Wednesday, 22 February 2017

What Van Morrison Means to Us

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 StonesHe’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 GirlWhen 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.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Van Biographer Ritchie Yorke dead at 73

Van Morrison biographer Ritchie Yorke has died aged 73 in his hometown of Brisbane, Australia.  Yorke was an author, broadcaster, historian and music journalist.  He is particularly known for his relationships with Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and John and Yoko Lennon and the biographies that came out of those relationships.

His early working career was in Brisbane where he first wrote about teen music and later more broadly as his journalistic career expanded. In 1965 he entered the field of radio.  One early controversy which reveals a lot about the man occurred when he was a radio DJ in the Australian country town of Tamworth. He played Little Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips Part 2 on his weekend show.  He was told by bosses not to play “this kind of music” and Yorke suspected a racial link to the request. In protest he managed to play the song the next weekend eight times in a row before being axed.

He soon left for the UK where he worked in the record business managing and promoting artists and working as international operations director of Sunshine Records.  In December 1966, Yorke began working for Island Records as an international promotion manager for the Spencer Davis Group.  He was tasked with promoting the band outside of England in support of their record Gimme Some Lovin'. At this time, Yorke’s first book was published, Lowdown on the English Pop Scene with a foreword by Spencer Davis.

In 1967 Yorke arrived in Canada where he worked as a rock journalist for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail and for the Canadian edition of Billboard magazine.  During his six years in Canada he also contributed to Rolling Stone magazine and NME.  In late 1969, Yorke also assisted John Lennon with the coordination and execution of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s War Is Over! peace campaign.  He helped plan the Montreal bed-in where Lennon’s peace anthem Give Peace a Chance was launched.

In 1973 Yorke moved to London to concentrate on his rock book career.  In 1975 he published his biography of Van entitled Into the Music.  Surprisingly Van wasn’t completely offended and had some contact with the author after the book came out.  When York passed away this month Van’s official Facebook page released the message: Ritchie Yorke - my old friend, I'll miss you. I always looked forward to catching up with you. My sincere condolences to Minnie and the family. Van.  A heartfelt tribute indeed from a man whose attitude to journalists is on a par with Donald Trump’s.

Yorke’s two biographies of Led Zeppelin were published in 1976 (The Led Zeppelin Biography) and in 1991 (Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography).  In 1986 Yorke moved back to Brisbane and continued his journalistic endeavours with radio stations, newspapers and book writing.  His rock music connections meant Yorke was often called upon by media outlets to give insightful comment about rock events.  He did a comprehensive series about rock music which was published as booklets by the Brisbane paper The Courier-Mail.  By the end of the series he revealed what he claimed was the Number 1 popular music album of all time – Astral Weeks, of course.

In 2015 he published his most recent book, detailing his relationship with John Lennon and his involvement in the peace campaign entitled Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy: John and Yoko’s Battle for Peace with a foreword by Yoko Ono.  Ritchie Yorke died in hospital in Brisbane on 6 February 2017, from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Funny Things People Say - Part 17

Your Typical Van Fans?
James Rocchi   -   Van Morrison, looking like a drunk Lucky Charms leprechaun in a kung-fu jumpsuit, leads The Band in Caravan, throwing high kicks with abandon.

Sammy Hagar   -   Until just now, I had no idea that it was 40 years ago Nine On A Ten Scale came out! This was my first solo record and I was so excited to be able to do whatever I wanted in the studio. I was really into Van Morrison at the time and more about being a singer/songwriter than a front man in a metal band like Montrose.

Antonio Balson   -   Van plays and tours around the world constantly and is not afraid to work with top, top talent like Brian Kennedy, Georgie Fame or saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

One of the more successful pre-concert meetups
Rob Horning   -   Beautiful Vision might be the worst cover ever for a musician who has impeccably bad taste in cover art. (Okay, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is probably worse.)

Len Timmins   -   If you love Van Morrison's music, don't go to see the man in concert.

Rory Maclean   -   Horst lived in Ireland for twenty years and today at home in Germany he breakfasts from time to time on imported Denny’s sausages with bacon and eggs while listening to Van Morrison and Christy Moore.  The English sausage has always left him ‘with a secure hope for betterment’.

Bob   -   But as a result of MTV and the CD replacement business, all the money, risk was eviscerated from the mainstream, broken people were excluded.  Ever wonder why there’s never been another Van Morrison?  Hell, Prince got into a war with Warner Brothers because he wanted to release more music!  And the aforementioned Ryan Adams released so much music that we stopped paying attention.
Luke Preston   -   There’s always a bit of tradition and ritual when finishing a book. Some people get out of town for a week, others don’t leave their room for a week. For me, it’s whiskey and Van Morrison. I wait until I’m typing the very last page, I pour myself a glass, put on the rare Van Morrison live in Japan, 1974 and hammer away at the typewriter.  (Ed. Van Morrison has never played in Japan.)

Matt   -   And then I guess I’d tell you about Dave, who did the same thing as me a few years later, only DIDN’T have my hilarious Chia Dick strategy in mind and got the razor in and up. And as he started to bleed out Brown Eyed Girl came on the radio and he realised he’d never get to hear that again so, in a bloody comedy of errors – I swear to god this is true – he got out of the tub, tried to get dressed the best he could, went downstairs calling for help only to find his family gone, went out to his car, and drove to Doug’s house only to find Doug not home and so, then, finally, he blacked out from blood loss sitting there in his car, playing a Van Morrison CD on repeat, until, by luck, Doug’s mom came home and found him.  Effing Van Morrison, y'know? (Ed. note - suicide and attempted suicide aren't "funny".  Life's a gift.)

Frank Mania   -    I read an interview with Van Morrison where he expressed some very bitter feelings toward Springsteen for stealing what Van saw as his own stage moves - his kick! It's funny, I have a hard time picturing stubby, stout Van's moves looking remotely the same when executed by Springsteen, but apparently Van made them up and did not see their use as a proper homage!

Maupuia   -   Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by a band called Neutral Milk Hotel are the same record. I got nothing to add beyond this is a goddamn beautiful piece of writing and that these two albums stand singular as two of the most extraordinary albums I've ever heard. You have to wait until Van Morrison rings his bicycle bell for them to really sync up.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012)

Baugh’s Blog has a good review of Van Morrison's Born To Sing: No Plan B.  Click here for the full review. 

Sometimes you get so over-exposed to an artist that your appreciation gets burned-out. When I first got together with my wife, Barbara, and we used to spar over what LP to put on the turntable, the choice we invariably made was Van Morrison. He was one musician we both really loved. We played those classic early 70s LPs of his all the time. In a span of just four years (1968-1972) he had released a string of five brilliant albums: Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, and Saint Dominic’s Preview – most of which he produced, or co-produced. An incredible run. Then his marriage fell apart, and he seemed to lose his way. There was even an unprecedented three-year gap between Veedon Fleece and A Period of Transition in the mid-70s. But he got back into the groove with Wavelength in 1978.

But, as I say, I got burned-out with him. He started to sound jaded and repetitive.  The 90s, particularly, saw an extended dip in form. And the Mr. Grumpy persona he cultivated really began to grate with each album featuring a song or two of him complaining about being ripped off and exploited. But I kept up with what he was doing, buying every release.

It’s been the longest hiatus between albums, now, for Van.  His last studio album, Keep It Simple came out in 2008. So, as I slipped my copy of the new Van Morrison CD, Born To Sing, into my player, I had a sense of hopeful anticipation but also a feeling that it could be more of the same – a competent, middling effort. Wrong! Within a couple of tracks I knew this was a really good one. There was Van singing like he meant it and the music – arrangements, production, and playing – sounded great.

It was recorded back on his home-turf of East Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Van, as usual, produced the album – an hour’s worth of jazzy R&B and blues – and it was released on the jazz label Blue Note. Enda Walsh did the recording and mixing. Morrison wrote all the songs and plays piano, guitar and alto sax. With him on all the tracks is a crack, jazz-orientated sextet: Jeff Lardner on drums; Paul Moore on bass; Dave Keary on guitar; Paul Moran on Hammond B3 organ, piano, and trumpet; Alistair White on trombone; and Chris White on tenor sax and clarinet. It’s a live-from-the-floor recording – the way Morrison always produces his albums, but there is minimal overdubbing, when some of the musicians double-up on instruments.

The music on this album is centred in R&B and Blues – but the arrangements give it a prominent jazz inflection. There is lots of improvisation – everyone (except for drums) gets the opportunity to solo. Individual songs feature two or three different soloists. Some of the improvising seems spontaneous.  In the middle of Retreat and View, for example, at the end of a verse, Van calls out, “Who’s got it?” and Alistair White jumps right in with a trombone solo. The band really swings and – regardless of the song writing and singing – the music hits an easy groove throughout.

There are two main themes to Morrison’s song writing here: his concern for the effect of materialism and greed on modern life; and his personal need to escape from the pressure and demands of a public career. The former theme is established right off the top – early in the first track he sings: “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled; money’s just to pay the bills.” But it’s not something you can run from. It’s a reality you need to face and grapple with. You need to “know the score” he points out in End of the Rainbow.

No gravy train that stops at your station;
Every penny has got to be earned;
Everyone now has got to be at the coalface;
Taking coals to Newcastle, you’re going to get burned.

He moves from the personal to the political – unusual for him – in the final track, Educating Archie, and adopts a more declamatory tone:

You’re a slave to the capitalist system,
Which is ruled by the global elite;
What happened to the individual?
What happened to the working-class white?

Educating Archie was a BBC radio comedy program that run through most of the 50s. Strangely – given that it was a radio series – it featured the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews! We’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, Van may be suggesting?

But the best piece addressing this critique of materialism is If In Money We Trust - the stand-out track on the whole album. The message here is not declamatory – it is interrogative. It’s incantatory, built on phrases that repeat over and over: “If in money we trust … and you bite the dust … and it’s not enough … where’s God?” The music sets a brooding mood. The piece builds to a mesmerising climax: “Where’s God?” Van sings over and over. And then the music begins to fade away as he repeats the final phrase: “You’ve got to think it through again”. We’re soon down to soft horns, bass and bongos. And finally a bass line ends it. Brilliant!

The second theme Van explores in this collection of songs is his familiar struggle to escape the annoying demands of fame and find some sort of transcendence. In the bluesy Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo, he sings about the need to get away from the pettiness of people around him. He’s always been a shameless name-dropper of the poets and philosophers he’s read, and here Van refers to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous (and often misunderstood) dictum: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (usually translated as ‘Hell is other people’).

Sartre said that hell is other people, I believe that most of them are …

In Mystic of the East he approaches the same subject from a more specific place. You might think he’s singing about India or Nepal, but to me it sounds like he’s punning on his origins – this mystic of the east is from East Belfast, born in Hyndford Street, near to Cyprus Avenue. Working on the album back in the city of his youth must have been inspirational – especially when he got out into the countryside of County Down (located in the eastern part of Northern Island):

Mystic of the East, mystic from the streets …
Mystic with no peace, back here in the east;
I was deep in the heart of Down;
Deep in the heart.

So good, then, to see in this album that Van the Man is back on top form. He is fully engaged in every aspect of the production. The arrangements and playing are top-notch. The music really swings. If you’re a Van Morrison fan, this is one you shouldn’t pass up.