Sunday 16 December 2018

The passionate intensity of mis-matched lovers

Many people consider Van Morrison and Michelle Rocca to be one of history's great mis-matched couples. But who said that love has to make sense, asks Barry Egan

Many people consider Van Morrison and Michelle Rocca to be one of history's great mis-matched couples. But who said that love has to make sense, asks Barry Egan

IT moved like rubber. From left to right and back again. To the touch, there was almost nothing holding it in place. The bone seemed to be displaced. Frighteningly so. It was over six years ago, but the memory still lingers ...

In the front room of her small Booterstown house in 1993, Michelle placed my hand on her nose and showed me how the nose was broken by an unreconstructed ignoramus the year previously. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, I could feel her pain.

In the other room, Michelle's three kids, Danielle, Natasha and Claudia the rug rats as I called them were playing. She was crying as she told the story. She had shown me photographs of the bruises.

There was much to admire about Michelle Rocca. She was a single mother bringing up three children on her own. It was a non-stop grind of bringing the kids to school, cleaning toilets, cooking, picking the kids up from school, putting the kids to bed, cleaning toilets. Further indications of the mind at work behind the media image could be gleaned from the decisions this spirited thirty-something made throughout her short existence.

SHE took on the might of the Ryan Empire when she would have been better advised not to. She refused to back down. Bringing up her children without help, she has done things her way right from the beginning.

Of course, there was always an undercurrent of defiance to Michelle. The wording on the framed poster hanging on her kitchen wall in Booterstown back then in 1993 unwittingly seemed to say it all: ``Don't let the bastards grind you down.'' (Indeed, it is a line I have used to sign off every Christmas card I've sent to Michelle since.)

Coming from a large family two brothers and three sisters Michelle Rocca was born to be quick with the paralysing quip. She could put a heckler down quicker than Ben Elton. One night in the Shelbourne in 1995, Van introduced Michelle to Mick Jagger. Apart from a muttered ``owright'' he barely raised his head from his drink.

Michelle soon put manners on Mr Limping Hack Trash. ``I'm Italian, Mick. I believe you have an affinity for a certain Italian girl,'' she rasped gently, referring to Jagger's then public fling with Italian supermodel Carla Bruni. In a temper tantrum, Jagger stormed off like a spoilt but decidedly scalded cat. We couldn't contain our laughter. It wasn't the first time we would laugh like this.

Years before she met Van, Michelle and I were invited to a guy's hotel down the country. On the phone he had made it sound like it was Mount Juliet meets Versailles. There was supposed to be a sumptuous soirée on that evening so we went out of curiosity.

When we got down there it was toasted sandwiches around the pool table with his well-fed beer-belly dangling over it and nobody else. As the night progressed, he insisted we stay the night and swiftly ushered me into one room and Michelle into another.

Two minutes later, as soon as he was gone, Michelle came rushing in, saying we've got to get out of here quickly. Our host had been knocking at her door like Boris Karloff in some old movie. Seconds after Michelle set foot in my room, there was a gentle rap at the door. It was our genial host. ``Michelle! Are you in there? Michelle?''

For her part, Michelle was wearing the same face that Fay Wray wore when she first saw King Kong. Long of limb and quick of thought, she jumped into my wardrobe, pulling it closed behind her. I slowly opened the hotel room door and told our host that I didn't know where Michelle could be. He took some convincing. When he disappeared off to look for his imaginary Michelle Rocca, the real Michelle Rocca jumped out of the wardrobe wearing a bridal headdress she had found inside.

``We've got to get out of here!'' she said laughing. We ran down the corridor, past the reception, out the door and into her black BMW. In the spirit of all great jailbreaks, we were safely over the county line before our host even knew we were gone.

In any event, the guards must have thought they were seeing things that night with a woman in a white bridal headdress speeding through the night in a brakeless BM.

Some people are born in the place they're meant to be and whether it's Killiney or Kilmacud, they just stay put. Others are born with an uneasy sense that somebody has switched their labels at birth, and they'd better get going and find out where they're supposed to be.

Michelle always had that restless intensity, an irresistible curiosity about her. Hence the voracious reading, the studying of spirituality and philosophy, the yoga and meditation. Hence the law course she is currently studying at Trinity College. Once she decides to do something, she applies herself wholeheartedly. It consumes her. She would describe it as the passionate Italian in her.

SO where has she been 'til now? Like Lady Diana, she retired from public life in the mid-Nineties. Just as spectacularly as she had appeared (presenting the Eurovision with Pat Kenny a decade ago), Michelle vanished from the face of the earth. You never saw her, or heard from her. Apart from her little brother Bernard's wedding in 1997 I personally hadn't met her in over a year and a half.

Then last August, La Rocca ventured out of her Ballsbridge shell to come to the Bee Gees concert in Dublin with me and some close family and friends. ``Mr Egan, it's the return of the ghost,'' she joked self-mockingly as she arrived at the Berkeley Court an hour late (as usual).

Her mind clear as a breeze from a mediative yoga session, Michelle told me she had just finished reading Carl Jung. For the next 30 minutes my ears were red as she compared Mr Jung's work and ideas to those of Mr Freud's. This is to say nothing of bringing in some trenchant analysis of Deepak Chopra.

One thing was abundantly clear however Michelle had moved on in her life. It was obvious (though unsaid) that she wanted no part of Dublin's jaded charity set. The most important things in her life were her children and Van Morrison.

Though she danced to Saturday Night Fever backstage at the RDS, Michelle didn't seem to feel comfortable in the company of so many yakkety-yakking, staggering boring B-list celebrities, shovelling forkfuls of nosh into their mouths. Why? She was too busy filling my head with Jung and talk of finding the inner child.

People queue up to take potshots at Michelle's partner, George Ivan Morrison. No wonder he's paranoid. Critics who only had walk-on parts in the Nineties are only too eager to denounce a man who has had more ideas than they've had free lunches. Others, like myself, have found it difficult not to admire him.

Without him, the landscape of modern music would be a lot flatter. His unique gift allows him to transform everyday scenes into the most sublime poetry. His music is a supreme art with a timeless and almost religious truth (proof of which can be found on his brilliant new album Back On Top, out next week). For years he has worked selflessly with, and given breaks to, younger artists. Brian Kennedy, for example, is one who has absorbed from Van those lessons that cannot be taught.

I know from very personal experience that Van is a wholly decent man. He once intervened to physically pull an off-duty guard off me at a dinner party some years ago (I was kissing a woman, unaware that she was the guard's wife). My knight in shining Armani, Morrison stopped the guard from quite rightly strangling the life out of me good-oh.

Of course, he can be both a beguiling and a difficult figure. He's a bit of an awkward bastard, if truth be told (as we all can). His sense of self is as epic as his distrust of others and together they render him as impenetrable and imperious as he wants to be. Other times his morose isolation seems grim and unassuageable.

YOU feel sometimes that Van is one of those rare beings who finds in music a universe far more vivid and appealing than ``real'' life. He can be rude and bad-tempered but the sway he holds over others is due not to his temper but to a sweetness that emanates from him unexpectedly, like perfume from a thorny rose. Once you get past the protective barriers difficult admittedly he will not stop talking.

In a flurry of seemingly random ideas he'll eulogise Chet Baker, Nietzsche or Steiner (the inspiration for: ``If my heart could do the thinking and my head begin to feel, then I look upon the world, and you, and know what's truly real.'') before ending up talking about the origins of religion, the Pope, UFOs and how he believes that when he dies, that's the end. Nothing but ashes. This was one night in the Berkeley Court after a concert. On another long night, this time in Galway, I sat mesmerised as he and Georgie Fame sat up through the night, drinking and talking about old jazz greats.

The strange thing was that moments later it could be like you weren't talking to the same person. He had a way of making you feel like you were using him, just by being at the same table as him in a restaurant even though you were expressly invited, even though you might have met him a dozen times before.

His thriftiness the way he held out his hand for me to pay my share of the champagne one night in La Stampa didn't faze me. It is clearly a Protestant virtue, the result of his Belfast upbringing.

Then again, some months earlier in Fitzers in Ballsbridge he had been charm personified when introduced to my girlfriend although when she told him her starsign, he virtually leapt out of his seat: ``Gemini! Jesus! That's my ex-wife's starsign! Not good! Not good!''

Such apparent contradictions are the essence of Morrison. Indeed, the lyrical, elegiac bard you see onstage stands in stark contrast to the man that you meet an hour later in an Indian restaurant in Ballsbridge, chomping his way through a huge curry.

Van is the ice to Michelle's Mount Venusian fire. Anyone who thought their relationship was a peculiar but passing peccadillo had better think again. They are good for each other of course. Meet them over dinner and he will speak of exultation and transcendence while she talks of being on a spiritual path. Theirs is no ordinary chemistry.

* Van Morrison's new album, Back On Top, is out next week

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