- 22 Dec 20
As part of the The 12 Interviews of Xmas, we're looking back at some of our classic interviews of 2020. During our Rave On, Van Morrison series, which ran over the summer and featured over 75 performers, we asked about the possibility of sitting down with the great artist from East Belfast. The answer came back in the affirmative. Hot Press travelled north to meet the man who, in his sixty years working as an artist, has consistently created music of enormous healing power. “I haven’t listened to all of them,” he says of the covers of his songs curated by Hot Press, “but the ones that I have heard, that certainly comes across. There’s healing involved in this. So I want to thank all those people that did the covers.” Portrait: Norman Seeff.
Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world. Or that’s, far too often, how it feels. Because the world itself has been looking increasingly, exceedingly, stranger with the passing of every day.
No matter where you look right now, there is danger. And it is ever present everywhere. And it is ever present everywhere...
Donald Trump is still out there, for a start. He is facing into a U.S. presidential election later this year, against a disastrous backdrop of his own making. Leave his racism, his narcissism, his hate-mongering, his xenophobia and his sheer dishonesty to one side for a minute. When the coronavirus hit, President Donald Trump went into denial. One day we’ll wake up and it’ll be fine, he said. We’re doing too much testing, he said. We’re doing the best in the world, he said.
Lies, lies and more lies.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., Boris Johnson was explaining all of the world-beating things that Britain would be doing. Well, sort of doing. That is trying and failing miserably to do.
“What’s good is bad/ What’s bad is good,” Bob Dylan sang in ‘Idiot Wind’, “You’ll find out when you reach the top/ You’re on the bottom…”
So it has been with these two in charge. Both the U.S. and the U.K. are right up there, at the top of the class, in terms of deaths per capita from Covid-19. At the moment, among real countries – leaving San Marino out, that is – on the ‘official’ figures, only Belgium and Peru are significantly ahead of the U.K., in terms of what is the most important yardstick: mortality. But the U.K. tally is understated by close to 50%. Add back in those deaths that have been misclassified, hidden or ignored and the U.K. is top of the pile. The very worst in the world. Right now, Boris Johnson has more Covid-19 carnage on his hands than any other world leader.
I remember, not so long ago, Donald Trump proclaiming that 100,000 deaths would be a good result for the U.S. At this stage, officially, there have been over 180,000 Covid-19 related deaths in the United States. We can confidently say that the figure will exceed 200,000 by November, when the election is scheduled to take place.
And so Trump is sounding increasingly desperate. He has a few strategies in mind to save the day – for him, that is. His mission is first to suppress the African American vote in every way he can; and then to create a totally false narrative that postal voting facilitates electoral fraud. Say it often and say it loudly enough and some of the mob will believe you.
There is a possibility that Donald Trump will be in the lead when the votes cast at polling stations are counted. If it does bounce that way, the likelihood is that he will declare victory, and claim that the election was rigged when the postal votes go against him. If he does, we will see internal conflict on a scale that the U.S. hasn’t witnessed since the civil war. Donald Trump, one suspects, will do virtually anything to hold onto power. Things could get very ugly indeed.
That Trump and Boris Johnson have grotesquely failed the people of the U.S. and the U.K. is indisputable – all the more so, given that these are two of the richest countries in the world. But no one is truly winning the battle against Covid-19. The virus is out there. It is proving a stubbornly resistant opponent.
In Ireland, the infection rate currently seems alarmingly high. The truth may well be more subtle: we are testing more people. Where cases do emerge, the contact tracing is also more effective. It may be that we are doing a much better job of identifying asymptomatic cases. No matter. The effect on the country – and on economic life – remains catastrophic.
Musicians and others in the live entertainment industry are among the worst hit. It is almost impossible to see any full-scale gigs happening in Ireland until next year, and even then the future seems fraught with hazards. The first few weeks of the new Government led by Taoiseach Micheál Martin have been like a demented soap opera. “Politicians waffle endlessly,” Van Morrison sings, in ‘Nobody’s In Charge’, on his latest album Three Chords And The Truth. “People just don’t even want to see/ Getting paid for screwing up/ Don’t you think everybody’s had enough, enough, enough/ Nobody’s in charge…”
Things are bad. Unless someone gets a better grip here, we’re facing into a winter of fierce discontent, in which we will see hundreds of thousands of job losses. In which businesses will go to the wall. In which anger will rise like a malignant force. In which there will be evictions. Bankruptcies. A fresh eruption of homelessness. The clock is ticking. We have every reason to fear the worst. So, too, have people in England, Scotland and Wales. It is time to take a deep breath.
But first, there’s something positive to talk about. Something uplifting. Something in its own way momentous.
On 31 August 2020, the great Irish songwriter, singer, composer and performer Van Morrison will be 75 years of age. The man they call The Belfast Cowboy has been playing professionally for all of 60 years. He wrote his first song 58 years ago. Since then, he has released two albums with Them; over 40 solo studio albums; and six live albums – one of which, It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1974), is still regarded among the greatest live albums of all time.
He has written hundreds of songs. Some – like ‘Gloria’, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Moondance’ and ‘Have I Told You Lately’ – have been recorded by dozens of artists across the world. It is an extraordinary track record.
To celebrate his upcoming landmark birthday, Hot Press decided to ask 75 Irish artists to record videos of Van Morrison songs. Starting out, we had no idea what we might be getting ourselves into. Just as well. The response from artists has been wonderfully positive and generous. But it has still required a huge, detailed, orchestrated, sustained campaign to bring it all together. And we ain’t finished yet!
We began to broadcast the videos on the Hot Press YouTube channel just over three weeks ago. With some of the very finest Irish artists spanning three or four generations, involved, along with the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, it is an adventure that has captured the imagination of people all over Ireland – and of Van Morrison fans across the world.
When we let Van and his team in on our plans, the response was very gracious and appreciative. We asked might he do an interview to mark the occasion. The answer came back in the affirmative. We made a date to meet in Belfast.
We bump elbows and sit down a couple of metres apart. Van has his trademark hat and shades on. There’s no way that you could look at him and guess his age accurately. He looks lean and sharp.
Ireland was a desperately conservative place when you were growing up, I say...
“No,” he says. “My experience wasn’t conservative at all…”
I was about to come to that! Your parents seemed out of step with all of that, in a really positive way.
“True,” Van says. “In my area, there were a lot of people who were into similar things. I only knew what I knew from my friends and family and that circle of people that we were in. It was only much later that I realised that it wasn’t normal when people said, ‘Who’s Lightnin’ Hopkins?’ or ‘Who’s Muddy Waters?’ or something. Then you realise, well, I just took that for granted. But this was a very small clique of people really.
“They would probably be looked upon now as eccentrics,” he adds. “We didn’t think that we were eccentrics, we thought that was normal. I didn’t know anything else really. Luckily, there were a lot of musicians in my area, too. Luckily. So this is the kind of environment I grew up in.
“My mother would sing at parties and things, but a lot of families were doing that then – so that was kind of normal. That was pre-mass media TV, you know? My father had this record collection so I was listening to this music all the time.”
Was there a moment of realisation when you thought: I can do this?
“I think it was basically when I heard Lonnie Donegan doing ’Rock Island Line’, because I’d already been listening to Lead Belly doing ‘Rock Island Line’. And so, of course, Donegan got it from that. So, I suppose once Donegan had that massive hit with ‘Rock Island Line’ – I guess that was kind of a moment when things started to seem like it was possible.”
Van formed a skiffle group with mates on his street. They all went to Orangefield School: it had a reputation as a liberal, progressive place, compared to the brutality of the Christian Brothers, where I was mis-educated.
“No. Wrong,” Van says definitively. “We had vicious too. Nothing like the Christian Brothers, but we did have a couple of very vicious people – teachers – and one vicious headmaster. It all depends. Like, if you were the blue-eyed boy, then you got off. But if you weren’t the blue-eyed boy then, you know: whole different story.”
He dismisses the picture frequently painted of Orangefield as PR.
“If you stood out then, that also became a problem,” he recalls. “If somebody stood out at something, there was kind of push back on that. So there was still all these dynamics going on. And, you know, there were snitches in those days. Sometimes the snitches were on the other side. And they were playing both sides, you know. It probably wasn’t as bad as the Christian Brothers. But it could get pretty brutal sometimes.”
Like a lot of his music contemporaries, Van left school at 15 and joined an early rock ’n’ roll band, Deanie and the Javelins, with whom he played guitar and sang.
“Deanie Sands was a singer,” Van recalls. “There were a couple of gigs with her, and then she moved to England. So then we got a residency in East Belfast. So we played there every week, but it was loud rock and roll then – early rock and roll kind of stuff.”
I make the point that it is extraordinary how much was achieved in that era by what might now be called ‘kids’: teenagers who left school at fifteen and got a job or became professional musicians. I’m thinking not just of him, but of Gary Moore, also from East Belfast, of Philip Lynott and – though he left school a year or two later – Rory Gallagher.
“It wasn’t that simple,” Van recalls, “because I had jobs as well. In those days, your parents didn’t give you free lodging. You had to give them money to stay there. Not like today. I had several jobs. I was working on a bread van in Stewart’s Bakery, where I had to get up at, like, four in the morning. Then I was working in a bacon factory. And I worked in Musgrave’s Engineering factory.
“Then I decided that the only way I was going to be able to do music and have money was if I was doing a window cleaning job where I was self-employed. And then I could, you know, support staying at home and doing gigs. So that’s the way I’d figured it out. A friend of mine told me about this guy who was retiring. And he just basically handed over this window cleaning business for practically nothing. I was really lucky. He just sort of gave it to me for a few quid. So I took that over. So that was supporting me doing gigs.”
That stint later produced one of Van’s most loved songs, ‘Cleaning Windows’, which offers a brilliant and witty account – delivered in the Belfast vernacular – of life with a bicycle and a ladder, and a growing zen realisation that the material world isn’t everything, not by a long shot.
“In fact, a window cleaner gave me Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac,” Van says. “That was the sequel to On The Road. He said, ‘I’ve got this book that you might be interested in, man’. So that was also an initiation.”
IT WAS SUPPRESSED...
The first song Van wrote was called ’Some Sunny Day’. A country song, he finally recorded it just ten years ago, though it remains unreleased. He gigged in London with the Manhattan Showband; made his first record in Germany with The Monarchs, playing two sax solos for the shillings he was being paid; and joined the Brian Rossi Orchestra as a side project. But change was afoot. The fascination with black music was taking wider hold on this side of the Atlantic. It was music that Van already knew well. He was ahead of the curve.
Onstage at what is now the Electric Ballroom in London, a guy pointed the Belfast crew, including Van and his guitar-playing buddy Herbie Armstrong, in the right direction. “You guys need to go and check out Studio 51,” he said.
“So we went down,” Van recalls, “and it was a group called The Downliner Sect and they did like Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reid – basically they were doing my record collection. So I said to Herbie, if they can do this here, why can’t we do it? So we came back to Belfast and we found the Maritime Hotel.”
In the heel of the hunt, only Van was really up for the challenge of shifting from the showband life to the much more precarious world of rhythm and blues. Out of the Maritime sessions, Van formed Them and the gigs at the Maritime gathered real momentum. The Solomon brothers, Phil and Mervyn, got involved.
“A whole can of worms,” Van says succinctly.
Their father ran Ireland’s biggest record distribution company and was a shareholder in Decca Records. And they were already managing The Bachelors, a pop trio from Dublin who had their first hit with ‘Charmaine’ in 1963. Them were signed by Decca Records. Their second single, a version of the Big Joe Williams song ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, was released in 1964. It was a UK Top 10 hit. On the flip-side was ‘Gloria’.
“It was the second song I ever wrote,” Van remembers. “Because I remember I wrote it in Hyndford Street. It was pretty simple, because the idea came from two places – two sources. The chords came from the Everly Brothers. The words came from listening to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley’s song ‘I’m A Man’ – spelled M-A-N, so that was the idea of ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’. Also it was the same as my cousin, who was thirteen years older than me. It wasn’t about her, but it was her name. The third musical idea, in the solo, was from a Little Walter record. The riff was from a Little Walter instrumental. So those three components were how I wrote that song. I wrote it in one sitting. It was pretty simple.”
It was a song that took on a life of its own.
“Well, it didn’t at the time because it was suppressed,” Van observes. “The Solomons suppressed the song, I don’t know why they did that. Oh, I know why. Because, the first single was ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’, which didn’t do anything. It did nothing. It only sold a few copies. So ‘Gloria’ was supposed to be on the second. But what happened in the meantime was that Bert Berns came over. So he produced ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’, and a couple of other things. He didn’t want ‘Gloria’, because that wasn’t his song: he didn’t produce that. So it wasn’t really promoted at the time.”
The Shadows Of Night had a hit with ‘Gloria’ in the States. And it became a song that countess artists and bands learned to play – a garage band classic.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” Van says. “But I think that’s because it’s basically very simple. It’s a simple song. I think it was more like the vibe, and that you could extend it. It can be three minutes, six minutes, 10 minutes. Also this stuff played live was extended a lot more. Yeah.”
There is a storytelling element to it: was Van conscious of that at the time?
“Yeah, but in a very basic way, you know,” he says. “Nothing too complex. Later on, it became a lot more complex. I mean, how many lyrics does it have? It’s all squeezed into a couple of verses and a chorus. Other stories are much longer and long-winded, you know, but it wouldn’t be an essay. It would just be a compressed story in a song.”
A whole can of worms. Them had a second hit with a Bert Berns song ‘Here Comes The Night’ and travelled to the U.S. for dates in 1966, including one at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go where they were supported by The Doors. But it was falling apart and Van had wider musical horizons. He decided he’d had enough of the Machiavellian manoeuvrings. He left Them. He’d be master of his own destiny.
“I went to America as a solo act,” he remembers. “And nobody knew who I was. Everyone was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Because, apart from California, nobody really heard of Them. You know? So when I went solo, it was like ‘Who are you?’ kind of thing.
“So, at that time, my friend from California who opened for me at the whiskey, Jim Morrison – The Doors opened for me at The Whiskey when I did that in ‘66 – he had recorded ‘Gloria’ then. The Doors had it recorded. But again, for some weird reason, it was suppressed. They didn’t put it out. I met the producer, Paul Rothchild. And he said ‘Jim recorded that’, but it didn’t come out. Also, at the same time, I met Jimi Hendrix in a club too. I was talking to Jimi, and he said, ‘Yeah, I recorded ‘Gloria’’, and then it didn’t come out. So the actual time that it could have, like, boosted what I was trying to do there – those two versions didn’t come out until much later. So I think there was some kind of – is it a conspiracy they call it? There was something going on, where I was being suppressed deliberately, I think.”
YOU ONLY ANALYSE IT LATER...
You could write a book about Van’s showband years. “That’s a whole other story,” he quips. “I have a whole – I’ve almost a whole book. It’s so complex that you wouldn’t even believe it, that story.”
You could write a book about ‘Gloria’. You could also write a book about the Bang Records years that produced ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ – still one of the ten most played songs of all time on U.S. radio. Is there another song from the era, which better represents that moment for Van?
“‘T.B. Sheets’ probably represents what it was like at the time,” he says.
Like ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ’T.B. Sheets’ was used, without Van’s permission, on the album Blowin’ Your Mind, released by Bang Records in September 1967.
“It probably more represents the year before, but still represents the time, because that’s when I was staying at the Tropicana and Jim Morrison was staying at the Tropicana at the same time, and he never went to bed. He didn’t want to go to bed. So he used to be up all night. So he had like a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Well, that’s when I wrote ‘T.B. Sheets’.”
“And the sunlight shining/ through the crack in the window pane/ Numbs my brain,” Van sings. It is a feeling we all know.
“And then when I came back to Belfast,” he says now, “I actually recorded a version of it with my cousin on drums and the bass guitar player from Them again. And then, later on, I recorded in New York with Bert Berns, when I signed with Bang Records – so, to me, that would be more encapsulating those times.”
You could write a book about the ground-breaking Astral Weeks album released in 1968. Did it occur to Van that it might come to be seen as an important statement about Belfast? His response is fascinating.
“I don’t know. I mean, I think the whole thing behind that was pushing the packet and or pushing the envelope as they say now. Because it was about that certain period of time where, if you’re hip, you were listening to Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce. So there was like a kind of a Lenny Bruce cult, because Lenny Bruce was like pushing the envelope, way, way way out, and everything he was doing was pushing the boundaries. So, that was kind of what was going on.
“People were pushing boundaries on what were seen as taboo subjects. They were pushing all that. So I sort of got that idea from listening to Lenny Bruce, and also an album by Lou Rawls. He did these stream of consciousness raps. They were all probably written out, but it was very fast, jive language.
“Then, going back to folk music, when I was a kid, programmes had a lot of folk singers on TV. So there’s this programme, I think it was called Tonight. It was Cliff Mitchelmore, and he had a lot of folks singers on that. There was Rory and Alex McEwan, Allan Hall, Jimmy MacGregor, this guy called Steve Benbow – and there was, like, this calypso singer, Cy Grant. So, he used to do these calypso kind of things where he wasn’t using a lot of chords, but he was making up topical songs about what was in the news that day or that night.
“So that was part of how I got into it: the simplicity of the folk music and then you had the influence of the Black music on top of that, and pushing the boundaries with Lenny Bruce, where he was tackling the taboo subjects. It was a combination of all that, and picking up what people were doing and saying around me and putting it in the songs. I was like a receiver, picking stuff up about what people were saying and incorporating that into songs and pushing the envelope as far as West London at the time.”
Astral Weeks is a great title.
“There was a friend of mine who was in a band here, and he lived up the Limestone Road, and I used to go up there to rehearse. So these guys had an apartment up at Limestone Road, and they were into this ‘astral travel’ thing, and one of them did a drawing of how you do it. So we were sitting playing, and I asked, ‘What are these drawings’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s how you astral travel, that’s how you get out of your body’. So a mate had drawn it out. It has something to do with a glass of water and how you drink the glass of water, and this kind of ritual. So that’s where the title came from. Dr. John pointed out to me – he was a very hip guy – he said, ‘I bet Astral Weeks is w-e-a-k-s’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right’. That’s what I originally called it, and then I changed it to ‘weeks’. But, yeah.”
So the title came first?
“That’s what I’m saying, that title did come before the song. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I was just picking stuff up, you know? So I wasn’t doing astral travelling, these guys were. I wasn’t! I was basically writing about what they were doing, and incorporating other stuff. It’s giving the game away, you know? ‘Stranger in this world, travelling through this world,’ that’s John Lee Hooker. It’s all impressions. You’re picking up these impressions and it ends up in a song.”
I ask about the genius of ‘Moondance’ and the opening line, “It’s a marvellous night for a Moondance…” Was that something he visualised?
“I don’t remember, because that was an instrumental which I wrote in Notting Hill Gate,” he says.” It was a saxophone instrumental. I remember I rehearsed it with Peter Bardens and Mick Fleetwood was playing conga drums when I was rehearsing it. It was an instrumental for a while, and then when I was in New York I used to go up to the Warner Brothers office to write songs. That’s when I wrote the lyrics. I went up there to write every day.”
‘Into The Mystic’ is a song that seems to encapsulate a number of themes that recur in Van’s music. I mention the ‘gypsy soul’...
“Later it was ‘jellyroll soul’,” he says. “I changed it. See, these lyrics are interchangeable, so I change it to the ‘jelly roll soul’ sometimes. Which was a Charlie Mingus number. ‘You’re My Jellyroll Soul’.”
...And the days of old.
“Well that’s Robin Hood, isn’t it? ‘Back in the days of old’ is what they said in Robin Hood.”
And the phrase ‘Into The Mystic’…
“Well, you see, when I was writing these songs, I wasn’t dissecting what I was doing at the same time,” he says. “I was picking up impressions on a psychic level. Sometimes the impressions were, let’s say, a drawing. So that was like a physical impression that you see, but other impressions were coming from what Jung called ‘the subconscious mind’, or ‘the collective unconscious’. So, you pick up impressions – that’s one part. And then the writing songs process, that’s where it comes in. At the same time as it comes in, I’m not analysing what it is. You only analyse it later on, if you have to. But I don’t have to analyse it when I’m doing it. But these songs were written from a different place than, for instance, where I’d write a song now. It’s called ‘the unconscious’. Or ‘psychic’. You can use interchangeable words. Picking psychic impressions up.”
IT’S ALREADY THERE...
So many books that could be written. There is a sense in which Van Morrison makes the process of songwriting seem simple, but of course it is anything-but. ‘Rave On, John Donne’ is one of my favourite Van songs. Performed live it can take you to extraordinary places. Why choose John Donne as the focus?
“Because that’s what I was reading at the time,” Van says. “I was reading a book of his poetry. That’s where it came from. That’s what I’m saying: use everything. Or, you know, leave something out if you have to…”
I like the fact that he was a clergyman who wrote erotic poetry. He was a unique sort of figure.
“A lot of these – well, they didn’t have television for one thing,” Van says. “So an individual was an individual more so than today. And they usually had that kind of background: a Minister or a philosopher or an intellectual. They had a lot going. I mean as well as writing poetry.”
In relation to that dimension of spirituality or religion, is the journey more important than the conclusion?
“Well, we don’t know the answer to that. Nobody knows the answer to that question. That’s like, ‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?’ Nobody can answer that. It’s not possible."
I liked the album title No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.
“Krishnamurti. That’s where that came from. I was supposed to interview him. It was the Sunday Times: the guy from the Sunday Times couldn’t go, so he said to me, ‘I was supposed to interview Krishnamurti and I can’t go: why don’t you do it?’ He knew that I was into him. So I said okay. So I went down to Brockwood Park. I went to the house and there was a party going on (laughs), and it was like ‘Where is he? Where is he?’. Oh, he must have gone for a walk. So I went into the forest and I was walking around – he was just coming towards me and he was in a kind of a trance. I said, ‘Okay, okay, I can’t break that’.”
Did you just go home?
“Yeah, yeah, I couldn’t just say, ‘I’ve come to interview you’, when he was in the middle of a walking meditation.”
You alluded there to the idea that there is this completely unknowable dimension. Are you comfortable with that idea?
“Yeah, I think I am. Because nobody knows. At least, you can research this stuff. People called it different things at different times. You can re-search it. But you kind of put it in a context of 2020? I dunno. I certainly can’t say in 2020 it is this. But it’s got to do with what makes you tick. And why you get up in the morning. And what’s going on. What’s really going on.”
Listening again to ‘Crazy Love’, I was struck by the importance of phrasing. Is that something that comes from inside or is it something you can learn?
“Well, it comes from feeling. It’s all about feeling. Soul music is all about feeling it. It’s very close to gospel music. I put this idea out a couple of years ago and someone has just recently done a programme about it, but Sam Cooke is the secular version of soul music. Ray Charles was a secular version of soul music. It’s really gospel music with the words changed. It’s spiritual: that’s what it’s all about. So the black performers and singers were much better at this than we were, so they’re the teachers.”
Was ‘Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart’ a song about love or was it about something else?
“Again, it was an impression. I used to read a lot of stuff by the theosophical society. And I saw there was a meeting in San Francisco and I went to the address and got in, and went up, and it said on the door ‘Tonight: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’. And I thought, ‘That’s a song, it has to be’. It actually comes from George Bernard Shaw, apparently.”
Do you have to be in love to write a great love song?
“No. Absolutely not. I mean, they’re the easiest to write because you don’t have to be. They’re the archetypal songs. So if you listen to a lot of Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack ballads, Solomon Burke ballads… this is the way Bert Berns wrote. There’s the archetypical soul love song. It’s an archetype. But if you listen to, say, Bobby Womack, you’ll get it. If you listen to the ballads. That’s how it works.”
In musical terms, if I understand it right, part of what you’re searching for artistically is the ability to live in the moment or to be in the present in the music. Does that make sense to you?
“I’m not searching for it. I’m reconnecting with it. It’s not about searching for it. It’s about reconnecting.”
Can you explain that?
“Well, it’s about reconnecting with whatever you want to call it. Spirit. Soul. Whatever you want to call it. As Dave Allen said, ‘May God go with you’. Dave Allen, remember him? He said that at the end of every programme. So it’s whatever you’re connecting with. I’m connecting with something. Spirit. Soul. I’m re-connecting with it. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m not searching for anything. It’s already there. You have to connect with it.”
IT’S IN REAL TIME...
We’re coming towards the end of the conversation. I mention that a lot of people are very worried about the future at the moment and ask Van does that impinge on his way of looking at things at all?
“Yeah, it does impinge. Because – I’m writing about this stuff. I don’t know when I’m going to get it out. I’m negotiating a new contract to get the new stuff out. I think it’s a kind of Government over-reach. They shouldn’t be involved in anyone’s business in any way. They don’t have any business to be involved in my business. I can sit beside you. That’s my business. Why should they be involved in that?”
To get back to music, I say...
“It’s all connected, man,” Van points out. “It’s all connected. They want to stop music. Don’t you understand what’s going on? They’re trying to stop music. People need to wake up. This is not something in the future. It’s happening now. They’re talking here about another lockdown again, you know? People need to wake up. They want to cut it out completely, stop music. That’s what they’ve done. They’ve already, as you know, cancelled a lot of people’s business. They want us to go away.”
It’s true that the pandemic is hurting a lot of people very badly in music in particular.
“Well, where are they? I don’t see any of these people talking about it. Or standing up for themselves. I don’t see anybody. I have to do it because nobody else is doing it. The other one is Andrew Lloyd Weber. He’s trying. Other than that, I don’t see anybody.”
The frustration is understandable. People are having their livelihoods stolen from them. And Van is a musician first, last and always. He has written almost 500 songs. Even sitting down for 90 minutes, you can only begin to scratch the surface of the surface of everything he has done. Of everything he has achieved as an artist.
“Most of the stuff you’re asking me about is back in the days of old, but I’m writing different stuff now,” he says. “I don’t know how many people are aware of it, even, but I have to fight to get that out. Because record companies aren’t knocking on my door saying ‘where’s your new songs?’ And is anybody really interested? I don’t know. And with all this Spotify stuff – stupid stuff – that’s destroying what I do, because I’m selling like a whole album. It’s not one song, or two songs, or half a song… it’s a whole thing. So that’s what I’m trying to get across. Spotify doesn’t cater to people like me. I have to fight to get stuff out even now. It’s just the way it is.”
It’s your work. You have to get on with it. Van has no intention of dropping the ball.
“My day is about being as creative as I can be, in spite of everything,” he says. “It’s like Mose Allison said about me: in spite of the music business. I’ve always been in spite of the music business, because if I had to follow the music business, I’d never do anything. Because the music business is not happening. You have to make it happen. So my creative process has got nothing to do with what people think or with any mythology.
“It’s in real time. It’s not third party. It’s not, ‘Well, we think Van Morrison is this’. That’s third party stuff. That’s what I call it. So I can’t really relate to this point of view, ‘cos it’s not what I’m about. It’s like if I was repairing shoes, my day would revolve round that (laughs). What I am is a writer, a songwriter, a musician, a performer. The performing bit is on hold at the moment. But I’ve been writing songs since I was 17. It’s what one does.”
It’s all there in the song ’Songwriter’, on Days Like This.
“That explains it,” he says.
It also has a sense of humour.
“Hopefully. You need that. Sometimes. Don’t you? If you’re gonna make it through the day.”
Watch all of the performances from the Hot Press 'Rave On, Van Morrison' series, featuring Hozier, President Michael D. Higgins, Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, Sinead O'Connor, Bob Geldof, Andrea Corr and more, on the Hot Press YouTube channel.