Van Morrison at 70: sensitive soul who's just misunderstood
Van the Man has a reputation as a curmudgeon but long-time fan Dave Fanning says the Belfast bard has earned our respect with a stellar career
With what most people would probably assume is quite an unVanlike utterance, Mr Morrison released a statement a couple of years back to tell us how delighted and honoured he was to receive the Freedom of his home city. "Belfast is my home", he said.
"It's where I first heard the music that influenced and inspired me. It is where I first performed and it's somewhere I have referred back to in my songwriting over the past 50 years."
And then, on the night he received the award, he played a free concert to round off Belfast's fourth annual Music Week.
Big words, big gesture from one of rock's most notoriously renowned curmudgeons. Or maybe he just doesn't suffer fools gladly. Anyhow, who says that being obscure, wilful and portentous is a bad thing?
I've met him a few times; not sure about charming, but I always found him engaging and well up for a chat. Once, on the altar of a church in Bristol (recording a Channel 4 show), I interviewed him for an hour. He was brilliant, gruff, opinionated and full of enthusiasm.
Then again we had arranged for him to play to a small, select audience with Mose Allison, one of his heroes and Van has always respected his heroes (Ray Charles, Jelly Roll Morton etc.), most of whom sprung from his father's huge record collection.
From Brits to Grammys, Hollywood's Walk of Fame to an OBE, Van's the recipient of just about any honour that can be bestowed on one man, and even though his music has embraced folk, country, blues, jazz and rock, his real legacy is not just his last 25 albums, it's most particularly the remarkable first 10, from 'Astral Weeks' to 'Wavelength'.
Van's own willingness to so enthusiastically embrace his early days suggests, possibly, that at 70, he might be mellowing with age. A few years back he played a handful of shows where he revisited his '68 classic 'Astral Weeks', an album he'd never previously performed live.
The experiment even mushroomed into a live (at the Hollywood Bowl) album. Then he toured it for the best part of a year and even sanctioned a performance/ interview/rehearsal/behind-the-scenes, feature-length documentary which focused on the rediscovery of the album.
Although it never even vaguely troubled the UK or US album charts, 'Astral Weeks' is a work full of tranquil, vibrant moments from another dimension and so obviously brilliant and unique that it regularly tops lists of the greatest albums of the 1960s. Throughout his long career, it served as a metaphor for his history of breaking boundaries and pushing artistic limits.
The follow-up, 'Moondance' was a huge critical success and - by Van standards anyhow - a commercial success also.
A couple of years back, Van's record company reissued 'Moondance' with all sorts of bells and whistles including a staggering five-disc deluxe edition of the album with remastered expanded versions of the songs and no less than 50 unreleased tracks.
So, Van is seriously loosening up these days, right? Not exactly. A statement on his website tells us: "I did not endorse this, it is unauthorised and it has happened behind my back. My management company at that time gave this away 42 years ago and now I feel as though it's being stolen from me again".
It is well-documented that Van, even more than most of his peers, was exploited in his early days. In '68, Them, his band and the R'n'B band of Belfast, had broken up and the vibes were not good.
Solo life stuttered into problems at every turn, intensifying the professional grievance that he's nurtured throughout his career. When his manager and publisher Bert Berns died suddenly, Van recorded a barrel-load of mischievous nonsense pieces in an attempt to fill contractual obligations.
To record 'Astral Weeks', his label Warners paired him with a bunch of sessioners in an attempt to get the album finished in just a few days.
It was all dangerously loose - so much so, that the flute player doesn't get a credit because no one could remember his name.
Van himself claims no credit for so many of the things that mark the album down as the unique work that it is including the song sequence, the side-titling ('In the Beginning' and 'Afterwards') and even the playing and instrumentation.
Van wanted a more ambitious and operatic work and what we got was a one-of-a-kind spiritual communion of harmonious beauty. Of course, the album wasn't particularly well-received and it sold poorly. After all, from the outset it was an afterthought from so many of those involved. As the years allowed the mystique to blossom, it's now generally regarded 'Astral Weeks' as one of the greatest albums ever made.
Last time I saw Van play live, it was an odd one. The night at Dublin's Olympia last December was divided into two halves. The first consisted of an interview - a loquacious Van with Scottish writer Ian Rankin on one side, Eamonn Hughes, the compiler of Van's songs as page-poetry in the collection 'Lit Up Inside', on the other.
Van seemed well up for it, regaling us with stories of his youth and the respect and love he holds for his musical heroes. He was scary in the second part - the live concert bit - and brilliant.
It's impossible to tell if he and his band were under-rehearsed. The tension was palpable. He was in no mood for taking prisoners or allowing mistakes from his musicians or his roadcrew. No one was going through the motions, everyone was on their game and the result was the best gig I've seen him play in years and far superior to the Dublin 02 gig from a couple of years earlier where he huddled with his co-conspirators on a huge stage.
Van's always maintained his integrity and pursued his own private vision on his own terms, and by doing it his way, he's created a legacy of unique music. Occasionally he meanders meaninglessly, but through it all, his singing is a testament to the expressive powers of the human voice.
Down through the decades we've been presented with a sensitive man, constantly grappling with the cosmic wonders of pure spirituality. While I'm all for nourishment for the spirit, I prefer his roots-based music - or at least when he sticks to the music of images and visions. Whatever, he has followed his muse more consistently than any of his peers.
And what was he doing for his birthday yesterday? Playing a gig in at his inspirational Cyprus Avenue in Belfast.