Review: Van Morrison’s Contractual Obligation Session (1968)

*note* – This article was previously published in the July, 2018, edition of Spermatorrhea, reprinted here as part of our Ironic Excellence in Criticism series, taking the finest reviews of film, music, literature and television from Brimborion Media and showcasing their brilliance without any attempts to highlight the nature of self-importance in, and overall pointlessness of, art criticism.

Coming into my first listening of Van Morrison’s vengeful, untitled studio bird-flip of 1968 (referred to, since its official release in 2017, as The Contractual Obligation Session), there was only one thing of which I was knowledgeable: Morrison wrote all thirty-one of these songs solely to get out of a contract with his record label at the time, Bang Records. So, I had sought the collection out, probably because I was bored with everything else I was listening to and reviewing coming from Big Music and it’s sparkling, magical, sexual apparatus, “the Machine”—and all the other indie crap peripherally available at the time, because it’s just music that isn’t good enough to get picked up by Big Music and then sparkle-barfjaculated out by “the Machine”—and started it spinning, which is an archaic way of saying I opened the songs up on YouTube, then waited the 5 seconds to press the Skip Ads button to skip the goddamn ads that popped up every five seconds.

The experience, frankly, was more than I bargained for.  I had to stop it, more than once.  It was so thoroughly overwhelming that not half a minute after first clicking play, I was almost in tears.  And the tears didn’t cease.  I don’t believe I got past the first five songs. 

That was 2008. Around ten years later, on a whim—because I get whims, and because it takes me that long to come to terms with my own emotions, apparently—I decided to listen to it all over again. And found I was stricken with the same response set.

Tears.  From laughing my ass off. Just like the first time.  

In researching it further this time around, there were now only two facts of which I was knowledgeable: 1.) Got him out of a contract, blah blah blah, and 2.) The more research I did, the less entertaining the whole experience became. 

So, for once, I stopped researching, and decided to set down here just what was gleaned.

And, okay, the little I did learn in researching.  Because, honestly, it was kind of worth the sixty seconds it would take to tell it.

Van Morrison walks into an office in New York City in 1966 after leaving his previous band, and signs a contract with a mob-connected record executive, Bert Berns—without a lawyer handy—who then hands Morrison $2,500 and, sometime the following spring, makes him record 4 songs over two days, one of which happened to be the wildly successful Brown-Eyed Girl.  From which Van Morrison has never earned a single penny to-date, by the way.  Or so the story goes.  Which speaks to the terms of the unread contract he’d signed, it can be safely assumed. 

So, Morrison hates Berns, Berns hates Morrison, and a year, a Berns heart attack, Bern’s wife taking over the company and 31 extemporaneous tracks later (and $20,000 in cash handed to four mob goons upstairs in a Manhattan warehouse by a Warner Bros. executive who somehow got roped into the deal, brokered by Don Rickles’ manager, of all people), Van Morrison was freed of his contract to Bang Records, and allowed to record with Warner. 

There it is.  There’s your nutshell.  And half my glean.

But listening to these songs, and enjoying them, doesn’t require a backstory, for as little as they may be understood through just one (or ten) sitting(s). They’re in the same vain as the music of Wesley Wills, whose schizophrenic bursts of monotonic vocal energy also require no backstory; they’re marvels of a creative gossamer broadcast discretely in almost ephemeral, one-to-three minute tracks—a sonic, stream-of-consciousness foray into the fringes of an emotionally-charged, off-beat and talented human psyche.

Trying to critically dissect each song for the purpose of gaining a better understanding for the purpose of then imposing that onto another would be like, well, trying to dissect a frog for a science project so I could serve it for dinner. Sure, it can be done. And hey, someone, somewhere, might actually learn something in the process. And then be sated, if they could keep it down. But this is art, not science or gastric satiety we’re talking about, and to listen to the songs without any insight, to be the first to open that wrapper or peel back that rind, is to, more or less, know what’s it like to be the frog itself.

Many of the tracks do have an actual meaning, it’s true, at least to the man who recorded them, though “nonsense” (the words used by Bert Berns’ widow herself upon first listening to them, before spitefully sealing them in a vault someplace) would certainly be their most apt and singularly descriptive characterization. However, I decline to do my job in this case, and do you a solid in the process. If all you understand going in is that Morrison was creating something to get out of a stressful, stifling, overall unhappy situation into which he did not want to be tied any longer, then you’re closer to understanding that this music is an absolute, raw, artistic reflection of a boiling-over state of mind, and an earnest attempt to broadcast that mind state to the world.

Or, at least, broadcast it to the wife of some guy who royally (and royalty) screwed him.  Who, herself, is trying to (platonically) screw him, still. 

In 1978, while being sued for divorce by his wife, Marvin Gaye released, to generally unfavorable reviews, Here, My Dear, a double studio album half of whose proceeds his lawyer had persuaded him to release unconditionally to his wife to satisfy the terms of the divorce, and to put a drawn-out end to matter, to which Marvin had been avoiding seeking a resolution.  The entire work is about his take on that breakup, emotionally wrenching at times, and rife with the negative impact such a separation had on his life.

But that concerted effort has nothing on what Van Morrison sat down to pull off in New York City in 1968.  And did.  It’s rebel music at some of its finest. 

MC5, Twisted Sister, the Dead Kennedys, The Exploited or nearly any punk band birthed not long after the Ramones first took the stage in their leather jackets and unpolished fervor at CBGB’s in 1974 to “give rock and roll a kick in the ass,”—their message is clear: We are who we are, we want to be who we are, we see what’s going on and we’re not going to stand to be treated this way anymore.

Morrison’s message was a lot more subtle, cryptic.  But the gist of it was the same.