Bittersweet insights into Van Morrison’s Belfast
In Another World is a lovely and lively exploration of Morrison’s music and its impact on the poet Gerald Dawe
Rapture, not radicalism: Van Morrison with Them. Photograph: RB/Redferns
In Another World: Van Morrison & Belfast
The black armband became such an emblem of Belfast’s bad times, that it is startling to read, in Gerald Dawe’s introduction to his lovely and lively little book about Van Morrison’s connections to the city, that when the great soul singer Otis Redding died in 1967, “young men in Belfast wore black armbands”. It is an image that reminds us of a lost world, a non-sectarian youth culture that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s and withered when the city became a war zone. Dawe locates Morrison in this “other world”, an act all the more poignant for its disappearance into The Troubles when “the notion of Belfast itself as open and available had gone”. When Dawe returned to the city from Galway in 1972, “it felt like we were old men talking about a period 30 years before”.
In Another World gathers material that Dawe has written on East Belfast’s soul man since the early 1990s, some of it written to be spoken for broadcast, some published in journals and The Irish Times. There is also the transcript of a rare, fine and relatively frank public interview by Dawe with Morrison from 1995. Occasionally, this leads to repetitions that should have been avoided in the editing, but the rather episodic essayistic structure generally suits a short book that is all about lost moments, fleeting possibilities and half-forgotten histories.
This is especially so since, for most of his career, Morrison’s Belfast is less a real place than a long distance memory. “It’s a long way to Buffalo,” he sings in Saint Dominic’s Preview, “a long way to Belfast city too”. As Dawe points out, Morrison’s first great song, Gloria, emphasises a proprietorial sense of locality: “my street… my house… my door… my room”. He also suggests, intriguingly, that “skipping tunes accompanying street games are not too far away from the emphatic rhythms” of the song – indeed the spelling out the girl’s name is a staple of those children’s rhymes. But the further Morrison moves from childhood and adolescence, the more his relationship with his native city becomes a matter of imaginative evocation.
Dawe’s real subject, then, is not so much Van’s youth as his own following of a poetic path that had been opened up by Morrison’s example. Some of this is literal: Dawe went to the same Orangefield Boy’ School that Morrison had attended. Six or seven years younger than the members of Morrison’s group Them, he formed a band called The Trolls. It was, he writes, “desperate” but it gave him the confidence to imagine himself as a possible artist, to “think that ‘work’ wasn’t the only way forward”. And Morrison’s shift from the raw strutting sound of Them to the beauty and poetry of Astral Weeks taught him that: “You can be a Belfast guy and still be lyrical”. For Dawe, Morrison gave permission to make poetry about working-class Belfast by his own example of evoking Sandy Row and Cyprus Avenue.
It is oddly disturbing to think that the “Mansion on the Hill” evoked in the latter song might be Stormont, which is in fact a stone’s throw from the real Cyprus Avenue. But of course this is not all a matter of local colour or social realism – “the naming of streets, districts and regions takes on an incantatory significance. The memory returns again and again to its first home as the alluring poetics of space, rather than the specific meaning of the place”.
East Belfast’s religious culture is part of those poetics. Dawe is excellent on the underlying possibilities of Protestant worship that Morrison has mined: “the language of ‘being healed’ and ‘saved’, the plain witness of one man’s voice bearing testimony to finding the Lord, has a poignancy and theatricality all its own… The evangelical power of conversion and redemption is drenched in imagery of a simpler life, spurning illusions and the allure of false gods”. As Dawe puts it elsewhere of Morrison, “His songs are about rapture, not radicalism”. Even the tribal rituals rubbed off: I did not know that the memory of “throwing pennies at the river down below” on the train journey from Dublin up to Sandy Row, so beautifully summoned in Madam George, is an identity marker. The river is the Boyne and Protestant travellers threw the pennies down as acts of homage to King Billy.
But the musical culture of the city was also an escape from both tribal and industrial imperatives. Dawe, who saw the young Morrison perform Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone at Sammy Houston’s Jazz Club, notes that in such places “you could… bypass the sectarian bile”. Moreover, in a city that was, as Dawe puts it, “defined by work”, Morrison represented a different, more liberated, kind of labour. Another world indeed, a past captured in these bittersweet essays that might also stand for a possible future.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is Judging Shaw