Where Have All the Rebels Gone? Indeed

A Review of Van Morrison’s Latest Record Project Vol. 1

INTRODUCTION:

This review combines an excerpt from my new book, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age [1] and more recent writing. The excerpted portions (set in quotation marks) are from my essay “All You Need to Know About Civilization” in that book, which is primarily about the work of British folk/rock songwriter Roy Harper. I hope to tantalize readers into exploring Harper’s amazing body of work over the past 50 years. As the opening line reads:

“All you need to know about civilization is found in the lyrics to Roy Harper’s epic song “The Game” (parts 1–5).[2] While Arnold Toynbee’s magisterial A Study of History provides probably the most exhaustive overview of history ever printed in 12 volumes, Harper—working within the limitations of the popular song—manages to do so in just over 600 words (and 14 minutes). That’s no small accomplishment. “The rules are set to paradox, coercion and blind faith” sums up the typical modus operandi of most civilizations with the conciseness and clarity of a haiku.”[3] Harper’s lyric fits hand-in-glove the authoritarianism of the Covid Age.

Roy Harper Royal Festival Hall

Roy Harper performing at Britain’s Royal Festival Hall in 2013.

And although I include a reference to Van Morrison’s new album, Latest Record Project Vol. 1, in the essay, I felt it was time to give more space to a consideration of this record. As with so much else during this era, artists are no longer judged on the intrinsic merit of their work but their racial, political and sexual identity. So it was unsurprising, if unfair, that Morrison’s album received one of the lowest ratings of his entire body of work on the online music resource AllMusic. I only regret that under the pressure of circumstances and stress it has taken me this long to finally publish something about this amazing new set of Morrison songs.

Where Have All the Rebels Gone? Indeed

Latest Record Project Vol. 1First, two things: 1) Morrison is at the height of his musical powers on Latest Record Project; and, 2) This is a very political record. “Music with a political message—like political poetry—isn’t for everyone. Both art forms have a tendency to divide audiences—they either love it or hate it. Granted, in music as in all art, it’s difficult to walk the fine line between aesthetic and polemic. ‘Protest songs’ and poetry, if not handled with great skill, quickly become dated, no longer relevant.”[4] A good example of that would be Neil Young’s 2006 album Living With War, a protest album against the George W. Bush administration and its war with Iraq. Although tightly produced and performed, musically it’s indistinguishable from any number of Neil Young and Crazy Horse recordings. From a writing perspective, there’s always the danger of being too specific to time and place. This is why some of the world’s most memorable poems often speak in broad, universal themes or archetypes, poems like Rudyard Kipling’s perennially popular “If.” As I’ve always argued, for these reasons, it takes more skill to write a successful political poem than almost any other poetic form.

“But that only makes it all the greater an achievement when an artist succeeds. In fact, art has a long and honourable history of confronting the politics of the day. In music this began with the folk music tradition and the field chants of Black slaves—the origins of the Blues—which had to be written using carefully cloaked metaphors so as to avoid the wrath of ‘the Man.’ (White plantation owners.) And have we forgotten how many of the classic rock tunes of the ’60s were political? “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” which has stood the test of time long past the expiry of the Vietnam War it satirizes. As John Fogerty realized, it’s always the poor who are drafted as cannon fodder. Some themes are perennial.”[5]

After a career spanning more than 50 years, you’d think an artist might be tapped out when it comes to fresh new ideas that just happen to sound timeless, as many of Morrison’s new songs do on this album. In fact, most artists of that duration find themselves in their late career years resorting to cover albums, artist tributes, a string of live albums, official bootleg and archival releases, or multiple “Best Of” compilations. Even Bob Dylan suffered from this lapse of originality. Fair enough—few artists in a long career can avoid fallow periods. Some of Morrison’s output during the 21st century has included these diversions but there has still been a substantial, regular amount of new material. And while many legacy artists find the years mounting up between releases as they age, Morrison has kept to a new album every couple of years, sometimes every year.

What’s impressive is the sheer scope of Van Morrison’s new record—a double album—and how many of the songs have the feeling of being instant classics. Songs like “My Time After Awhile,” “Thank God for the Blues,” “Up County Down,” and “Blue Funk” had me searching for writing credits, assuming that these had to be covers of older songs. But they are all Morrison originals. In fact, of the 28 songs on Latest Record Project, only two are co-written with other songwriters and only one, “It Hurts Me Too,” is a cover of a traditional song! Morrison is among the select few in popular music who have access to a seemingly limitless fount of creativity and original ideas—artists like The Beatles, Dylan, Young and—I would add—Roy Harper. Most musicians are lucky if they can mint a trio of masterpiece albums. Some get as many as half a dozen. But not many.

Which is what makes a double album of truly strong original material this late in Morrison’s career doubly impressive. (Pardon the pun.) As I write in Words from the Dead: “Double albums in the history of popular music have always been risky; very few have no throwaway numbers, even The BeatlesWhite Album.” (Did we really need “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and “Revolution #9”?) “Still, it’s ridiculous to expect an artist caught up in the chaos of the Covid Age to say nothing about it at all, unless they’re asleep at the wheel. I for one am grateful that an artist of Morrison’s talent and unquestioned stature in music hasn’t succumbed to lyrical vacuousness in his old age. (Dylan too has kept himself relevant with the Harper-esque epic, “Murder Most Foul.”) By taking on the burning issues of the day—one of the greatest crises since World War II—Morrison shows that he is an engaged, thoughtful, intelligent artist with pertinent observations to offer. And musically Morrison is adept as ever—there’s no sense at all of an artist just going through the motions. Songs like “Where Have All the Rebels Gone”[6] have the potential to become instant classics, the album a landmark of the Covid Age, despite mainstream media’s unwillingness to engage with it on its own terms.”[7]

Van Morrison currentAny history of literature will reveal that artists are often in dialogue and even dispute, both with each other and with the spirit of their age. The contrast is stark between this era of oh-so-polite reviews, or marketing blurbs passing as reviews, and the past directness and at times aggressiveness of authors’ observations of one another’s work. I’m not arguing for the kind of mindless character assassination that goes on in social media, although past literary criticism occasionally reached that low level. For example, T.S. Eliot’s comment that novelist Henry James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”[8] In that regard Morrison on Latest Record Project is simply carrying this tradition forward in a popular music format. Given the deafening silence of artists and intellectuals around the world in response to the gross violations of civil rights during Covid lockdowns, Morrison is right to ask on “Where Have All the Rebels Gone”: “Were they really all that tough? Or was it just a PR stunt… Where have all the rebels gone? It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll…” Rock music used to be the genre of the rebel, the iconoclast, who, being an outsider, had a unique perspective on society. Thanks to the immense wealth generated by the music industry, artists have now become mostly insiders, not outsiders. And great innovations seldom come from the belly of the beast; they arise from the margins.

On songs like “Diabolic Pressure,” “Double Agent,” “Double Bind,” “Breaking the Spell,” “Duper’s Delight,” “Stop Bitching, Do Something,” “They Own the Media,” “Big Lie,” and “Why Are You On Facebook,” Morrison confronts the hypocrisies of the Covid dystopia head-on—he is among the very, very few artists to raise a voice critical of the mainstream narrative. He has launched fearlessly into the realm of social criticism, which carries the inherent risk of offending audience and critics alike. But I would argue that the body politic urgently needs such critical self-reflection right now. In songs like “Psychoanalyst’s Ball,” Morrison questions our preoccupation with self-help, New Age beliefs and perpetual psychotherapy. The sociopolitical songs are balanced by more introspective, personal songs like “Tried To Do the Right Thing,” “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” “Mistaken Identity,” and “The Long Con.” Morrison counters those who would accuse him of self-righteousness by admitting in “Tried To Do the Right Thing” that, “I’m certainly no hero…” In “Mistaken Identity” he sings: “’Cause I don’t live my life only singing in one key,” as both this record and his long career amply testify. Quoting Socrates, he adds: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” a principle that has long guided artists. Art is a mirror we hold up to ourselves and our society.

True, at times righteous rage overcomes the poet in him—as I said, political writing in poetic terms is a tough assignment. So it’s understandable that some critics hear a carping voice in some of these songs. His use of the accusatory “you” in a few songs is uncomfortably close to the preacher banging his pulpit. Even I squirm a little to the lyrics of “Deadbeat Saturday Night,” with its disparagement of “hicks in the sticks, don’t understand what makes them tick,” since I could fit that description as a rural writer. But I think Morrison’s point here is that the Covid lockdowns have all but destroyed live music. As I write in Words from the Dead: “The architects of global lockdown can congratulate themselves as the first troglodytes in history to have successfully killed all culture, everywhere in the world.”[9] Morrison isn’t just carping. In June 2021 he announced his third Hardship Fund to assist musicians in Northern Ireland. In addition, he launched a legal challenge to his government regarding its pandemic restrictions prohibiting live music during lockdowns. [10] Having sat through deadly uninspiring Zoom “concerts,” I concur with his lyric in “Rebels” that musicians “need a real live audience to perform.” Art is a form of participatory magic, which requires that artist and audience be in the same room.

Musically Morrison is adept as ever—there’s no sense at all of an artist just going through the motions. Given the lyrical content, it’s an astute choice to clothe them in music with an infectious swing, sweetly soulful backing choruses and understated guitar solos. That makes this very long album move along quickly. As usual, Morrison works with only the best musicians, although many of the names in these recordings are unfamiliar to me. The soulful vocals of Chris Farlowe on “Big Lie” are a revelation. Out of 28 tunes I can only think of two that could easily have been left out: “Latest Record Project,” an unnecessary bit of self-promotion, and “Why Are You on Facebook,” where the music is inferior to the message. It’s also great to see Morrison veering more heavily toward blues than his signature R&B; that and neo-gospel backing vocals adds a novel flavour to the mix.

In a future, more sane time, Latest Record Project may well be considered a classic of the Covid Age. I nominate “Where Have All the Rebels Gone” as the signature tune of the era. Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” arguably the signature song of the Vietnam War era, it achieves a perfect symmetry of lyrics and music. Because after all, it’s only the genuine rebels in society who keep the abuses of power at bay. We’ll need every one of them in the years ahead, as the globalist agenda of the Davos clique rolls like a tank over democratic constitutions everywhere. As Albert Camus wrote: “Every insubordinate person, when he rises up against oppression, reaffirms thereby the solidarity of all men.”[11] And in The Rebel he coined the ideal adage for the Covid Age: “I rebel—therefore we exist.”[12] In the deepening gloom of our new Dark Age, thank God for the light shone on our path by artists like Van Morrison.

[1] Publisher’s website: http://www.ekstasiseditions.com/recenthtml/wordsfromthedead.htm

[2] Listen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpAl29QrS4s

[3] Sean Arthur Joyce, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, essays, Ekstasis Editions 2022, p. 188.

[4] Sean Arthur Joyce, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, essays, Ekstasis Editions 2022, p. 189.

[5] Sean Arthur Joyce, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, essays, Ekstasis Editions 2022, p. 189.

[6] Listen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfWl3ijpmrQ

[7] Sean Arthur Joyce, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, essays, Ekstasis Editions 2022, p. 190.

[8] A Book of Days for the Literary Year, edited by Neal T. Jones, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984 (1989 ed.), February 28 entry.

[9] Sean Arthur Joyce, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, essays, Ekstasis Editions 2022, Preface, p. 16.

[10] https://www.vanmorrison.com/news/2021/van-morrison-launches-third-hardship-fund-for-local-musicians-and-institutes-fresh-legal-proceedings-to-challenge-the-blanket-ban-of-live-music-in-northern-ireland

[11] Albert Camus, “Resistance, Rebellion and Death,” essays.

[12] Albert Camus, The Rebel, Alfred A. Knopf, 1956, p. 22.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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1 Response to Where Have All the Rebels Gone? Indeed

  1. annechampagne57 says:

    Excellent story!

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