Hard Nose The Highway

Hard Nose The Highway
Van Morrison
1973

Produced by  Van Morrison

(Warner 1973. CD Polydor, 1988)

side oneside two
Snow in San Anselmo
(Van Morrison)
Green
(Joey Raposa)
Warm Love
(Van Morrison)
Autumn Song
(Van Morrison)
Hard Nose The Highway
(Van Morrison)
Purple Heather
(Arranged by Van Morrison)
Wild Children
(Van Morrison)
The Great Deception
(Van Morrison)
Hard Nose The Highway, Warner Bros LP, 1973

Musicians:

Horns: Jack Schroer, Jules Broussard, Joseph Ellis, William Atwood
Bass: David Hayes, Marty David
Guitar:  John Platania, Van Morrison
Piano:  Jef Labes
Drums:  Gary Mallaber, Rick Schlosser
Vibes: Gary Mallaber

Strings: Nathan Rubin, Zaven Melikian, Nancy Ellis, Theresa Adams, John Tenny, Michael Gerling
Background vocals:  Jackie DeShannon

Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus on Snow in San Anselmo

What the critics said:

In New Biography from Back on Top  (1999), Van Morrison rages against the biographers, and ultimately the critics. This is unjust, as reading through the various Van Morrison biographies, the message, apart from the ever astute Johnny Rogan, is uncritical adoration, verging on sycophancy, over the harsh spotlight of criticism

A glimpse at any rock paper … revealed that he was not only held in esteem, but revered by almost every critic. Indeed, if anything, Morrison was over-praised by syncophantic journalists anxious to ingratiate themselves with the man …
(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

Even so, they manage to just about indicate that this album might be ever so slightly less than wonderful.

Hard Nose The Highway was a failed sidestep, a compromise between the visionary demands of Morrison’s work and his desire for a broad-based audience. One star.
(Dave Marsh, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1st edition)

The trouble with Hard Nose The Highway is that although the music is often quite interesting, it doesn’t have any convincing emotional basis … Van Morrison has set high standards for himself, and (this) doesn’t meet them.’
( Charlie Gillett, Let it Rock magazine, 1973)

Of Morrison’s other albums, Hard Nose The Highway is his vaguest and weakest. Two stars.
(Paul Evans, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, 1992)

The relaxed rhythms are just lax most of the time, the vocal surprises mild after St Dominic’s Preview, the lyrics dumbest when they’re more than mood pieces, and the song construction offhand except on Warm Love. Original grade: C+
(Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s )

Overall it is somewhat disjointed and more of a holding operation than a confident stride forward.
(John Collis, Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of The Heart, 1996)

The first real indication that Van was having problems writing was his 1973 album Hard Nose The highway, which fell well below the standards set by his earlier solo albums.
( Steve Turner, Van Morrison: Too Late To Stop Now 1973 )

Hard Nose The Highway marked a period of confusion in the life and work of Van Morrison … (he) appeared to be drifting. Critics felt it to be significant that for the first time ever on a Van Morrison album, not all the tracks were original compositions. Bein’ Green and Purple Heather were both cover versions. What remained was a curate’s egg of an album.
(Patrick Humphries, The Complete Guide to the Music of Van Morrison, 1997)

 In many respects it was his most unusual album to date. Originally conceived as a double album, Van apparently decided to precis his ideas into two contrasting sides. However, rather than complementing each other, the differing musical styles seemed jarringly inconsistent. The overall quality of the album was seriously affected by the diffuse conceptual framework … the critics generally accepted (it) as an adequate piece of work, but rave reviews were at a premium.
(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

Ironically, Morrison had chosen to include printed lyrics on the album sleeve as though they were of some import. The words seemed to confirm that as a lyricist, Morrison left an awful lot to be desired.
(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

As for Greil Marcus, he (presumably) damns the album by failing to mention it at all in his 1976 article ‘Van Morrison’ in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.

What’s my own listening history to Van Morrison? I used to watch Them on Top of the Pops, and was in a creaky garage band that attempted Baby Please Don’t Go and Here Comes the Night. I missed out on Astral Weeks first time around, then I read reviews comparing Van’s work to The Band on Moondance.  I remember listening to His Band and Street Choir and Moondance in a record booth in Norwich, I could afford one but not the other. I decided they were both too overt in their similarities to The Band, and bought neither. Then my first Christmas present from my future wife was Tupelo Honey. This led me to buying all the previous solo albums, and then St Dominic’s Preview and Hard Nose the Highway the day they came out. Then I took a break from further new automatic purchases until Into The Music, when I went out and got everything I’d missed. I’ve bought every album since, a slew of bootlegs and even been conned into buying the singles for bonus tracks. I’ve seen Van more than any other major artist live, and I think his stature today, in terms of consistent creative output with very few clinkers, is unsurpassed by anybody. Anybody at all, Dylan, McCartney, Paul Simon anybody. He’s made an album a year and grown by leaps and bounds. But I guess Hard Nose The Highway is where he went off my automatic purchase list for a while, even though I rate Warm Love and the title track among his best works.

The cover

Did you ever hear about the great deception?
Well, the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to Love City

Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun?
(The Great Deception lyrics, by Van Morrison)

Sounds like this was written after viewing the cover art  by Ron Springett (with accompanying invoice) for the first time.

The back picture is vaguely reminiscent of Edward Kaspar’s brilliant cover for The Band’s Moondog Matinee the same year. Well, the picture of the club is. But execution is poor, and the overall composition looks as if it’s a poster bought in a Glastonbury head shop’s January sale.  While stoned.

Recording
The album was recorded at Van Morrison’s new Caledonia Studios, was produced by him and used the same basic line-up who were to go on to record It’s Too Late To Stop Now.  Van was in the middle of painful divorce proceedings, and therefore not at his happiest. Not that happiness has been a pre-requisite for his creativity.

It was supposed to be a double album, and several out-takes turned up on The Philosopher’s Stone collection in 1998. We can assume that anything recorded in 1973 at Caledonia Studios with the same musicians is an out-take. This means that Not Supposed To Break Down, Laughing in The Wind, Madame Joy, Contemplation Rose, Don’t Worry About Tomorrow, Try for Sleep, Lover’s Prayer and Drumshanbo Hustle are the probable cuts.

Wonderful Remark appeared on The Philosopher’s Stone from 1973, but this was recorded with different musicians at The Church in … San Anselmo.

Guitarist John Platania described the sessions:

He improvised. It was done off the top of his head, completely, even lyrically. The guide vocals, sixty maybe seventy per cent, was stream of conciousness, right off the top of his head. I think he redid some later on.

Listen to the out-takes alongside Wild Children and Snow in Anselmo and there is a samey-ness to the melodies which he dances around. This may be the root of the trouble.

It sold reasonably well, charting at 22 in the UK, 27 in the USA.

The album track-by-track

Snow in San Anelmo (Van Morrison)

This celebrates the first time snow fell in San Anselmo in thirty years. The combination of classical choir, jazzy loud bass runs and wavering vocals makes for an uncomfortable, and ultimately pretentious mix, though several critics were impressed by it.

For many the song was an addendum to Morrison’s Astral Weeks experiments and therefore stylistically out of place alongside the other material on the album.

(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

In 2006, writer Ian Rankin chose it as one of his BBC Desert Island Discs selections.

Warm Love (Van Morrison)

A bona-fide “Best of …” track, and it was a minor hit single in the USA, as well as appearing on The Best of Van Morrison, where it seems totally comfortable surrounded by the great stuff. It would have been worth opening the album with, rather as Bright Side of The Road opened Into the Music.

With most rock-lyric analysis the word “rain” in a song (e.g. I’m lost in the rain in Juarez …  ) is interpreted as a drug reference, but not this time. My wife was brought up in Belfast and so loves every Van reference to rain. From  a Belfast writer, rain refers simply to that wet stuff that falls from the sky 364 days a year.

Jackie DeShannon, who wrote Needles and Pins, is a subtle contributor. This song is worth the price of the album on its own, even if it does reappear in equally good live form on Too Late to Stop Now a year later with the same basic band. Morrison had been playing gigs with DeShannon, and working on compositions which remained unreleased. He had produced several songs for her. A duet album was rumoured to be in the works, a rumour which Morrison later denied.

(2020 note):

Some of the rumoured Jackie de Shannon emerged much later.

All The Love: The Lost Atlantic Recordings is a CD release by Jackie De Shannon, comprising a scrapped 1973 Atlantic album, plus seven unreleased tracks, and four of her recordings with Van Morrison. Van Morrison tracks comprise Sweet Sixteen which was issued as a single, plus Flamingos Fly, Santa Fe and The Wonder of You. Jackie had earlier recorded covers of And It Stoned Me and I Wanna Roo You and she also sang backing vocals on Van’s Warm Love. After years of writing about Van Morrison, I would not have classed any of the four “lost Atlantic” songs as among his very best songs. That is, until I heard them on her CD. The horns backing is great, and on Sweet Sixteen Van Morrison duets with her. They co-wrote the song too. They also co-wrote Santa Fe, and performed on stage together in 1973. Elsewhere on her 1973 album, the horn arrangements and touches of guitar sound like Van Morrison’s band.

Though Morrison elects to enunciate the words of Warm  Love with a controlled stacatto technique, rather than with the smooth elisions that are associated with soft soul music, its guitar figures and mood evoke, as he puts it, “sort of a Motown feel, Curtis Mayfield.’
(John Collis, Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of The Heart )

Hard Nose The Highway (Van Morrison)

Hey kids dig the first takes
Ain’t that some interpreatation?
When Frank Sinatra sings, against Nelson Riddle strings
Then takes a vacation
(Hard Nose The Highway, Van Morrison)

Great lyric. Great song. It sounds like late eighties Morrison, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t featured on live shows. Coming right after Warm Love made me think “This is going to be a great album.’

Wild Children (Van Morrison)

I’d take issue with the soldiers marching home in 1945 with love light shining in their eyes – my dad didn’t get out till mid-1946 for a start, and 1947 was the true post-war baby boom year.

It’s one of his name check songs, this time Tennessee Williams, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando and James Dean get the nod.

I find the middle bit of cocktail piano unconvincing, and don’t like the bass part behind it either. The melody sounds too similar to the stuff from The Philosopher’s Stone.

Wild Children is the album’s first major work, a weary reflection on the post-war baby boomers, like Morrison himself (born 1945) who had grown up through the fifties.
(Patrick Humphries, The Complete Guide to the Music of Van Morrison, 1997)

 No. For me, it’s where the album takes a dive.

The Great Deception (Van Morrison)

This was supposedly recorded lying on his back due to severe lumbago, linking it with other albums recorded prone, such as The Beach Boys Smile sessions, except that they didn’t have back-ache. Steve Miller’s Recall The Beginning is another example of the backache genre.

The lyrics are … unsubtle. He got much better at ranting and raging as he got older, Don’t let the bastards grind you down  as he might say (Professional Jealousy, Showbusiness, Big Time Operators, New Biography ……)

In spite of the self-aggrandisement and unecessary sermonizing, ‘The Great Deception’ wasn’t a total embarrassment and completed a side of good quality mid-period Van Morrison.
(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

The guitar veers between interesting and awful.

Green (Joey Rapaso)

A 1970 song from Sesame Street, sung by Kermit The Frog before he formed The Muppets and went on to worldwide success. The LP titled it Green, whereas the CD and most critics call it Bein’ Green.

I think it’s a good song for what it says about being green. That was just a statement that you don’t have to be flamboyant.
(Van Morrison, quoted by Patrick Humphries)

In Kermit’s adenoidal treatment it was quite an affecting, reflective piece of melancholic whimsy with vague environmental import. It may be an over-literal response, but Morrison isn’t green, let alone is he a little felt frog.
(John Collis, Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of The Heart )

It must be remembered that rock stars watch a lot of daytime TV. Van was also a father, which gives permission to watch kids’ programmes without embarrassment … of course there are two underlying puns; being green is better than being “blue” i.e. sad, and green has long been associated with the Irish.
(Brian Hinton, Celtic Crossroads: The Art of Van Morrison 1997)

It was an insubstantial piece of nonsense which might have been acceptable in live performance, but hardly warranted inclusion on a Van Morrison album.
(Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison, A Portrait of the Artist, 1984)

Even the kindest critic would call it a heap of slush.
(Records and Recording)

So would I. Awful strings, hackneyed bass line, daft lyrics.

It has to be classed with the odder Van tracks like Mechanical Bliss.

Autumn Song (Van Morrison)

Long by the standards of the day. By 1999 Van was regularly stretching one number at least per show to 17 or 18 minutes, but in 1973 although the 3 minute single had long been superseded by the 4 to 5 minute abum track, Autumn Song was still lengthy.

Jazzy and relaxed, but ultimately undistinguished in spite of the efforts at  snare and brushes and cocktail lounge guitar flourishes.

The cozy Autumn Song with its falling leaves, coal on the fire and roasting chestnuts, is either a pastiche of the whole genre of seasonal listening, in which case it lacks bite, or else it’s an addition to the genre, in which case it’s a minor example.’
(John Collis, Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of The Heart )

Purple Heather (Van Morrison)

This traditional song is usually known as either Wild Mountain Thyme or Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go, and had been done by everyone from Scottish folkie Alex Campbell to The Clancy Brothers, The Byrds and Joan Baez. Dylan performed it solo at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 (which was bootlegged as Minstrel Boy). Van gives it a third title for no apparent reason.

Van’s version is beautifully orchestrated and arranged, with a pealing piano played out against a waterfall of strings. Morrison loses himself in the age-old melody, seeming to drown before your ears in an ocean of strings and the haunting resonance of the timeless tune. (It) was a song Van would have been familiar with growing up in Belfast and covering it was an affirmation of his Irish roots.
(Patrick Humphries, The Complete Guide to the Music of Van Morrison, 1997)

I’ve always thought of it as Scottish, rather than Irish (Will ye go, lassie, go ), in spite of The Clancy Brothers version, which I once had. The original song was known as The Braes of Balqhuidder and it moved to Ireland where it was adapted by the McPeake Family then moved back to Scotland. Northern Ireland had a strong Scottish influence, and Caledonia, the name chosen for the new studio, refers to ancient Scotland. In the 17th century the British had encouraged Protestant Scottish settlers into Ulster as support against the Catholics, a decision that was at the root of the Troubles. It’s best described as Scots-Irish, so is a good song for Belfast connotations.

… he stretches out toward that mythical Caledonia, even believing, sometimes, that in a long and intricate manner, the blues came from Scotland, not Africa.
(Greil Marcus, Van Morrison in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll )

Humphries mentions the age-old melody, which is truly beautiful. So why does Van choose not to follow it? This is a dull, flat version which misses the rhythm, most of the melody line and all of the yearning. It’s most similar to Dylan’s better Isle of Wight version (with solo guitar) which also seems to sand off some of the lovely edges of the tune. I’d take The Clancy Brothers and Alex Campbell over either, then the fine jangly Byrds version from Fifth Dimension. Later, on Irish Heartbeat he remained faithful to lovely melodies on Raglan Road and She Moved Through the Fair.

Not here.

Reappraisal

Being Van Morrison’s worst album would still place it over most possible opposition. I used to think it was, but now my worst album vote would go to How Long Has this Been Going On?  or the outing with Linda Gail Lewis, 2000’s C&W excursion, You Win Again,  with the Red Hot Pokers providing dull, plodding accompaniment.

In 1996 Eberhard Fritz surveyed Van Morrison fans for Wavelength magazine.  Readers voted on the quality of Van albums, and Hard Nose was fifth from bottom (with How Long Has This Been Going On, The Bang Masters, Blowin’ Your Mind and A Period of Transition below it.

I had considered A Period of Transition as an alternative for this piece, especially as it lacks anything as good as Warm Love. But it also lacks anything as bad as Snow in San Anselmo, Purple Heather or Green.

If anything the critics were too gentle with it.

(That was written in 2001 … there have been too many albums close together in the last three years, and as I write, his three Covid-19 conspiracy songs have earned him the epithet “mad old man” from The Daily Telegraph).

THE REVILED ALBUMS ARE (so far) …

Beatles For Sale – The Beatles
Their Satanic Majesties Request … The Rolling Stones
Speedway (and Elvis film music) – Elvis Presley
Electric Mud– Muddy Waters
Self Portrait – Bob Dylan
Byrdmaniax – The Byrds
Cahoots – The Band
Carl and The Passions- So Tough! – The Beach Boys
Wild Life – Wings
Sometime in New York City – John and Yoko / Elephant’s Memory
Recall The Beginning: A Journey From Eden … The Steve Miller Band
Hard Nose The Highway … Van Morrison
Chicago III … Chicago
Berlin– Lou Reed
Pinups – David Bowie
Death of A Ladies’ Man – Leonard Cohen
Born Again – Randy Newman
Mingus – Joni Mitchell
Everybody’s Rockin’ – Neil Young
American Dream – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Jefferson Airplane – Jefferson Airplane (1989)

And here’s a rule-breaker. I’d decided one album each, but Van Morrison got so much vituperation from critics (unjustly) in 2021, that I had to add it:

Latest Record Project Volume1… Van Morrison

This list will grow steadily


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