Van Morrison’s music has always moved me, and I feel very fortunate to have met him. But one’s dealings with him, as a journalist or an editor, were seldom untroubled. This particular encounter was in Dublin, and had its share of difficulties, though they’re really unimportant now. Revisiting it many years later, I recognise that my tactic was to start in Van’s “comfort zone” of subject matter, namely his musical Belfast childhood, and gently draw him out to more general reflections.
The interview first appeared in Q Magazine, April 1997.
(You can read my 1989 interview with Van Morrison and Spike Milligan here.)
There is a Van Morrison story for every day of the year. Here’s another one. A musician who once played in his band recalls an all-night bar stool debate with the great man. Van argued his case, an obscure philosophical point of some sort, with rising force and passion. Worn down and weary, the musician finally conceded defeat. “I agree with you, Van,” he said.
“You what?” demanded Van, momentarily thrown.
“What you said. I agree with it.”
“Well in that case,” Van retorts, confidence returning, “in that case, you’re wrong!”
Such are the tales that swirl about the portly personage of this obstinate Ulsterman, fuelling the legend of his one-man war on the social niceties. But Morrison has less than little time for others’ opinions of him. Fame and reputation are only parts of what he contemptuously calls “The Myth”. All that matters, he keeps on insisting, is the work. While he has seemed an increasingly sociable figure in recent years, he has always approached the public aspects of his job with a reluctance bordering on phobia. The warmth of his regard for the media was scarcely improved by his experiences of last summer, when he found himself the stuff of tabloid front pages due to his (apparently temporary) estrangement from his fiancée Michelle Rocca. “I was flabbergasted by the headlines,” goes a line on his new album The Healing Game, which sounds autobiographical even if he claims his songs are not to be interpreted that way.
Despite a nasty bout of flu, the Morrison who enters a Dublin hotel lounge for this Q interview is business-like and not unwilling to talk. If his answers are rarely elaborate, they’re fully considered. If he has a problem with explaining his work, it’s not from truculence but from a sense of his words’ inadequacy in comparison with the eloquence of his best music. As he once sang on another album, “It ain’t why. It just is.”
The great thing, to use one of his favourite phrases, is to keep on keeping on. And so he plays live dates almost every month nowadays, with a regular band on permanent standby. He turns out new albums with a regularity unmatched among his contemporaries. He also has a side project on the go, compiling a retrospective album called The Philosopher’s Stone, due to contain unreleased tracks from the past few decades. “It’s hard to work out why you didn’t put something out at the time,” he confesses. “Usually it felt like it didn’t fit, or there was enough tracks. When I was with Warner Brothers they were very minimalist, they always said, ‘We don’t want more than 20 minutes a side,’ because they were paranoid about recording levels. So if you had that, that was all they wanted [Laughs].”
How does he find it, listening to his old tracks?
“Now I just find that it’s interesting. Just part of the whole work picture.”
Is he proud of it?
Are there particular things he feels a special affinity for now?
“Affinity? Well there’s not much I don’t feel affinity with. But you know there’s certain things… Like I heard Astral Weeks recently. It made me just sit up. It made me sit up and think, Right, OK, I was really on to something different. There was a lot of stuff going on here that was definitely off-the-wall and out there. And it was good. But I feel an affinity with most of it.”
Morrison is less nostalgic when he recollects the business side of his story, which has left him deeply suspicious of people’s motives. The 22-year-old visionary who made Astral Weeks was already a scarred veteran of the pop process, as the relatively carefree days in Belfast showbands gave way to his tempestuous spell in Them. After hits with Baby Please Don’t Go and Here Comes The Night (the epochal Gloria was, strangely, only a B-side), he joined producer Bert Berns in the States to make Brown Eyed Girl and other tracks – re-released last month as New York Sessions ’67. But Van did not feel any command over his own music until the following year’s Astral Weeks, a spectral song-cycle of timeless enchantment. By 1970 he looked like the embodiment of the hippie dream, married to an American girl named Janet Planet and living in Woodstock. Yet he grew to mistrust the Love Generation as much as he had the sharks of Tin Pan Alley, and he railed against the rock icon status that came with his canonisation as a singer/songwriter. After 1980 he was located largely in England, and is also venerated now as a treasure of Ireland’s heritage, especially since his landmark 1988 album with The Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat.
A recurrent theme in his work is a kind of transcendental connection with the sights and sounds of his Belfast childhood, summoned with extraordinary potency on the 1991 tracks Take Me Back and On Hyndford Street. The idea now reappears on The Healing Game itself (a separate version of which he recently made with his friend John Lee Hooker). Van gives the impression that, for him, discovery is a case of going back to things we already know inside, but have lost touch with.
“I think that’s true,” he nods. “You lose touch with it. For instance, some people find it incredible when I tell them that people used to sing and play music in the street. It just didn’t happen where they came from. I think there’s a whole oral tradition that’s disappeared. The Healing Game is about the time when people used to sing on street corners. It came from America where they had the doo-wop groups. That’s the general idea of the song, and also coming to a point where you’ve always been already. You’ve never really moved from this position. You took a lot of detours but you’re still back on the corner.”
Paul Du Noyer: Was this a big thing in Belfast, singing in the street?
Van Morrison: I didn’t think it was a big thing, because it was a natural thing. All around me people were making music. But I speak to other people from Belfast and they say, Oh, that never happened where I lived. It seemed to be just my area, or that was one of the areas, but to me it wasn’t uncommon.
What kind of music?
Oh, country & western, skiffle, folk, all sorts.
Your music has always drawn from musical sources which some people think are incompatible, like soul and country and so on. Did you start out hearing everything in an equal kind of way?
We didn’t have those lines drawn. When I started listening to music the Melody Maker was a jazz mag. The rock journalist hadn’t been invented yet. So I heard blues, country music, pop music in those days, all of it, with an open mind. It didn’t have those restrictions of categories.
But R&B was the thing you were first known for as a recording artist.
There was a group called The Monarchs and that’s primarily where I started doing R&B. And then with Them I was recording, but that’s what it was called then. I had an R&B club in Belfast. It definitely wasn’t pop music, that’s for sure, because we weren’t playing pop music. But I think when we recorded that Bert Berns song, Here Comes The Night, that was a poppy sort of song to begin with, the production. I think that’s where everything went wrong! [Laughs]
Were your problems with the music business typical, or were you unluckier than most?
I think it was typical, it happened to a lot of people. Some just got out, but I dug in my heels basically. I just wanted to do music and I wouldn’t let them beat me at it. But a lot of people just gave up. It was typical because it wasn’t a big thing. The record business wasn’t this huge multi million billion whatever it is. It wasn’t an industry. It was very small, only a few dozen people in it. From the ’70s it got blown up out of all proportion, and then it became ‘Rock’. It used to be rock’n’roll. When I started we were called rhythm’n’blues, and then after making a couple of records we were called a pop group.
Because you were in the hit parade?
Yeah, that’s it. It wasn’t that big and there wasn’t this tremendous amount of money. You’d be getting ripped off, but just enough to keep you going. Whereas now people are getting ripped off for big, big money.
What is it you dislike about pop music?
It’s just never been my music, because I’ve always heard the real stuff, y’know? I grew up in a household where I heard all the real music, so when I heard pop I didn’t have to rush out… I loved Little Richard and Fats Domino and that, but I had the background of hearing this other music since I was three! So it wasn’t such a big injection, like with rebellious teenagers when they heard rock’n’roll. Because I’d already heard similar music that was called rhythm’n’blues, which is where rock’n’roll came from. So it wasn’t any big diversion. I just liked all of it, pop music as well, but my preference was more for black music. I think when myself and Eric Burdon [of The Animals] came out of that group thing, we were the ones into black music in a big way. A lot of people who said they were into black music really weren’t, but I was and I think Burdon was, and I still am. But I think a lot of the other people who came from that era, it went into something else, their image was very white.
In the ’60s there was a new counter-culture, which you became disillusioned with, but were you ever sold on it to begin with? Did you ever think a new world was coming in?
Not really. To me, everything’s always been hard, so I never had that pie-in-the-sky thing, that floating-about bit. Everything for me had always been very extremely hard to do. Just to keep on keeping on, as they say. So luckily I never got caught up in any of that shit.
Why did you leave America in the end?
I never wanted to live in America to start with. I just got there by accident. Y’see, another part of this rock mythology is that you had some sort of plan worked out beforehand. It wasn’t like that at all. I got to America and I didn’t get paid, I was completely broke, so I had to stay there and work. I’d signed a contract with Bert Berns for management, production, agency and record company, publishing, the whole lot, which was professional suicide as any lawyer will tell you now, but in those days nobody had a clue. So that’s why I went to America, then the whole thing blew up, Bert Berns died and I was left broke and I had to find myself some other situation. That’s how I ended up in America, not that I wanted to be there, one thing led to another. When my daughter [Shana Morrison] grew up, that’s when I left, when she became a teenager, I got out because there was no reason for me to be there any more.
Do you think that in the ’70s people began to look to artists for answers for their problems?
Yeah, I just couldn’t understand that. That was propagated for a long time. Yeah… I can never understand – can you? – why people expect musicians to solve the world’s problems. [Laughs] It’s absurd. I mean, if politicians can’t do it, how the hell are musicians going to do it? I think you have to go back to the ’60s, when people were smoking dope and getting high and listening to things and perceiving things that weren’t actually there. That’s where all that came from. I suppose also journalists were getting stoned and doing the same thing. It’s another myth: “What does it mean?”. You can see all sorts of things if you’re drugged up, you can read anything into anything.
Has anyone inspired you as much as those first people you listened to, like John Lee Hooker?
No. Like you said, I find I have to keep going back, because I don’t find the same sort of … I haven’t heard any music for a long time that’s been as inspiring. I think in every field there hasn’t been anything new from maybe the ’70s. In jazz as well. I have to keep going back to find inspiration.
Back to what?
I just go back to the blues. Mainly that.
What’s the quality that keeps you going back to the blues?
I don’t know. The whole thing is non-intellectual. It resonates, you know? That’s all I can put it down to. It’s soul music, or whatever.
Do you think it’s pointless talking about music?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do actually. It’s very difficult when you analyse the writing the songs thing, because the songs come from the irrational part of the brain. So you’re trying to talk about something rationally that’s coming from the irrational part. That’s why, I think, for me it’s been pointless to try and analyse songs.
Do people over-analyse you?
Yeah, I think they make it more than it is, actually, they blow it up out of all proportion. Whether the reason being that they want to make themselves look better, or more intellectual, I think that’s what it is. People used to analyse Dylan all the time, but they don’t really seem to bother him any more.
With Dylan and yourself, people like to identify references in the songs.
Mmm. A lot of it is pure fiction. There’s another book out about me recently, I’ve scanned through it, and he’s saying some stuff in there about some of the songs, like he knows what they’re about, but they’re pure fiction, they’re not about anything to do with me. That’s another thing. To say that all the songs are about me, that’s just ludicrous. Some of them have bits of me in them, maybe 10 per cent are part of my experience, but the rest are just fiction. For anybody to assume… I don’t really understand it.
Though you’re irritated when people read things into your songs, it must be gratifying when your music sets something off in people’s imaginations.
Oh sure, that’s right, that’s right. It’s just the analytical side that’s counter-productive. Because it’s coming from the non-analytical part of your brain. Creativity.
Does this career become a grind for you?
It’s not a grind. I’m a workaholic anyway. It’s what I do, and that’s good, because a lot of people are not doing what they want to be doing, it’s great in that aspect. In the early days it was really a grind because everybody was getting ripped off, so just getting from one week to the next was all you could do. So it’s not that way any more, thank God.
You often say that what you do is basically a job.
Yeah. Maybe in the old days it was more centred around specific recordings. But I think the live thing is more where I’m at now. Maybe I’ve always been there and not known it. Maybe that’s what this Healing Game thing is about.
What do you enjoy about performance? Being with your band, or the audience?
It’s the rapport with musicians.
What’s your general relationship with an audience? Is there a big feedback element for you?
I’m not that type of performer. What I’m doing up there involves a lot of concentration, there’s a lot going on. It looks easy. I suppose when you’re sitting out there this all looks easy. It looks like he can take a breath or tell a few jokes or something. But what’s going on up there is very complex, and if somebody does something wrong and the concentration goes… There’s no time to worry about all this other stuff. There’s a lot of cues going on. I mean, other performers can do that other thing, I don’t do that. What I’m doing is I’m putting forth the music and it’s very intense, there’s no let-up and everybody’s on their toes all the time, from the minute they walk on stage till they come off. That’s what I do. I don’t do this other thing – I think I know what you’re talking about – it’s playing with the audience or something. I don’t have time for that, so whatever the audience gets from it, that’s what it is.
How much do you have to get behind the meaning of a song?
It’s not real, you know? This is what people don’t want to believe, no matter how much you tell them. Performing isn’t reality, that’s why you call it performing. You’re not putting your own life up there on the stage, you’re acting out the songs, basically.
Perhaps the quality of your singing voice makes people think you mean every word.
Well I’ve seen blues singers and I think, God they must be really down. But they come off stage and they’re smiling. They’ve just sung about, like, “I don’t have any money” or “My woman left me”, and then they come off and it’s “Hey man!”, everything’s fine. Performing is acting.
Your performances are pretty intense by most standards, so there is an assumption that you really are like that, that you walk around with a book of William Blake in your pocket, deep in contemplation…
[Laughs] I think it was taken to the extreme, just because I’ve read a few books, or did an interview with some guy, he made a whole thing out of that. It’s way over the top, that stuff.
If you knew then what you know now, would you have become a musician?
I think so. The only thing that bothers me is that I don’t really know why I became famous. Because I wasn’t one of those people that wanted to become famous. It was something that happened to me. Then I couldn’t get back to where I was before that. It isn’t something that I set out to be, and I don’t quite understand that. There’s a lot of people who do want to be famous and can’t be, and I never wanted to be. So it’s ironic, isn’t it?
Do you find celebrity a tiresome by-product of what you do?
Well I just can’t handle it, and I’ve never been able to handle it, and I never will. There were times when I thought I needed to do this, that and the other thing, where I could handle it, but it didn’t go anywhere. It’s still the same. I’m not going to be able to handle that, and I never will. So I’m resigned to that. I don’t really want to be celebrated. You know? I just want to do the music. And “celebrity” is another loaded word. It isn’t what it appears to be.
How do you mean?
Celebrity means someone who’s celebrated, but I often find celebrity can mean anything now, from someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s famous, or something! It’s meaningless. I always said I don’t want to be a celebrity and I still don’t. I do the music and I keep doing what I’m doing.
Celebrity has become a commodity in its own right, divorced from any work that might generate it.
Is there any way around it?
Well I don’t know, I just don’t take to it. At times I’ve tried to fit in to that kind of thing but it hasn’t done any good, it’s just not my scene, and that’s the end of it.
Do you think music is a kind of magic?
Magic? Yeah, sure it’s magic. I think it is.
You used to talk about getting people to a meditative state in music.
I don’t much like to say these things any more because, like you said about the William Blake thing, it’s taken out of context. You read something 10 years later and go, This guy’s making a mountain out of a molehill. So I don’t really like to talk in those terms any more, meditation and all that. It’s just words, and they end up being meaningless words if they’re taken out of context. So I don’t get into that any more, it’s just whatever it is that the people listen to, basically.
Your music is very strong with a sense of place, and of taking your past and making it present again.
You see, in my head I never really left that. Or in my soul. I never left it. Basically I’m still there. In my head, I’m still hanging out with the corner boys. It’s just that this mythology’s been created about me, or about people that do what I do, and this mythology’s what I’d like to try to break down, but it seems like it’s impossible to break it down sometimes, y’know?
Do you ever wish for other outlets? You’ve mentioned teaching.
I’d like to get some of my ideas across. Maybe in essays or a book. Some of the stuff we’ve been talking about here. But other than that I can’t see any other platform.
Which things would you like to put into essay form?
Dispelling the myths. I’d just like to make people aware of the myths and dispel them as much as possible.
Would that be beneficial for other performers?
Only for those that have ears to hear. A lot of people don’t want to hear, but then most people want to be in the myth. They don’t think there’s anything else, they want to live in the illusion. Because maybe they’re afraid not to…