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Still into the mystic

Steve Erickson assesses Van's magic act

The first time I heard of Van Morrison was 40 years ago, and honestly I wasn’t so impressed by “Brown Eyed Girl” at the time. (I had no idea he had written or originally sung “Gloria,” popularized in the States by a band called the Shadows of Knight.) “Brown Eyed Girl” sounded like fairly standard Top 40 fare, a notch or two above the usual but not, you know, the psychedelic Debussy of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” By all accounts, Van himself felt the same way. With time, of course, it’s clear it was a better record than either of us knew, and we certainly shouldn’t hold against it that apparently it’s a fixture on President Bush’s iPod.

Unlike anyone except his idol, Ray Charles, Morrison’s music always has been about wedding the spiritual to the sensual. “Gloria” was overtly about sex, “Brown Eyed Girl” only a bit less so; they’re not ruminating about the cosmos in that tall grass behind the stadium. But following right on their heels was 1968’s “Astral Weeks,” a perennial contender for Greatest Album of All Time and a dizzying voyage through the “viaducts of your dreams” — life, searching, death and rebirth in a Joycean Dublin — before Morrison returned to the more profane in 1970’s “Moondance.”

That album’s “Into the Mystic” was the portal between the two, and to one extent or another, notwithstanding the extremes of “Wild Night” on the one hand or “In the Garden” on the other, the rest of Morrison’s music has been borne of that song. Morrison has made great music in every single one of the past five decades: the aforementioned work as well as “Saint Dominic’s Preview” and “Veedon Fleece” (one of his very best) in the ’70s, “Queen of the Slipstream,” “Irish Heartbeat” and “Avalon Sunset” in the ’80s, “Carrying a Torch” and “The Healing Game” in the ’90s, “Magic Time” in the ’00s.

Van Morrison is my favorite artist ever, when Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra aren’t, and there are three moments that are perhaps greater than anything Dylan or Sinatra have done. The shimmering “Friday’s Child,” released under the rubric of Morrison’s band Them, was the first hint of Morrison the Visionary, and the first time the singer promised (“can’t stop now”), as he would promise again in “Into the Mystic” (“too late to stop now”), that he had crossed a Rubicon in a quest he himself could barely name.

“Madame George” is a reverie that transports you by way of a memory that isn’t even yours but feels like it, at the caress of a brothel owner who may be a transvestite; that argument rages on and couldn’t matter less. It’s one of those rare songs like, say, Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset” that creates an entire universe of its own.

“And the Healing Has Begun” is Morrison the Ecstatic, so caught up in his own spell that he “can’t stand (him)self,” picking apart the fabric of life to let blast through the light behind; when, at its peak, he cries out that he’s going to “run across the field,” you don’t have the slightest idea what it means — he may not either — but you can hear in it anyway a pledge, a threat, a battle charge and call to arms. Right around the corner of this song is the Mystic, waiting for Van and for everyone who hears him.

Novelist Steve Erickson is the film critic for Los Angeles magazine and editor of the literary journal Black Clock, published by CalArts, where he teaches writing. His novel about the movies, “Zeroville,” will be published this fall by Europa.