Monday 19 November 2018

A portrait of Van the real man, at last

Myles McWeeney

ONE of Britain's most celebrated showbusiness biographers has just published an exhaustive study of Belfast's most famous musical son, Van Morrison. Johnny Rogan has spent more than 20 years researching the reclusive, difficult and enigmatic singer's life and his book, Van Morrison: No Surrender, has taken him four years to write.

It provides revealing insights into the character and motivation of one of Ireland's greatest songwriters.

A woman friend of Van Morrison remarked to his biographer, Johnny Rogan, that the Belfast-born singer wasa victim of his looks. "He emerged in the Sixties when everyone was beautiful andhe wasn't. He had nothing that made beautiful. He didn't even have a beautiful personality . . . he had this greatchip on his shoulder abouthis looks. It made himvery cranky."

For a man so signally unfortunate in the male beauty stakes - when he had hair, it was red and curly, he was pudgy and had a pot belly, and he was very short and bore an unfortunate resemblance to the comedian Charlie Drake - Morrison has managed to attract a fair share of very beautiful women to share parts of his life.

Shortly after he and his band, Them, arrived in the United States to try to break into the charts there, he met 19-year-old Janet Rigsbee, a Californian-raised Texan whose "beauty, innocence and optimism" was immediately attractive to the gruff and reserved Northerner.

An aspiring actress, Rigsbee had never been to a rock concert before - Simon and Garfunkel were more her speed. She made a big impression on Morrison, but, inevitably, touring with a band in America meant she had to be left behind in San Francisco and the nascent romance was conducted by mail. They didn't meet again until Morrison arrived in New York more than a year later.

A lot had changed in Janet Rigsbee's life. She had embraced the flower-power hip pie trappings of the time and become interested in astrology. She called herself Janet Planet, had married, given birth to a son and divorced. But when she came to New York with her son Peter, Morrison was delighted to see her and, to the rest of the band's relief, she brought stability to his life.

They married and went to live in a remote community in up-state New York near the famous Woodstock farm. In 1970, they had a daughter, whom they christened Shannon Caledonia Morrison - her middle name, Johnny Rogan claims, betraying her father's fascination with his Scottish Presbyterian roots.

Beautiful as she was, and incredibly supportive and encouraging about his work, Janet Planet's affection for the hippie life became irritating to Van.

"I was never a hippie," he declared with some vehemence. "A lot of people think you're a hippie because of long hair and a beard . . . I had long hair and a beard because where I lived it was extremely cold. Why are you laughing? I never had it in the summer."

Janet, however, gave another view on the approaching disintegration of their marriage. "He is incredibly Irish to live with, and he's different too. He doesn't like a lot of people around. With more than two people he gets uncomfortable. He doesn't like the idea of all those people looking at him. Really he's a recluse. We never go to parties, we never go out. We have an incredibly quiet life and going on the road is the only excitement we have."

She finally left Morrison in November 1972, stating that as she drove away from their home for the last time, Janet Planet ceased to exist.

"Janet Planet was never my name until I met Van and it just came out of his mouth one day. Pretty much the minute we parted and divorced, that was the end of Janet Planet. It was a four-year deal."

After the divorce, Morrison had a series of relationships, all of which he kept under wraps as far as the press was concerned, and the next beauty to become his public companion came into his life shortly after he moved to Dublin in the early 90s.

Morrison was introduced to former model, Miss Ireland and Eurovision presenter Michelle Rocca at a charity fundraiser in Desmond Guinness's home, Leixlip Castle. He was immediately drawn to the strikingly attractive brunette and, accustomed to being fawned upon wherever he went in Dublin, he was somewhat charmed by the fact that Michelle actually hadn't a clue who he was. He would probably have been a little less charmed if he'd learned the fact she actually though he was Val Doonican, a man 17 years his senior.

It was only when she'd cheekily demanded he sing her a song to prove he was a musician that his real identity dawned on her.

"Are you the guy who sang Brown Eyed Girl? she asked, and then joked, "Do youown the rights to that? Well,I have two brown-eyed daughters, would you give methe rights?"

Morrison, usually terminally shy around beautiful women, was entranced by Rocca's insouciant impudence and the fact she wasn't totally in awe of him. Her beauty and confidence were a winning combination as far as he was concerned.

Her first impressions of the singer weren't quite as positive; she thought him terribly unsophisticated in comparison to the other guests at the Guinness table, clearly "no oil painting" and "a little bit obnoxious", but nonetheless, they spent much of the evening together and found they shared a dry sense of humour.

They got on so well, in fact, that they became an item and their comings and going were charted in Terry Keane's compelling column in the Sunday Independent .

In her own inimitable style, Terry poked wicked fun at the media-phobic singer and his new friend. On June 27, 1993, in a feature titled 'I Van to Hold Your Hand', Terry wrote, "Michelle Rocca is having an intensely platonic relationship with Van Morrison. She and Van looked a cosy item the other night in the Shelbourne before they headed off, chastely holding hands, to Bad Bob's with their pals Shane MacGowan and Fiachna O Braonain, head strummer with the Hothouse Flowers. Michelle insists there is no romance. Van, she says, thinks she has a nice personality, and that she understands him and she looks after him when he is in Dublin. Sounds like the basis of a very good non-platonic relation ship to me."

Rogan details how Terry Keane continued to chart the couple's movements, but says she needed a picture badly. Then a photographer captured the perfect image. Morrison had stumbled on leaving a premises and Rocca grabbed his arm to stop him falling. His head almost landed on her chest, his eyes inches from her covered breasts. Keane responded with one of her finest and funniest pieces.

"When it comes to protesting too much, Michelle Rocca leaves Lady McBeth in the ha'penny place! But despite denials of any romance as mere rumour, Van the Man and Michelle the Model con tinue to Rocca'n'roll their way around nightclubs.

"Michelle says their relationship is platonic (though in his case it looks more gin 'n' platonic, he certainly looks a few horse power short of a Van!). Clearly Michelle gives him a place to rest his weary head - a head which, I must say, makes a coot look positively hirsute. A picture paints a thousand words - and platonic just doesn't make the list. It could be that Michelle is 'in-denial' over this romance business - once bitten etc. Perhaps she should just say 'I Van to be alone'."

Other columnists quickly hopped onto Terry's band wagon, to the bewilderment of both Michelle and Van. Why the fascination? "You tell me," Rocca retorted. "I don't know. And the poor man doesn't understand it either. He hasn't had any publicity for 27 years. He hates it but I say, 'well, you sure picked the wrong girl to be friends with'."

The animated Rocca was certainly not content to play the part of Morrison's passive muse. "A muse to me is a house," she once quipped.

Instead, at the singer's suggestion, she took on a Linda McCartney role as the singer's onstage adjunct. "I can't sing and I can't dance, so I'll just recite some poetry," she explained to the audience, clutching a copy of Paul Durcan's collection, Give Me Your Hand.

As Rogan says, in addition to acting as Morrison's fashion consultant, reciter in residence, public relations guru and social companion, she became involved in planning an all-star tribute album bringing together such Dublin habitues as Sinead O'Connor, Phil Coulter, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and actor Liam Neeson. When the album, No Prima Donnas - the Songs of Van Morrison, appeared it was Rocca's face that graced the front sleeve.

For the next few years the relationship blossomed - Rocca even appearing on the cover of Morrison's 1995 album, Days Like This, the first woman to share a album cover with him since his marriage to Janet Planet.

Until then, he had always kept his personal relationships undocumented by the press, and no known pictures of him with either Carol Guida, Ulla Munch or Mira Radkovich existed. He seemed to have thrown a lifetime of reticence to the wind. Rocca and he were enjoying life, and, Rocca, always good for a quote, said more about Morrison in a single interview than Janet Planet had in an entire marriage.

Nor was it left just to Rocca to illuminate the world. The relationship with Van drew plenty of tabloid interest over the years, and in February 1997 it was Michelle who once again hit the headlines when she took a civil action against Cathal Ryan her former lover and father of her third child, for assault back in 1992 when she had found him in bed at a party with another woman. Rocca won the case and was awarded £7,500.

Van supported her throughout the trial, and had allowed himself to be photographed on the steps of the Four Courts with her. But from that moment on, Michelle and Van Morrison have conducted their lives, currently in Bath, England, without recourse to the Irish media and are now virtually invisible.

Discretion is the name of the game.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section