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Inarticulate Speech of the Heart

by John Collis

256 pages
Hardcover edition published August 1996
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0-316-87640-2
Paperback edition published by Warner Books
ISBN 0-7515-2068-3

From the inside cover:
"In this definitive survey of Van Morrison's life and music, John Collis charts the scale of his achievement and the sources of his creativity, and provides stimulating assessments of some of his most famous songs. Drawing on interviews with those closest to Morrison at every stage of his career, with a full discography and many rare photographs, Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart represents a unique insight into the enduring enigma of one of rock's greatest singer-songwriters and most instantly recognisable voices"

Review by Gerry Smith, England, 29 August 1996:
I first came across John Collis's work in 1980 when he wrote the well-informed chapter on country music in a landmark book he also edited, The Rock Primer (curiously mis-titled - it also covered reggae, blues, folk, soul, R & B et al). I'll be eternally grateful to him for alerting me to Hank Williams.

So I bought his new Van Morrison book with keen anticipation: a good writer on a great musician promised a fair bit of rapture. And Collis's new study offers considerable rewards. His overall assessment of Van Morrison, "the breadth of achievement in a 35-year career is stunning ... he has nothing left to prove", seems like a fair starting point. The full early narratives on Them and Bang are illuminating. The mysterious Stogumber church concert now makes sense for the first time. The lists at the end, Discography, Bibliography and Filmography, though not perfect, are the best in print, and will help thousands of marginal Van fans fuel their growing obsession.

Unhappily, these strengths are outweighed by some serious weaknesses. The chief weakness is that the author doesn't seem to like his subject. Over a dozen very nasty descriptions of the musician - by the author, or quoted by him - leapt off the page at first reading: "boorish"; "ill-mannered, graceless..." will give the flavour. The book's blurb refers to Morrison as "a figure...reviled...". Morrison's lyric from Avalon Sunset, 'I would like to be cheerful again' is ridiculed with "perhaps a somewhat far-fetched wish". His explanation that the cover of TH is artifice, not a family snap, and his perfectly reasonable assertion that "a lot of people seem to think that album covers are your life..." is dismissed by the author as "a somewhat churlish observation". His "Ability to act ruthlessly in those aspects of the music industry he affects to despise" is noted.

The biography also carries a fair measure of extremely unflattering third party opinion from Ted Templeman (co-producer of TH, SDP and ITLTSN), Whenever God... collaborator Cliff Richard, British blues singer and broadcaster Paul Jones, and Liam Fay, another journalist who didn't quite get what he wanted from Morrison.

In this context, it's no surprise that Van Morrison fails to treat writers like long-lost brothers. Judging people is a subjective business, but you could reasonably expect a bit of variety. There's a depressing conformity in the negative spin put on VTM's personality in the press.

Quite apart from gratitude for his enormous, multi-faceted talent as a musician, I positively like what I think I know of Van the man. He seems remarkably focussed, hard-working, perceptive, well-read, witty and serious-minded. Not bad for starters. He seems self-centred. But so do all the successful people I've ever known. He's not overly concerned with trivia, or with others' perceptions of him. Lucky man. He doesn't suffer fools. He doesn't take bullshit. He doesn't need to. Would you? John Collis's critical judgment of Morrison's recorded output won't be shared by many Van aficionados. OK, Astral Weeks, Moondance, ITLTSN, and San Francisco are highly praised. But not much else is discussed in depth (or, indeed, with the same enthusiasm). SDP, though "included among his finest works", merits less than a thousand words. Veedon Fleece, "sad evidence of creative exhaustion", is dismissed in two short paras. The (praised) ITLTSN content gets a single para. Beautiful Vision - a masterpiece to many Van fans - is "largely unexciting", with the jolly but relatively lightweight Cleaning Windows judged the outstanding track. ISH is "dangerously close to being soporific". No Guru, widely regarded as a top three VTM album, gets a couple of pages, but little evaluation. PCC, another fan favourite, is "one of the less inspired...". DLT, it is claimed, suffers from "sometimes semi-coherent delivery". How Long (released Dec 1995 in the UK) merits only a late note in the text, though it is missing completely from the discography.

Let's turn to some debatable readings of individual songs. The first line of Astral Weeks, surely one of that monumental album's highlights, is dismissed as "dodgy". Natalia (Wavelength) is one of "three weaker numbers." Why must I always explain? (Hymns), a minor classic, is described as "offensive, graceless and ungrateful". Summertime in England is pretentious: "insulting to anyone to whom the great poets matter. Morrison, the uneducated reader (sic), reduces them to nothing more than a check list...the execution is dire and self-indulgent...vulgar." Rave on John Donne, one of the highlights of the Morrison canon, is "yet another reading list". Wasted Years, the haunting duet with John Lee Hooker on Too Long in Exile, is an "all-purpose whinge". Songwriter (DLT) is taken as autobiographical. (Surely most see it as ironic, as clearly signalled in the lyrics: why are so many deaf to VTM's sense of humour?).

Another weakness of John Collis's book is the questionable premise that Van Morrison is a rock star. Collis gives the game away early on by placing him in a rock context, alongside entertainers like Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and Tim Hardin (really). What does Van have to do to convince a sceptical world that he is not a rock performer? Collis ignores Van's rejection of the rock label, while conceding throughout his manuscript that VTM can't be easily categorised. He perceptively regards Astral Weeks as jazz/folk, Tupelo Honey as country, and so on, and refers to his subject as a white soul singer. But author and blurb writer persist with the rock epithet, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Like Steve Turner's more generous Too Late to Stop Now, Collis's book is unbalanced. The absorbing detail of the early years is not matched by his coverage of the main body of VTM's work, post-1970. By page 121 we have just passed Moondance. The rest of the output (26 years) is then covered sketchily, finishing on page 192, before we get a short wrap-up and the extensive listings at the end.

Collis clearly had no access to Van Morrison, and relies on the opinions and recollections of third parties, augmented by taped interviews, published articles and the handful of earlier books. He uses Ritchie Yorke's superior 1975 biography, Into the Music, for early material. And who can blame him: Yorke did have access to his subject, and it shows, in his discussion both of Morrison and his work.

I never thought I'd catch myself saying that the book format is inferior to the Internet. But it's true with this kind of topic. This book was inevitably out of date when it first hit the streets a couple of weeks ago. Collis's Acknowledgements are dated March 1996, but December 1995's HLHTBGO is missing from the discography. The biggest Van events of 1996 so far have arguably been the legendary Supper Club shows in NYC, and the news of the (now postponed) Philosopher's Stone retrospective album. Both have been covered in depth on the Net. Neither gets a mention in this book. And while the detail in the discography is the best available in book form, it's not as comprehensive, evaluative or as up-to-date as that freely available in cyberspace.

The expert enthusiastic network of 400 VTM fans around the world who contribute to the Van e-mail list, as well as the California-based Van home page [Ed: the Van home page is actually based in Vancouver, B.C., Canada!], produce more interesting writing about The Man than books and articles emanating from journalists, however good they might be.

Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart claims to be a definitive survey of The Man's life and music. It isn't. And the blurb claims the book provides a unique insight. Well, it does, to a limited extent, but John Collis has the talent to contribute far more than he has here. It also speaks of many rare photographs; if there are any rarities, I missed them.

We still await a biography which does justice to this genius of late 20th century music.

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