Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brown Eyed Girl

As of a couple years ago, fewer than a dozen songs had been played at least 10,000,000 times on the radio. This, not entirely surprisingly, is one of them. And yet Van the Man says he's not crazy about it:
"It's not one of my best. I mean I've got about 300 songs that I think are better."
Which, you know, isn't entirely surprising. He was barely an adult when he wrote it, and compared to what he would record just the next year, never mind the next 45, it is awfully lightweight. But it also goes to show how often the artist misunderstands his own work.

As a composition, it's got a breezy insouciance that's been equalled by only a tiny handful of songs since. As a recording, it's pitch perfect in every way, from the instantly recognizable guitar opening to Morrison's unsurpassed scatting at the end and everything in between, including the breakdown which substitutes for a proper bridge. And all in just a hair over three minutes. Says its piece, says it perfectly, and takes its leave. Sublime.

Morrison also claims he's never received a penny in royalties from the song which, if true, would be more than enough explanation as to why he's not crazy about it. That'd be a hard pill to swallow, indeed.

And yet he's played it live not infrequently over the years, including this performance at Austin City Limits in 2008.

In his hat and serious demeanor—he doesn't open his eyes until the very last few measures and he never smiles once, in stark contrast to his band, who seem delighted, and the audience, who border on rapturous—it'd be easy to peg Morrison as one of the proto-hipsters. But the thing is, he does take this stuff serious, this music stuff. For all he can come across as dour and self-important, there's never been a popular (read: rock) musician who's gone deeper into the mystic than Morrison—in fact, the first one who comes to mind as a fellow traveler was John Coltrane. So when he plays "Brown Eyed Girl" here it feels at first like a gentle nod to his loyal audience. But when he begins to toy with the melody like a lion with a mouse, playing with the phrasing like Frank Sinatra and deploying melisma like Aretha Franklin if she were an ancient Gaelic bard, you get the feeling that, despite himself, he's still able to find new places to investigate in even this most well-worn of pop ditties. How's that possible? And yet. You could practically become overcome just thinking about it.

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