Van Morrison live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on May 19, 1973 in Santa Monica, Calif. Ed Caraeff/Getty Images
Before he turned twenty-five, Van Morrison had written a rock and roll standard (“Gloria”), essayed arguably the greatest-ever Bob Dylan cover (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — both with Them), made a top-ten American hit (“Brown Eyed Girl”) and recorded two very different, very compatible LP masterpieces, Astral Weeks and Moondance — the former concerned with “childhood, initiation, sex, and death,” per Greil Marcus in Stranded, the latter with rebirth, experience, love and living for its own sake. Yet nobody thinks of Morrison as a prodigy, because even as a young man he seemed older, somehow — somebody for whom experience doesn’t count unless it’s lived, and everything else is bulls***. For all the mysticism in many of his songs, his pithiest lyric, from “(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball,” off 1971’s Tupelo Honey, goes: “‘Cause hearing it through the grapevine / Is just a dirty, rotten waste of time.” The titles of his three most recent studio albums extend this tendency to the point of grumpy-old-man self-parody: Keep It Simple (2008), Born to Sing: No Plan B (2012) and — the height or the nadir, but more than anything inevitable — last year’s Duets: Re-working the Catalogue.
Morrison is an acolyte and evangelist — a 2001 duet album with Linda Gail Lewis, younger sister of Jerry Lee, came about after they’d met during a Jerry Lee convention he’d attended as a fan, and he told interviewer Bill Flanagan in the mid-eighties that he’d considered becoming a teacher — and his music is in constant conversation with his inspirations. His own songs are littered with direct references: “Domino” nods to Fats, “These Dreams of You” is about a dream in which “Ray Charles was shot down / But he got up to do his best.” And he has long performed the songs of his heroes in concert, sometimes in medleys with his own, which serve to highlight their similarities — and differences.
This reverence for his roots is documented most lavishly on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, which Polydor has just reissued for the first time digitally. A strong candidate for the rock era’s greatest live album, the original double-LP was culled from eight performances in a trio of cities during a 1973 tour: at L.A.’s Troubadour on May 23; the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on June 29; and London’s Rainbow on July 23 and 24. Morrison left plenty on the floor, and much of it can now be heard on an accompanying box titled It’s Too Late to Stop Now Vol. II, III & IV: Three CDs with 15 songs each, plus a DVD taken from the Rainbow on July 24, shot for British TV but left unseen till now.
Taken in full, it’s overwhelming. Morrison was working with a ten-piece band he dubbed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, including a pair of horn players and a string section, that could embellish every idea he had with aplomb, in particular loose-fingered pianist Jeff Labes and guitarist John Platania, the latter Morrison’s ideal sideman: unflashy, sometimes a little gawky, but always genial and intensely sympathetic. Both are audible links to the bucolic Woodstock vibe that spawned Moondance (for more detail, see Small Town Talk, Barney Hoskyns’ new rock and roll history of that upstate New York city), a vibe Morrison’s mad perfectionism and rye-tinged skepticism so fruitfully undercut. Here’s how perfectionist: Morrison wouldn’t allow anything onto the original It’s Too Late that had a single audible error, nor any studio overdubs — all the way live or else.
The double-LP version of It’s Too Late has a deep coherency, but listening to the box we discover that he wasn’t simply selecting the best version among many — he was choosing the ones that felt the most right together. The liberties he takes with the material on the double-LP always feel purposeful and deep in hand. But the box contains wilder, freer versions of some of the same songs, and in some cases they sound even better. The “Domino” from the Rainbow has a hurtling energy that’s more electric than the more measured crowd-pleaser that appeared on the original double-LP; occasionally Morrison’s singing is so staccato it sounds like an actual jolt. The version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” from the Troubadour is soberer, and more wounded, than the one on the original album. And these aren’t small changes, for the most part; even the handful of the box’s songs that resemble the double-LP’s eventually take different turns, and most of them are very different, from one another and anything else. Morrison’s formidable commitment to in-the-moment energy, to creating something new every time out, is ferociously intense. It’s daunting to realize that he could have chosen any number of other performances for the double-LP instead of the ones he did and gotten nearly as good a result.