As his 60th birthday approaches, Van Morrison remains a singular presence in music
It has long been part of rock mythology that artists discover their rock’n’roll vocations as a reaction against parental discipline, domestic disharmony or a general discontent with society.
Many, including Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, have denied the very existence of parents still alive. Instead, they invented stories of running away from home. Others, such as John Lennon, Ray Charles and Jeff Buckley, had fraught relationships with absent parents.
George Ivan Morrison – Van to you and me – is very much the exception to that rule.
In fact, he is on record as paying tribute to his parents for instilling him with a love of jazz and blues from the earliest years. With Morrison celebrating his 60th birthday this month, now is an appropriate time to tip one’s hat towards the Belfast breeding ground from which he sprung.
Morrison’s father, George, was an avid collector of blues and jazz records. Both his parents loved opera and mother Violet was a fine singer herself.
To that fertile soil was added the influx of the new brands of rock and r’n’b that filtered through British and Irish ports from the USA in the late ‘50s.
This was the music that would inspire the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and our own Rory Gallagher.
In due course, Morrison discovered the country music of Hank Williams, as well as blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker.
He was later to record with John Lee and share stages with many of his heroes.
At school, Morrison learned the guitar and soprano sax. In his mid-teens, he swapped school for a full-time job in music, adding tenor sax to his arsenal.
He joined The Monarchs, toured Europe and starred in a German film as a jazz musician.
Returning to Belfast, he formed Them, and, crudely marketed with the "bad lads" image of the Stones and The Pretty Things, they scored several seminal classic hits like ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Here Comes The Night’ and ‘Gloria’.
Meanwhile, Morrison studied the harmonica techniques of Little Walter while touring with him.
Thus were sown the seeds that enabled Morrison to grow into an artist who could blend folk, rock, pop, jazz, soul, blues and r’n’b.
However, a US tour with Them left him exhausted. Somewhat disillusioned with the music scene, he took time out to write more songs in Belfast before scoring record deals with Bang and then Warners in the USA.
The brief Bang period included the much-anthologised ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. In 1968 he released Astral Weeks. Regarded by many as the best Irish album ever, it was largely ignored on release.
Way ahead of its time in its spontaneous approach to musical eclecticism, the album was the start of a long procession of extraordinary albums including Moondance, Tupelo Honey, Beautiful Vision, Hymns To The Silence, Inarticulate Speech of The Heart and No Guru No Method No Teacher.
Such records saw Morrison explore Celtic mythology, eastern mysticism and numerous musical genres, as he developed a style that was to inspire a whole slew of artists from Paul Brady to Bob Seger, John Mellancamp to Bruce Springsteen.
Those albums have spawned an impressive body of classic songs too, including ‘Bright Side Of The Road, ‘Have I Told You Lately’, ‘Warm Love’ ‘Madame George’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Cypress Avenue’ and ‘Cleaning Windows.’
In contrast to the vast majority of Irish artists who have achieved international superstardom, his lyrics are often rooted in a sense of place and generously littered with references to Irish place-names, from Cypress Avenue to the Wicklow Hills.
The San Francisco Examiner caught the essense of the artist when they described Morrison’s records as “vernacular pop music at its best”.
Even through fallow periods, when record sales, record company support and critical approval were hard to come by, Morrison has steadfastly refused to bow to any pressures other than his hunger to write and perform good music.
Through five decades as a major presence on planet rock, Morrison has fought against the manipulations of record companies too, not least the projection of Them as angry young men to a level that was pure invention.
Nor has he entered the political fray. Despite the attempt by his unofficial biographer, Johnny Rogan, in his book No Surrender to tie Morrison into a stoical Protestant/Unionist philosophy, Morrison has avoided being drawn into commenting on the political situation in the North.
His relationship with the media has been fraught with sometimes hilarious difficulties. The man has refused to play the media game, often expressing irritation at the line of questioning adopted by those with little or no knowledge of his work or his values.
However, in normal everyday conversation he’s nowhere near as dour as his media image might suggest.
Paddy Moloney once described him as “great craic” after they worked together on the Irish Heartbeat album in 1988.
Ultimately, however, you sense that, like Dylan, whom he once described as “the greatest living poet”, he believes that it’s preferable to let the music do the talking and that all the rest is at best a distraction and at worst a downright hazard to the proper appreciation of his art.
His collaborators have included Dylan, Georgie Fame, The Chieftains, Cliff Richard and Tom Jones.
Shining a light through it all is Morrison’s provocative persona – a melange of troubadour, Celtic bard, romantic poet, stream-of-consciousness improviser and mystical visionary. His influences are drawn from far beyond music. They include William Blake, Jack Kerouac, WB Yeats, L Ron Hubbard and Christmas Humphreys.
Morrison then is not a man who can be easily categorised. He has spurned the job description “pop singer”. But he also believes that rock has become a “meaningless” word.
Nor does he acknowledge that his life in music is part of some greater plan. Interviewed by Joe Smith for the book Written In My Soul, Morrison told the author, “I don’t feel like I’m on any particular quest. There was a time when I thought I was on some kind of a journey. But then you find out that the journey’s just uncovering stuff that already exists – where you are already”.
Van Morrison will be 60 on August 31.
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