Moondance from a Songwriter’s Point of View

Andrew Smentkowski continues Common Folk Music’s series on songwriters talking about their favorite albums.

If you grew up in the 70s, your main portal for new music was likely an AM radio. Forget whatever you heard about the golden days of radio (just pray that they’re still to come) because even back then, radio was repetitive and bland. Consequently, many of us from that era grew up with an unwarranted prejudice towards many great songwriters: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and of course, Van Morrison with that godforsaken played-at-every-wedding-reception-throughout-time song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I began to give those AM radio musicians a second chance, thanks to a girl with much better musical tastes than my own. She started me out on a steady diet of Neil Young and then introduced me to Van Morrison’s Moondance.

I thought about choosing Neil Young’s Harvest for this feature. It really is one of my favorite albums. But Harvest is like the crowning jewel of what country, folk, and rock can be. To me, it is perfection and writing about perfection is just too hard. You’re better off just listening to the album itself.

Moondance, on the other hand, was a first. Recorded in 1969 and released in February of 1970, it was the kind of conglomeration that was still permissible in the late 60’s. With its mix of styles — folk, country, jazz, soul, rock, etc. — it felt more like an opening for future bands to pass through rather than a bar to jump over.

When I first heard Moondance in its entirety, it made me feel different than anything else I was listening to at the time. Christ, it even made me feel good. Not just that “Let’s party!” kind of good but the kind of good that comes after a long time of not feeling good at all. Perhaps it was too many adolescent years of listening to The Smiths, but this was balm for my sadsack soul, right from the opening track, “And It Stoned Me.”

Then the rain let up and the sun came up
And we were gettin’ dry
Almost let a pick-up truck nearly pass us by
So we jumped right in and the driver grinned
And he dropped us up the road
We looked at the swim and we jumped right in
Not to mention fishing poles

Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Let it run all over me

Song number two is the title track, “Moondance,” with its jazzy 50’s sound and sexy lyrics that are delivered in a style somewhere between Dean Martin and Allen Ginsberg. Next, “Crazy Love” comes on with Motown-style backup singers oh-ohing over folky guitar lines. “Caravan,” is where the album really starts to build, adding in more soul elements like horns and the James Brown-style shout outs: “If you would, turn it up. Turn it up. Little bit higher. Radio. Turn it up. Turn it up. So you know, radio.”

Before I discuss the last track on Side One, “Into The Mystic,” I want to back up a decade. Prior to the 60’s, country music was able to do many things well. It was an expert at conveying loneliness, heartbreak and even humor. One thing that didn’t come naturally to country, however, was conveying the ecstatic. Perhaps there just weren’t many mystics back when country music was taking hold of humanity. Or, maybe life was just too harsh in America to dream that big.

Then came the hippies: Jefferson Airplane, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Fugs, Country Joe and The Fish, The Byrds, and so many more. Those folks did a lot for country music. They dressed it up in paisley, stuck a paper tab on its tongue, populated it with a bunch of weirdos, and have been giggling about it ever since. Good for them. Country needed it.

“Into The Mystic,” though, was a step above and beyond what other psych-folk bands had achieved due to Van Morrison’s infusion of soul into the country genre. Before soul met country, singers were only allowed to be emotional if they were victims of some misfortune. You could cry, but only in your beer. And you could feel love, but only if it had no chance of budding. Van Morrison blew past those confines, liberating a new realm of the human experience. More importantly, he made it okay for country music to create new possibilities, not just react to life. Country music no longer had to be real to be authentic. And nothing is more unreal and authentic than “Into The Mystic.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailor’s cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

And when the fog horn blows I will be coming home
And when the fog horn blows I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float into the mystic

Side Two of Moondance is great too. But after “Into The Mystic,” it just seems kind of postcoital. And that may be the downfall of the album: it crested too early. At the same time, I’m thankful for that. The pinnacle of country ecstasy is still waiting to be made.

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