Junk obscures our greatest treasure
Van Morrison hails from the wrong place to be recognised for the great artist that he is, believes Declan Lynch
Published 20/01/2008 | 00:00
If you've been paying very close attention, you'll be aware that it is 40 years since Van Morrison made Astral Weeks. In another 40 years, we may be celebrating this cultural landmark with the sort of frolics we see on Bloomsday. But I wouldn't be holding my breath about that.
Though he is arguably a greater artist than Joyce, Van is still coming from the wrong place as regards all that sort of carry-on. We still tend to reserve our "official" recognition for the arts of literature and drama and even painting, which are thought to belong to a higher realm than anything which emanates from the vicinity of rock 'n' roll.
There is no Van Morrison Summer School, at which learned papers are delivered, not by professors from Harvard and the Sorbonne, but by men who know men with names like Professor Longhair, professors in the New Orleans sense. Which of course is a higher sense, a higher sensibility.
And, yes, it is my contention that Van Morrison is a greater artist than Joyce, because it is my contention that Van Morrison is the greatest artist who has ever lived on this island, in any shape or form. He is greater than Joyce not just in terms of his achievement, but because his work appeals to a wider audience without sacrificing anything in terms of its rigour and complexity.
Both men were innovators, with Joyce drawing on the ancient works of the Greeks, while Van connected with the primal source of the blues. But Ulysses remains a book that few have read and appreciated in its entirety -- unlike Astral Weeks, which is loved by all decent people who have heard it.
Joyce, of course, created other perfect works of art, but then so did Morrison. The album Moondance is a perfect work of art. There are numerous individual songs -- Gloria, Here Comes the Night and Brown Eyed Girl -- that are perfect works of art, and he was only getting warmed up.
You might compare Morrison's development to that of an iconic figure such as Stevie Wonder, but Stevie was working in the musical culture of his native land. Morrison was coming from Belfast, which meant that Stevie Wonder, though blind and black, was starting from a better place in so many ways. Yet Morrison mastered the music of America while he was still a young man, and soon he was improving it.
Is he better than Yeats? Usually, I bow to no-one in my admiration for Yeats, but again, Morrison must be regarded as the greater artist, simply by virtue of
prowess as a performer. Some might argue that Yeats's words look more
impressive on paper than Morrison's, yet Morrison's magnificent voice is an essential element of his work, which ultimately gives his finest recordings the edge over anything by Yeats. They just sound more beautiful.
But I can't be too harsh on the academics here, because there was a time when I too did not fully comprehend the stature of Van Morrison. Of course I knew he was great, but I did not know how great he was. Because, as a creature of the media age, I became distracted by his appalling attitude to journalists. I could never understand why he chose to do interviews at all when they seemed to disturb him so much. I particularly recall a long and harrowing piece in the NME in which a journalist and Morrison fan called Tony Stewart felt he had been horribly humiliated by his hero. The fact that so many of his victims were ardent fans made Morrison's obnoxiousness seem especially harsh.
I realise that none of that matters. I think of William Faulkner's line about the ruthlessness of the writer: "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The Ode On a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies."
Likewise, Tupelo Honey is worth any number of rock journalists.
The more I understood the extent of Morrison's greatness, the more I felt at ease with the depth of his rage. Because it is so hard to make good art in this world, let alone great art.
I believe the world in general does not welcome great art, because great art tends to be disturbing in some fundamental way. So for the artist, the struggle is monumental both in terms of creating the art in itself, and creating it in the knowledge that the world will try to put him down at every turn.
In the case of Morrison, in some perverse way the world would have preferred if he had remained a journeyman on the showband circuit, rather than the awesome force which he was becoming.
But he made it through. And while the struggle for excellence didn't turn him into the sort of guy who might be sitting there with Derek Mooney chatting enthusiastically about his new album, again it needs to be stated that none of that matters a damn.
If anything, there is even less chance in 2008 than in 1968 that the true nature of Morrison's achievement might be appreciated. It's not that the junk is getting worse, it's just that there's so much more of it.
We are inundated. We hardly even bother discriminating any more between good and bad, let alone between the good and the great. Let alone between the great and the greatest of the great.
And, yes, the men who illuminated the Book of Kells will have their supporters, as will the ancients who wrought those Celtic treasures, along with the usual Irish checklist of poets and playwrights.
But there is no doubt in my mind that we are living in the time of the greatest of the great, and that most of us don't know it yet.