Rave on Van Morrison!
Transcendent at 70
The playwright Stewart Parker once said that in assimilating various influences, his fellow Belfastman Van Morrison had “come up with something distinctively his own”. Foremost among his distinctive gifts was the expressive voice that distilled those formative influences – rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, folk, gospel, country, the traditional air.
Transcendent is a word frequently used to describe Morrison’s songs and performances. Now, at the age of 70, he can still deliver such moments of transcendence. American blues singers were his touchstones but he also heard the voices of poets and like his poet-heroes ( Donne, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats ) his songs move between the sacred and profane.
Morrison’s lyrical powers were evident in the remarkable solo albums he made in America in the aftermath of initial success with the Belfast group Them. Still regarded as his masterpiece, Astral Weeks was a pioneering marriage of musical invention and impressionistic song-poetry. Other works deserve greater recognition – Hard Nose the Highway, St Dominic’s Preview, Veedon Fleece, Wavelength, Common One.
While he once heard “the voice of America calling”, there has always been a readiness to identify himself with Belfast, the hometown that gave him the themes of memory that have been at the core of his work. The city of his childhood and youth has remained for him a powerful imaginative resource. Cyprus Avenue, Orangefield, Hyndford Street are haunts of epiphany and reverie. Few song-writers have so intimately depicted their place of origin with such abundance of evocative, often halcyon, imagery. In the years after the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994, Morrison’s song Days Like This became the anthem that captured the aspiration for an enduring peace in Northern Ireland.
His finest recordings and most memorable performances are testimony to the truth in what cultural historian Greil Marcus once said about him, that be “can be compared to no other singer in the history of modern popular music”.