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Love lost in the myths of time

Barry Egan on Janet Planet, Van Morrison's original Brown Eyed GirlSUMMER, 1971. Flower child Janet Planet ordered her husband to pack their worldly belongings into the back of their beat-up car and prepare to leave. Van Morrison was perplexed, but he was soon shuttling all he could carry into the four-door Audi.

The reason for this state of panic was that their babysitter had gone to a fortune teller who had a vision that astronauts had seen a piece of California break off into the ocean. The Morrison family's fear was further accentuated when Janet had a dream that the Big One hit and their house in Marin County slid down a hill.

In any event, Van, Janet and their baby daughter Shana all drove due east as far as Albuquerque where they remained until, Janet told the LA Times in 1998, ``some astronauts circling the Earth at the time landed''.

On last year's Back On Top album, Van included an oblique reference on Goin' Down Geneva to a character named Vince Taylor. For UFO aficionadoes like Van however, Taylor is far from being an insignificant character. An oddball American singer, he was, in fact, the inspiration behind David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Bowie met him in London in 1971 whereupon Mr Taylor opened up some elaborate maps on the pavement in Oxford Street and, according to Bowie, ``showed me where all the UFOs were going to be landing shortly. And so Vince kind of became a role model for the Ziggy-type character.''

One night in the early Seventies, Vince walked out onstage dressed as Jesus and said, ``I won't be needing this band anymore. In fact, I won't be needing any of you. 'Cause I have places to go, and a father to return to.''

For the record: one of the last conversations I had with Van Morrison in Dublin a few years ago was about UFOs and his belief in them. But then Van Morrison to his eternal credit always did talk like he had just auditioned for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Witness the tete-a-tete which the Buddha of Belfast had with that other space traveller, Spike Milligan, in 1995...

Spike Milligan: ``Have you seen Paddy Moloney recently?''

Van: ``No, d'you know him?''

Spike: ``Oh yes, he's a rugger fan like me. Are you into rugby, Van? No? Porridge?''

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Van: ``Oh yes, porridge.''

Spike: ``Porridge. It's a better game. Twelve-man-a-side porridge!''

JANET Rigsbee (Van nicknamed her Janet Planet very late Sixties) was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and brought up outside San Francisco. Her mother was a dedicated elementary school teacher with a secret drinking problem. When Janet met 20-year-old Van Morrison, she was making ends meet as an actress in commercials and had been divorced once.

Received mythology has it that she ventured down a dark alley in San Leandro one evening and was stopped in her tracks by the sight of the Belfast boy with the baker's belly, skin the colour of boiled cabbage and whose gruff voice she secretly adored. ``I looked at him,'' she said, ``he looked at me and it was alchemical whammo.''

Alchemical whammo or not, Van and Janet jumped the broom in New York in 1968, ``as poor as church mice'', she remembered. Within a year, Van, Janet and her son Peter had quit Gotham for a house in hippy-central Woodstock.

According to Janet's slightly dope-addled recollection of the odyssey from city to countryside, the move was mostly inspired by her new husband's desire to be in the vicinity of Bob Dylan, who was a resident. ``Van fully intended to become Dylan's best friend, but the whole time we were there, they never met,'' Janet said as she related the memory to the LA Times in 1998. ``Every time we'd drive past Dylan's house Van didn't drive, I did Van would just stare wistfully out the window at the gravel road leading to Dylan's place. He thought Dylan was the only contemporary worthy of his attention. But back then, Bob just wasn't interested in him.

``Van would sit in front of a two-track, reel-to-reel recorder with a guitar in our living room for hours upon hours upon hours,'' she continued. ``Then I'd go back and meticulously transcribe his roughed-out lyrics. Slowly but surely, those tapes were honed and refined into beautiful songs.''

Not that Van was the ideal neighbour for some of Woodstock's other residents. Indeed there was the famous night at a show in San Francisco: ``I looked out, and there's all these hippies down there. And I thought, `This is not what it's about at all.' I cut the set short. I just didn't want to be part of all that hippie crap.''

Although for a time in 1972, Van and Janet were the love generation's couple-du-jour, they were hardly John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul and Linda McCartney or Bob and Sarah Dylan. He immortalised their seemingly idyllic romance on album covers (Astral Weeks, Moondance, etc) in sepia shots of her head, resting her beautiful tresses on his shoulder. This was, of course, a forerunner of future muse Michelle Rocca who would appear on the cover of 1995's Days Like This walking a muzzled dog. There was a particularly poignant shot of her in a flowered gown on a white stallion being led by the Belfast cowboy along a sunny country path.

One of the greatest wordsmiths of the 20th century, Van idealised his new bride in the lyrics of such songs as Brown Eyed Girl, Ballerina, Beside You, Crazy Love, You're My Woman and The Way Young Lovers Do. In the words of the song ...

``And back along the lane again

There in the sunshine

In the sweet summertime

The way that young lovers do

I kissed you on the lips once more''

Admittedly, to envisage Van Morrison in such a scene is like trying to imagine the Queen Mother naked. Or Michael Noonan tap-dancing. In a tutu. (Though Van was not averse to penning odes to the ladies in his life. During the 1970s when Van was dating a Danish girl, Ulla Munch, who lived in the Vanlose district, he wrote The Vanlose Stairway for her.)

In mid 1971, with Woodstock becoming too crowded with hippies, the Morrison family headed to Marin County. Despite writing songs (Old Old Woodstock) that suggested the joys of country living and the charms of his lovely wife (Tupelo Honey), all was not well in the Morrison household.

``By then, our life together was very traumatic,'' Janet admitted in 1998. It is important that we take everything Janet says with a pinch of something white and crystalline. Her hippy-dippy memories of her short-lived marriage to a man whose music she devoted herself to is really just one side of the story. Hers. And it should be treated as such.

The public's only understanding of Van is based on the various received truths circulated over the years: that he is Victor Meldrew with an East Belfast accent. This image, coupled with Van's steadfast determination not to discuss his private life, places undue credence on Janet's claims.

For my own part, the Van I got to know some years ago socially bore scant resemblance to the nettlesome character Planet describes. The Van I knew was great with Michelle Rocca's kids. He would sing to them. The Van I knew was an emotional rock who stood by Michelle when she had her court battle with Cathal Ryan. The Van I knew rallied around Michelle when he heard Elio Malocco's magazine Patrick was considering doing an exposé on Rocca. Michelle and Van rang me one morning wanting to know any information on Patrick. He was very concerned and did everything in his power to protect his fiancee. The Van I knew always wanted to go to restaurants in town. One night at dinner in Fitzers in Ballsbridge, Van had a conversation with my girlfriend.

Van: ``What's your star sign?''

Sonja: ``Gemini.''

Van: (with a frown) ``Jesus! That was ex-wife's star sign! She was trouble!''

In hindsight, Janet believes it all seemed like her life was somehow a ``fabled love lived''. She added: ``But I couldn't reconcile the fragile dream with the emotional chaos which kept intruding and crashing everything down''. Their marriage, she remembered, was ``an emotional roller coaster, largely cut off from the rest of the world''. It collapsed in 1973 when she fled their Marin County home in, she says, a desperate gesture of independence. She remembers it as a still autumn day. The Earth goddess vanished, she said, like ``a castle made of clouds''.

Yeah, right. The pastoral image of Van and his good lady wife, strolling hand in hand through the woodlands, is one that the singer is not too keen on. ``I had this album cover years ago, Tupelo Honey, where there was a horse in it,'' Morrison told an American journalist in 1996.

``So the myth then was that I was living on a ranch and had horses on that ranch. I didn't have a ranch; I didn't have a horse. I don't have a farm, and I never will. I mean, this is all part of the f***kin' mythology.'' The `f***ing mythology' has formed a central part of the Van Morrison legend.

In 1979, Phil Lynott bumped into Van doing an interview in the lobby of a London hotel. The Thin Lizzy man asked him if it was true that when Van was a young musician in Irish bands, he had to be smuggled across the border inside a bass drum because he was underage. Van smiled. ``Oh, that was just another myth.'' With that, Lynott departed with the closing gambit: ``I'm just going to see Princess Margaret.''

``Is he being serious Princess Margaret?'' the journalist asked Van. ``More nuts,'' said Van, unexpectedly. But as Van reached for the bowl on the table, the journalist realised he wasn't commenting on Thin Lizzy or the Royal Family. Van grabbed a handful and hurled them towards his mouth.

As the dogs on the street will tell you, Van's ever-changing moods are almost as famous as his songs. (For the record: I've been out with him socially dozens of times and, like most people, he can be a wonderful, charming character one night and a curmudgeonly old bastard the next. Somewhere in between the two is the real Van perhaps.)

In the years after her divorce, Janet dispensed with the Janet Planet name and didn't speak to Morrison until 1994, ``because I used to believe those early years belonged to him, not me,'' she said.

``I would have done anything for the man who wrote those songs, who whispered in the night that they were true,'' she said at the time. ``I wanted more than anything to make him happy. But I just couldn't do it.'' Now, she is a little better disposed towards him. She said in a recent interview: ``Van was a complete doting dad. He would put Shana in a crib on the side in the kitchen, so that she was at his eye level while he cooked, and sang to her.''

Janet has been married now for 19 years to her third husband, Chris Minto, a recording engineer.

THE snow was three feet thick on the ground in Woodstock in April, 1971, when Shana Morrison was born. The road on which the Morrisons lived was so inaccessible Janet was afraid Van would have to deliver their baby.

An important part of Shana's life were her grandparents, George and Violet Morrison, who moved from Belfast to Marin County when Shana was two, and stayed for the next 10 years.

``My grandmother taught me the first songs I ever learned, Star of the County Down, Danny Boy, Tell My Ma,'' Shana said. ``She would hold me on her knee and the whole afternoon just sing song after song.'' Shana dedicated one of her albums, Caledonia, to Violet, ``one of my best friends in the world''.

Growing up, like her father, surrounded by diverse musical influences, Shana spent her girlhood shuttling between their separate Marin County homes. She spent weekends and holidays with her father, times which revolved around music and books.

It was no surprise, then, that years later Shana Morrison would eventually break into the music business or that her blues-inflected voice would be compared favourably to her father's. Indeed, she began touring with his band as a back-up singer a month after she earned a business degree in 1993.

In any event, Shana and her Dad (as she calls him) recorded duets on Days Like This and A Night in San Francisco. ``I never thought she'd become a singer,'' Morrison said in 1997. ``If it had been up to me, I would've advised her not to. I just think it's a very hard way to go in life.''

This is perhaps not strictly the case. In another interview Shana stated how she had originally planned to go into finance and law. However, her father was apparently not best pleased by the prospect of his daughter entering the legal or business corps.

Looking at her like she had stepped out of a UFO, Van, according to Shana, said: ``Why do you want to do business? Business people are assholes.''

Just like hippies, rock journalists, pop managers and politicians. Eh, Van?


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