“It’s a strange thing because I don’t see myself as a mystical type person. But then every now and then these weird experiences happen.”
– Van Morrison, 1972 interview with Rolling Stone
I’ve been listening to Van Morrison not since the beginning of his career (1964, with Them) but definitely from the time I switched over from AM radio to FM, around 1976. I think his big themes of reunion and transcendence were what attracted me: as a young-fogey teenager, I had this ability to feel nostalgic about things that happened two days ago. Like Holden Caulfield, I was always missing everything. At the same time I harbored grave doubts the world itself was enough. I wanted to get over to the other side, pierce the pasteboard mask. First I wanted to go to Europe, but after that, the higher plane. (I got to Europe.)
This song includes both themes. The singer is separated from his loved one: “when you hear the foghorn blow,” he tells her, “you know I will be coming home.” And when he gets home? “I want to rock your gypsy soul/Just like way back in the days of old,” an undertaking at which he will be so adept they will end up sailing “into the mystic.” Sex as salvation, this was also a theme that connected with me when I was 17, though in a largely theoretical way.
It’s interesting that Van originally named this song “Into the Misty” (or “Mysty”)–that his first impulse was to make the journey physical. I tend to like Van’s songs better when I have (and he has) something more real-world to lean into, such as sex or sailors traveling on a foggy night. Starting in the late 70’s, Van started to write more directly about the “mystical,” with diminishing results. Those songs tried to describe or replicate mystical states or addressed the mystical explicitly through religion or an obscure personal mythology (“Vanlose Stairway,” anyone?) and got vague and easy not to pay attention to. They weren’t all terrible, but the Van Morrison songs I like best recount first-hand experiences that give rise to a mystical feeling: I’m thinking of “And It Stoned Me” or “Orange Fields” or “Autumn Song” or “Sweet Thing” or “Coney Island” or even “Madame George.” One less kind critic called these Van’s “roamin’ in the gloamin'” songs, and it’s true, there’s a disconnect between the mundane specifics they describe and the heightened moment Van wants them to express. The music, the voice, is what conveys the mystical.
The Voice. In this song it’s by turns intimate, confiding, urgent, pleading, demanding, questing, exultant, sexy. It’s not Van’s fault his amazing voice promises more than the lyrics can deliver, right? What lyrics could? To which Van, legendarily churlish, might say, fuck lyrics. But a guy who named one of his albums “Poetic Champions Compose” clearly does respect words. It’s an interesting struggle, and one he could have addressed more probingly than “why must I always explain.” I sometimes wish he hadn’t taken “Into the Mystic” so literally, like a road sign pointing a direction to be followed. The scenic route would have yielded better songs.
Back in about a month, off to visit Van’s homeland!