Blowin’ our mind: what Van Morrison means to us
‘A punk before punk was a twinkle in its eye-linered eye,’ says poet Paul Muldoon. How do other fans and friends sum him up?
Georgie Fame, John Minihan and Van Morrison outside Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Soho London 1994
Van Morrison with edna O’Brien in his dressing room at the Lyric Theatre in London, December 2014. Photographs: Roger Rossmeyer/Corbis and John Minihan
The first time I met Van Morrison was the summer of 1980. We shared an agent at the time, Paul Charles at the Asgard agency, and I had just made some demos of the songs that would became Hard Station. Paul insisted that I talk to Van about production, so I went to meet Van in a house he had at the time in Oxfordshire.
This was around the time of his Into the Music period. We talked and played the stuff, and the conclusion that he came to was: “You don’t need a producer. It sounds all right to me.”
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.
What is it about Van that appeals to musicians and fans, whether they are new to the game or 40 years in the business? 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.
Van is a lot like Dylan; he lives on the road. Everything can’t be incandescent all the time, but even when Van is going at medium pace it’s pretty exciting. And when it all clicks . . .
Paul Brady’s latest album, The Vicar Street Sessions Vol I, features a collaboration with Van Morrison
Like much of Great Victoria Street and the neighbourhood it was part of – cinemas, hotels, hubs of manufacturing and entertainment – Sammy Huston’s Jazz Club has gone into the history books. Up a narrow flight of stairs, the first floor of the club housed a small stage and dance area; on the floor above, an even smaller space for a DJ and dancers. The whole place was a hive of music. By the mid 1960s, most nights of the week (and twice on Saturdays), the Jazz Club played host to the top-class local bands Belfast was producing, alongside the glorious stream of visiting R&B bands. I recall standing in wonder as Mick Fleetwood (who seemed to be folded into his drum kit) closed out a set by playing Peter Green into a peerless version of Albatross.
Out of the blue one night, while we zoomed in on Frankie Connolly and the Styx doing (I think) The Drifters’ Please Stay, Don’t Go, Van Morrison appeared on stage, turned the song on its heel and performed about seven minutes of Like a Rolling Stone. Belfast was like that.
Morrison was seen on the Gilnahirk bus. He had just guested down at the Pound. After the Maritime – the club forever associated with him and the band Them – I can hear Morrison’s Mystic Eyes on the little transistor we used to carry around one summer in the mid 1960s, idling on the lawns of Belfast City Hall, up at Belfast Castle or in the front rooms of all the houses we hung out in. Listening to live music was a way of life, dancing to it and, of course, buying it in Smithfield or in Dougie Knight’s record shop. It was the main thing. Then something very different came along.
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.
Gerald Dawe is a poet and professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent collection is Mickey Finn’s Air
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.
Ken Stewart, the former RTÉ presenter, and I were the first people to champion Van’s and Rory Gallagher’s music on radio and in the press. Van had two top-10 UK hits with Them: Baby Please Don’t Go and the brilliant pop classic Here Comes the Night, before heading to the States, where he worked with Bert Berns, who produced the Blowin’ Your Mind album. Van wrote to me a number of times thanking me for keeping his name before the Irish public. His mother also wrote to me from Belfast to say how much he appreciated the support.
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. Happy birthday, Van.
Pat Egan is a concert promoter
Van Morrison has been in the consciousness since the day you were born. He’s that guy who is on the radio, but he’s also the guy who is doing the most out-there art you can imagine. He’s a very interesting man to be a fan of. He walks every side that musicians fear and crave.
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.
Glen Hansard is a musician
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.
Van’s interviews almost always begin with, “Well, my father had all these records.” It’s a direct reference to the original source: the childhood home on Hyndford Street and cherished recordings by Mahalia Jackson, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Josh White. Bing Crosby too. There was jazz, blues and folk. There were cowboy songs. And, at parties, his mother might sing I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.
Now when I hear Van name-checking Webb Pierce, Mose Allison, Jerry Lee, Little Walter and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I realise it all sounds remarkably like my own record collection. And, of course, that didn’t happen by accident. It’s precisely because I always turned up for class, sat in the front row and paid very close attention to the master. Happy birthday, Van. And thanks.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster
My first encounter with the music of Van Morrison was in spring 1982, when I heard his song Cleaning Windows played on BBC radio. As a pale youth in thrall to the austere mysteries of Joy Division and the Bunnymen I thought it a bit of a novelty tune, like George Formby with a Belfast accent.
That same year Dexys Midnight Runners returned, dressed up as chimney sweeps this time, having previously resembled a gang of burglars. They sounded different, too. Keening Irish fiddles had replaced the honking Stax horns of their earlier songs, and the name Van Morrison (the window cleaner guy?) was seemingly appended to every mention of theirs. Dexys were suddenly the world’s biggest band – and even had a hit with a Morrison song about the Scottish darts legend Jocky Wilson. There was clearly much more to this man, the Van.
I got my first look at Van on Rock Around the Clock, a BBC music telethon that went out every summer. If you were good and managed to sit through seven hours of Frank Zappa, the presenter David Hepworth might let you see four minutes of New Order playing their new single badly. The 1984 edition included a screening of Martin Scorsese’s bloated document of The Band’s farewell shindig, The Last Waltz. I was just nodding off when on strode this funny-looking wee man, high-kicking his way in flares through a tune whose lyrical thrust left one in no doubt that somebody really ought to turn up the radio. It was Van Morrison. And he was great.
A couple of years later, as a now emotionally sophisticated 19-year-old, I heard Mark Cagney play Madame George on his brilliant Night Train show, on 2FM. I was transfixed; I spent a lot of time in Belfast and knew many of the places being elevated to the realm of magical myth by this lyrical cascade of a song.
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.
Paul McLoone is a radio presenter and vocalist with The Undertones
Van Morrison has always stood aloof from musical fashion or convention. As he turns 70, he is the antithesis of a rock star. He is one of the pivotal singer-songwriters of the 20th century, up there with Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Our paths crossed in London, in 1981, over coffees in Holland Park; our conversations were always about literature. His name was familiar to me since the 1960s, when he fronted Them.
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.”
John Minihan is a photographer
In the spring of 1974 I lived in London, training to be a BBC radio producer in what is now the Langham Hotel, on Portland Place. I was subletting a room in a lovely old house on Camden Square. The people who lived in the house were what would shortly be known as “young professionals”. Though they were musically sophisticated and wide-ranging in their tastes, it seemed they had one record and one record only. It was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and it played nonstop morning, noon and night.
Though we were all “fallen in a trance”, all under the spell of this remarkable album, I expect that, as an Irishman, I was particularly smitten. It was only a year previously, in 1973, that I’d lived in a near-slum on the selfsame Fitzroy Avenue mentioned in Madame George. For many of us of a certain vintage, the fact that Van Morrison was able to give a voice to our local habitations was no less important than Heaney’s or Hewitt’s naming names. He helped us not only to recognise who we were but to come to some realisations about ourselves.
Those realisations had come long before 1974, of course. The frontman of Them had been a revelation exactly a decade before; 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.
Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and author
In my novel Girls in Their Married Bliss, from 1964, the bleakness of burial was partly redeemed by “the Wreaths and the Roses and Mozart and Van Morrison”. That voice which I listened to, for over 40 years, rugged, elegiac, confrontational and ghostly, speaks to me enduringly of love, love as the crux of lost mankind.
Edna O’Brien is a writer. Her latest book is The Love Object: Selected Stories
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? Then, of course, I went backwards and dug up Blowin’ Your Mind and finally heard TB Sheets for the first time. It completely floored me.
There is an unbelievable amount of emotional depth in TB Sheets. Sadness buried under a veil of male pride and confusion, leading to ill-judged anger with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia as you are pushed headfirst into an all-too-real psychodrama involving a young girl dying of tuberculosis. This is track number 3 from his debut album, track number 1 being Brown Eyed Girl.
From there on in I was hooked. For some reason I always listen to Moondance when I’m on the Dart. I’ve never really understood the term “pop music”, but in my opinion Moondance is a kind of perfect pop album. Everything feels so concise and perfectly placed, but there is still a sense of ragged tenderness that pervades the whole thing, which always leaves me breathless.
Crazy Love is too perfect for this world in both its inception and its execution, but it’s Into the Mystic that never fails to kill me. It feels like he’s forever chasing the seamless matrimony of words and music with the aim of creating a form of expression that somehow transcends the boundaries erected by these human constructs, and inches closer to the core of why they were created in the first place. That’s the plan, anyway. The Van plan. And I still love Brown Eyed Girl.
Conor O’Brien is a musician. His latest album with Villagers is Darling Arithmetic
Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl remains one of the anthems of the 1960s, but it was the raw inward cry of Here Comes the Night that struck a more resonant note in the ear of an adolescent. There he was cutting a rock-star dash on Top of the Pops. It was probably late-night Radio Luxembourg where I first heard him lilting his way through the blues poetry he created with TB Sheets, a remarkable achievement at such a young age, and in doing so establishing his poetic credentials and his spiritual connection to the beats. Connections to other poets would follow.
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.
But other work lies buried beneath the reputation of that iconic album: Veedon Fleece (that lovely evocation of The Streets of Arklow), Common One (the pastoral idyll of Summertime in England), Wavelength (the cinematic sweep of Take It Where You Find It, his symphonic hymn to the US). Hard Nose the Highway and St Dominic’s Preview, too, and has any live recording superseded It’s Too Late to Stop Now?
I have seen him perform about 15 times, on the good nights delivering spellbinding demonstrations of his ability to remove himself from this world and step inside the words and music, always knowing it was “more than a song to sing”. Is there a Morrison moment I missed and wished I was there? Yes, that almost other-worldly, once-in-a-lifetime rendition of Caravan that became the showstopper at The Band’s farewell concert in 1976, recorded for posterity in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.
Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor. His latest collection is A Song of Elsewhere