Moondance: An Appreciation

Photo_by_Celso_on_Unsplash Photo by Celso on Unsplash

48 years ago , this album was released, it’s been the soundtrack to my life for 36 years – here’s a few thoughts I jotted down about it:

Van Morrison’s second Warner Brothers album is so good; it arguably could have been a ‘best of’ collection. One of those rare records in which there’s no bad tracks. At least 4 out of 10 songs are considered ‘standards’ and two of the songs; the title track and “Caravan” need to be included on any Van “greatest hits” collection. In many ways, Moondance is like Neil Young’s Harvest – (for each artist) it may well be their most popular recording, it may well be their best selling album and for the layman, it’s probably considered their ‘best’ album. Lastly, if you only have one album by Van and/or Neil – chances are, it’s Moondance and/or Harvest. All that said, it’s not my personal favorite of Van (nor is Harvest mine for Neil) but I certainly would not want to live in a world without them.

If anything, both albums suffer from over-familiarity – and yet, especially for Moondance, each time I come back to it, I’m always blown away by the perfection, by the quality of each song, by its spirit and tone. Frankly, there may not be a more perfect album than Moondance. No duff tracks, the perfect blend of rock, folk, R&B, jazz influences, each song so well crafted, so well played and recorded, it’s like “wow” every time I come back to it. I have a clear memory of listening this album at Chuck Prophet’s Noe street apartment about 20 years ago and were both basking in this album’s ‘perfection’ and I asked him, “do you think Van and the recording engineers were aware of just how great this was as they were doing it? Did they pause after a take and and say ‘damn, that’s good’ to themselves?” Chuck replied “no, they didn’t, when people make great albums like this, they’re too caught up in making them for any on the spot self-reflection” Let’s dive in, shall we?

Frankly, there may not be a more perfect album than Moondance

“And It Stoned Me” is easily one of my favorite Van songs ever. Within seconds I’m hooked on the lyrics, the melody, the chord changes, the horns, and the rhythm section. Notice how well the music “fits” the lyric? Van is painting a picture for us and the music helps fill in the gaps (like any good scene in a movie). This could and should have been used in a soundtrack.

I love it at the 2:55 spot when Van comes back in after the instrumental break, “on the way back home we sang a song, but our throats were getting dry” – but the real payoff, the money shot comes at just past the 4 minute mark, during the last 30 seconds of the song, when Van raises the pitch of his voice, he gives it everything he’s got on the “and it stoned me to my soul” – damn, you can feel the blood pumping thru his veins. I’ve heard it at least 500 times since 1982 (when I first bought the record) and it still gets me each and every time. It really does.

damn, you can feel the blood pumping thru his veins

I originally bought the record, because I’d heard the song “Moondance” countless times in a bar in Corning, NY that I used to hang out in as an underage teenager called ‘Wet Goods’ and a local singer/songwriter cat used to play his own version every weekend on a big hollow body electric guitar. Even as a youth, it sounded like a standard to me and I figured that Sinatra must have made it popular. When I discovered it was Van, I thought, well, I must check that LP out. (The same dude also performed “Caravan” each weekend as well). While I may be as bored of “Moondance” as Van himself (he sounds so bored, every time I’ve heard him sing it), we cannot deny it’s a classic. I’d love to own just 0.5% of the publishing on that baby.

While “Moondance” may well be THE classic romantic song, I prefer “Crazy Love” any day of the week. The ultimate ballad, “I can hear her heartbeat for a thousand miles” – I know that feeling! The vocal is tender perfection with nice soulful backing vocals as well.

“Caravan” – the highlight of The Last Waltz, but this studio version is equally stupendous and unlike “Moondance” – I haven’t gotten tired of it. It’s one in a series of “radio songs” by Van (mentioning the radio by name), the others being “Domino” and “Wavelength” – and at least as good of a radio song as the Modern Lovers “Roadrunner” (for completely different reasons). “I got the radio on” vs. “Turn it up, a little bit higher, radio, turn it up” – Van and Jojo are ‘fans’ – and they’ll be up all night. And let’s not forget, they were both in Beantown in the late 1960’s, both listening to DJ Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band and the future Mr. Faye Dunaway) beaming out across the Boston airwaves. Wolf and Morrison even became pals for a while.

“Into The Mystic” – my god, is this brilliant or what? When Bill Graham died, I attended some kind of awards function a few months later, and they played this song while a slideshow of Graham was shown. It was devastating. “When the foghorn blows, you know I will be coming home” (‘the sound’ of the San Francisco Bay but for Van back in the day, most likely Boston) – but the most spectacular line is “I wanna rock your gypsy soul, just like the days of old” – there’s a number of people I think of when I hear that line, several women who stole my soul. The way the horns rise up underneath the vocal, it’s as good as any Stax/Volt recording, any Fame Studio work, etc.

“Come Running” is my personal favorite love song on here – I always thought (until just now) he sang “wedding ring will catch you, you will sigh” – when in fact, he’s singing “wind and rain will catch you, you will sigh” – nevertheless, the jublient energy of this song is infectious – I love it every time. It’s such a high – for example, when I was 19, I took a 4 week Euro-Rail trip across Europe, one of those classic, hit 10 countries in 4 weeks trips that you only do when you’re young, never get a hotel, sleep on the train as much possible. I took a Walkman and only ONE cassette – this album! When I’d been up all night on the train and needed to kick-start the day – with no sleep and no food, a couple of spins of “Come Running” would rejuvenate me nicely. The way the drums and piano interlock on this song is pure magic, I doubt anyone can/could repeat it. Even Van’s live versions from this era don’t quite ‘get it’ right. Damn, it’s good. This is why I love Van; this is why I listen to his music almost every day for the past 30 years if I can. It’s like fuel, like a vitamin to start my day. Picks me up when I’m feeling blue. Soothes me right down to my very soul.

“I dreamed you paid your dues in Canada” – one of the best opening lines ever. “And Ray Charles was shot down, but got up to do his best” – what the hell? I love that! “Brand New Day” can be a bit cloying sometimes if I’m not in the right mood, but I can’t deny its brilliance. “Everyone” seems like a throwaway, it’s often forgotten, but it’s also delicious. Is that a harpsichord? It’s a song that sounds 1000 years old and modern at the same time. I can imagine it being played in a castle during medieval times; it’s classic and classy. A folk tune, when “folk” meant “people”– hence the title “Everyone” – once again, the perfect music for the lyrics.

It’s a song that sounds 1000 years old and modern at the same time

It all wraps up with “Glad Tidings” – which is pure power. That opening bass guitar riff, the handclaps –and that opening lyric “and they’ll lay you down, low and easy” – (yeah, please do!). The horns come in, and Van mentions the “princess” and the “knights” – yet another look at medieval imagery. But then it switches to modern times “we’ll send you glad tidings from New York” – sweet, so friggin’ sweet, meanwhile that bass (and the drums) keep on pushing and pumping. This whole band is rising for the occasion!

Yes, this is a perfect album; I pity the fool who never ‘got it’ – as John Lennon said in Rolling Stone in 1970, just as this album hit the streets “It’s interesting to hear Van Morrison. He seems to be doing nice stuff”

 


Pat Thomas is the author of 2 books published by Fantagraphics: Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and DID IT! Jerry Rubin: An American Revolutionary – a narrative and oral history of the Yippies, Chicago 8, Vietnam Anti-War Movement – seventy-five people were interviewed, including dozens of women whose voices have been absent in other chronicles of the 1960s and early 70s war against LBJ, Nixon, Hoover, and the Pentagon.

Thomas served as a consultant to director Stanley Nelson for his PBS documentary about the Black Panthers – titled Vanguard of the Revolution. He’s also a reissue producer & liner note writer for Light in the Attic Records, Warner Music Group and other labels.  

Visit his website here.