Rave on Van Morrison
Tipping the hat to the Belfast Cowboy at 70
It will not have escaped your attention that Van Morrison turns 70 today. There has been much to mark the occasion, including two sell-out shows up on Cyprus Avenue in Belfast later today and the arrival (or re-arrival) of most of his back-catalogue on various streaming services. This newspaper also got in on the act, with a comprehensive, in-depth, fascinating interview with the man himself conducted by Fintan O’Toole and thoughts from various musicians, writers and poets on what they make of Morrison at 70.
There are many, many quotes from the interview which stand out, especially his comments on fame. “The thing about being famous, the problem is, you become objectified”, he told O’Toole, “and when you’re writing, if you’re talking about the creative process and being able to stand back, that’s no good, because you need to freely look at what’s going on and observe people: what they’re doing, what they’re saying.”
It also strikes you that like many artists, he’s not one for nostalgia. “One gets fed up with, you know, the promotion of the past and the nonpromotion of the now. Because for a long time now – well, at least a decade; maybe more – there’s a lack of interest in promoting the now with these record companies, you know? They just want to compile the old stuff, put it out again, so what’s the point of doing something new then? They’re not interested in that with, say, an artist of a certain age, you know?”
What’s particularly telling is when Morrison talks about the creative process and especially the notion that the ideas which inform songs are of a certain time. “It was ideas, you know? It’s like the world of ideas. That’s what songs are, and it’s like a painting. They’re just ideas, and sometimes the ideas are like, that week, you know what I mean? The idea comes out of something that week. But trying to relate to it 50 years later is, like, there’s no way. I can’t even relate to some of the stuff I’ve done 15 years ago, even 10. When I’m singing them I change them. Performance changes them. So they have different meanings now.”
There was also a line from Glen Hansard’s comments on Morrison which struck a chord. “When you hear a Van story it’s always about some selfish moment”, he said. “But actually what you realise when you add up all the stories is that he’s only interested in music.” That interest in music and the creative process is crystal clear in his interview with O’Toole, yet so often, the shorthand around the singer comes down to the flotsam and jetsam which surrounds his life. Everyone has flotsam and jetsam of some sort and wouldn’t be too happy if that dictated the narrative about their life.
In the case of Morrison, a man who clearly never signed up to the fame game, that stuff often shadows the real reason he does what he does. Then again, many find it easier to hone in on this rather than focus on the music, the art, the creativity. After all, talking about and working out the knots in the music, the art and the creativity takes effort, something Morrison has been doing all his life.
A few years ago, I remember getting a figary to go to the Morrison back-catalogue and listen to those albums one by one. It took some time, but it was time well worth taking. The big beasts like “Astral Weeks” naturally tower over our perception of the musician, but there’s so much more there, so much to find yourself swooning over.
The way his mind went hither and tither on “Saint Dominic’s Preview” and “Veedon Fleece”. The run of five albums from “Wavelength” to “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart” which are full of the big themes all turned out in a myriad of ways on record. 1986′s “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” and 1987′s “Poetic Champions Compose” continuing that train of thought as Morrison went deeper. The releases of the late 1980s and early 1990s which gave him a lot of mainstream attention and success, for good and bad. The more recent albums which take him back to a house on Hyndford Street digging through his father’s fabled record collection and going with the flow.
The album which I go back to time and time again, though, is “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”, that live album from 1974 featuring Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra in full flow the previous year. It just sounds like the best live show ever, Morrison reaching for the sky, the band following his lead and all involved breaking through to some other side. Every time I listen to it, the passion, the excitement, the exuberence, the sense of an artist realising he’s born to do this and the crazy sense of possibilities which occur when an artist finds his mojo come rushing out of the speakers. Along with Kraftwerk’s “Minimum-Maximum”, it’s the ideal album for a long car journey.
There have been some nights when I’ve been lucky enough to see Morrison attain similar heights. I remember shows at Dublin’s National Stadium (a venue which really should be brought back into use) in 1986 and 1987 and both were electric. There were many times at those shows when he found those celestial spaces between the notes and we caught a glimpse of the wonder. There was a show in 1999 in Ronnie Scott’s in London to mark the release of “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison” which was pretty smart because you could see that Morrison was clearly enjoying the vibe and buzz of the surroundings and the material. And there was a memorable show two years ago at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall when he became a freeman of his native city.
What’s clear from Morrison’s track record and that interview with O’Toole is that he’s still striving for enlightenment. He’s still going out there, putting it all on the line and seeking an adventure, be it on Cyprus Avenue tonight or at one of the dinner-and-show events he’s taken to doing of late. He talked in the interview about silence and the need for space to create. “There’s a lot of background stuff that’s draining that at the minute”, he says of the current hubbub. When all that ends, and Morrison knows it will end, he’ll find the silence, the time, the space and go to work. “That’s where I live, you know?”, he ends the interview. “That’s where it is.” Into the silence, into the space.