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Keep on smiling

One of Van Morrison’s umpteen albums is called What’s Wrong with this Picture? It’s a question long-term fans are likely to echo as they contemplate the cover of his new release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

One of Van Morrison’s umpteen albums is called What’s Wrong with this Picture? It’s a question long-term fans are likely to echo as they contemplate the cover of his new release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

One of Van Morrison’s umpteen albums is called What’s Wrong with this Picture? It’s a question long-term fans are likely to echo as they contemplate the cover of his new release, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. What’s wrong is that Van Morrison is smiling. This is, to say the least, unusual.

Morrison is the most famous curmudgeon in popular music and he doesn’t do smiles. He prefers to appear on his record sleeves looking moody, depressed or downright aggressive. The brooding, pallid figure that appears on the front of one of his last truly great albums, Poetic Champions Compose (1987), looks so openly contemptuous that it must have had a terrible effect on sales. ‘You think you are good enough to listen to this?’ Van’s curled lip seems to suggest.

So improbable is the idea of a smiling Van that some are suggesting that the extraordinary cheerful image of him showing off his immaculately white and gleaming gnashers must have been Photoshopped. His record company has denied it. This really is Van Morrison, smiling benignly at his audience at a concert performance last year at the Hollywood bowl.

Almost as unlikely as that smile is the fact that Morrison has revisited his first officially released solo album. Over the years he has downplayed Astral Weeks (1968), which regularly comes near the top of those endless lists of the greatest albums of all time. And in a way one can understand why. It was recorded in just a couple of sessions with sceptical jazz musicians he had never worked with before. Morrison was 23, a young man in a hurry in New York after breaking up with that great Northern Irish rhythm and blues band Them. And he came up with a masterpiece that he has never bettered. It must be galling to plod on year after year, decade after decade, and know that your best, your unbeatable best, was recorded almost by accident right at the start of your solo career.

Astral Weeks is a record of love and loss, mortality and spiritual seeking. It is drenched in nostalgia for a vanished past, and seems to conjure many of its images from Morrison’s own Belfast childhood. The writing is dense with imagery, while the extraordinarily spontaneous music — apparently Morrison simply sketched the tunes on his guitar and expected the session men to follow, which they did, brilliantly — draws deeply from folk, blues and jazz.

I’ve been listening to Astral Weeks for 40 years and it is that rare thing, a truly inexhaustible pop record. What seems dense and intimidating at first eventually becomes a familiar and much-loved friend, though this is never an easy listen. The album burns with a rare, raw intensity. There are themes here that become leitmotifs throughout Morrison’s work — gardens all wet with rain, walking down by the railroad — and a feeling that spiritual enlightenment is strongly connected to carnal desire. ‘So young and bold/Fourteen years old’ an infatuated Van almost sobs at the end of ‘Cyprus Avenue’, though I notice this devastating line no longer has a place on the live recording.

To be frank, I purchased Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl with reluctance and refrained from listening to it until the deadline for this piece was looming. There have been so many duff Van Morrison albums in recent years, where he seems merely to be going through the motions, and I couldn’t bear the idea that he might have ruined his masterpiece.

So the first thing to be said is that Morrison is fully engaged here. There is a spontaneity and a sense of purpose we haven’t heard from him in a long time. The voice is deeper and rougher than it was four decades ago, but still highly expressive, and the band, with original guitarist Jay Berliner back on board, is in glorious form. There are passages where Morrison really stretches out, tacking on new improvisatory endings to some of the songs.

And yet…For those of us who love Astral Weeks there are undoubted irritations. That crucial cut I mentioned earlier, the re-ordering of the songs so the album no longer ends with the devastatingly bleak ‘Slim Slow Slider’ in which Morrison confronts his own inadequacy in the face of a beautiful young woman’s impending death, a diminution of the elusive air of mystery that envelops the original, however often you play it.

But at least Van the Man is trying again, and perhaps this return to former glory will inspire him to come up with something equally new and fresh in old age. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Morrison will soon be back on autopilot, with more songs moaning about the iniquities of record companies and the misery of life in the public eye. There are few happy endings in pop music. q

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

Gran Torino

15, Nationwide

Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood film — what, he’s still alive? — and it’s about a grouchy old fella who is hard-core racist but then gets involved with the Asian family next door and, would you believe it, discovers they are quite decent, really. This is probably not a very good film. It is clunky, corny, overblown and so obvious it even features one of those early-on coughs you know isn’t going to pan out as good news. One day, I would like to see a non-meaningful cough in a film; would like to hear a doctor say, ‘The tests are back and it’s nothing, a tickle…’ It’s a small dream of mine. (I was always told to dream big, but never had the time or the energy.)

Now, where were we? Oh, yes. It’s probably not a very good film but you know what? It’s not a very good film but is good nevertheless. I know! Crazy! How does that work? It works because it’s a Clint Eastwood film. With any other actor, Gran Torino would be what it is — a sentimental, possibly unbearable fable about a coughing bigot redeemed — but, with Clint as star and director, this is as much about Clint’s own cinematic history, and the power of that, as anything, and it’s both fascinating and enthralling. By cinematic history, I am talking about the macho, anti-hero roles of the spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry rather than the one he did with the monkey. I’m talking about Clint as that lone instrument of vengeance. Actually, another small dream of mine is to see Eastwood in a film where, before he does anything, he turns up at his local Citizens Advice Bureau and asks, ‘Where does the law stand on this and how might I best operate within it?’ And if he then gave a non-meaningful cough, that would be great. It would make my day.

Here, Clint stars as Walt ‘call me Mr Kowalski’ Kowalski, a Korean war veteran and retired Ford car worker who lives in a Detroit neighbourhood which was once blue-collar, white Americans but is now dominated by immigrants. Walt doesn’t like his grown-up sons, doesn’t like his grandchildren, doesn’t like Jews — ‘What are you, half Jew?’ he asks the barber who charges him ten bucks for a haircut — doesn’t like Italians, doesn’t like Mexicans, doesn’t like blacks and, in particular, doesn’t like the Hmong family who live next door. This family are a grandmother, a mother, her quietly intelligent teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang) and his feisty sister, Sue (Ahney Her). Mr Kowalski spends most of his time drinking beer on his veranda while hurling snarling, hoarse-voiced insults at them. He calls them ‘gooks’, ‘slopes’, ‘zipper heads’, ‘swamp rats’, and when he accepts an invitation to a barbecue and then runs dry, it is, ‘Get me another beer, dragon lady.’ Gen
erally, I’m thinking Walt Kowalski wouldn’t go down well in a BBC green room after, say, an edition of The One Show. I don’t know why I think this — it’s just a feeling more than anything else — but I do. The one thing Mr Kowalski does like, by the way, is his car, his 1972 Gran Torino which he keeps all polished and buffed in his garage, as a symbol, perhaps, of the America he once knew, understood and treasured.

Actually, there is no ‘perhaps’ about it. This isn’t a subtle film, not in its metaphors, nor in its good-guy/bad-guy narrative which, come to think of it, may in itself be a homage to the Clint oeuvre. Thao is a good guy but the local bad guys, the local Asian gang, are determined to recruit him. They turn up one night to take him forcibly but who also turns up, with a bloody great gun? Yup, Mr Kowalski, who says to one of the gang members, ‘I’ll blow a hole in your face and then go inside and sleep like a baby.’ How Clint is that? But, more, it’s Clint satirising his own myth. In another instance, when he sees Sue being harassed on the streets by a trio of thugs, he parks up, steps out and says, ‘Ever come across someone once in a while you shouldn’t f*** with? That’s me.’ Clint is 78. Clint looks 78 and even wears the kind of old man’s chest-high trousers Robert Redford wouldn’t be caught dead in. Clint shouldn’t be able to see off three big yobs but he can and does because of the power of the cinematic history. Is it starting to make sense now?

Eventually, Mr Kowalski becomes not just a friend to the ‘zipheads’, but also their protector as he himself gets caught up in the gang wars and the back and forth of inevitable, escalating violence. There is plenty of bloodshed, but also many lighter, comedic moments, particularly in the scenes where he is seduced by next door’s food. It is a flawed movie, vastly overwritten, with characters pointing things out that we’ve long worked out for ourselves. (For example, Mr Kowalski says to himself at one point, ‘I have more in common with these gooks than I do my own spoiled, rotten family.’ Thanks, Mr K, but we’d rather gathered that.) Still, the self-referentiality of Eastwood’s performance ensures that Gran Torino isn’t just absorbing, but also moving. The ending is preposterous, way over the top, but, still, I bawled my little eyes out. I wish I didn’t cry so easily. That’s another small dream of mine. All these small dreams! I should have just gone for one big one!

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