Great white soul singer. Celtic balladeer, and cantankerous old so-and-so, Van Morrison. it also has to be said, cuts something of an ungainly figure. The title ofhis 1987 album might inform us that Poetic Champions Compose, but on the front cover his chubby, balding features bear the disinterested scowl ofsome worldweary middle-aged proletarian. While his seemingly unstoppable music continues its longstanding quest for spiritual affirmation, bringing together his love of the countryside with ecstasises both romantic and religious in a profound. enveloping sense ofwonder. the wee man himselfstill looks like some fitter you‘d walk past on the streets of Belfast. Currently on a British tour that marks an extraordinary 25 years on the scene, the one they call Van The Man remains one of the most inspiringly talented, yet at the same time determinedly enigmatic musical figures these islands have ever produced.
I myselfused to toy with the idea that I had, in fact, been conceived after one of the seminal early Sixties gigs in Belfast by Van‘s r‘n‘b band Them, but although my parents did indeed frug away in the grothole Maritime Hotel (my mum recalls Mr M as ‘a bit smelly. he never washed’). the dates unfortunately don’t quite work out. Since then. George Ivan Morrison‘s sheer longevity has ensured a career of both span and stature. At one end, classic singles Here Comes The Night and Gloria made Them chart contenders alongside The Beatles and The Stones, while recent filming for a proposed 25th anniversary special by the prestigious BBC Arts programme Arena. has captured him duetting with Dylan beside the Acropolis in Athens and jamming with blues legend John Lee Hooker in the depths of Louisiana.
Between times. there‘s been a steady flow ofclassic records. most notably the beautiful Celtic misery of
1968‘s Astral Weeks. (still revered by many as just about the best album you’ll buy in the rock section of your local vinyl emporium), through the classic white soul of Moondanee (1970) or the live It's Too Late To Stop Now ( 1973), and on to the
As The Man arrives in Glasgow for another eagerly awaited live appearance, Trevor Johnston wades deep into the mystic to assess the musical genius of Belfast's foremost musical son, Van Morrison.
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reflective poeticism of his meditative Eighties work up to and including the recent A valon Sunset. Here you‘ll find an unlikely duet with Cliff Richard, and the roots ofhis current r’n‘b-influenced band with Georgie Fame on Hammond organ. but over the years there‘ve been live or recorded collaborations with artists as diverse as Dylan and The Band. New Orleans pianist Dr John. the Danish Radio Big Band. jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. and Irish folk supremos The Chieftains.
One of the great white vocalists. from the soaring vigour ofAstral Weeks to the rich walnutty burr he‘s acquired in his later years. his trademark remains a jazzy delight in phrasing. repeating and turning over the words to wring every nuance of sound and meaning from them. Oh yeah. and the man at various times plays guitar. sax. piano, organ. drums and harmonica himself, as well as writing and producing his own material. Watch him on stage on a good night. eyes closed in lyrical oblivion. he seems so deep in there that maybe you understand something ofthe faith that drives him onwards and onwards into music‘s consuming possibilities.
And it is afaith. or at least a testament to some kind ofspiritual affirmation in the act of
music-making that‘s become one of the major themes of his work during the fruitful period ofthe last decade. As in his last single release Havel Told You Lately That I Love You. he‘ll often blur the lines between a feeling for the landscape. affection for a woman. and a religious devotion within the bounds ofthe same song. There are moments though. when the lyrics almost aren‘t enough to contain these huge hymns to creation. At the end of his masterly Summertime In England the lines It ain't why. why, why/It just is seem both frustratedly conscious oftheir own banality and at the same time. as the horns build to an ecstatic crescendo. joyful in their holy simplicity. In live performance. the effect can overwhelm even the most cynical empiricist. the nearest a rock concert will get to the religious possession ofspeaking in tongues. While the longing fora nostalgic homeland that‘s vanished forever. and the subsequently uneasy resolution of his Ulster Protestant background with a wider (‘eltic identity remain his other prime concerns. it's almost as if to contrast the otherworldliness of his artistry that he finds himselfso ill at ease within the wheels and cogs of the vast music industry. Having been soundly ripped off during his time with
Them. he’s since become the canniest ofcommercial operators, recording through his own company Caledonia Productions then offering the product to the record company for marketing and distribution.
Not that he makes the promotional aspects of it at all easy. Although at his best he can be an electrifying performer. his grudging attitude to the motions of touring is often revealed by an apparent contempt for the audience: he‘s walked offstage after ten minutes; he‘s played with his back to the auditorium; I‘ve even seen him end a rendition ofSend In The Clowns by aiming at the front stalls an accusatory snarl of Don 't worry they're here.
Relations with the press have also been negociated with a constant unwillingness (it surely can’t be an inability) to discuss his work in anything but the most cursory depth. Obviously a very private man. and by all accounts something ofan eccentric customer. it seems that he resents any participation in the mystique of the rock star-artist as a personal affront. often resorting to claims that what he does is merely a job. In some ways. Morrison’s determination to protect his integrity is understandable. perhaps even slightly admirable. but at its most extreme moments. supervising his own guest list at a concert to shut out the music writers who‘d been critical. it can all smack ofsheer pig-headed paranoia.
Still. despite all the stories, the non-interviews. the bored appearances (check out the lip-synching on the video for Havel Told You), he still continues to produce the kind ofmusic that'd make you forgive the oul lad anything. Reports from his August gigs at Belfast‘s Grand Opera House indicate that he's currently in fine form. with Mr Fame and the boys supplying a raucously thumping backing to a show full of Fifties chestnuts. including Elvis covers and an unlikely version of Fever. I guess it‘s just too late to stop now.
Van Morrison plays The Pa villion on Wednesday
8 The List 29 September — 12 October 1989