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It's in the Grammy Hall of Fame, it's #110 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone. Bill Clinton says it's one of his favorites, George W. Bush says he rocks out to the tune as well. Guys sing it to their girls and fathers sing it to their daughters. It's one of those infectious little songs that makes you smile. It's a song about young, innocent love, and it's about the joy mingled with sadness that comes from recollection.
That's all there is to it, right?
Not so fast. After all, this is Van Morrison. The notoriously temperamental artist and Celtic mystic, the gravelly-voiced guy that screamed out for G-l-o-r-i-i-i-i-, G-l-o-r-i-a, Gloria, and the otherworldly Monet-of-music who followed up "Brown Eyed Girl" with Astral Weeks.
Could he really have written a simple love song?
Well, for starters, the song was not considered so sweet when it was released in 1967. Radio stations refused to play a song that moved from the implied ("Down in the hollow, playin' a new game [...] Our hearts a-thumpin'") to the explicit ("Making love in the green grass, behind the stadium with you").
So, Morrison's producers prepared a sanitized version for radio play. That song repeated an earlier line and had his young lovers "laughing and a-running, hey, hey, behind the stadium." As though we couldn't figure out what they were really doing.
All of the hubbub over the song's lyrics now seems quaint, and perhaps even surprising. Wasn't 1967 the summer of love, the year that San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district caught the nation's imagination with its mantra of free love?
Well, yes, but most of America did not live on Haight Street. And most of America's teenagers lived sex lives that had more in common with Jerry Mathers than Jerry Garcia.
Not surprisingly, television and radio catered to the values of these conservative times. Censorship of movies, music, television, and even cartoons was nothing new. When Tweety Bird first hit the screen as a newborn pink-skinned chick in 1942, the Hayes Office demanded that the smart-talking canary be covered up with a thick layer of feathers. And when Lucy got pregnant—or rather "with child," "expecting," "having a baby"—in 1953, television censors prohibited the use of the "p" word.
Of course, standards had loosened up a little by the "rebellious" 1960s. But still, Jeannie of I Dream of Jeannie, Mary Ann of Gilligan's Island, and Gidget of Gidget were all forbidden to show their belly buttons on TV. And while TV couples were allowed to get pregnant (gasp), they must have done so immaculately, for most, like Rob and Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show, were always shown sleeping in separate beds.
Morrison's song, with its rather blunt reference to "making love in the green grass," was somewhat risqué for its time. But it was not nearly as risqué as many contemporary analysts—and we use that word loosely—would have it be. In the blogosphere, it's been argued that the song is about all kinds of other controversial subjects, including anal sex, lesbian sex, and unwed pregnancy.
But, at least as far as we can tell, it's simply not.
The only deeper layer of sex-related meaning in the song may be an allusion to interracial sex.
When Morrison first wrote the song, he called it "Brown Skinned Girl." As John Collis recounts in his book Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Morrison later explained, "it was a kind of Jamaican song" (81).
This would have been a hot topic, and it would have made a little premarital involvement behind the stadium look tame. In 1967, sixteen states—the South plus Delaware—had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The Supreme Court struck these down as unconstitutional in June 1967 in Loving v. Virginia. Sometimes even the law can be poetic. But the Court's wisdom did not immediately change public opinion. Twenty years later, more than half of all Americans still disapproved of interracial relationships.
In other words, a song about the pleasant memory of an interracial fling would have raised more than a few eyebrows and also seriously damaged the single's radio play time. But Morrison claims that he abandoned his brown-skinned girl for a brown-eyed girl almost without thought. After recording the song, apparently with the lyric "brown eyed girl," he absent-mindedly changed the title to match the lyric.
So, if he made the decision in the interest of appeasing conservative critics, he won't admit it. In his book Van Morrison: No Surrender, Johnny Rogan quotes Morrison: "After we'd recorded it, I looked at the tape box and didn't even notice that I'd changed the title. I looked at the box where I'd lain it down with my guitar and it said 'Brown Eyed Girl' on the tape box. It's just one of those things that happen." (43)
As scandalous as the song was on a 1967 scandal-meter, it was not as shocking as it could have been, nor as envelope-pushing as some would like to think. The song sits tamely between the raw, pulsing power of "Gloria," which Morrison recorded with Them in 1964, and the aesthetically indulgent impressionism of Astral Weeks, the poetic classic he cut in 1968.
Perhaps then, the meatier question is not what the lyrics mean, but what the song means to Morrison and his larger body of work. On the one hand, "Brown Eyed Girl" is his most recognized song. While music critics and historians heap piles of praise on the Irish artist, and to his most devout followers he is simply Van the Man, even the most casual of boppers knows "Brown Eyed Girl."
DJs list "Brown Eyed Girl" as among the ten most frequently requested songs. In other words, everyone who's ever had any kind of fling remembers "when we used to sing, Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah."
Interestingly, though, Morrison says the song is far from his favorite piece. When he recorded it, he considered it a "throwaway song." He claims that he has written 300 songs that he likes more. (Source)
And we really shouldn't be surprised. Morrison cut his musical teeth on Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, and Ray Charles. Can you imagine any of these legendary bluesmen singing "Brown Eyed Girl"? And the list of writers and singers that Morrison has influenced is equally un-Brown Eyed Girlish: Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Bob Segar, Bruce Springsteen, Ray LaMontagne, and the Counting Crows are just a few of the artists influenced by Morrison's music.
Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll argues that only Bob Dylan casts as large a shadow.
The Doors' drummer John Densmore even says that the band's surly frontman, Jim Morrison (no relation), learned his legendary stage manner from Van the Man—"his apparent recklessness, his air of subdued menace, the way he would improvise poetry to a rock beat, even his habit of crouching down by the bass drum during instrumental breaks." (Source)
Can you imagine Jim Morrison singing "Brown Eyed Girl"?
So, perhaps bloggers cannot be blamed for trying to find an edgier meaning in Van Morrison's nostalgic reflection on a little behind-the-stadium romance. While Morrison's complexity and seeming indifference to commercialism might encourage us to push deeper and deeper for the gotta-be-edgy meat to the song, it's probably as simple and comparatively innocent as it sounds.
And if it seems somewhat un-Morrisonian, it might do us well to just listen to The Man himself when pressed to explain some of the complexities and mysteries within his work:
"A lot of times people say, 'What does this mean?' A lot of times I have no idea what I mean. If you can't figure out what it means, or it's troubling you, it's not for you. Like Kerouac, some of his prose stuff, how can you ask what it means? It means what it means. That's what I like about rock and roll—the concept—like Little Richard. What does he mean? You can't take him apart; that's rock and roll to me." (Source)