- 15 Sep 20
As part of our celebrations for Van Morrison's 75th birthday, Paul Muldoon, Liam Ó Maonlaí and Paul Casey share their reflections on Van's music and legacy.
Born in Portadown, Co. Armagh, Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of poetry, as well as an editor, critic, playwright, lyricist and translator.
I’ve been listening to Van since I was a student in Belfast in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I actually lived for a while on Fitzroy Avenue so I imagined he was singing about me. In fact, I’m pretty sure Madam George lived next door.
I lived in London for a while in 1974 and the house I stayed in had a record player and, so far as I could make out, one record. It was Astral Weeks. It was playing 24/7. So Van’s impact would be similar to that of a sledge hammer on a nut.
The voice is astonishing. And he’s a great bandleader. I first saw him live somewhere in the vicinity of the Kings Hall in Belfast in or around 1980. He was playing from the back of a lorry, or so it seemed. From time to time a can of beer was thrown at the stage. He said “The next time a can of beer comes onto this stage I’m leaving it.” That’s an indication of how good Van is at reading an audience. Since then I’ve seen him many times, usually in New York and environs.
The lyrics are magical. What I love about them is the detail. The Paris bun in “Cleaning Windows,” for example, is pure Belfast. Well, maybe not “pure” exactly.
'Coney Island' is a great description of a “spin” around the Ards Peninsula. There’s so much happening there —the Viking influence, Christian monasticism, the impact of the Normans. In fact, it was the Normans who first brought rabbits (or coneys) to Ireland. They liked a little pate de lapin. So Coney Island probably served as a factory farm of sorts. In 'Coney Island', Van focuses more on the seafood. He somehow manages to do for Donaghadee what Frank O’Hara does for downtown Manhattan.
Liam Ó Maonlaí
Liam Ó Maonlaí initially rose to prominence as a founding member of Hothouse Flowers, which he founded with his schoolmate Fiachna Ó Braonáin – releasing People, one of the most successful Irish debut albums in history, in 1988. Throughout his career, he has drawn from a combination of traditional Irish music, blues, soul, gospel, country, punk and folk.
The first time I remember connecting with Van Morrison’s music was listening to ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ on the radio. It was before we had a second radio station, so only certain programmes played new rock and R&B. I remember the soulful feel of the song and of the performance.
Years later, on a bright morning after a night of good company and merriment, someone put a track on the turntable. It was ‘In The Garden’ from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. It was, and still is, so immensely sensitive and intimate. It describes for me the depth of a personal spiritual life – the relationship between the individual and the almighty. The presence of the divine in a blade of grass. This song is a church for the weary pilgrim. It is beyond religion.
Van is searching, and his music lets you walk with him on that search. He records that magic that happens when a song is born, and his voice keeps opening .
I remember Van sitting with us one day in Dublin town. We played a two hour-long demo of our songs, and he listened with us. I will always appreciate that. He is of this island, as am I. I believe music comes from the land and the elements, and those who are the most sensitive express the elements for all to hear.
My father-in-law was a quiet man who had a tough upbringing. He had a way about him when I knew him – quiet and kind, and never afraid of hard work. He loved life, and delighted in his grandson. He passed away, leaving us very sad. Some time after his passing, I was driving around Cork and Kerry, and I had A Sense of Wonder playing. 'The Master's Eyes' crept up on me and before I knew it I was weeping for Pa, my father-in-law. It was a sweet sorrow. A beautiful feeling.
One of most highly respected guitarists and singer-songwriters to emerge from Northern Ireland in recent years, Paul Casey released his acclaimed double album, Moving On, last year.
It always fascinated me that there was this guy who was talked about in the same breath as Clapton, Neil Young and B.B. King, and only lived 70 miles down the road from me, in Belfast. It gave me the idea that I could be a musician.
He never compromises. He’s always just been Van. He’s always made music for himself – and still does to this day. He doesn’t try to be cool or current. That’s class.
He’s the godfather of everything we do here in Northern Ireland. I’m lucky to be able to work with the likes of Liam Bradley and Nicky Scott who’ve spent a lifetime playing with Van. I’ve learned so much from them about how to approach songs, production and gigs.
‘In The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is a song my Da loved. As a kid I always wondered what all the words meant. It was just so interesting and different to anything l had ever heard at the time.
The Hot Press 'Rave On, Van Morrison' Special Issue is out now. Pick up your copy in shops now – or order online below:
You can find all the 'Rave On, Van Morrison' performances on the Hot Press YouTube channel.