Monday, 20 May 2013

Van's Belfast


Like so many writers have done, journalist John Kelly has offered the following piece on the connection between Van and Belfast.  I've read so much of this stuff that, to me, Belfast looms like some ethereal Shangri La.  I've never been there but I've questioned every person I could find who was either born there or has visited there.  They always seem to have a lesser opinion of the city than I do.  I can't wait to go there one day. 
The standard Australian tourist's response to Belfast is "the poor people who have to live in that cold, dark, damp place with rundown buildings".  But that's Australians for you: if a city doesn't have white sandy beaches and an average winter high temperature in the twenties (Celsius, that is) then it rates as a hell on earth. Sorry London, Paris, New York, etc. Now here's John and an edited version of his piece:       
I have interviewed Van on several occasions for both radio and print and sometimes, at his request, for projects of his own. This piece appeared in The Irish Times in 1998.East Belfast is a territory well covered in the songs of Van Morrison.  He constantly invokes its spirit and clearly glories in the names of its places, successfully elevating them well beyond their image of coal-brick and church-hall - the Castlereagh Road, Cyprus Avenue, North Road, Abetta Parade and Orangefield.  With the naming of names, Morrison reclaims his own place and replaces it where he remembers it - in the imagination and in the heart.  His are the days before rock n' roll and, significantly, the days before Belfast tumbled so violently out of the sixties and into the seventies.  Van Morrison's East Belfast is a place of swishing radio signals late on hot summer nights, the windows open and distant sounds echoing across Beechy River.

Its a part of town which has been traditionally represented to the outside world by its preachers and its politicians.  Many of them would have you know that its a loyal and God-fearing territory full of well-scrubbed doorsteps, bunting and flute bands: that it is a fixed and definite heartland cluttered only by its churches, its temples and its gospel halls.  All the more extraordinary perhaps that within this very particular territory, a small house at 125 Hyndford Street has become one of the most important sources in recent musical history. 

 "My father had all these records - Mahalia Jackson, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Josh White.  And there was always Bing Crosby singing too.  But that wasn't out of the ordinary.  And before that, my mother used to get me these records out of Woolworths.  Things like Turkey in the Straw, She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain and cowboy songs.  They were low budget records on red vinyl 45's - plastic not like the 78's - but they weren't 45's either.  This was before 45's.  On Top of Old Smokey was another one."
The Hyndford Street house can be described as a source in the sense that it was a place from which something began and developed.  And within that house, Morrison's parents were two further sources - people from whom something precious and special was obtained.  They were people who had gathered earlier sources into that one small house and shared it with their only child Van.   

"My mother sang and relatives would come around on a Saturday evening.  They'd go to the club first and and then come back and have a few drinks and sing songs.  I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen, Danny Boy.  My uncle used to sing that one I'm A Rambler I'm A Gambler.  Then my father used to take me to Solly's place (Solly Lipsitz) - Atlantic Records - every Saturday morning and it was always packed!"


Van Morrison has a remarkable memory and his descriptions of the Belfast of his youth are quite extraordinary to anyone of my generation.  He insists however that his family was not unique and he happily recalls the sounds of Slim Whitman and Webb Pierce coming from open doors along the street.  He talks fondly of a neighbour called Jim Tosh who played Hank Williams numbers in the narrow back entry behind the houses - sometimes joined by others on T-chest bass, washboard, harmonica and guitar.  When Morrison sings in Cleaning Windows that he heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born, that is exactly the way it was.


"Yeah, the first time I heard Leadbelly, that was it - it was already made up for me.  It was not just a hobby - it was more than that.  I was really into Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Josh White.  The first soul music I heard was the McPeakes but they were taken for granted.  The very first record I ever bought was Hootin' Blues by Sonny Terry and it cost 1/6 in Smithfield.  I think the shop was called Smith's.   

A drive through Morrison's part of Belfast reveals the deep influence of religion.  Just about every possible denomination of Protestantism is represented - from Saint Donard's Church of Ireland which has turned up more than once in his work, to the smaller and more mysterious congregations and evangelical sects.  Morrison has expressed an interest in many aspects of spirituality over the years . 
 When Morrison's mother was singing with her relatives in the house, the young Van had a party piece of his own and not surprisingly it was a Leadbelly song - Goodnight Irene. 
"The first person I ever saw perform was Elton Hayes.  He was singing Mister Froggy and then I never saw him again.  Then there was Rory McEwan on TV and he really made me take notice.  And then Lonnie Donegan came along and I hooked into skiffle.  Then I played a school concert when I was about fourteen because one of the teachers asked me to do it.  We played Midnight Special and I don't think they knew what to make of it.  Skiffle wasn't going that long.  It was me and a couple of Hyndford Street guys and we actually called ourselves Midnight Special.  T-chest bass, washboard and guitar.  We wanted a jug but we couldn't get one.  But then me and Gilbert Irvine found a lead pipe in Beechy River and we called it a Zobo - you blew into it. He was lucky he didn't get typhoid!"
There were several other unique figures in Belfast - among them the singer David Hammond who was one of Morrison's teachers at Orangefield School.  Hammond denies that this had any bearing on Morrison who seemed to pass through school very quietly, but Morrison does remember Hammond singing Casey Jones in class.  More significant was Solly Lipsitz who ran Atlantic Records on High Street.  Morrison always speaks highly of Lipsitz who was himself yet another source - both of records and of information.  His record shop and others in town were absolutely vital to Morrison who was by this stage also keeping up with the latest developments in what they were calling rock 'n'roll.

"Solly had all the records.  Jazz and blues.  I loved Bill Haley and  I remember buying Razzle Dazzle.  And Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis - he had so many good records one after another.  I still love Jerry Lee.  Then there was Little Richard and Chuck Berry although I wasn't so much into him.  A friend's brother was really into Johnny Ray and he was always being played on the radio.  Some people say that Johnny Ray invented rock 'n' roll but the main ones for me were Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee."
But Morrison was still a blues singer at heart and he loved a music that appeared to be past and gone except in the hearts of its devotees.  Showbands now reigned supreme and perfected Shadows numbers and routines.  But something was bubbling under nevertheless.  In the late fifties Chris Barber had begun bringing bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy across the Atlantic.  When the craze hit Belfast, Van Morrison was perfectly placed.  He already knew this music intimately.  No surprise then that a Belfast group called Them would appear on the scene and show everybody else how it really should be done. 
 
And so the source continues to flow.  And it all began in a small house in a city that can often seem anything but inspirational.  It began in the days before rock 'n' roll, before the music business existed as we know it now, and in a very different Belfast.  All the precious things that George and Violet Morrison cherished about music - all the Leadbelly and the Lonnie Johnson and the Mahalia Jackson - entered their only child Van from the minute he could hear and emerged again years later in new and different strands of genius like light through a prism.   

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