Graded on a Curve:
Van Morrison,
Blowin’ Your Mind!

Poor Van Morrison. Releasing your debut solo album is supposed to be a celebrity event, right? With all those months of needles and pins anticipation culminating in the birth of your first ever baby—your love child! Well, that’s not the way it went for Van the Man, who not only didn’t know he had an album coming out, but had no input whatsoever on what was going to be on it or what the cover was going to look like.

No, Morrison didn’t know diddly, and when he got his first look at the cover he said, and these are his very words, “I almost threw up, you know.” I like to think this happened in a record store, which it didn’t. I like to imagine the whole event from the point of view of the clerk working in the record store, who would have said something like, “So Van came in like usual, and I told him we’d just received a shipment of his debut album. And he said, a slight twitch in his left cheek, ‘What debut album?’ And I told him, ‘Blowin’ Your Mind!’ And he said, ‘Never heard of it.’ So I got up and took him over to the new display featuring the album, like, three times its normal size. And he proceeded to blanch. Have you ever actually seen a man blanch? He doesn’t turn white immediately. Oh no. He goes through about 40 very subtle gradations of gray on his way to white.”

“’It’s… it’s hideous,’ he said finally. Then he said, ‘I think I’m going to spew.’ ‘Spew?’ said I. ‘Certainly it’s not that bad. It looks like they’ve got your sweaty head in Roman profile surrounded by a bunch of shit brown vines and your name in some very tacky psychedelic yellow balloon lettering and… come to think about it, I suppose it is that bad.’ By this time he wasn’t talking, exactly, but delivering what I can only describe as an inarticulate speech of the heart. ‘Look on the bright side,’ I told him. ‘Compared to this, the cheesy photographic trickery that constitutes the cover of your 1970 LP His Band and the Street Choir is going to look good.’”

No, Van was not happy with the cover of 1967’s Blowin’ Your Mind!, and to be fair to the Gaelic genius it has gone on to be regarded as one of the worst album covers ever. Nor was he particularly pleased with the songs within the cover, which he does bear some responsibility for because he did, after all, record the damn things for Bang Records, with whom he’d signed a contract that he hadn’t bothered to take a close look at. Tedious things, record contracts. Not at all the type of thing one bothers with on Van’s very elevated astral plane.

But while the album has its detractors, I kinda like it. Quite a bit for that matter. It has “Brown Eyed Girl” on it, after all. Which I’ve been sick of for years, but still, it’s one of the greatest songs about sexually charged innocence, period. The only one of its eight tracks I don’t like is “Spanish Rose,” and even it has its charms. The song that really stops me dead in my tracks is the slow but immensely powerful “He Ain’t Give You None,” with its great organ and Morrison’s soulful vocals and that great guitar work, which may or may not be by legendary session player Hugh McCracken. “He Ain’t Give You None” is positively Dylanesque is what it is, and it leads directly to the long and disquieting dirge that is “T.B. Sheets.” Morrison talks his way through the endless vamping—when he isn’t playing some squealing harmonica, that is—while the guitar and organ leap in now and again to add flavoring to what may well be the best song ever written about the messier aspects of tuberculosis.

“Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” boasts some drop-dead guitar and some female backing vocalists I’d have done without myself, but Morrison is at the top of his game and ad libbing like mad. “Ro Ro Rosey” is a great garage rocker featuring one truly mean guitar and a great groove, and features Morrison rhapsodizing—as he does so often—about girls well under the age of consent. A whole book could be written about this matter, but I won’t be the one writing about it. At least the funky harmonica is not jailbait.

“Who Drove the Red Sports Car?” is a slow blues and reminds me of a song by The Band for some reason. It boasts some fine piano by Paul Griffin, lots of sharp guitar playing, and once again has Van talking himself into possible legal trouble with lines like, “Look at you/Look at me/You got jam on your face/And who did your homework?” I don’t get the idea Van’s writing about a 30-year-old here. As for “Midnight Special,” it features more squealing harmonica, a great backbeat, and lots of soulful belting by Van the Man. To say nothing of some fabric-tearing guitar that is a sheer delight.

Van Morrison may have found Blowin’ Your Mind! spew-worthy, but I certainly don’t. It’s a revelation is what it is, and a very fine debut album by one of the greatest artists of our time. I can listen to “He Ain’t Give You None” 56 times per day and not tire of it—I love the way he closes the songs with the words, “You can leave now if you don’t like what’s happening… ha… It’s a drag.”—and “Who Drove the Red Sports Car?” will always strike me as a song like no other in the entire rock canon. Sure, the album’s cover is an abomination. But you can’t always judge an album by its cover, can you?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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