GIRL IN THE SONG – PART 18- Van Morrison


Brown-Eyed Girl (V Morrison) 1967 and Crazy Love (V Morrison) 1970 and Tupelo Honey (V Morrison) – Van Morrison 1972

In 1966 Van Morrison (George Ivan Morrison 1945) had just departed his Belfast R&B group Them, after scoring several international hits with Here Comes the Night, Gloria, Baby Please Don’t Go and Mystic Eyes, and was embarking on a solo career with Bang Records, helmed by Bert Berns, who had written Here Comes the Night and produced several records for his old group. Morrison would execute what turned out to be a very one-sided two-year contract with Bang which effectively stripped him of all royalties after he had paid for the recording, promotion and distribution cots of his initial recording sessions with Bang. Below – Far Right – Morrison with Bert Berns

He would bitterly criticise Berns in future songs, most notably the facetiously-titled The Big Royalty Cheque, and Berns would respond by releasing an album of Morrison’s songs entitled Blowin’ Your Mind in 1967 without the singer’s knowledge or approval, which included what would become Morrison’s breakthrough hit, Brown-Eyed Girl, a soft rock song imbued with his gritty, bluesy vocals, and enhanced by the souful backing cadences of the Sweet Inspirations. Berns passed away in 1967 but his wife Ilene continued to press contractual claims against Morrisson, many believed because of Mafia links to Bang Records.

The opening crystalline guitar riffs and handclaps invite participation, as the bass and organ insinuate themselves into the arrangement, and we are transported to a favourite place and time in our memory.

Morrison had met Janet Rigsby in the summer of 1966 behind a roller-rink-turned-concert-hall in San Leandro (Calif) , she was 19 and the Irishman was 21. They would marry in 1968 and become one of the public couples of the rock revolution, like John and Yoko, Paul and Linda, Bob and Sara, Mick and Marianne -Van and Janet Planet –  as her consummate rhymer nicknamed her- would be exposed to endless media speculation, paparazzi intrusion, and tabloid mystery, and she would be his muse for five years and inspire many of the songs on his most enduring albums: Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band & the Street Choir, and Tupelo Honey. L-R – Morrison and Rigsby, Morrison, Morrison and Rigsby.

The freshfaced young redhead was Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl, she was divorced and already had a son from her first marriage, but their attraction was all-consuming, and described by Rigsby as “alchemical whammo”, and they would settle in Woodstock in upstate New York. When Brown-Eyed Girl was released, after changing the title from Brown-Skinned Girl, and replacing the original lyrics “making love in the green grass” with “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey, hey…” after radio stations objected to the sexual nature of the original song, it became the impetus for Morrison’s career. The song is about sex, youth, growing up, and remembering, it became a timeless classic, one of the most played and downloaded songs in the history of popular music, and the opening lines are unforgettable “Hey where did we go/ Days when the rains came/Down in the hollow/ Playin’ a new game/ Laughing and a running hey, hey/ Skipping and a jumping/In the misty morning fog with/Our hearts a thumpin’ and you/ My brown eyed girl/ You’re my brown eyed girl.”

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Morrison would move on from Berns and Bang Records and ink a deal with Warner Brothers, his album Astral Weeks would be released soon after in 1968 and feature many songs inspired by Janet “Planet” – Ballerina, Beside You, and The Way Lovers Do. Beside You was the second song on the album and its expressionistic poetry and Dylanesque collection of images and scenarios allied with Jay Berliner’s classical guitar, created a sublime love song, about being both physically and spiritually close to Rigsby. It was typical of the poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that exemplified Astral Weeks and it was thought that it would delineate the future path that Morrison’s music would take, but it failed to resonate with fans upon its release, only gathering critical acclaim and charting in future years.

Ballerina was the oldest composition on the album, written in 1966 after Morrison and Rigsby had meet, “Spread your wings/ Come on fly awhile/ Straight to my arms/Little angel child/ You know you only/Lonely twenty-two story block/ And if somebody, not just anybody/ Wanted to get close to you/ For instance, me, baby/ All you gotta do/ Is ring a bell.”

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In 1970 Morrison released his third studio album Moondance, it was a welcome return to the R&B/soul/pop of his earlier hits, and less of the abstract folk/jazz songs of Astral Weeks, it was an instant hit, and included such songs as Into the Mystic, Caravan, Moondance, Come Running, and Crazy Love, it would sell over 3 million copies, and become a staple of FM radio playlists for decades.

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Crazy Love was the track most obviously inspired by Janet whom he had recently married in 1968, it was a romantic ballad about lovers expressing their all-encompassing emotions “I can hear her heart beat for a thousand miles/ And the heaven’s open every time she smiles/ And when I come to her that’s where I belong/ Yet I’m running to her like a river’s song/ She gives me love, love, crazy love…”. Morrison strove for intimacy when he recorded this song, he was so closely miced in the studio that the sound of his tongue hitting the roof of his mouth was audible when he sang, he also used falsetto to heighten the feelings of intimacy and complicity for the listener, and was soulfully backed by the female chorus of Judy Clay, Emily Houston, and Jackie Verdell. The record cover featured artwork of their seemingly idyllic romance in sepia shots of her head lying dreamily on his shoulder.

They thought their crazy love would last forever, but the world of Van Morrison would consume Janet Rigsby and she looked for a simpler life.

On Morrison’s fifth album Tupelo Honey, Janet appeared in a flowered gown astride a white stallion led by him along a sun-dappled country path, through what looked for all the world like a secluded corner of Camelot.

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The title track begins with a gentle flute refrain until the jazzy drum fills of Connie Kay lead us to Van’s emphatic vocals which plumb the depths of his feelings for his wife and mother of his daughter Shana born in 1970. The title was derived from the expensive subtly-flavoured honey from south-eastern USA, as Morrison’s lyrics captured this metaphor for his love “she’s as sweet as Tupelo honey…she’s all right with me”, which further underscored the adoration he felt for his muse. No lesser an industry figure than Bob Dylan characteristically observed that “Tupelo Honey has always existed, and Van Morrison was merely the vessel and the earthly vesicle for it.” The catchy, soulful melody for the song had been borrowed from Crazy Love and would re-appear in the future on the song Why Must I Always Explain (Hymns of Silence 1991).

Brilliant, intimate live performance, the tenor sax solo was stunning, Van exhibited his characteristic mixture of brilliance and indifference.

But there was trouble in paradise, their marriage was an emotional rollercoaster, as Morrison’s critically-acclaimed albums charted in the millions, he became less comfortable with fame and the material benefits it afforded, more irascible, curmudgeonly, and reclusive, with a sneering contempt for other industry idols, and a worsening problem with alcohol abuse. In 1973 Janet fled their Marin County home, “By then our life together was very traumatic and horrible, I couldn’t stand any more of his rage as my daily reality. I worried about its impact on the children, I couldn’t reconcile the fragile dream with the emotional chaos which kept intruding and crashing everything down.” Below L-R- Janet Rigsby, Van Morrison with daughter Shana, Morrison and second wife Michelle Rocca.

When she left, Morrison and his management were concerned about the impact it would have on their public image as a flower-power love match, she had been his muse and inspiration for over five years, but in reality she just felt like a cog in a music industry machine that was starting to make a lot of money. Janet just wanted to find peace and her own voice, and she would not speak to Morrison again until 1994. Now married to her third husband Chris Minto, a recording engineer, for the past 17 years, she leads a quiet life in the San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles) with him and her daughter Shana, an aspiring singer who possesses a booming bluesy voice similar to her father, with whom she has toured. Morrison would marry Irish socialite Michelle Rocca in 1992, they would have two children Aibbe (’06), and Fiona Ivan (’07), and in 2011 Morrison would father a love child with his tour manager, Texan Gigi Lee in 2009, but their baby would sadly die of hyperglaecemia, and Gigi would pass away in late 2011 after battling throat cancer; Rocca would ultimately finalise a divorce from Morrison in 2018. “Van The Man” Morrison has released forty albums in an illustrious career and is one of the most celebrated composers and performers of his era. Below- Morrison and Gigi Lee.

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