In my dazed and confused youth, listening to classic rock as I traversed the rural roads of New England, several of Van Morrison’s ubiquitous hits were etched into my soul.
Apart from that, I never gave the fellow a second thought, until reading several years ago that the title of his popular tune, “Domino,” is properly declined Latin for “O Lord.” “Lord, have mercy,” Morrison sings, strengthening the case that this (openly devout) rock star, in addition to paying tribute to Fats Domino, may also intend to invoke the Almighty in an ancient tongue.
With this intimation of his theological bent planted in the back of my brain, it was a delightful thing to discover, in the midst of a year that will forever live in infamy, that long familiar (and ageless) voice raised in melodious protest against the suffocating hold inflicted on the world by new forms of old ideologies, “not for the benefit of you and me.”
In his “Latest Record Project,” Morrison extends this commentary on the madness of contemporary society over two discs. Though he tells us the exercise is “Not something that I used to do / Not something that you used to,” “Not something way back in thе day / Not something I have to say,” the music is decidedly the same Van Morrison we’re lovingly used to, and the message is most certainly “something I can relate to / In the present, in the present.”
Many of these numbers explicitly address the social and political crimes being committed in broad daylight, and the shocking inability or unwillingness of so many to admit what is happening. “Mind control keeps us in line / That’s why we’ve got to think outside the blind leading the blind.”
On occasion Morrison even names names: “Nigel comes on strong then backs away / Comes back to fight another day.” And he is very clear about what is at stake: “Western Man has no plan / Since he became complacent / Stopped believing in himself / And let others steal his rewards / While he was dreaming.”
As Morrison reminds us, however, this is a rock album, not a scholarly tome: “Only a song, it’s not set in stone, it’s only a song / It’s only a poem, it could change in the long run, it’s only a song / It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme / Could have been on my mind at the time.”
Nonetheless, there is no denying that Morrison’s songs are suffused with political and philosophical themes, demonstrating his own response to the challenges of our time, and encouraging us to respond in a similarly critical manner. “You thought you knew me / But you were wrong / There’s more to me than my song”; “Look inside myself / And only at the crowd / What the philosopher said / Got to say it out loud / The unexamined life is not worth living.”
How can we live an examined life in this age of hypnotic lies? To begin with, we have to detach ourselves from the seductive sources of deception. Regarding the media, Morrison warns: “They control the narrative, they perpetuate the myth / Keep on telling you lies, tell you ignorance is bliss / Believe it all and you’ll never get, nеver get wise / To thе truth, ’cause they control everything you do.”
Part of freeing ourselves from the “Big Lie” is learning to see through the liars to what lies behind their lies. “He’s Not the Kingpin” advises us to “Follow the money / Follow the story / Research it further,” until we find those pulling the strings of government and media dupers.
On the other hand, what really matters is not just rejecting lies, but embracing the truth. In “Breaking the Spell,” Morrison tells us that “I’ve been up here in the country / Taking all my own advice.” He recommends that we “Take a breather from the rat race / And these crazy nights and days.” Amidst the beauties of nature, he finds freedom: “They’re ringing the bell / Ringing the bell but I’m not salivating.” In the process, he learns that there is a source of value far surpassing that of society’s carrots and sticks: “As you go review the morning / And the scenery all around / There is nothing ordinary / Everything is quite profound.”
Although “it’s only a song,” or 28 songs to be precise, I think there is something quite profound about what Morrison is doing here. For one thing, the fact that he deals so ably with the latest forms of despotism in a musical medium that has remained unchanged—and no less compelling—for decades, is a reminder that the principles of what is right and good are not subject to fads or psychological manipulation.
To the forces of evil, Morrison makes this cheerful rejoinder: “While it’s your time now, it’s gonna be my time after a while / People gonna catch up with your evil eye.” As for his own motives: “Just wanna see my darling children smile.”
In “Thank God for the Blues,” Morrison rightly identifies the source of all blessings, and those for whom they are intended: “Singing what’s real, singing what’s true / Singing that’s what I’m here to do”; “Sing it for me, sing it for you / Sing it for the people / Who feel the same way that I do.”
In the end, what else is there to do but to seek, and to sing, what is true?
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