An artist condensed in his music
By Sergio Ariza
By the time George Ivan Morrison stepped into a New York studio in August 1969 to record his new songs, the singer already had an incredible career behind him. He had triumphed by leading one of the bands of the British Invasion, Them, leaving behind classics such as Gloria and Here Comes The Night; had tried his luck on his own and had had huge success with Brown Eyed Girl in 1967; and had pulled a masterpiece out of his sleeve with Astral Weeks in 1968.
But that record had been as praised by critics as it had been ignored by the general public and Van Morrison was literally starving. Moondance was going to be, despite his resume, ‘his last chance’; so the Belfast Lion took the bull by the horns and decided to bet on himself. If his career was at stake, he would be the one to make the decisions, and so he decided to produce the album himself, bringing in new musicians and creating a new sound, a sound that was not a style but the extension of his own personality. As he said himself, this is the kind of band I like, "two horns and a rhythm section".
But let's go back a little bit, to the time that Morrison had a huge falling out with the widow of his former producer, and had been left half ruined. At the time he was playing in clubs in Boston, when Warner signed him, and he recorded the spectacular Astral Weeks. However on that record it had been the producer, Lewis Merenstein, who had chosen some jazz-trained musicians to colour Morrison's intimate folk songs. The result was a true marvel, but it did not find an audience. After that Morrison had gone to live with his wife, Janet Planet, outside Woodstock, following in the footsteps of the only contemporary musicians he valued, Bob Dylan and The Band.
Now he was about to become a father for the first time and his mood had changed quite a bit. He was well, confident, happy and in love, something that was going to be reflected in the compositions he was preparing. At Woodstock he had met a group of musicians with whom he had connected and with whom he had practiced some of those songs: people like guitarist John Platania, saxophonist Jack Schroer and keyboardist Jef Labes. When the time came to record the album, he asked them to accompany him. But in the studio Merenstein was waiting for him with the musicians from Astral Weeks. It was then that Van Morrison took the decision that the musicians who were going to play were the ones he had chosen and that the sound would be exactly the one he had in mind.
He was not wrong, because those sessions simply oozed magic. Drummer Gary Mallaber, for example, said that when Morrison took his Guild D-50 and began to sing Into The Mystic, his hair stood on end, even though he had already heard the song. But as he pointed out in the rehearsals it was like watching a flight simulator, while in the studio it was like watching a real plane take off. Into The Mystic is the heart of the album, an emotional mix of Celtic folk and soul, of acoustic guitars, on which Platania accompanies him by providing wonderful counterpoints with his Ovation Balladeer; and horn instruments that imitate the foghorn of which the lyrics speak. It is an ethereal song over which the best white voice of rock, behind Elvis, flies.
And It Stoned Me opened the album with memories of youth and blue-eyed soul. The title song was a perfect combination of jazz chords and perfect choruses, while Caravan managed to get the best out of its interpreter, as evidenced by Van the Man’s legendary live performances, either on It's Too Late To Stop Now or The Last Waltz by The Band, who would become inseparable from Van Morrison in those times. The first side of this album is one of the most wonderful of all time; but although not as well known, the five songs that composed the other side are not far behind, from the R & B of These Dreams Of You to the unstoppable closing Glad Tidings, through the irresistible baroque harpsichord of Everyone. If Astral Weeks was somber, Moondance was an explosion of light and happiness.
Of course the album was a success and gave Van Morrison a long and fruitful career. Moondance can be considered the quintessence of the singer, the closest to the sounds he heard in his head; something that can be understood by looking at the record on which his career was modeled. The mixture of soul, jazz, folk and country sounds like nobody else because this was not a style, it was Van Morrison condensed in music.