In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like our take on Lester Bangs’ 1972 review of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., or here, in our reevaluation of Van Morrison’s post-Astral Weeks career. Lap it up! And check out more from the CREEM archive, here.
You read that right. What if Van Morrison dropped dead following Astral Weeks? Was CREEM contributor Dave DiMartino on to something (despite absurd hyperbole) in April, 1981? “There are stories about people like Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed and Van Morrison. Most of these stories have words like genius, tremendously influential, tragic, and legendary floating around in them somewhere, right next to other words like disappointing, personal problems and misfit,” he wrote. “What’s unspoken in such stories is usually this: it would be better if these people had died.”
Morrison had already made his most endearing statements to the masses by the time Astral Weeks was released in 1968, a record Lester Bangs would go on to describe as “proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” From his ‘60s rock-and-rabid blues band Them to his pivotal pop single, 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and concluding with the cosmic poetry of Astral Weeks, in a five year window, he’d cemented himself as a genre-bending icon. Except, of course, he didn’t die. To echo DiMartino, “ESTABLISH THE LEGEND, THEN KINDLY EXIT is what’s unspoken. DON’T STAY AROUND TO TARNISH IT
Morrison stayed and tarnished. After further stellar work in the ‘70s, his 1980s albums brought some overlooked and under-appreciated pleasures—which Morrison, ever the egoist, took to heart—spending the following few decades writing and releasing palty, easy-listening releases, never quite rekindling his Astral Weeks greatness. But what he lacked in growth, he made up for in resentment: by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shaking up society and deepening political divides, Morrison found new meaning in spewing far-right nonsense (his 2021 album, Latest Record Project, is proof enough—read on for its crimes.) And I say that as a fan! Morrison has made my favorite music—but he also became a shell of himself, replacing the spotlight on his once exceptional talent with increasingly problematic behavior.
So what happened? Did CREEM see the writing on the wall? To uncover the mystery, I wanted to go through reviews of his records by his more ardent supporters (critics like Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau) to see if they, too, could’ve predicted such a heinous transformation.
1972: St. Dominic’s Preview
Following the critical darling Astral Weeks, and three more successful LPs including Moondance, in the October issue of CREEM, Dave Marsh reviewed Morrison’s 1972 album St. Dominic’s Preview, writing, “At a distance of three years, St. Dominic’s Preview somehow seems newly seminal, as though Van were finally capable of a conception that might transcend (though never dwarf) the brilliance of Astral Weeks. I think Morrison has made a transitional album, in a different way than [1971’s] Tupelo Honey was… Preview might be just what it claims. Most of St. Dominic's doesn’t have much to do with extending Van Morrison’s music, though.”
Marsh then ragged the tracks “Jackie Wilson Says,” “I Will Be There,” “Redwood Tree,” and “Gypsy.” “Listen to the Lion” received vague approval, but all graciousness was reserved for the title track and “Almost Independence Day.”
Lester Bangs arrived at with a doubtful optimism as well, explaining that Morrison “retrenched a bit by throwing his nets across both the mosaics of Astral Weeks prosody and what burgeoned in our confusion as a potential whole new dreamscape of mysterious, starrily extensible musical and verbal possibility.” In probably the most glowing, and genuine praise for Morrison since Astral Weeks began to catch on with critics, Bangs adulates: “Nobody knows what those songs “mean,” because they don’t mean… this was Zen, Jack.”
DOES THIS PREDICT HIS LATER-IN-LIFE RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB POLITICS? A SCORE: 0/10. Nothing to see here but a man trying to keep up with his own legacy.
1973: Hard Nose the Highway
With 1973’s Hard Nose the Highway, Morrison delivered a sloppy and confusing record. As could be expected, Bangs was brutally forward with his disappointment in his idol. “Van has no shame, maybe because nobody’s told him yet what a spectacle he is really beginning to make of himself,” he wrote. Yet Bangs continued to hold out hope, however, alluding to the prospect of Morrison breaking through once more, despite having “doubts like crickets in the gut.”
Live in Los Angeles, later that year, Griel Marcus reviewed a Morrison performance: “Van muttered, seeming vaguely pissed at the audience… I was damned if I was going to clap for an encore.” As any Morrison fan will tell you, not giving the respect he demands has long been a feature of the Morrison charade—and live show. “This man, who I am convinced has as much real talent, vision, and strength of will as anyone performing today, has less real contact with, and understanding of his audience when he is performing than Rod Stewart does when he is asleep,” Marcus continued with couched praise.
FUTURE RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB SCORE: 2/10. Arrogance bubbling up underneath like owning a gun and not telling your friends about it.
1974: Veedon Fleece
Morrison’s next offering, 1974’s Veedon Fleece, is now a celebrated classic; but in 1975, CREEM’s Charles Nicholaus wrote, “It is a boring one, and in a way, I think bad records are preferable… They at least require an outrageous response. With records like this, one must be careful. A little too much, on one side or the other, and the album begins to sound interesting. That would be misleading.” Even the best of us get it wrong sometimes. Or we trick ourselves. He continued: “The pleasant moments on this record, which are several, cannot make up for the brilliant ones which might await us if Morrison had only had the nerve to continue.”
Following the quiet success of Veedon Fleece, Morrison entered a semi-retirement. After three years of brooding soul searching, Morrison released a trio of heavily R&B-influenced records: 1977’s Period of Transition, 1978’s Wavelength, and 1979’s Into the Music. Robert Christgau called the former “an unexciting record,” but held out hope for “depressing proof that this isn’t just a warm-up.” He was more hopeful about Wavelength. “This is a good Van Morrison record, as up as any he's ever made, but it's certainly not a great one.” Surprisingly, he dubbed Into the Music Morrison’s best since . The message resonated with fans as well: CREEM’s 1979 Reader’s Poll ranked Morrison No. 8 in the “Comeback of the Year” category.
FUTURE RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB SCORE: 0/10. Comeback kids aren’t, by definition, unhinged.
The 1980s delivered a string of soft successes for Morrison. Common One kicked off the decade, initiating a run of New Age-esque releases that further fleshed out his brand of Celtic spirituality: deepening the logical destination of Astral Weeks’ transcendent poetry and the Irish homecoming of Veedon Fleece. The coverage of this era was relatively free from drama; to the point that some (including Greil Marcus) have considered this era a footnote in Morrison’s extensive discography. This isn’t to say that the period did not have its adherents. Christgau called 1982’s Beautiful Vision “purely gorgeous (or at times lovely), its pleasure all formal grace and aptness of invention.” Jim Feldman absolutely nails it in his review of the following year’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, writing, “His somewhat mystical, spiritual belief in a trinity of women, God, and ancestry is unusually best expressed in allusive, suggestive terms… Celtic strains intermingle with folk tunes, soul inflections, and gospel phrases.” Gone was the awestruck naivety of Astral Weeks. Morrison, on these records, could communicate with the long dead subjects he invoked.
Despite the semi-revelation of his ‘80s music, a theme of retribution and hostility ran through his most "religious" tomes. Just look at the bonkers first-verse on “A Town Called Paradise” from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher: “Copycats ripped off my songs / Copycats ripped off my words / Copycats ripped off my melody,” he sings, before flipping the song into a romance, “It doesn't matter what they say / It doesn't matter what they do / All that matters is my relationship to you.” It’s unsettling; even the album title suggests there is no one but Van Morrison responsible for the genius of Van Morrison.
FUTURE RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB SCORE: 5/10. A little less “Sweet Thing.”
1988: Irish Heartbeat
Recorded with the Chieftains, 1988’s Irish Heartbeat is Van’s full-throated Celtic ode. In an interview promoting the LP at the University of Ulster that year, Van, self-proclaimed soul singer, chose to break with the universally accepted conclusion that the blues were born out the atrocities of slavery and claims the music was actually founded on Celto-Gaelic traditions in Ireland. To ignore the very information that shaped his entire career—not to mention his own frequent acknowledgement of understanding how he arrived at his musical triumphs through a debt to Black performers—speaks to an alternative motive.
WE’VE ARRIVED AT THE RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB SCORE: 10/10. Put down your mic.
2021: Latest Record Project; 2022: What’s It Gonna Take?
The old CREEM ceased publishing in 1989. Lester Bangs overdosed and died. Greil Marcus saw Morrison’s output from 1980 to 1996 as a series of throwaways. After the ‘80s, Morrison’s career took a sinister turn and the legend of the mystic blue-eyed soul singer all but evaporated. He’d become yet another aging, cantankerous icon sitting back in his golden years, cashing in on the glow of his former glory, releasing unimaginative record after unimaginative record, bringing us to the current psychotic moment: 2021’s Latest Record Project and 2022’s What’s It Gonna Take?, Morrison's COVID-19-era turn. This period is, without a doubt, the most despicable and least thoughtful of his seven-decade career.
The former LP’s “The Long Con” finds Morrison claiming that he is on to the truth regarding the pandemic—turns out, lockdowns were created to silence Van Morrison as the only sleuth capable of solving the origins of the novel coronavirus, and we’re all sheep. (If you think that’s zany: Morrison has been sued by Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann over his fucked up remarks on the pandemic, after the musician called him a “fraud” and chanted “Robin Swann is very dangerous” at a concert in July 2021.) “Think I don’t have a voice,” he sings, on a record released by a major label, accessible to millions of listeners. “Wanna just get me to go away and give up the fight.”
“I’m getting away from the perceived same songs, same albums all the time. This guy’s done 500 songs, maybe more, so hello? Why do you keep promoting the same 10?” he said in a statement. “I’m trying to get out of the box.” Now that’s an inventive way of labeling your far-right talking points.
“Why Are You on Facebook” takes aim at Mark Zuckerberg, and of course the ominous “They” who “control the media” and “keep on telling you lies / tell you ignorance is bliss / believe it all and you’ll never get the truth.” On “Double Blind,” he targets leftists he believes are controlled by state-ordained policies; on What’s It Gonna Take?’s “Can’t Go On This Way,” he points the finger at “[Bill] Gates” who “is playing god.” “They Own the Media” finds the singer revisiting the anti-semitic undertones that he was rightfully criticized for on 2005’s “They Sold Me Out.” A bitter, washed-up performer who has been held aloft by the thought that he was once more capable of captivating critics with the creative peaks of his 20’s presents material here that would only garner applause at a Breitbart-hosted open mic night. With age comes wisdom, my ass.
In the opening verses of his 2021 record, “Where Have All the Rebels Gone?”, Morrison tells on himself: “Where have all the rebels gone? / Hidin' behind computer screens,” he sings. “Where's the spirit, where's the soul? / Where have all the rebels gone?” It’s a call to action for “rebels” to cease rock ‘n’ roll’s loyalty to the good fight against oppression and join his push to overlook the general wellbeing of society. Why, then, when faced with the greatest issue yet—the thinning of Van Morrison’s pocketbook—are they nowhere to be found? Clearly, his only concern, despite his claim of “I Ain’t No Celebrity”, is that Van Morrison remains relevant, so he’s joined the side of the smooth-brained far-right. (The good side had too much competition.) In retrospect, this was the only option for someone who bucked against the mainstream at every turn in his life.
RIGHT-WING NUT-JOB SCORE: 1000 “PRE-BORN BABIES” (OR WHATEVER THOSE MONSTERS CALL FETUSES) OUT OF 10
What if Morrison died after Astral Weeks? (Editor's note: For those of you who struggle with sarcasm, CREEM does not wish death upon anyone but definitely wishes some legacy rock artists would sit the fuck down.) What a world it would be, to live outside of the neo-fascist paranoia of the Latest Record Project? The man has been exposed. The symptoms were there all along. But ever-enraptured by the myth surrounding Morrison, they went unchecked. He made what I consider the greatest music of the 20th century, works of inherent beauty that have been tainted by his recent intentions. In the end, Van Morrison was far more than a vessel of untapped potential, brief genius, or a misunderstood visionary. He was the most dangerous thing in this world: a fragile man with a platform, and far too many chances.