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

Its Inclusion: 

When I was 19, a friend turned me on to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and it immediately took over my life. The album’s music and lyrics seemed revelatory to me—of the deepest wisdom. For the next two years, Astral Weeks was my guide—a big mistake, as it turned out. I knew I had to include one of its songs on Street Songs, and, naturally enough, chose my favorite, “Sweet Thing.” Because I couldn’t duplicate the rhythm guitar groove that Morrison played on the original, “Sweet Thing” was never part of my street repertoire. I had to learn the song from scratch.


The Recording:

John Hanes and Paul Olguin
John Hanes and Paul Olguin

Back when I was playing on the street and dreaming of making it, I had in mind a particular form and sound that I hoped to create someday. This track is that form and sound. I could hear it before we started recording “Sweet Thing,” but there was no path to it until Bruce started introducing me to musicians who knew what they were doing. I didn’t know how to express in musical terms exactly what it was I wanted, but they got me there just the same. Practicality dictated that most individual instruments be recorded separately, one at a time. This can leave a track sounding precise, but dead. The reason that “Sweet Thing” sounds live and swings is that the drummer, John Hanes, and the bass player, Paul Olguin, laid the foundation by recording their parts simultaneously—as they did on every track they played on. When I was developing my vocal, I focused on Paul’s bass lines.

For “Sweet Thing,” I brought in one of the musicians myself. When I was 20, I had two musical heroes: Van Morrison and Ben Watson. Ben was a local keyboard player in Seattle who could play anything: classical, rock, and jazz. He was the first real musician I ever met. When I started work on my book, Street Song, I searched for him on the Internet in hopes of interviewing him, but could never find him. One day, near the end of the recording sessions, I finally succeeded. He was living just across the bay in Oakland and still making his living as a professional musician. He was calling himself Benny now, which is the reason my previous searches had failed. I wanted Benny to play on a track, and he agreed to do it. The only song left needing a keyboard was “Sweet Thing.” I had a specific idea of what I wanted, but didn’t tell him. I simply couldn’t see myself directing him. I deferred to Benny’s taste and judgement. After he’d listened to what we’d done up to that point, I asked him what he heard. It was exactly the same thing I had in mind: gospel piano and organ.

“Sweet Thing” is my favorite track on the album.