Van prepares to take us on a rare Moondance
Morrison's love life will add a certain frisson to his gigs here, the first in years, writes Barry Egan
A bucolic summer's day in 1989. And in a manicured English country garden, appears a 71-year-old man sporting a floppy hat and a large, pink, penis-shaped false nose, held on precariously by an elastic-band. He is careering after another man in the garden. Both men are soon in stitches. It was a very rare sight indeed to see Van Morrison literally shaking with laughter.
But then the other man was Spike Milligan, timeless Goon, creator of 12-man-a-side porridge, author of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, as well as Puckoon ("Many people die of thirst but the Irish are born with one") and general comic god.
With the birds singing in the English country trees and the sun over head, Van reflected on tuning into The Goon Show on the radio during his childhood in Belfast: "He was always just there," Van recalled to Q magazine of Spike. "Sunday mornings, if I remember, was The Goons, then Round The Horne, Jimmy Clitheroe, they all seemed to be on Sunday. The Goons were huge in Ireland: kids I grew up with talked like that all the time."
At this point, Spike let out a chuckle-cum-roar: "My brain hurts!"
Journalist Paul Du Noyer, who set up the legendary meeting for Q magazine at Van's suggestion, later remembered that "we arrived to find Spike a most hospitable man. He did everything to make Van relax, and virtually tricked him into doing photos".
Morrison is, of course, an infamous curmudgeon. A onetime member of his group recalled an all-night debate with the Belfast sage-cum-singer. After endless debate back-and-forth, the musician decided to allow Van to be victorious in the argument (believed to be about philosophy.) "I agree with you, Van," he said, drained.
"You what?" shot back the burly Belfast superstar.
"What you said. I agree with it."
"Well in that case," Van answered, finally, "in that case, you're wrong!"
Van Morrison is unarguably the greatest singer-songwriter this country has ever produced (whatever about the crankiest). I recall being backstage at the sunlit Hop Farm festival in Sussex two summers ago when Van appeared with his entourage and I made my excuses and left. Still, you have to admire his musical genius, his fearless artistic integrity. Paul Durcan once said that no other Irish poet -- writing either in verse or in music -- has "come within a Honda's roar of Kavanagh and Morrison".
I have seen Van maybe 30 times in concert over the years and he is never less than inspired and inspirational, the performer serving as some sort of conduit. Like many men my age and older, I imagine, I find myself listening to Van's albums such as 1974's Veedon Fleece, 1979's In The Music and 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher searching for answers, for meaning. As Van sings on Summertime In England: "It ain't why, why, why. It just is."
It is a mystery that will never be solved how such an uncommunicative man can have written such works of heartbreakingly graceful, beauty as Astral Weeks -- a masterpiece of a record, made when Van was just 23, that is unlikely to be surpassed for its artistic vision. Declan Lynch wrote in this paper in 2008 thus: "And yes, it is my contention that Van Morrison is a greater artist than Joyce ... 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."
Iconic US rock critic Lester Bangs famously remarked: "Van Morrison was 22 or 23 years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it." Lifetimes ahead of the rest of us, Van was also the master of impressionistic sketches: "If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dreams," he sings on the opening lines of Astral Weeks.
And you will still hear milkmen and window cleaners whistling the tune to Brown Eyed Girl. Asked by Time magazine a few years ago did he ever think songs like Moondance and Brown Eyed Girl would still be on the radio 40 years after he wrote them, Van replied in the negative. "Brown Eyed Girl I didn't perform for a long time because for me it was like a throwaway song. I've got about 300 other songs I think are better than that."
Van has an incredibly powerful voice onstage and on record; when he sings "I just want to rock your soul, baby," at the end of Into the Mystic, you feel your soul jumping to Van's command.
Greil Marcus, who wrote the fascinating tome When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, said recently "There's never been a Van Morrison album that I haven't immediately listened to, whether with delight or crushing disappointment."
There's been rather more of the latter with Van's musical output over the last few years, in my humble opinion. Perhaps his mind was elsewhere at times? "I was flabbergasted by the headlines," Van sang on Rough God Goes Riding (from the 1997 album The Healing Game.) Not as flabbergasted as the rest of us were by the headlines in late December 2009 that Van had had a baby with another woman.
The reclusive Ulsterman, who never speaks about his private life, broke his silence in a statement in December 31, 2009: "For the avoidance of all doubt and in the interests of clarity, I am very happily married to Michelle Morrison with whom I have two wonderful children. We spent a quiet Christmas all together in Dublin", thinking it would be the end of the matter. It was very much not the end of the matter, however. The rest, of course, is hysteria. It soon emerged, uncomfortably for the singer, that 65-year-old Van had had a love child, George Ivan Morrison III, by vivacious fortysomething Texan blonde, Gigi Lee.
Will there be a public backlash of sorts about the media revelations when Van plays his first Irish gigs in over a decade in February?
Robert Hilburn wrote in the LA Times in 1997, Van will continue to enchant audiences as long as he steps up to a microphone."
Let's hope that is the case when Van plays Dublin and Belfast concerts next year. I wonder will romantic classics like Tupelo Honey, Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl and Have I Told You Lately That I Love You still resonate like before with the audience because of what has gone on in Van's romantic life over the last two years. Who knows? Maybe as Van might say himself: It is not why, it just is.
Van Morrison plays The Odyssey Belfast February 3, The O2 Arena Dublin February 4, 2012.
Tickets limited to four per person, on sale Thursday November 10 at 8am.