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Morrison claims that the title was a mistake, an unthinking and insignificant substitution of one word for another. Originally called "Brown Skinned Girl" because "it was a kind of Jamaican song" (source), he inadvertently scrawled the new title on the box after it was recorded.
Or as he clarifies, er, fails to clarify, "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." (Source)
Okay. But what Morrison does not reveal is how the lyrics did or didn't change. You would think that a song called "Brown Skinned Girl" would have been about "My brown skinned girl, you're my brown skinned girl."
But Morrison never acknowledges changing the lyrics, only absent-mindedly changing the title. Is he suggesting that he sang about a brown eyed girl in a song called "Brown Skinned Girl"? Or did he unthinkingly and unknowingly change the lyrics as well? Did he run through 22 takes of the now-classic without realizing that he moved from pigment to pupils? Was the lyric change, like the title change, "just one of those things"?
Today, it's a small thing, thankfully, but in 1967, it would've been a big thing. A melody with hit potential—it reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100—"Brown Eyed Girl" would have received an entirely different spin had it been about a schoolboy's interracial fling. The song was already on rough ground with its explicit reference to sex ("Making love in the green grass, behind the stadium with you") and some radio stations insisted on a sanitized version that had Morrison's young lovers "laughing and a-running, hey hey, behind the stadium" instead.
How would they have responded to a song that had a white boy and a brown-skinned girl doing the unthinkable behind the hallowed bleachers of the gridiron?
The topic of interracial romance in music was not totally without precedent in 1967. A year earlier, 15-year-old Janis Ian had released "Society Child." The song, which is about an interracial couple, drew quite a buzz. It eventually climbed to #1 on the charts and turned Ian into a 1960s icon.
But Ian's young couple never went as far—at least in the song—as Morrison's. Her young man's greatest crime was coming to her front door, "face is clean and shining black as night." Morrison's young couple was "Playin' a new game [...] Our hearts a-thumpin'."
So, was the name and lyric change an unthinking and insignificant decision? Or did Morrison shy away from the controversy that "Brown Skinned Girl" would have sparked?
It ain't clear, and Morrison ain't talking.
In many ways, "Brown Eyed Girl" is not representative of Van Morrison's songwriting. Relatively simple, perhaps even "sweet," the song's closing line, "Do you remember when we used to sing, Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah," conjures a more juvenile set of images than his more intensely introspective songs.
But in many ways, the song is completely representative. Thematically, "Brown Eyed Girl's" sweet-sad-passionate memory of a boyhood love is one of the many Morrison songs that explore the places and experiences of his childhood. Stylistically, the song's crisp, seemingly unfinished lines ("Cast my memory back there, Lord, sometime I'm overcome thinking about") are also quintessentially Morrison.
In Morrison's best work, he offers bursts of phrases—or better, bursts of images that pile on top of one another like layers of paint—which are sometimes heavy, sometimes translucent. If they suggest impatience, or an unwillingness to complete or "perfect" a thought, it may be because Morrison is more interested in performance than preservation.
His concerts are self-shaping exercises in creativity, in which the crowd, the band, the moment, and most importantly, Morrison's own muse provide the direction. He performs without a playlist, and encourages each song to go, hopefully, where it has never gone before. With one motion, he calls for a solo from his guitarist, and with another, he signals that he wants to spend some time massaging an intriguing lyric.
The recipe isn't always successful. Morrison is famously difficult to work with and at times, difficult to watch. Not every musician can keep up with the inspiration driving Morrison on stage.
"Some bands I've had can do anything, go anywhere, you know? Other bands can only do certain songs in a certain way." The same goes for his audiences, according to the Village Voice. "If you feel like the audience can go with you, then I can stretch out more." (Source)
And if the audience can't keep up with his personal sojourn, he can be a jerk.
But when it works, it works.
And the lyrics, rough blasts of thought, become an inseparable part of the inchoate mix that takes Morrison and his fellow-travelers to a mood, a memory, a sensation, or what Morrison has described more inclusively as "energy."