Heroic tedium and anti-nostalgia

Warped nostalgia can take you to weird places. A few weeks ago, I suddenly started listening to this Van Morrison album Beautiful Vision, which I've owned for more than 20 years and never particularly liked before. Now I can't stop listening to it.

Part of this is egotistical contrarianism. Most critics think the record is mediocre; the incredibly lame album cover may have something to do with that. It might be the worst cover ever for a musician who has impeccably bad taste in cover art. (Okay, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is probably worse.)

It's like he is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: "See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That's how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here's a rainbow."

But probably the design was a calculated attempt to move into the burgeoning New Age niche of the time, especially given that space-music synth player Mark Isham was among the musicians on it. The cover has the Windham Hill hallmark fonts and design motifs, which are applied almost parodically. Whose hand is that supposed to be popping out of that crescent, emerging from the otherwise depthless space? What's with the smeary blotches? It looks like someone spilled something on the negative and didn't bother to wipe it up.

I am drawn by this design that seems to make no place for me, that makes no concessions to anything a person like me would find appealing. I am also drawn by the thought of listening to a revered musician's rejected work. It gives me intimations of immortality — I've got so much time left that I can burn some of it listening to Beautiful Vision instead of Astral Weeks. I'm not worried about time. I've beaten the hype cycle. Listening to "bad" albums also indulges that arrogant side of fandom that leads me to believe that I can hear the greatness in records lesser fans are beguiled by. I am the only one who appreciates their merit; I alone understand where Morrison in his genius was coming from. I too am an artist, an artist of listening.

But mainly what keeps me playing the album is anti-nostalgia. Beautiful Vision, though clearly an indulgent nostalgia exercise for Morrison ("Down the mystic avenue I walk again" and so on), inspires in me no memories of the good old days when I used to listen to it, it invokes no glory from my past, borrows nothing from the melancholy of my lost youth. Unlike Morrison, I don't want to go back. He can go back for me. I'm moving forward. Or maybe I'm mythologizing my present moment for myself through sheer repetition.

I like that Beautiful Vision sounds nothing like any music I have ever liked before. The younger me heard this record and thought, What a bunch of bullshit. The whole album is drenched in a diffusive, trebly sheen, like it is trying to twinkle. Though it concludes with a bombastic instrumental that rains chords on listeners' heads like so many velvet hammer blows, it steadfastly refuses to rock. It proceeds with a kind of sublime indifference to its audience. No hooks, no attempts to engage listeners directly — instead he captures a complete self-absorption, totally lost in his own music and esoteric preoccupations. He's not afraid to throw out a song title like "Aryan Mist," which is one of the album's many references to occult spiritualist and apparent racist Alice Bailey. He can't be bothered to explain that the "Vanlose Stairway" is a real place in Copenhagen where his girlfriend lived and not some made-up mystical abstraction, though he sings about it like it's the Veedon Fleece or his own personal stairway to heaven. Then he takes the opposite tack with "Across the Bridge Where Angels Dwell" — allegedly a reference to an actual bridge in San Mateo that led to a house where his ex-wife and daughter lived. Morrison chooses to present this private iconography in the blandest, most generic spiritual terms, as if to protect it from our phony bandwagoning.

But that's a big part of why I like it all of a sudden. I take the album as a soothing investigation into how to turn precious memories into "precious memories" or a "beautiful vision." That is what Greil Marcus is getting at in When That Rough God Goes Riding when he lumps Beautiful Vision in with a bunch of other of Morrison's 1980s and '90s albums that he says "carry their titles like warning labels." The warning is that the spiritual process generates generic artistic by-products. The titles are indicators that the aesthetic substance has been extracted and consumed in the search for private spiritual meaning, and what's left is a holy relic from a religion you can't belong to.

Marcus claims these albums have "no tension," whose "tedium" is "almost heroic." At this point in his career, Marcus argues, Morrison had embraced the placidly indifferent side of his musical persona: "He wants peace of mind and ordered satisfaction most of all, and sings as if he already has them." Marcus thinks that is a bad thing, but it's actually kind of awesome. Beautiful Vision promises spirituality as a process of abstraction and nostalgia as process of exclusion. No one else needs to understand your memories for them to transport you, and you don't have to torment yourself with how ineffable your nostalgia is. If you get preoccupied with your own mythology, you flatten out your personal history, which is better remembered spontaneously and not in deliberate and protracted trips through your inner sanctum.

In fact, your memories mean nothing to anyone else unless you are willing to make them into broad metaphors. The song "Cleaning Windows," where Morrison connects his youth of listening to soul records and washing windows with his view of his current self as a yeoman musician, expresses this tension: "cleaning windows" wants to be a metaphor for his bringing some spiritual clarity to the audience through his devoted, unassuming devotion to his humble craft, but in practice Morrison doesn't care how dirty your window is, and the last thing he seems to want is for you to be peering through his. Clean your own damn window; I'm getting paid to do this.

Marcus would seemingly prefer that Morrison always sing as though he's desperately seeking transcendence, not comfortably assured of it. He wants Morrison's music to validate an endless struggle, a life that promises only fleeting rewards in ecstatic instants to the aesthetically attentive, moments in which music and art unexpectedly transport you after you've paid your dues in patient attention. Morrison is supposed to be the rootless poet — "nothing but a stranger in this world" — who makes us appreciate the valiant struggle of art vicariously while we get to take comfort in our commonplace lives. You don't want to have to live Van Morrison's creative torment, especially when you can simply consume the experience.

When Morrison was making Beautiful Vision, and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, and Poetic Champions Compose, etc., he seems to have been working against this deliberately. He doesn't want to commoditize his struggle; he wants to bask in its private resolution. The lyrics are still all about spiritual quests and finding transcendence, but poetic pain no longer is the route.

Morrison was apparently determined (if you believe this Wikipedia page) to reject the heritage of American blues and soul music that he had relied on for so long in favor of something more authentically Celtic. Blues and soul music operates by and large within that idea that suffering is the only communicable form of artistic commitment, the blues the only gateway to transcendence — only pain is real. Instead, he extracts a different message from the dubious and somewhat inhospitable theosophical material he was working with -- that the poetic and the powerful are impersonal, and art that can move you draws its energy not from some wellspring of personal suffering that permits an individual to express spirituality authoritatively but from nature at its most ordinary. Stop fawning over your memories by combing them for anguish. Your pain's got nothing on a rainbow.