Book Review: Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics by Van Morrison: You've Heard the Songs, Now Read the Lyrics

Have I told you lately that I love Van Morrison?
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That Van Morrison is one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the whole of pop music there is no doubt.  That he is also an old soul Irish poet few would argue against.  He is a true legend.  One of the most unique and brilliant voices of rock and roll the world has ever known.  Don’t you know, he’s got soul?  And heart.  And pure genius.

For over 50 years he’s been making some of the most remarkable music in just about any genre.  From rock to jazz, blues to gospel, skiffle to Celtic - Van Morrison has played them all.  Just about better than anyone around, too.  His records are beautiful and live he’s like some divine jazz god able to transform his songs into transcendent works of pure, unadulterated joy. 

If you doubt it, just watch him sing “Into the Mysic”: 

Or better yet watch him knock your socks off with The Band on “Caravan.” Then come back and tell me he ain't got all the magic.

Everyone knows Van can write a song better than just about everybody, but he gets less love for his lyrics.  When we talk about song lyrics, we usually go to Bob Dylan, or Robert Hunter or even John Lennon, but Van usually misses out.  With Lit Up Inside newly published from City Lights, I suspect this may change.  Collecting over 100 song lyrics hand-picked by Morrison himself and spanning his entire career, Lit Up Inside shows what a true poet he truly is.

One might ask that with the Internet making every lyric easily available why would you need a physically bound tome with only a selected amount of songs?  It's a fair question for certainly there are dozens of sites with all of these lyrics on them available to anyone with an Internet connection and a precursory knowledge of how to use Google.  Those things are fantastic for remembering the lyrics to “Brown Eyed Girl” in between levels of Angry Birds or proving to your buddy at the bar that he’s been singing the words to “Domino” wrong all these years.  Yet I’d argue there’s something special about holding a book of poetry (and many of these lyrics are poetry indeed) in your arms and letting those words and phrases and lines seep deep into your consciousness.  There’s just something wonderful about taking the time to turn a page and finding new words to soak up.

I am not at all a lyrics guy.  I listen to the music - the guitars, drums, keys, the melodies, harmonies, and the way the words sound, but hardly ever pay attention to what they mean.  There are hundreds of songs I’ve hear a thousand times over years and years where I have no idea what the singer is singing.  Every now and again if the lyrics are easily understood or manage to seep into my brain and find meaning there, I’ll remember the words, but mostly I just listen to the voice blending into the song.

Thumbing through Lit Up Inside, I was struck by how brilliant a wordsmith Van Morrison really is. As I read those song lyrics, it was impossible not to hear the music play in the back of my head and hear Morrison’s voice sing, but here with the words printed out in front of me in this beautifully bound book I could let the meaning shine clear and clean.

The songs don’t always translate well to the page.  Morrison is an old scat man and in songs like “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” lines like “Ting-a-ling-aling, ting-a-ling-a-ling-ding” don’t exactly read like Shakespeare (even if it is one of my favorite songs).

But then you turn the page and see lines like this:

I have seen without perceiving
I have been another man
Let me pierce the realm of glamour
So I know just what I am

I’m a dweller on the threshold
And I’m waiting at the door
And I’m standing in the darkness
I dont’ want to wait no more

or the sweet worshipful love in these lyrics:

Have I told you lately that I love you?
Have I told you there’s no one above you?
Fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles, that’s what you do.

And you know exactly why they call him Van the Man.

Lit Up Inside comes out October 28 from City Lights.

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