Friday, January 9, 2015
Want a Danish?
Any mention of Van Morrison's Bang Masters, released by Columbia's Legacy Records in 1991, almost inevitably leads to a telling of one of the most oft-repeated yarns involving the Irishman: when he hammered out 31 short, acoustic-based songs of utter foolishness, all to fulfill the contract he signed with Bert Berns and Bang Records. (My three favorite tracks from this session—if you can actually call studio time that involves an artist who doesn't give a rat's breath and personnel that would rather be somewhere else a session—"Want a Danish," "Chicken Coo," and "Dum Dum George.") But we are not here to discuss those 31 middle-fingers to Bang. Perhaps another time. We are here to discuss Bang Masters, which is exactly what its title implies: an album featuring Morrison's studio masters from his short time with the label. The compilation is of interest to this blog because it features a pre-Astral Weeks, embryonic "Beside You" and "Madame George." We'll start with the former, since it's the more palatable of the pair ... Unlike the hauntingly sparse Astral Weeks version, which is captained by Jay Berliner's classical guitar and the playing of an anonymous flautist (Morrison's acoustic guitar strumming and Richard Davis' labyrinthine bass, the hardened bedrock upon which the album is built, play secondary roles), the Bang Masters "Beside You" is weighed down with instrumentation: a skittish organ, a rudimentary melody on electric guitar, a lumbering rhythm section. There's nothing sonically imaginative here, nothing wholly fulfilling, nothing that pricks the ear and compels the listener to sit up and take notice. Say what you want about the Astral Weeks "Beside You," but Berliner's finger-picked playing accomplished exactly that. (In my recent interview with John Payne, he kept emphasizing how free the Astral Weeks version is—"They're just playing free through the whole thing and it just rolls around"—and I've come to realize there may not be a more precise adjective to describe the song.) Morrison's vocals in the Bang Masters version are equally unsatisfying. He sounds rushed, disinterested, even flat at times. The brilliant "You breathe in/You breathe out" section is regrettably shorter. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison belts out the first syllable of the word "beside" and for a moment, just a moment, it feels like he's about to experience one of his trademark body-wracking vocal climaxes. But then he pulls out, lets his voice drop low, flatlines the chorus. It's the singing equivalent of coitus interruptus. Give the Bang Masters version a spin, just so you can appreciate how much Morrison matured artistically between his time with Berns and the fall of 1968. On Bang Masters, he's in front of a mirror, singing to himself, testing how his words sound out in the open, a touch bashful at what he hears. On Astral Weeks, Morrison's atop a mountain, serenading the heavens, his voice emanating far and wide for all to savor, the voice of an artist fully confident in his abilities.