Here are brief parts of a 2015 article in the Irish Times where some relatively famous names reflect on the enigma that is our Van, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
Blowin’ Our Minds: What Van Means to Us
I’ve been a fan of Van since my last year in boarding school in Derry. I think it was 1963 he put out Don’t Start Crying Now, and then in 1964 I came to University College Dublin, and he was putting out Baby Please Don’t Go and Gloria. It was great for anyone from Northern Ireland. Suddenly one of our own was up there with the likes of The Rolling Stones. He’s a force of nature. On one level it’s primitive in the most glorious sense: it’s unadorned power. I’ve always responded to that; I’ve always preferred music that was really strong and basic. When it comes to Van’s music I guess people pick up on that life force; it’s indomitable.
Morrison’s transition from Them to Astral Weeks turned everything around. The album’s magical, haunting sophistication might have been musically a little over our heads but not the lyrics. No. The words he sang sprang from a well deep down inside and touched emotionally the generation that was breaking into maturity during a time of emerging local conflict and crisis. Astral Weeks would herald the clear, bright, brilliant voice of a truly unique talent, one which would survive and continue to independently produce great songs, music and, of course, performances that are second to none. But I still can see that moment in Sammy Huston’s Jazz Club, up those narrow stairs into the dance floor, towards the simply lit low stage, unbelievably almost 50 years ago, and hear Morrison’s voice take flight.
When people ask me do I know Van Morrison I say, yes, I knew him once, yet at the same time I know I never really knew him at all. When you travel as the promoter of a tour for four hours in a chauffeur-driven limo and your companion speaks not one word for the entire journey, it’s hard to say you know the guy, the same guy who corresponded with you from America in the late 1960s and sent you the first copy of Brown Eyed Girl. When someone invites you to dinner at a country mansion and leaves you sitting in a drawing room for two hours, and then has the housekeeper inform you that Mr Morrison won’t be dining tonight and you can feck off now, you certainly don’t feel like you know him.
One of the early shows in my promoting career was his first Irish tour, in the late 1970s. Peter Grant, the Led Zeppelin manager, is credited with introducing the first 90/10-percentage deal in favour of the artist, but not so. I still have the contract for the 1979 tour, where the agent Paul Charles took 90 percent of the net for Van. But I was Van’s biggest fan and would gladly have worked for nothing.
Van is hugely underrated. He’s done every kind of music better than anyone else has done it, back to the punk rock of Gloria. Van is not interested in who you are; he’s only interested in if you can play. We spent one evening in my early 20s where we played music, just the two of us all night, and he didn’t talk to me at all. We passed the guitar for a whole night. The guitar lost two strings and we still kept going. At the end he stood up and left. And all he said was, “Nice voice, nice songs.”
Everyone in the music industry, everyone, loves to talk about Van, because he’s real. He’s authentic. You don’t get the impression that he got jaded. I’ve spoken to Levon Helm about him, to Robbie Robertson, and they all say they same thing: that guy’s too real. When you hear a Van story it’s always about some selfish moment. But actually what you realise when you add up all the stories is that he’s only interested in music. There’s a quote from him where he said, “I’m an introvert in an extrovert business.” That’s it perfectly.
Van Morrison is rightly hailed as an originator, an innovator and a key influencer. But for me, as a teenager growing up with a passion for discovering music, he was also something of an educator. He was a source not only of his own curiously healing music but also of crucial and solid information about where it was all coming from. An obvious example would be a song like Cleaning Windows. Van sings, I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon / On the street where I was born / Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and / Muddy Waters singin’ ‘I’m a Rollin’ Stone’. If, like me, you were curious about such things, you could check out the names on the list – and other nods to everyone from Hank Williams to Lionel Hampton to James Brown – and you’d soon find yourself plugged directly into everything.
My only meeting with Van Morrison was somewhat brief. In the mid 1990s, at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, I found myself beside him during an awards show, which featured Van and a small band as the interval act. The 1990s were weird. I awkwardly tried to engage him in a spot of muso-to-muso badinage, which resulted in him glaring at me through his shades and emitting a noise. I shuffled away, cursing my gauche idiocy.
Someone once said it was a measure of Van Morrison’s genius that one could still love his music having met him – rather cruel, as compliments go, but I get what they mean. As an Undertone I was lucky enough to play on the same bill as him one beautiful summer’s night in Prehen. Watching him work his way through a perfectly judged set of peerless songs, turning a field outside Derry city into the most romantic place on earth in that moment, it was clear even to a still Joy Division-obsessed fortysomething chancer that Van was, and remains, very much the Man.
Van Morrison has always stood aloof from musical fashion or convention. I would often see him at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho, London’s Bohemian quarter, which was a favoured place for writers and musicians. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg would often be seen in the Colony Room close by. I became intrigued about Van and his music and never missed an opportunity to see him perform, often photographing him in the company of writers whose work he respected, such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Brian Friel, Tom Paulin and Paul Durcan, who worked with Van on an early album that was recorded at studios in Chiswick, close to my home.
I remember being with Van at London’s South Bank Theatre in the early 1980s when he gave a charity performance for the Yorkshire miners that lasted four hours. Van tells us stories through his music, His essence is literature, which he connects with a time and an experience lived. As he would sing, “Our souls were young again in Tír na nÓg.”
Van Morrison was a punk before punk was a twinkle in its own eye-linered eye. I first saw Van Morrison play live not in the Maritime Club, alas, but off the back of a lorry, in the grounds of the King’s Hall, Balmoral, in the very early 1980s. I remember vividly his threatening to leave the makeshift stage if one more bottle or beer can came on to it: a not unreasonable threat, surely. In the 30 years since then I’ve seen him any number of times – occasionally in a double bill with Bob Dylan or Brian Kennedy or his very talented daughter, Shana – but always reinventing his gleeful, glorious self.
Van Morrison has always been an anomaly to me. I can remember hearing Astral Weeks for the first time as a teenager and feeling as if a whole universe had suddenly revealed itself. It wasn’t just the stream-of-consciousness thing that got me; it was also that strange hybrid of warmth and vitriol that seems to embody every last longing syllable. You’re sitting there thinking, Is this the Brown Eyed Girl guy? Where did this come from?
He confirmed his gifts as a storyteller with the indispensable Astral Weeks, still rightly honoured as one of music history’s greatest albums. The title even suggested the boundless reshaping of musical form achieved on the eight songs. That album, with its image of a moody Morrison on the cover , became an object of desire in the window of Murray’s record shop on Ormond Quay in Dublin. And there in Murray’s listening booth I was first swept away to Cyprus Avenue.