THE GREAT CURVE 009
curated by Todd Berryman
Today, we go to late January, 1992, my senior year in college. My roommate Mike was getting ready to move out and do some of his last practical work on an athletic training major, and as something of a last hurrah, he invited me to come hang out with him and his family for a weekend, to watch the Super Bowl, eat some terribly unhealthy food and do some record shopping. The game, I wasn’t all that engaged by, and he knew it, but the whoop-it-up and the record shopping near Chicago were a little too good to pass up, and so after classes on Friday, January 24th, we embarked on the almost-four hour drive from Terre Haute to his hometown.
We spent the drive listening to tapes of Steve and Garry, and Kevin Matthews, at the time air personalities from the Chicago AM radio station The Loop. Mike was a big fan, and turned me on to them thanks to cassettes he’d recorded of their shows, whether on vacation at home, or capturing them with an artfully balanced radio in a dorm room window, when the weather was on our side. Kevin’s talents were closer to my heart, and the kind of radio I wanted to do, but Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, firing on all cylinders, were a force to be reckoned with. Driving across flat lands and into the approaching darkness, I remember that long trip with fondness, and great amusement. When we arrived we had Mike’s mother, and a steak dinner, waiting for us, a fine way to kick off a weekend.
The next day was a chance to hit the road to a couple of fine record stores, and, scanning the discount racks, I found a cassette copy of an album that I’d wanted for a few years, as I was slowly building up a collection of music by Van Morrison. By that point, Moondance was my favorite…and even though it took a while for the album that I found on that Saturday to overtake Moondance, thanks to a couple of detours, over the years that discounted record store find has pretty much asserted itself as my go-to Van Morrison album, the one that fits any time, any season…
Tupelo Honey (1971)
Let’s continue with a little more biographical data from that weekend, just to set the stage. I had just turned 22 a couple of weeks before the trip to Illinois. Within a few weeks, I’d get the chance to interview for a radio job in Columbus, Indiana, and would start working at the then-WINN 106 by early April, spending a month’s worth of weekends driving back and forth between college and my new part-time gig, what basically amounted to the start of my “pro” radio career, such as it was at the time. (I had done non-commercial jazz radio for my first three years in college, and from late 1991 to the first part of 1992, a little weekend work at a low-power AM station in Terre Haute.)
Mike was a good Catholic boy from a good Catholic family, with a dad, Bob, that put five kids through school by playing polka on weekend gigs, and also making his own dry-cured salami for recreation. I didn’t meet his siblings and their kids until game day, but to say the house was full to see Washington face Buffalo in the 26th Super Bowl is, well, putting it very mildly. Can’t tell you much about the game, but I can tell you that Bob, thanks to his mixology skills, made what was easily the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had, the Bloody Mary that set a standard, what Mike had described as a “meal in the glass.” Bob handed me a huge glass, including a skewer loaded up with, among the cherry tomatoes and the olives, some of that astonishing homemade salami and a couple of jumbo shrimp…and the size of the glass probably explains why I can’t remember much about the game itself. 🙂
After the game, we said our farewells, I got a few hugs from this wonderful family, and we climbed into the car for the lengthy trip back to Indiana State, slicing through the darkness and watching the lights twinkling on radio towers and on farmlands all the way home. We played our new purchases on the drive, including Tupelo Honey, the first time I’d ever heard the album full-length. It was the first time I’d heard the title track since it made a deep impression after appearing on the television show Thirtysomething a few years earlier, of course “Wild Night” was a single I’d had for a few years, Irish soul at its best, and Side 2 closer “Moonshine Whiskey” I’d gotten acquainted with in some live performance quite a ways back. (My brain keeps wanting to put the latter on an episode of The Midnight Special, but I don’t think that’s quite right…the reality is that it was probably footage shot during the tour for It’s Too Late to Stop Now, although I’d be hard pressed to tell you how I saw it…)
Within a few weeks of that purchase, a couple of friends and I made a road trip to Bloomington, Indiana, about an hour down the road from Terre Haute, to do more record store exploration, which led to purchasing a cassette of It’s Too Late to Stop Now (“DOUBLE PLAY…Equal to TWO ALBUMS,” the front cover helpfully proclaimed, and it set me back a grand total of $10.99, a small price to pay for such enduring joy), and the sheer energy of the man in concert blew away anything I’d heard by Van Morrison by that point. That tape pretty much went right to the top of the stack shortly after. I now realize in retrospect that it was probably thanks to Van’s distinctively Irish take on rhythm and blues music, versus the more country-leaning sounds on Tupelo Honey, and that live album stayed in my car’s cassette case for emergency listening pretty much constantly for years thereafter.
With the cassette being sequenced slightly differently to balance out the sides, album closer “Cyprus Avenue” (mislabeled “Cypress Avenue” on the tape) was bumped up to the end of Side 1, and having wound my way through 40 minutes of jaw-dropping performance to get to the track, the payoff was well worth it. It’s still easily one of my all-time favorite live performances.
A few months later, around the holidays, another scan of discount racks in another record store closer to my hometown turned up a slew of additional Van Morrison tapes, including Hard Nose the Highway, A Period of Transition and Veedon Fleece, the last being the studio followup to It’s Too Late to Stop Now. Driving to work at the radio station one night, I finally put Veedon Fleece into the deck. That album kicked in during the drive, pretty much immediately, from “Fair Play” forward, thanks to the snow that began to float down, making Veedon Fleece feel more solsticial, and it rapidly became a favorite wintertime driving album, due to the more restrained mood, a help when I needed to mellow out thinking about icy road conditions.
WHEN IT ALL CLICKED
I’d love to tell you that Tupelo Honey caught fire for me shortly after those other revelations, but it was never quite that simple for me. That first spin back in 1992 had a few songs that hooked in on first impression, “(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” being the song I didn’t know that registered first, with the flutes – not quite a typical instrument for one of his songs – pulling me into a fine little waltz. The other songs didn’t quite connect; oh, it was a pleasant listen, and if any of the songs had come on the radio I wouldn’t have changed the station, understand…but the album hadn’t moved towards essential. I liked it enough that when I saw a used copy of the original vinyl pressing turn up in a record store in Bloomington in the late 1990s, I snapped it up, but it spent more time on the shelf than not, compared to the other favorites in the stack, in the tape case.
No, really discovering the album as a whole took another two decades or so, from that first full-length experience. It was early 2015, some time after the end of a marriage, and entangled in a failing relationship that would completely give up the ghost by early spring, popping it onto the record player late one weekend night with the headphones on. Defenses down, it caught my attention as a collection of love songs that might have given Otis Redding a run for the money.
By the end of the year, another night with headphones, the truly epic feel of Side 2 hooked in, and Tupelo Honey became one of my new loves that had come into my world. The country textures of “I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)” and “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” finally overcame my resistance and connected as needed breathers between the long tracks that opened and closed the side, in the process making it stronger overall. Van is one of those performers that could sing the phone book for me, sure, but how had those two (along with a touch of the influence on the album’s final song) brilliantly constructed tributes to his little-heard (before then) country inspiration missed me? I couldn’t tell you. Then I played it a few days after that, and it just cemented how incredible it really WAS, Van’s performance on the title track suddenly in all its glory for the first time to the ear…and it got a couple more spins that night, with things getting discovered that were just flat-out amazing about the music. It was an easy visit to Side 1 after that, with the until-that-moment mix subtleties of “Wild Night” finally revealing themselves and setting the stage for everything else.
THE GIRLS WALK BY, DRESSED UP FOR EACH OTHER
Let’s break a few of these songs down a little further.
“Wild Night” is probably the best-known song from this album, and yeah, you’ve probably heard it on the radio repeatedly, as I have – but here’s where the mix subtlety mentioned above comes, mere seconds into this album. We tend to think of Van Morrison as one of the best vocalists ever to draw breath, but we forget his harmonica, or sax work (the title track of Moondance was originally intended to be an instrumental, with Van playing what would become the vocal line on sax), or occasional keyboards, or percussion (the first pressing of Moondance included a tambourine line on “Into the Mystic” that is easily a highlight, which vanished in later editions). More typically, though, it’s his driving rhythm guitar carrying a large number of his songs, at least in the studio, and so it is throughout this album, but it starts with “Wild Night” at the 13 second mark, on the right side; his entrance is subtly punched in, a beautifully chaotic rhythmic flailing in the background. Ronnie Montrose (yes, that guy, the one that more acknowledged for hard rock, and bringing Sammy Hagar to the masses) gets pride of place, though, on the surprisingly understated electric guitar on the left which opens the song and album.
“(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” follows, with that sassy waltz time, and the massed flutes of Boots Stuart Houston coming in on the choruses, playing so precisely that it could easily be mistaken for a sample. Ronnie Montrose’s buzzing chicken-fried electric on the left just helps sew it all together.
We move over to Side 2, and the song that truly motivated me to buy that cassette so many years ago. Notice the rather restrained piano pickup from Mark Jordan at 45 seconds, which becomes much more forceful and declarative before the later choruses. At 1:38 it’s not quite as full force, but when you hit the ones at 3:25 – which is just FULL ON WOW – and 5:12, it’s a statement of purpose, and a cue for Van to go to town on the acoustic guitar, and sing the vowels in the song’s title in the most elongated fashion (“hon-ayyyyyyy”). To borrow from the rock critic Dave Marsh talking about James Brown, it’s the face of God moving across the waters.
“I Wanna Roo You” is the first really blatantly country-flavored song on the album, a bit of cozy domesticity, with bridge sections that tease the ear with basslines, courtesy of Bill Church, that indicate all is not JUST about country. Also, John McFee, later to work with producer Ted Templeman assisting the Doobie Brothers, and also Elvis Costello, laying down some wonderful pedal steel guitar.
I have to add that I have great love for the mandolin lines at 1:26 and 2:32 that give the song that gorgeous shimmer (bless you, Ronnie Montrose).
“When That Evening Sun Goes Down” gives Montrose the chance to demonstrate a couple of varied guitar styles, away from his usually-acknowledged hard rock leanings. His playing starting at the 1:30 mark is the stuff country dreams are made of.
And then to “Moonshine Whiskey” as the side and album closer. Van continues in country-rock mode thanks to John McFee’s pedal steel guitar, alternating uptempo and downtempo sections, and occasionally getting into outright weird vocal territory (his bit with the bubbles 4:02 to 4:17 brings to mind a line I read from a Frank Sinatra review: “sometimes with the steak, you have to take the bone” – enough said), but when that payoff hits at 5:29, it is SO worth it. Listen for Ronnie Montrose’s little ghost strum at 5:36, setting the stage for the go-for-broke feeling that carries through to the end of the song, and the album. 5:40 is Van’s most forceful entrance on acoustic, and then Rick Schlosser takes it home with his amazing drum parts, along with those handclaps starting at 5:55. At that moment, you realize that Van hasn’t done many albums that have ended in such epic fashion, but this is the one you’ve got to measure the rest against.