things
Don’t look very pretty
Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied
Sometimes I think I know where it’s at
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is
Satisfied (Satisfied)
Inside.
Sometimes I think I know how it is
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I’ve got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
Cause I made it
The way it is
I’m satisfied (satisfied)
Inside

 

This track is a glorious hymn of exaltation.  It opens with a syncopated organ two-step that builds steadily into a horn adorned R&B groove before reaching its ecstatic highpoint with a ripping flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham. Van himself, in addition to singing his heart out, sets Isham’s solo up with some competent sax work.

Resting in this luxurious setting is the song’s central lyric.

I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is

I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times over the years but just a few days ago the power of these lyrics hit me.  The world we inhabit, the world we experience is of our own making. Everything around us, whatever its form, is a reflection of ourselves. A reflection of ‘I’.  And our experience of that world also is completely our own making.  Whether we are satisfied or unhappy there is no one to fault but ourselves, “cause I made it/the way it is.”

Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied

He follows this up with another pearl.  Because there is nothing ‘out there’ that is not of our own making, any spiritual quest for peace, love and joy must originate from the inside.  It matters not how deep your hunger or thirst is. It matters not how many gurus or teachers we seek out. No matter what it is we want to change about ourselves, ‘you got it change it/ on the inside first’.

All in all a one-two punch of profundity and exhilarating music!

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Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

Mehnaz, my latest favorite South Asian female singer!

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Some of you may know that I am currently writing a book on Lollywood, the not-very-original sobriquet for the movie making industry of Pakistan based in Lahore.

As I continue to dig and uncover more information about this rather unknown industry and cultural enterprise I am discovering all sorts of new singers, composers and musicians.* Or re-discovering some that I knew a bit about previously but hadn’t necessarily associated with filmi music.

Mehnaz Begum is one such artist and it is a great privilege to share with you some of her wonderful singing in this post.

Mehnaz Begum was born (1950) into a family which had a very particular musical heritage. As the Mughal Empire began to weakened after the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who exhausted its authority with incessant expansionary wars in the Deccan, smaller principalities and ‘kingdoms’ across the subcontinent began to exert power in their regions. One…

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