On a good day, it makes you tap your toes and smile broadly. On great days it returns the wings of an eagle to ride as in times gone by. On quieter days, it brings a tear to your eye for all the things that were and might have been.
Among standard, pedestrian ratings of “the greatest songs” or “greatest singles in history,” “Brown Eyed Girl” can’t seem to find a steady place. It bounces around from top 40 to top 300 on the various rosters of best songs. It’s odd and ultimately stupid. The irascible Morrison himself says that he has recorded hundreds of better songs. Well, artists rarely make good critics so far inside their own work do they go.
Popularity should not be a noose with which to hang a song. Too many over-puffed critics – who know in their hearts it’s a bona fide Mt. Everest kind of song – resent its perkiness, its positivity and popularity. (If it ain’t brooding, it can’t be great.) Every one of them should relax, stop exhibiting the self-importance of the pundit and just call “Brown Eyed Girl” what it is: the perfect Rock-N-Roll record.
Moreover, it can’t be worn out.
So strong is it that putting “Brown Eyed Girl” on the shelf for a week or two and taking it down for a listen is like seeing your old devoted dog coming over a hill wagging its tail. It’s like biting into the greatest comfort food dish you can remember from when you were a kid. It’s like seeing your best friend who you thought was dead – or ought to be dead – at your front door.
We might listen to the wisdom of the radio DJs’ playlists, which, in 2012 placed the tune at #5 among the most-played on-air songs of that year. That’s forty-five years after the initial release.
It’s been covered by every band this side of Lady Gaga. The recorded cover versions are literally too many to enumerate. One of the more interesting, sloppy with a purpose covers is performed live by Van and Bruce Springsteen; it collars the basement party joy of the work. A song that is deeply and repeatedly enjoyed by teenagers and septuagenarians simply can’t be set aside as just another pop song.
First, there is the lead guitar lick and fill-ins that New York session genius Hugh McCracken laid down. McCracken played with countless other giants: John Lennon, B.B. King, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. He declined an invitation to become a steady member of Wings.
Another of the guitarists on “Brown Eyed Girl” owns similarly shimmering credentials, having played first on Brill Building demos to show off the fine attributes of composers like Carol King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector. He later moved into the guitarist role on smash hit songs: “Sherry” by The Four Seasons; “Chapel Of Love” by The Dixie Cups and most notably, “Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds Of Silence.”
Morrison’s vocals are crystalline, clear as those summer days far away that he sings of. He shouts, he contemplates, he comes bearing the gift of song to the girl he memorializes. His phrasing displays an incredible awareness of the narrative of the song, changing mood as befits the lyric’s story progression.
To wind the song down, he executes a truly wonderful vocal jam with his back-up singers, romping around from Blues shouting to scat singing. The back-ups are provided by The Sweet Inspirations who performed on, among other tunes, Aretha’s “Chain Of Fools” and Dionne Warwick’s walking-wounded masterpiece, “Don’t Make Me Over.”
These are facts of a sort. What lies at the heart of “Brown Eyed Girl,” though, is a sweet seductive tune that is part Reggae, part Skiffle, part Rock-N-Roll. There are a number of hooks – the guitar riff, the sha-la-la-la-la-la-la chorusing. The sneaky solo bass line that steps in for a split second is not to be overlooked.
And deep, deep in the heart lies Van Morrison’s insistence on reaching for poetry within the Irish/Anglo/American tradition. You can hear the sentiment of William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans At Coole”:
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head…
But strolling around as well is old, white and wizened Walt Whitman and his Leaves Of Grass, the extended poem that spoke of sensuality and nature as being one with sex.
“Brown Eyed Girl” is filled with allusions to nature: There’s rain, the hollow, misty morning fog, sunlight laughing, a rainbow’s wall, the waterfall, the green grass behind the stadium. All are plaited tightly together with love and lovemaking.
The final verse is a wistful rumination on a chance meeting with the old girlfriend, the kind of meeting you hope for but dread. Everyone wants to keep his or her memories pristine. The singer/songwriter has moved on and is lost. The former young lover has changed dramatically and Van’s comment to her reflects what must have been his well-preserved wonder at their childhood sweetheart days. If this set of lines and the unrelentingly upbeat music that masks the loss do not tug at your emotions, you better retune your heartstrings:
So hard to find my way
Now that I’m all on my own.
I saw you just the other day,
My, how you have grown!
Cast my memory back there, Lord,
Sometime I’m overcome thinking about
Making love in the green grass
Behind the stadium
With you, my brown-eyed girl,
You, my brown-eyed girl.
Few performers are capable of knocking out the perfect song. The talent, words, music, musicians, voice, the sweet moment, all the folds of the universe have to arise and align without a snag. Then your song gets played ten or twelve million times on the radio and God knows how many more times on home stereos, car systems and iPads.
A thanks to crusty Van who once was young for letting us live in the eternal sha la la la la la la la la moment. And that’s why we’re here in the first place.