The Van Morrison Interview by Dermot Stokes
Ghost and reputations were hanging in the air like bats as I waited in an upstairs lounge in The Shelbourne Hotel. A whole host of memories, experiences and images, each clustering behind the others, from stoned latenights in front of a dying fire listening to ASTRAL WEEKS to the celebration I’d witnessed in Cork a week previously, from the romantic, surly power of Them to the peaceful warmth of TUPELO HONEY…
And none of this was conducive to peace of mind, because I hadn’t really been expecting to handle this interview. Right then, the last thing I needed was a streetchoir of images screwing up my visibility. Meanwhile, his press officer told me that when Morrison decided to move it’d be in a flash. And it was.
He bounded up the stairs – shook hands warily, looking around at the little lounge where we met. “Bit noisy here,” he said to his aide, “let’s do it in one of the rooms.” One-two, we moved to the bedroom in silence.
“How’ya doin’ anyway?” I asked, ice-breaking. “Tired,” he said, sagging slightly, “tired.” And as we arranged ourselves around a table he elaborated to his aide – “Christ, I’m falling asleep… can we get some coffee?”… and that last word curls in the air with an unmistakable northern burr, heavily laced with American intonation. Just right for the Belfast Cowboy, come home to Carrolls country.
And you could say I was nervous as I shrugged the cloud of rainbows from my shoulders and got into the rap. Like, if it’s not too naive a thing to put in print, I’ve always really liked what Morrison has done since my days of dumbstruck adolescence and when you’ve been imprinted from that early on, there’s always a sense of awe in meeting the man (or woman) in question. Add his reputation for sawing up journalists and deep-frying them, and well… like I said, I was nervous.
The first few minutes were the most difficult, as he gave me one-line replies to a series of remarks about the gigs he’d just done in Ireland, the addition for this tour of horns “there wasn’t time to rehearse them in,” and his approach to his art, especially his vocal technique.
Suddenly, though, almost as a necessary prelude to further discussion, he diverged to the topic of the media.
“Really, you’re very rarely asked these kind of questions by interviewers, you know what I mean?” A lot of media people don’t even scratch the surface. They look at the thing… like from what other people said, or what they read last week, or what they think might be hip or something.
“But there’s really very few people in the contemporary music scene – not rock’n’roll, because to me that word has no meaning anymore – who ask those questions, it’s really fresh. They usually ask about fame, or success, or something, anything except the music! Stuff that has nothing to do with what I’m doing.
“In fact I just did an interview like that the other night and it made me pretty sick… a lot of people think you’re doing it for one purpose, especially the English press, they’re SO wound up! They don’t even see what you’re doing… they just see the pictures and the images, and all that, but they don’t go beyond that. It never gets out.
“It’s very difficult to get across what you’re doing in this contemporary music scene because everybody calls it rock’n’roll, and it’s not, ya know… it’s a lot of different elements…”
Well, to be fair, it seems a bit hard to tar them all with the same brush, especially when you realise that some of the best music journalists in the world are English, although when I think about it, quite a lot of them have withdrawn from regular active service over the last two years or so. At the same time many musicians are extremely critical of much of the writing currently parades in the British press.
I offered Morrison the observation that one major problem that the media, (and by extension the record industry) in Britain had never properly surmounted was the fact that it is London-based, and that consequently whatever happens there will always loom much larger than anything elsewhere. Then again, London is also particularly fashion conscious.
“There you go,” he said, “that’s it. Well, I think it’s got something, if not a lot, to do with that.”
Then, of course, there’s the question of analysis. It’s cool if you can handle it and if the music is appropriate, but personally I prefer to FEEL my way into it, it’s the feeling rather than anything else.
“That’s it. Especially more feeling than thinking, which is why I have a hard time explaining it. People are always asking me ‘Can you explain this?’ or ‘What does this mean?’… a lot of head stuff… but to me it’s not head music or thinking music, it’s more FEELING music.
“And I’m not even sure I’m interested in talking about what I think of it. I’m not interested n analysing any music. If I like something, I like it, and it’s more of a feeling. But they keep trying to sort of… ‘Why can’t you tell us what…’ and ‘don’t you think’… everything starts with don’t-you-think! I’m not involved in that at all. I play music because it makes me FEEL good, not because it makes me think!”
The root of Morrison’s problems with the media lies in two events that accidentally overlapped. The first was the major shift i late ’60s rock’n’roll that led to a heavy emphasis on lyrics. OK, lots of them were great, and theses were written, and thousands of stoned evening were spent sussing out ’Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Highway 61’. But some of the music that was recorded, not to even MENTION the critiques that were written, were the most godawful shit that ever pomposed themselves onto eardrums. And into this heavy LITERATE scene came ASTRAL WEEKS, an album which is so magical that it still chills my spine to hear it… almost certainly one of the greatest of all records, and one which established Morrison s a heavyweight of contemporary music. And its carnival of imagery was full of so many possible interpretations that the newly-fledged rock literati went to town. Like ULYSSES all over again. So how would YOU feel?
“It’s too heavy. You just do it. YOU know that from your writing… When you write an article you just go to the typewriter and you go ‘fuck, I don’t know what I’m going to write’, but you DO it, and you’ve got it, and that’s all music is. That’s all anything is… just DOING it, not talking about it. It’s life, man…
“I mean, people who go to work from nine to five, how do they do it? They just get up in the morning and they go to work and they DO it. Like, nobody stands with a microphone when they come out of the gate and asks ‘how did you do it today?!’… I mean they just do it! It’s just life!”
He laughed at the idea, and muttered “how did you work the machine? Was it different from yesterday? Do you do it better when you wear brown overalls than when you wear green overalls?!”
And that’s fair enough, up to a point. But accepting completely Morrison’s analogy between what he’s doing and someone working in a factory just isn’t on. It’s like Michelangelo calling himself a housepainter. It’s true, but it wholly understates the truth. And the image of a nine-to-five production line is only useful insofar as it underlines this belief in simply going about his business unmolested. But the very dependability and regularity and monotony that characterise production lines are wholly absent from his music. It’s like a dancing, celebrating fountain, like a deep and brooding pool, it’s fire and flesh and loss and love and warmth and knowledge. It’s no canning factory.
In my review of his Cork concert I referred to his saxophonic vocal technique. When he sings he uses his voice like a horn, slipping, sliding and scatting, embellishing his lines with flourishes and gracenotes, runs and cries.
“Yeah, that’s basically what I’m doing, that’s my approach.” And that is pretty unusual in rock’n’roll, where other considerations dominate – people want to get the words over, or whup the crowd up, or whatever. Very few treat the voice as what it is, the supreme instrument that can sing as well as play.
“It’s not really so unusual in jazz, only in rock’n’roll. I don’t think of myself as a rock’n’roll singer, but I think of myself in terms of a jazz singer, because I never do anything the same way twice, y’know? What I’m into is improvisational singing.”
and even in elaborating on that point, his wariness of the media intrudes, as on many other topics – he virtually explains his attitudes and feelings in terms of the questions he is usually asked…
“I’m working in a framework of jazz, and… see… nobody ever said to Charlie Parker, ‘hey man, what does that mean when you play that G and B flat after one another, and the sharp, and then go into that OBLIGATO thing?’. What does it mean! I mean it’s jazz, man, that’s what it is!
“It’s spontaneous improvisational music, and it’s happening now, and it’s happening different each time, and that’s what it is. But you see the rock’n’roll world i snot like that. They want to know why… somebody wears an earring, or has a haircut or wears black shoes… nothing to do with the real thing. anything to avoid what’s really going on!”
This thing of spontaneity is actually very important, because it’s a key concept among musicians who graduated from the ’60s r’n’b movement. Eric Bell, in an interview published in the HOT PRESS last year, recounted how he toured with Morrison, who, having rehearsed all his hits, walked onstage and said to him ‘play a blues in A, man’.
And, for the record, while I accept Morrison’s own description of himself as a jazz singer, I don’t see him as having anything at all in common with the intellectual hardhats and gorillas who characterised the pebbledashed US “jazz-rock” movement of the late ’60s – (Chicago – ugh!), nor with the toothbrushed genii of the ’70s British school of hi-speed automatic washing machines. I’d have called him multi-tinged r’n’b, leaning towards hot, soulful jazz.
But anyway, there’s a lot of very well respected late ’70s bands who eschew spontaneity, and do thing in exactly the same way every night. Horns and rhythm parts are honed to perfection… strong alright, but REPETITIOUS. Morrison’s band, on the other hand, are well rehearsed, but as he says himself, “the name of the game is to keep the arrangements tight but loose at the same time. I couldn’t do the same thing every night. Not my style. Not my cup of tea.”
What this means in practice is a frequently changing set (each Irish gig was different) and occasional mistakes, but in general a loosely flowing orchestra, conducted loose-handedly by Morrison at the front. “I guess I was lucky in a lot of ways when I was starting out, because I was coming at it from a different angle than a lot of people, and I started very young so I got a good head start on a lot of things. Luckily I was around a lot of the right music. My father played me a lotta good music and stuff.”
Then, as all the music is played, there’s the question of communication. The other part of the equation, and the audience’s ability to take what the performer is actually doing. That’s a whole other bag. I found on his Irish tour that the gigs changed remarkably from night to night, as did the audiences, not only in their physical surroundings – in Cork, they stood, and partly as a result were far more demonstrative than in Dublin where they sat – but also in their receptivity. I mean, the people who were honking for rock’n’roll in the quietest moments, what had brought them there in the first place and why had they felt the need to trumpet their desires, especially at a point where Morrison was stretching out?
He was reportedly upset, and on his second night in Dublin when he thanked the audience for their applause after ‘Tupelo Honey’, he pointedly added, “We came here to play the music, and that’s what we’re ding”. At the same time, while he agreed that every place has its character, and that there are some he really likes playing, he was unwilling to be specific.
Whatever about concerts changing from night to night, is albums don’t, though again, obviously, audience response does – (one has only to examine the wholesale misapprehension in the British media of what WAVELENGTH was all about). But let’s take the soaring entry on ‘Come Ruin g’, or ‘Kingdom Hall’, for example. I got an amazing lift, a sense of exultation off them and I wondered if that was the idea when he wrote the songs, or happened when they were being recorded.
“Yeah… well… writing is just more or less a process where… it’s hard to explain it in this context, and I’m not even sure that the people who read these magazines are even interested… I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it… (LONG PAUSE).
“What I’m trying to get at is that music to me is spontaneous, WRITING is spontaneous and it’s all based on NOT TRYING TO DO IT, you know? It’s all based on spontaneity, and that’s my trip from beginning to end, whether it’s writing a song or playing guitar, or a particular chord sequence, or blowing a horn, or whatever it is, it’s based on improvisation and spontaneity, right? And that’s what I keep on trying to get across in interviews, and it’s very hard because the process is beyond words! You know what I’m saying. The process of doing it can’t be put in words!
“It’s like when you drive a car – part of you is driving – it’s the same kind of thing, you’re not TRYING to drive the car. It’s spontaneous.”
Like when you put your foot on the clutch and change gear in the same movement – you don’t think about it after you get used to it, you just do it.
“Yeah! It’s a spontaneous thing, and for me it puts a damper on it even trying to analyse it, because by doing that you’re saying you’re not happy with it.
“Too many questions! And I don’t need more. I’ve got enough questions already, just about worldly things. I’d rather keep it to that. I’m not interested in knowing the unknown.”
He elaborates by referring to the role of the muse. “Any kind of creativity comes from the muse right? And the muse takes care of it –” to go on (again) to the role of the media, and the degree to which it has taken over the music business.
“The point I’m trying to make is that when I started playing music, the whole point of it was that there was something going on that I didn’t have to wonder why I was doing it. It just felt right for me to do it, like that was what I was meant to do in this life and that’s what I am doing. I don’t have time to worry about somebody else’s head trip.
“Because any time I got I like to relax, go to a beach, or take a drive. It puts a damper on it answering all those what-does-it-all-means. I mean, I’m putting out the music and the albums. Isn’t that enough?!? What more do they want? Blood?
“And I don’t ave time to get into the fashions and cliches and trips and who’s cool and who’s not. I really don’t care. I’m just living my life…”
Still on the subject of writing, I asked was he writing all the time?
“You write when you get time, basically whenever you get tuned into to it. Not on the road though, there’s too much happening. I just prefer to keep the road as what it is, playing and meeting people, sometimes old friends anywhere long enough to get out a guitar or get the piano together.”
And does he use guitar, or piano or sax?
“All of ’em. I’ve written instrumentals for sax and trumpet, and things like that, that’ve turned into songs. Sometimes I’ve started off writing poetry and then putting the music to it on the guitar. Sometimes starting off with a piano chord – or a melody – all different ways. Anything that works.”
We turned to live performance. From wht he had said it seemed that it was the heart of his music. “Well, let me put it this way, I enjoy PLAYING. I mean there’s obviously things that go with that that are not enjoyable. Like, when it gets down to a lot of travelling and a lot of hotels where you’re getting dogfood to eat, which is what it comes down to, because most hotels don’t have good food, even these big posh hotels. and that’s what does you in. The bad food, the flying, the long distance travel, that’s what kills you, y’know? Playing is only part of it, only a very small part of it and it’s the rest of it that you have to contend with that’s the killer.
“I like to play, but it jut gets ore and more difficult to keep doing it because of these other things… you have to organise it so it all works, and it has to be fast… one-nighters so the crew aren’t hanging around… because that eats up money on you… it has to be a hard grind to make it work on the road. There’s a lot involved, just things like food, you know.” And he withdrew for a moment to renew his battle with his dinner. Earlier when his crew man Alex had asked him how was his dinner he replied “not so good… not so good… not nearly as good as last night”.
I used to be I could eat ANYTHING. I remember driving up the M1 on beans and sausages! But I can’t do that anymore. So, when you’re at home you eat and sleep properly, but when you go on the road your life is totally turned around. Even physical things like taking a walk – you can’t just say ‘I’m going for a walk’, because you might be in a car for six hours!
“So your life is changed around, and you have to go through a whole THING to go on the road. And that’s not the most enjoyable part of it. But I just like to play, to have a band and lay. Whether it’s in a studio or live or whatever. Just like to play.”
Mention of beans and sausages on the M1 brought us back to Belfast and the background to the great surge of northern bands that dominated Ireland’s group scene until the end of the ’60s. He had already mentioned the records played by his father, but there was more – a whole scene, in fact.
“Yeah, well, there was one cat in Belfast called Solly Lipschitz, he had a record shop in High Street – he turned a lot of people on to a lot of stuff. He was one of the pioneers, like one of the heavies from Belfast, and he was responsible for directing a lot of people to a lot of good stuff. People like him were important, and Dougie Knight.
“But at the same time you had to leave for London in the end, because you couldn’t really keep your thing together, or keep a working situation together in Belfast, so you had to go thru’ the London channel. Which happens here as well, doesn’t it?”
Yeah, it does, though there are more regional possibilities now than ever before. While most bands, in the end, wind up in London, or tied to a London record or management company, people like Good Vibrations, in particular, and Mulligan are establishing themselves as doing a lot of good stuff on a locally-oriented basis.
“The thing is that you can’t TOTALLY run a music operation from here – though there’s other things running from here like films. And there’s quite a few writers here too, but music is not so together.”
Which is true to a point, (and Morrison wouldn’t presume to be an expert on the local scene either). At the same time, making a record involves you in far greater expense than a book! As for films, mostly there are foreign films being filmed here – analogous, surely to (say) Art Garfunkel or Status Quo recording here?
Jack Lynch, who was sitting in on the interview asked if Morrison himself saw Ireland as a place to stay, to live for a while, as he had when writing VEEDON FLEECE. Does he think that it might affect his writing? “I think it could, but I don’t know what the possibilities are of being her for any length of time. It depends., I haven’t planned beyond the end of the tour. I never plan more than two months ahead. Anymore than that and you’re kidding yourself.
“Ireland is definitely a very creative place. But it seems to be harder for musicians here than for other artists. Like people in films and writers who live here are left alone, but it seems to be different with music.”
Woodstock, where he lived at one time, was interesting in that regard.
“Yeah, but that was before the festival happened… and it didn’t even happen there, it was sixty miles away! There was an art colony there, but after that it all changed. There was a little scene there that was happening for a while that was good, y’know?”
And the West Coast?
“Well, there’s AVAILABILITY for that on the West Coast, but… it’s a question of so many element of time and all that. Like, in order to do the musical thing you have to keep working. You basically have to keep gigging or else the whole thing falls apart. It’s a question of how much time you got, or what your primary things are that you wanna do. Like, in any situation, I can’t rally lay back too long, ya know?!”
And that implies that his tours may be more frequent than of late, which in itself poses interesting questions about the future. To what degree will Morrison’s rock’n’roll audience stick with him over the coming years – especially the younger fans? The problem, basically, is that it’s a scene where stars who fit in with fashions, fickleties and hype gain far more general acceptance than anti-stars who let the music do the talking.
Yet, he need hardly worry – WAVELENGTH is shaping up as his biggest seller ever, deservedly, re-establishing him definitively as a top te album seller in the USA and here, and selling well in Britain too. So, it looks as though even quality comes up trumps SOMETIMES, and that’s a relief.
Meanwhile Morrison stands up asking have I a quick on,e because he’s got all these friends waiting downstairs. When I laugh and say "nah, that's about it”, he smiles and says “great! Good one”, and splits in an eyeblink. Outside in the corridor there’s no sign of him, nor any clue as to where he might be.
Downstairs the lounge was crammed with well-wishers – a large Irish northern showbiz star, a Guinness and his princess, two Mulligans, a macrobiotic doctor and a wholefood importer, Fianna Fail Ard-Fheis delegates, and… Morrison deep in conversation with this stocky little bloke with a thack northern accent…
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No disco, no party, no foolin’ around – here we find Van Morrison by turns enraptured and embittered, on an album that is never less than engrossing and which is occasionally sublime.Read More
It is because we’ve been force fed dogma all our lives that there is such a reaction against organised religion among young people in Ireland.Read More
"Hey Jimmy, I want to go home! Hey Jimmy, I been away too long…" And you feel like shouting yeah to the way he sings it, to the way the voice reaches into your soul like only the most expressive instrument can, like Muddy Waters' slide, or Charlie Parker's sax, or Mavis Staples' voice… but you know what he's talking about as well.Read More
The over of Van Morrison's new LP immediately brings to mind a controversial poem of William Wordsworth's called the Leech Gatherer, later retitled 'Resolution and Independence'.Read More