The following interview is from The Belfast Telegraph (September, 2012). Below is an edited version of the interview with John Bennett (JB). Click on the The Belfast Telegraph link above for the full version.
JB: Elaborate on the title a bit. How do you mean there is no plan B?
Van: Well that’s my profession. Singing is my profession. There is no plan B. Maybe there might be one later on? I don’t know! There could be a plan B later but there isn’t one right now.
JB: You were born to sing, do I take that literally?
Van: Yeah, well I think so.
JB: Even from when you were going to school?
Van: Well, apparently before that. What they tell me is that I was singing in the pram. That’s what I was told.
Van: I wasn’t really aware until I was looking at the Alan Lomax Folk Guitar book. I didn’t really know until that point because I was trying to work out, you know, what Leadbelly was doing on a 12 string, on a 6 string, so I didn’t really know until then because before then I wanted to be a vet.
JB: So at what stage did your veterinary aspirations give way to the music?
Van: Well, when I heard Irene Goodnight by Leadbelly, the version with Sonny Terry on harmonica. When I heard that, that was it. Everything else went out the window I suppose.
JB: As I, and as most fans, would have expected it is an eclectic mixture and, going back to the emotions, I found myself listening to some of the tracks and I was uplifted by them. In some of them I was agreeing with you when you were having a go at materialism and how the bankers and the world elite are ruling us and then in other ones ... ?
Van: Well, I’m not really having a go. It’s like, as Lenny Bruce said. ‘It’s observation baby!' It’s not having a go. It’s just observing what’s going on.’
JB: Coming back to the album, I suppose if you were to follow the template of commercialism and you wanted to make a lot of money out of it you could simply put out 10 clones of Brown Eyed Girl and almost be assured of it being a success?
Van: Well I’ve ‘been there, done that', but that's not what it’s about. .. hopefully along the way you gain more experience and you kind of absorb stuff and then you regurgitate that as songs. You're not going to be the same as when you started out. Also, it’s not easy to clone Brown Eyed Girl anyway, even if you wanted to, because songs are unique within themselves. Some of them become more popular but you just can’t clone another one of those because there’s only one of them, you know what I’m saying?
JB: Can you isolate a point Van along your career, or maybe even along the chronological track of your albums, where you ceased to imitate the template of the Fifties and Sixties and when you became Van Morrison the singer/ songwriter doing his own thing?
Van: Well, I’m always doing my own thing. I still use the Fifties template to write songs.
JB: Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I describe your albums, or have done in the past, and this one isn’t any exception. There is soul in there, blues, it’s jazz, it’s a Van Morrison collection, so you have ...? I don’t know if resisted is the right word, but you haven’t been channelled into any one direction along the way?
Van: No, you see I was lucky because Ray Charles was like my role model and he always said he did everything. It’s all music and he did everything and he reinvented a couple of things, too, while he was at it. And there were guys like Bobby Darin who did everything, I mean Bobby Darin was songwriting before anybody even knew what that was but he could also do other stuff. He could do folk, he could do Frank Sinatra, you know, so there’s people like that who covered all the bases.
JB: But do you not see the paradox here, Van, because you are, by all accounts, a very private person and yet when you write and when you sing your songs ...?
Van: Yes, but I am not singing about me specifically. Just because I wrote a song called Pagan Heart it doesn’t mean I’m a pagan.
JB: I take your point. Let’s just take a look at the album per se and start with the title track Open The Door (To Your Heart) which is quite clearly anti-materialistic. “Money doesn’t fulfil” you sing. It’s a statement of the human condition, I suppose? Where are we headed? What would we want the goal to be? Where did the inspiration for this come from? Was it one particular incident or a phrase somewhere?
Van: Well, no, it’s not one particular incident. It’s just looking at greed. Greed has been around for a long time. I don’t know about your business but it’s been in my business. My business is just all based on total greed. People, they can’t seem to get enough, so what I’m saying is “Enough is enough”. You only need enough to survive and live your life, that’s basically what I’m saying.
JB: [The song] Going Down To Monte Carlo ... I’m slightly confused here Van because there’s the beautiful ‘Ulsterism’ in it, “Give my head peace” which might be a bit confusing to international audiences (Van laughs). Explain what you mean by “Give my head peace”?
Van: It’s a local saying. People from here will get it and other people won’t, but basically it’s like, it seems very strange that you could go to Monte Carlo and find peace but yeah, hey, that happened to me.
JB: How do you get peace in Monte Carlo? What do you do to?
Van: [Interjects] For one thing nobody cares. They are too busy with their own lives and they have enough money so nobody really gives a damn about who you are really so that’s part of it. They’re not going to approach you because they are all kind of stars in their own way so I can be anonymous there.
JB: Ah so your head gets peace when people don’t notice you?
Van: Exactly. Absolutely. Anonymity. People don’t realise what a gift it is. They don’t realise what they have. People wanting to be famous, they don’t know what they’re getting into. Anonymity is a gift from God and people don’t realise what they have.
JB: A lot of people would willingly swap places. There’s an old song that says, “Whatever you want, whenever you get it, you don’t want it”, or words to that effect. I think the vast majority of the population from that end of things would want to be famous?
Van: No, they don’t know what they want. They’re brainwashed to think that’s what they want. It’s just brainwash because this is another distraction, just like soap operas or X Factor or what Simon Cowell's doing this week. They are brainwashed into thinking that they want fame. They want to buy that paper that tells them they want fame or they want to watch the TV shows that tells them that they want fame or they want to see the magazine that tells them they want that because they can’t think for themselves. Their thinking mechanism has been short circuited so it’s like what other people think and what other people implant in their heads because they don’t know how to think for themselves. It’s that simple.
JB: Back to Born To Sing, the title track. You say it comes with a “sting”?
Van: The sting is fame because you’re not told about that when they tell you “?You were singing in the pram and your granny used to sing these little Scottish melodies to you .... you don’t know about all this other crap.
JB: And it’s in inverse proportion to the success and the fame isn’t it? The more success you get, the more the pain becomes? Is that the way it works?
Van: Well, it all depends on who you are. See, I’ve always done this because I love the music. It’s like what they say about jazz. You don’t do jazz for money, you do it for love. Same kind of thing, I’m doing this for love. Not fame, not money and that’s always been the M.O. [modus operandi] and that’s why I got into it because I heard people and they did something to me. They changed my consciousness, they changed my thinking. Something changed within me when I heard these people. So, I was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do because I love it.” People used to be into music in my day. They didn’t care if someone was like wearing a shiny jacket or something so people usually got into it, why? Because they loved the music. If you wanted to do it you had to love it. It was all focused on the music if you were doing what I was doing. It wasn’t focused on anything else. So that became manipulated by “Oh yeah, blues! We can sell that!” I came in on that.
People tend to forget that’s where I came in, as a blues singer. I was doing that music because I loved it. Nobody else here was doing it. It was a different world. So I actually came out of a different era, different time, different consciousness, different everything.
JB: That’s surprising because you’re saying, if I get you the way you mean me to get you, you can divorce the fame from the actual artistry and the music, but when you think to the Sixties, there was Beatlemania and that wasn’t ...
Van: [Interjects] Yeah, I know but how many people from that era, apart from the Beatles, can you now name? There were hundreds and hundreds of people and a lot of them were really good. You used to see guys in Germany that were amazing. Where are they now? You never hear about them. You only hear about the ones that made it. You don’t hear about the other hundreds of people that were good that didn’t have a manager like Brian Epstein that gave everything away so that he could get airplay. It’s like horses for courses but you’re talking about the mainstream. I’m not in the mainstream, I never was, I never wanted to be in the mainstream. That’s not what I wanted to do.
JB: In terms of record sales you are?
Van: No, I sell enough for them to name check me. I sell enough and I’ve sold enough and there has been enough for them to bring me in because I’m actually credible. So they bring me in for credibility factor, not because I’m selling millions of records ’cause I don’t. You know, some of them have done that over like, I think, 30 years or something? But, they don’t name check me because of that. They name check me because they want credibility there with all the non-credible people. They need credibility, that’s where I come in.
JB: Bankable is the word they use I think, is it?
Van: I’m bankable to a certain degree but I’m more bankable for gigs than I am for selling CDs.
JB: End Of The Rainbow ... having a pop, maybe, at a false god and anti-materialism? [The song] No pot of gold ... it’s not worth the search?
Van: No, well it’s the same old story. I was just talking to somebody the other night who was saying how like Irish Americans still believe in leprechauns, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs]. I think there’s this thing that because I’m famous then money is going to drop out of the trees and people want it because they think it just grows on trees. They don’t understand you have to work for it and it has taken 50 years.
JB: [The song] Disappointed? Is that the message across when you reach the end of this fabulous rainbow?
Van: No, it’s like I’ve been carrying this idea around for a long time, many, many, many years and that’s the first time it has come out in a song. But that idea is still predominant in the music business and show business. It’s still a sort of mythology. It’s a bit like Dale Evans and Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset. People have this idea but it’s all wrong. They don’t understand that it’s like ... it’s work. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn’t exist. Except for leprechauns. That’s really what it is.