- 09 Sep 20
Van Morrison has been called the Bard of Belfast, but that’s only the starting point. Because there is good reason to pay homage to him as the single most influential Irish musician of the past 100 years...
It’s 1964 and Them are on the Rediffusion TV show, Ready Steady Go, looking very much the part, punching out ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. It’s a stone cold classic, an inspired reworking of an old Big Joe Williams blues. You can find it on YouTube.
It’s grainy black and white and great, even if it’s also mimed. The producers favoured a club atmosphere and the audience spills into every frame. There’s an impressive confidence about Them. Hardly surprising when you consider they’d been playing in public since their early teens. And at the centre is Van Morrison.
Greatness has various definitions. Some focus on scale or quality of achievement in a given field. Innovation and sustained inventiveness feature too. And, of course, it’s applied to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others and who go on to fulfil that promise. But whatever metric you take, indeed even if you choose them all, greatness is the best and truest summation of Van Morrison’s stature and achievement in music.
It started well: he was the only child in a musical household. His mother Violet had been a singer and after recording a memorable 2018 interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One, Van sent O’Callaghan a tape of her singing ‘St. Louis Blues’. It was included in the interview and O’Callaghan commented that “there is no doubt where Van Morrison got his majestic voice.”
But being born with the gift of a golden voice is just the start. The gift can never sleep, as the biographies of the great musicians, writers, actors, painters and inventors attest. Van was literally steeped in music: his father George had lived in Detroit and returned with a vast collection of jazz, blues, gospel, folk and country records.
And then there was Belfast in the early 1960s. A new generation had begun to change the script, the music, the pictures and the fashion, especially in the manufacturing and trading cities of these islands. While all wasn’t well in Northern Ireland, music was common ground and the city generated a thriving jazz and blues scene centred on the Maritime Hotel, where Them’s performances attained legendary status. Belfast became the coolest music city in Ireland for a time, attracting musicians from everywhere, including Rory Gallagher, who went to live there.
Seeing Them on the telly was transformative in Ireland. Musicians hitherto inhibited by emigration and lucrative showband gigs embraced the possibilities of the group format. For the first time they began to think of doing it for themselves. Them, and then the solo Van Morrison, broke the mould.
But there’s more. While Astral Weeks didn’t sell well at the outset, its long-term impact in Ireland (and elsewhere) proved profound. It was lyrical, meditative and soulful, impassioned and impressionistic, wistful and elegiac. The instrumentation was sparse – acoustic guitar, string bass, drums brushed, some flute, some strings – and the playing was jazzy and folky, lithe and loose. Morrison sang of things lost – childhood, love, those
East Belfast streets – and found the epic and the transcendental in the everyday.
It was entirely new and powerfully influential. Even without noticing that it was happening, Irish musicians and composers broadened their vision, their sense of what was possible musically and lyrically. The idea of a Celtic imagination as it is now understood in music starts here. Indeed, when you look at where Irish music now stands, the formats, the themes, the way it’s recorded, played and heard in 2020, it’s clear that Van Morrison has ultimately been more influential than Séan Ó Riada, himself a crucial, seminal figure.
BREADTH AND AMBITION
Of course, musicians and composers might also learn as much from the way in which Van has been true to himself; and how he has never let up. All that he had absorbed in childhood and adolescence formed an apprenticeship. He listened to the lions and learned. Practice makes perfect.
That’s manifest in very many ways. For example, there’s his singing voice. He has extended his range over the decades. He sings differently, placing less stress on his vocal chords. It’s a kind of paradox: to ease the work of his voice he has to practice harder. Depth and tone follow. And what a voice! It’s quite unmistakable. Yes, there are many inflections, as from Sam Cooke and John Lee Hooker, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams, and more, and in turn, of course, you can hear Van Morrison in countless younger singers who followed in his wake – from Bruce Springsteen through Philip Lynott and Bob Geldof onwArds. But there’s only one Van Morrison.
He told us here, on one occasion, that he never does a song the same way twice and it’s true. He works a performance, each bar of each song offering opportunities to bend and shape, to hold or fold, to stretch or compress, to repeat, to mutter or stutter, to shout or to whisper, to tease or cajole, to celebrate or lament. And his phrasing is unique, daring, exhilarating, saxophonic.
Van’s music has never been overtly political. But a yearning for life beyond the Troubles is a thread that runs through his ouevre, not for the politics of the day but for the peace, the pleasures of the ordinary, of just being and doing, of enjoying good craic with friends, of loving and living.
The wistful punch-line at the end of ‘Coney Island’ never seemed to be just about driving there and scoffing potted mussels. It was about something deeper - wouldn’t it be great if it could be like this all the time? And, of course, as the Northern Ireland peace process gathered strength the song that many reached for was Van’s ‘Days Like This’. Happiness can be elusive. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to it: all of us.
Van Morrison is very Irish in the breadth and ambition of his music and its lyricism, spiritualism and reaching for transcendence. And in the melodic inflections that we see often in his music, and the storytelling too. He’s also very Ulster, and very Belfast, in his sense of purpose and the clarity and integrity with which he follows his own path.
ONE OF THE GREATS
Instinctively, he reflects a strong sense that what we have in common as people, not just on this island but further afield, is far more important than our differences. “Caledonia soul music, tell me what it is,” he sings, digging for the common roots that exist between the Northern part of Ireland and the North of Scotland. For Van, exploring and learning was always central to his mission.
Van has always stood apart from movements and schools of thought. He’s his own man, following his own road, working, seeking and searching. He is so singular an artist and his range of achievement so remarkable that the best comparisons are with the likes of Bob Dylan, Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Picasso, Hockney.
Were there such a position as Laureate for Music it should be his. There isn’t. But that doesn’t matter. His position in the pantheon is secure. He is truly one of the greats.