Sweet Thing
Writer: Van Morrison
Mark Bittner: vocal
Benny Watson: piano, organ
Bruce Kaphan: electric guitar, dulcimer
John Lee Sanders: soprano and alto sax
Paul Olguin: bass
John Hanes: drums

Benny Watson. Photo by Jessica Levant
Benny Watson. Photo by Jessica Levant

While I was singing on the street I met and fell in love with Diane, a student at UC Berkeley. I was deep into the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks, and so was she. “Sweet Thing” is my favorite song from Astral Weeks, but another that I’d never done before and learned specifically for this project.

“Sweet Thing” has gone through more permutations than any other recording in the project. Van Morrison’s original version is a blend of folk and jazz played entirely on acoustic instruments. But I was hearing its possibilities as a kind of electric soul number with organ. To get started in that direction Chris Doering, who was in to play guitar on “The Arrow You Want,” laid down two electric guitar parts—rhythm and lead. Not long after that session I started thinking that that there was too much guitar on the recordings generally. I wanted less guitar and more keyboard. So Bruce Kaphan had an idea for a harmonium part. But harmonium is to an organ as a push lawn mower is to a ride-around lawn mower. So we dispensed with the electric guitar parts entirely, and I added an acoustic rhythm guitar part. But the song didn’t sound vigorous enough, so Bruce added a busy dulcimer and percussion. I always knew there would be bass and drums on the song, and later Paul Olguin and John Hanes came in to add their parts. Paul was familiar with the original Astral Weeks version and had even played bass on a version of “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison’s daughter, Shana. I didn’t know how to describe to John what I wanted, but Bruce understood what I was getting at. “Play jazz,” he told John. So Paul and John tore through the song with a lyricism and drive that still thrills me. Later, Bruce realized that my guitar part was in a different groove than what Paul and John had played. So I had to study their groove and rerecord my part.

John Hanes and Paul Olguin
John Hanes and Paul Olguin

We had an interesting sound at that point, but the song needed more. I wanted a horn. Bruce recommended his friend John Lee Sanders to me. John Lee lived in Alabama at the time, so he recorded his part there and sent it to Bruce. He did a version on alto sax and another on soprano sax, both of which were improvisations in tandem with a guide vocal I’d made for him. He told us to take our pick. I was having trouble making up my mind between the two when, on a whim, I decided to listen to both of them playing at the same time. They weren’t scored to be played together, but I loved the effect. So we kept both. At that point all that remained to record was my vocal. At least, that’s what I thought.

Bruce had to close his studio during the COVID lockdown and during that time I located an old friend from Seattle, Benny Watson, who was living across the Bay in Oakland. Benny was a superlative keyboard player who’s in the manuscript of Street Song. I thought it would be wonderfully appropriate to have him play on “Sweet Thing.” He listened to what we’d already recorded and suggested that he play piano and gospel organ, which coincided exactly with my original idea. It would have made the track too crowded to leave everything in, so out came my acoustic guitar and the harmonium and in went Benny’s piano and organ. And that’s what it stands now. I still have my vocal to do.