- 17 Sep 20
Darran Anderson grew up in Derry, a story he has told in his powerful and widely acclaimed memoir, Inventory. Along the way, he encountered the work of the man they call The Belfast Bard, Van Morrison. This is what he found…
Some songs are so perfect, it feels like they have always been there. ‘Moondance’ might have been released in 1970 but it sounds like it belongs to the swing era. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ sounds, for good and ill, like we’ve somehow all known it since before we were born.
There’s a danger of losing perspective, when music fits into our lives so seamlessly, and taking the talent and idiosyncrasy of the performer behind it for granted. Van Morrison’s songs were played so often, growing up in the north, that they became almost ambient or as Erik Satie put it, ‘furniture music’.
They featured everywhere from raucous weddings to anti-sectarian advertisements on the TV. You knew every word long before you knew who he was or that he came from, roughly, the same place as you.
I remember the first time I consciously listened to Van Morrison, the first occasion when I realised there was something unique and brilliant at work. As a boy, I used to sift through my Da’s boxes of records, when he was at work, looking for the weirdest album sleeves to fixate on, in absence of art. At that age, you tend to be drawn to surrealism, skipping over the blues albums, and gravitating to prog rock. It didn’t matter how unlistenable it was, provided there was an alien landscape to roam in my imagination (as Derry and the rest of the north went to hell outside).
One day, I chanced upon the album Hard Nose The Highway. I spent hours trying to decipher that cover, front and back. I still haven’t worked it out. Even though I was very young, I’d heard a lot of ‘70s concept albums by that stage and braced myself for Merlin on Ice or some such monstrosity but this was different. It was cool and soulful and laidback. I was nodding along as ‘Snow In San Anselmo’ gradually started to get quicker, kicking into full-blown jazz and then suddenly a choir burst through in a way that jolted me so much out of my pleasant daze that, panicking, I yanked the plug out of the socket. I felt, in that moment, genuinely frightened by what I’d heard and naturally I’ve been hooked on his music ever since.
When you find an artist, a writer or a musician who has been creating for decades, it feels like you’ve discovered a planet that you’ll spend the rest of your life exploring. And you’re drawn to different places in the catalogue as you get older. It might be the pristine rawness of Them and how they made Dylan sound mysterious and sexy in ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. It might be the immediacy of Moondance, the first five songs of which sound convincingly like a Best Of, peaking with the sublime ‘Into The Mystic’, which is just as transcendent a thousand listens later as the first time.
It might be the long hypnotic tracks (‘Listen To The Lion’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Almost Independence Day’, ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches…’ etc) that listened to at the right time in the right place, you might lose yourself in. It might be the way ‘T.B. Sheets’ begins with this impossibly cool groove, like slow motion cinema, but lures you deeper and deeper into a fever dream where the walls are closing in. Or how, after that fever broke, Morrison brought out Astral Weeks, which still sounds like its own entrancing world.
Aside from the songs, and that’s a big aside, there are two reasons I love Van Morrison’s work. The first is to do with time. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky spoke to a New York Times reporter once of his childhood, as an older man in exile in the U.S. “I remember myself, age five, sitting on a porch overlooking a very muddy road,” he said. “The day was rainy, I was wearing rubber boots, yellow, no, not yellow, green, and for all I know I’m still there.”
While I was writing my recent book Inventory, which is about memory, family and growing up during the Troubles, I kept thinking of those last words, to the extent I was haunted by the beauty and melancholy of them, “and for all I know I’m still there.” Van Morrison’s music has that elegiac quality. It’s there explicitly in the lyrics of songs like ‘And It Stoned Me’, ‘Sweet Thing’ and ‘On Hyndford St’ – a feeling that permeates so much of his work and transcends language. It is a vivid yet fragmentary and impressionist evocation of childhood and all the possibilities that lay ahead, and yet it is already tinged with the first colours of autumn.
The loss is already there in the sense of emerging wonder and it is all the more intoxicating for it. Reading Stuart Bailie’s excellent forthcoming book 75 Van Songs, I was reminded how much Morrison’s music made, and continues to make, you nostalgic for times and places you have never been.
EMPATHY AND SPIRIT
The second reason, for loving his work, is a sense of place. When I first moved to Belfast as a teenager, I was under the dangerous spell of romanticism and embarked on a series of Astral Weeks-led pilgrimages in a city that, back then, put the psycho in psychogeography. Having grown up in a working class Republican part of Derry, I wasn’t usually naïve but I felt somehow protected by the music, playing his albums on a ridiculous portable device that spun CDs in your coat pocket, as I ventured into forbidden parts of loyalist East Belfast (which was Mordor to someone from my background, just as Derry was Mordor to them).
It wasn’t long before I was dramatically relieved of my gullibility, and yet leafy Cyprus Avenue was tantalisingly close to the arcadian vision I had dreamt of listening to Morrison’s music. To travel into parts of the city, the country, where the kerbstones were painted different colours from ours was perilous, treasonous even. And yet Van Morrison’s music crossed over, via the radiowaves.
Asking my father once about what the Troubles in the ‘70s were like, a time that swallowed up many of his family, he ended up recounting how he’d seen Van with his Caledonian Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury, London, a show that was immortalised on the superb live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now. It was like listening to a man, with a deep poignant kind of joy, describe a brief glimpse of another world.
Van Morrison was never a polemic figure. He no doubt understands that explaining his music is like undertaking a live autopsy, which partly explains his caginess with interviewers. He didn’t set out to defy the either/or binary of Northern Ireland. He didn’t need to explain that you can be both an East Belfast musician and an Irish poet (and vice versa). He just did his own thing and thus embodied a different way of being and showed us another way forward, or rather many ways.
And perhaps he tired of all this talk of the past. He’s an artist who has always moved on. So, he’s moving on. And so, if our luck, empathy and spirit hold out, are we.
- 'Inventory' by Darran Anderson, published by Penguin, is out now.
- Feature photo by Liz Seabrook.
Purchase our special Rave On, Van Morrison issue below.