Morrison: reading between the lines

 

Is Van Morrison's incantatory singing style related to Ian Paisley's oratory? Johnny Rogan, Van's biographer, who has unearthed a wealth of stories, believes it is, he tells Brian Boyd.

Johnny Rogan spent 23 years researching his biography of Van Morrison.

It shows. In a book that really should have been titled Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Van Morrison But Were Too Petrified To Ask, this is a magical "into the mystic" journey which vertiginously takes you from Edward Carson to Leadbelly, from the Mafia to the Rosacrucians, from drinking stories to Gestalt therapy, and from Bernadette Devlin to Terry Keane.

Rogan is the rottweiler of the music biography. Previous books on The Byrds, Neil Young and The Smiths saw him hunt down his quarry with, as one reviewer put it, "the relentlessness of a marching army of termites". Pedantic and painstaking in his research methods, he consistently provides incisive and illuminating accounts of his subjects.

This is a man who, when working on the Smiths biography (the superlative Severed Alliance), found out that there were 18 students in Morrissey's secondary school class - he interviewed all 18.

"I got some great stuff out of them," he says, "stories and anecdotes that totally contradicted the image Morrissey constructed for himself. It's all about doing the research. For example, working on that same book, I discovered the exact date that a young Morrissey went to visit his aunt in the US. I went through all the US papers that were published on the date that Morrissey arrived in the country. I found a big story at the time was about this man who was giving interviews about his girlfriend who was in a coma. You don't go as far as to state that this is the reason that Morrissey would later write a song called Girlfriend in A Coma. You just note the fact."

As he is with Neil Young, The Byrds and The Smiths, Rogan is a long-time fan of Van Morrison's music. "I would have been about 17 when Them [Morrison's first recording band] were going," he says. "The only other Irish acts around at that time were The Bachelors and Val Doonican but here was this genuine sort of band, and I remember loving Here Comes The Night. But then they disappeared - they were a singles band and in those days you had to keep having hits.

"Then, Morrison emerged as an album artist and had reinvented himself. But for some reason during the 1970s, his peak years, he was perceived somehow as an American artist. It was only on his return to Britain and Ireland in the 1980s that I first thought about writing about him. I was interested in how much his later work still harked back to Belfast, particularly the Belfast that existed before the troubles."

The English Rogan has strong Irish connections. It's a Rogan characteristic that the social, political and cultural backdrop of a musician's life is mined extensively for its effect on the musician's output. "Belfast is the life-blood of Morrison's art," he says.

"Astral Weeks was largely written during that two-year period he spent back in the city from 1966 when Them broke up, to 1968 when he left for the US (where there was an unwelcome Mafia connection in his first recording contract). What I found in East Belfast, where's he from, is that he was stamped by his environment - the churches, the slogans on the wall, the 12th, everything about Protestant working-class Belfast. Which is why the book is called No Surrender. It's about how the lexicon of Unionism permeated his core. Belfast really became a character in this book."

Interviews with leading republicans and loyalists flesh out the sectarian backdrop of Morrison's upbringing, and Rogan unearths a story told by the playwright Aisling Foster about Bernadette Devlin's reaction to Astral Weeks. At a party in Dublin when Astral Weeks was put on the turntable, Devlin, according to Foster, immediately left the room, and moved to another room where "she remained for the night, singing sad rebel songs with her Northern friends and looking disapproving." There's also a story from journalist Sam Smyth (who knew Morrison well) about the singer's drinking habits in Belfast.

He firmly re-positions Morrison as an artist who was indelibly shaped by the politics and, given the book's title, the shibboleths of Ulster Unionism. But some may find Rogan's thesis that Morrison's singing voice bears comparisons with Ian Paisley's speechifying voice a dramatic leap too far.

But there's no surrender on this point from Rogan: "Morrison has always had this strange incantatory delivery and nobody before has connected this with Paisley's oratorical cadences. I mean, just listen to the song Rave On John Donne," he says.

In the book, Rogan provides a fascinating quote from Belfast poet Tom Paulin about Morrison to bolster his argument. Paulin says, "Morrison comes out of not traditional Protestantism, but evangelical Protestantism. That's the foundation of his imagination. He's testifying."

While Rogan says he's most proud of unearthing Morrison's 1966-68 history, which has never been written about before (and the detail is stunning), he was most surprised by the "Lillie's Bordello Morrison" who emerged in Dublin in the 1990s.

"Here was a man who had explored all these mystic religions, had undergone Gestalt therapy, who had been told by a Rosacrucian master that he had something called an 'Angelic Knot', suddenly hanging around fashionable nightclubs and being written about in gossip columns. The relationship with Michelle Rocca certainly helped, in that I got more out of one single interview done by Michelle Rocca than I did, in entirety, from his first wife, Janet Planet."

Some of the most sublimely ridiculous parts of the book detail Morrison's fractious (to put it very mildly) relationship with music journalists. The stories Rogan recounts here are chilling yet hilarious - special venom seems to have been reserved for Hot Press journalists over the years.

Morrison has had it dished out to him over the years. A review of a mid 1990s London Fleadh show read: "A rancid smog of blind reverence has cloaked Morrison for decades now, with nobody daring to peek beneath it. Morrison is an overrated old donkey who has churned out endless variations on the same limp pseudo-soul formula for far too long."

Rogan says he has no idea of what Morrison will think of the book. "I wonder if he's read it?" he asks.

"There has been contact with the publishers, I know that much. When the news broke earlier this year that the book was being published, his lawyers asked to see an advance copy of the manuscript. The publishers refused the request. But then this is a man who when he learnt that there was going to be a plaque erected outside his former Belfast home, got his solicitors to write to the Belfast Telegraph dissociating himself from the tribute."

Rogan says he is anxious about a talk he's giving in Belfast tonight as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, as he claims that a number of tickets have been block-booked by Van Morrison's office and he's concerned about the reaction he'll get.

In the introduction to the book, Rogan writes, teasingly, "an important caveat to any serious, well-researched biography or study of Morrison's life is that the reader should be aware that a number of allegations against the subject cannot be featured in print for legal reasons. The author may feel that the final portrayal is far too flattering in certain places, while the reader who neglects to read between the lines may think the biographer could have been a little more sympathetic at times. Death alone will open this Pandora's box."

Rogan won't even go off the record about this. "What I can say - and I have to be careful here - is that there were a number of allegations, allegations which were disputed and therefore could not be reconciled to my satisfaction. His legal representatives would have taken a keen interest in these allegations had they been printed. I think if you look, you'll find it in the book. It's an allusionmore than anything else. As I say, read between the lines."

After all the years of research, if Morrison had agreed to answer just one question from Rogan, what would that question have been?

After pausing for what seems like an hour, he says, "I don't think it would be anything to do with the results of his spiritual search. The question would be 'Did you actually do this?' referring to a specific situation. And I would ask that solely to get him to confirm something that would have been severely libellous if printed without that confirmation."

Intriguingly, there's a quote from Morrison about Rogan on the first page of the book. Morrison says of his biographer: "Rogan's got something to hide. What's he hiding? I'd like to do a book on him."

A Johnny Rogan biography written by Van Morrison? Wow.

Van Morrison - No Surrender is published by Secker and Warburg, £17.99. Tonight's Cathedral Quarter festival talk by Johnny Rogan is at Duke of York, Belfast, 8pm