Sunday 22 July 2018

'There's been so much written about me never smiling...which is absurd,' says a famously grumpy Van Morrison

Belfast singer has a reputation for being difficult, but as the 71-year-old tells John Preston in a rare interview, that's a misconception: he's really happy and optimistic

Van Morrison playing at his 70th birthday concert in 2015. Photo: PA
Van Morrison playing at his 70th birthday concert in 2015. Photo: PA

John Preston

Van Morrison doesn't give many interviews and those that he does do often leave his interviewers close to nervous collapse.

Bob Harris, the disc jockey, once interviewed him for a TV show and Morrison refused to say a single word throughout. No one in rock music, with the possible exception of the late Lou Reed, has such a reputation for bloody-mindedness.

All of which ensures that there's an unusually tense atmosphere in the hotel in west London where I am to meet him. His manager, his tour manager and a representative from his record company all stare anxiously at their watches as the minutes tick by. After half an hour, a small, tubby man in a crumpled purple shirt, a black leather cap and dark glasses strolls in - and all at once the air seems to tighten.

Morrison may be 71 now and recently knighted, but it swiftly becomes clear that neither age nor ennoblement has blunted his edges. I start by asking him if the way in which he writes songs has changed at all over the years.

There's a long pause, during which Morrison stares at me through his dark glasses.

"No," he says eventually.

Morrison pictured in the 1960s
Morrison pictured in the 1960s

Does he write as the mood takes him, or in sudden bursts of activity, I wonder.

"Sometimes ..." he mutters. "Sometimes not ... Sometimes I have to write to a deadline."

"Do you enjoy the pressure of that?"

"Not really, no."

And then, just as my morale is threatening to go into freefall, something quite unexpected happens. He chuckles and says, "But, you know, you can't win them all."

Something else about Van Morrison soon becomes clear - he considers himself to be a much-misunderstood man. Throughout his career, people have made what he believes to be the colossal mistake of assuming that his songs - there are more than 400 of them - are all about him.

"I can't stand all that analysing," he says. "And I think it's probably made me more self-conscious about what I was going to say. Because a lot of the time I'm writing songs that are nothing to do with me. I might pick up an ambience about a certain place or a certain time, and that will lead into a song. But my life isn't my songs - they're just something that I do in the same way that someone writes a script or a story. It's called poetic licence, although people don't seem to realise."

That said, there's a song on Morrison's new album, 'Roll with the Punches', called 'Fame' that seems unmistakably personal about the price he has paid for being famous: "Oh fame, they took away all my humanity," he sings. "Oh fame, got to fight every second of the day for my dignity."

"Ah well, that one's different," he concedes. "That's what I call a reality song. It would be about my life, yeah - and how I feel about the whole business of being famous, but those songs are few and far between."

Morrison has been famous for more than 50 years now. He was 19 when he had his first hit with Them in 1964, 'Baby Please Don't Go'. Right from the start he seemed possessed of a fully formed, forbidding stage persona.

But this, it seems, is another misconception.

Far from being gloomy, he was, he says, a happy, gregarious, confident boy - he was an only child - who was very close to his parents and shared their love of music. His father was a Belfast shipyard electrician and his mother had been a tap dancer in her youth.

What the young and seemingly sunny Morrison responded to most was the poetry of the Blues. "I connected with the lyrics from a working-class point of view. It seemed to me that the things that were being described weren't that different from what I knew. Some of these guys like Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker were totally uneducated, but they were great poets."

Fifty years on, Morrison says he still finds performing a trial. "It's always been a dilemma for me. I'm a very private person and in order to perform I have to be something I'm not - namely an extrovert. I've had several psychic readings about this stuff and I remember one woman saying to me once, 'You have the devil to pay'. And that is what it often feels like."

Morrison suspects he will never lose his reputation for being a colossal grouch. "I think there's been so much written about me being dead serious and never smiling and all the rest of it that the label will never go away. Which is totally absurd because there's a lot of humour in my work - at least I think there is - and as people who come to my gigs know, there's a lot of humour there too."

Our time is up and as I pack up my recorder, something else unexpected happens. Van Morrison takes off his dark glasses and looks faintly puzzled for a moment before breaking into a grin.

"Do you know, I enjoyed that," he announces.


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