1970 Jazz&Pop interview
Van Morrison is one of rock and roll's most creative and energetic artists. At the age of 24, he already has several completed chapters behind him, and is currently playing the magnificent role of poet laureate of Woodstock, a town which has held the best of the writing singers.
His public career began with a group called Them, of which he was the lead singer and writer. In 1963 and 1964, Them was one of the most successful rock groups in England: their high point historically comes with Van's authorship of the classic "Gloria". After Them broke up, he came to the United States, where he evolved from an Irish James Brown to his present stance. In between, he had a million-selling classic called "Brown-Eyed Girl", his first hit under his own name. "Brown-Eyed Girl" was recorded on Bang Records, with whom Van was later to have much trouble and eventually leave.
He re-surfaced on Warner Bros., with Astral Weeks a year and a half ago, a poetic masterpiece that met with ecstatic critical response but relatively small sales. This spring, his second Warner Bros. album, Moondance, brought him back to big record sales while continuing his extraordinary spiral of creation. In performance, he is unpredictable but always electric. Recently in Los Angeles, he got annoyed because his band was playing too much jazz, and stalked off the stage not to return until the next show. Usually his stage act presents a kind of restrained fury -- often he will sink to his knees in the passion of the music, and the passion is matched by his seven-piece band, whose extraordinary tightness is the result of his impossible-to-please demeanor.
Van is capable of spending hours in discussion with his manager Mary Martin on how to handle one musician who isn't doing precisely what Van wants, and he has a tendency toward self-dissatisfaction which would amaze his fans. This interview was recorded over dinner at Van's home in Woodstock, with occasional comments added by manager Mary, diligent road manager Larry, friend Ed Anderson who works with The Band, and Van's beautiful wife Janet. Before the tape started running, we had been talking about John Sinclair's revolution-conscious review which appeared in a recent issue of Jazz&Pop:
Danny: Why don't you start with an autobiography?
Van: I'm not very good at those. I usually can't remember anything.
Danny: Well, then, talk about tomorrow.
Van: Whatever you like.
Danny: To get back to what we were talking about before, what I think Sinclair was saying is, "Yeah, the Stones have earned their money, but they earned it in a system that excludes and fucks up a lot of people."
Van: I don't think that means you have to put the finger on the musicians; you might as well put the finger on anybody.
Danny: I think that the finger is on everybody -- you know it's up to everybody to do whatever they can to make things better in any way that they think happens to be better. I don't think he was blaming the Rolling Stones for the fact that the air is dirty. Everybody likes having money.
Van: Well, from my angle, it's not a matter of, say, liking money or disliking money; it's just that, like, what else can you do? I mean, either you do that or you starve. There's no in between, there's no other level that you can exist; either you do it or you don't do it, you can't do it halfway.
Danny: It would be nice if there were another level.
Van: It would please me -- I wish there was, too.
Danny: The way it is now people are only in it for themselves...
Van: I don't think so. I think there are a lot of people who are in it not for themselves but for a lot of other reasons.
Danny: What kind of reasons?
Van: Well, maybe they're holding up something else. It may seem vague, it may seem like it's really heavy. You do it because it's a gig. Maybe it's just one guy may be a talker, this guy may be a musician...the thing is everybody's getting very magnetic about who's doing what, and a lot of times it's like you just do it. So you can't really say well I do it because you know I'm for myself, that's not where it's at. Whatever your capacity is, you usually end up doing that. I don't think a lot of people are deliberately going out and saying, I got mine and that will be groovy.
Danny: Sure. You know, there are some people that don't know what to do, though. Still, whatever your gig is, there's a lot of other times when sometimes what you want to get out of your gig you don't get out of it.
Van: Yeah, well, it's so hard. Like there are these cats that come over from India, right? They try to teach people why we're here, what it's all about, and they might as well bang their heads up against a wall because how you gonna tell somebody who's gotta get up in the morning at 8:30 and go out to work, how you gonna tell that person that if he cools it, he can put his mind at rest -- how you gonna tell people that?
Danny: I don't know -- how do you tell people that?
Van: They can't -- they just can't `cause everybody's programmed into thinking a certain way.
Danny: But the programs are changing all the time.
Van: I know, but where are they going? They don't seem to be going anywhere.
Danny: They seem to be going somewhere.
Van: I don't really know that much about it. All I know is that I play music. I'm not really in a position to say anything about all this stuff.
Danny: What do you like best about what you do?
Van: What do I like best? I just like it when it goes down the way I think it should go down, when it's happening. I can't explain; it's got to do with a certain kind of feeling, but I just reach a certain point where I know. If I'm playing something that's really good, well, this is really where it's at and if people are digging it, then that's where it's at, too. So I don't know any more than that.
Danny: Is it different now than it used to be? The music, the feeling, does it happen more often? Is it a different feeling, did you consciously try to get it and then you got it?
Van: It usually happens when you know what you're doing. It usually happens when everybody's playing the right notes in the right places.
Danny: Do you plan most of your stuff out in advance?
Van: Some of it. Not always. A lot of it just happens. A day before or maybe five minutes before a session. I'd like to play some other kind of positions other than a concert or something: show starts at 8:30, then you go on and you do a set, somebody else comes on and does his set. I'd like to play in a more relaxed circumstance than that. Maybe it could be set up; it was happening in San Francisco in the early days. If that could have been taken a couple of stages further, it would have just built up from there.
Danny: Do you see any direction in which it could be built up?
Van: Yeah, I think it could be; the right people would have to be there at the right times.
Danny: The problem seems to have to do with what happens once money gets involved. Everybody goes chasing it. Were you out in San Francisco when that was going on?
Van: Yeah, we played out there when the Fillmore had just opened -- one way to do it, if the people wanted it, then the people should set up a thing for the musicians. You know what I mean? The musicians don't really need limousines -- a car is groovy enough for me, you don't need a limousine, right? You can do away with a lot of things. The people should set up a fund for musicians, so that if worse comes to worst and they're not working, they don't starve. If the people start to do it, then musicians could start to do it. The way it is now, if you don't do this gig and that gig, you don't work. And then where are you? Nowhere. So I think that the people have to got to think of it from another angle, too. 'Cause that would be groovy -- if you're a musician, you know you just pick up your axe, you play music, right? And you don't need to get a lot, you get what you need. I could dig that. Someone's got to start doing it.
Danny: Have things turned out different from how you thought it was gonna be?
Van: What do you mean, "different"?
Danny: Whatever -- the life. When you start doing something, you have a vision of what it's gonna be like...
Van: When I first started out, it was a lot of work -- it was seven sets a night, seven nights a week, matinees on Saturday and Sunday. It was different. After you do that for two or three years, then you start doing the halls. It does get different. The thing is, there's no middle way. There's just up and down. There's nothing else but that. If it could be leveled out a bit, you know, I'm up for that. But basically I'm doing now what I did then. I'm not rich; I probably could be, but I don't really do things that I'm expected to do, and that's why right now I'm still sort of just doing it. I got a band to pay. If I really wanted to make money, it's not hard. You just have to do it, you got to physically go out and do it, be in a certain place at a certain time and play, put on an act -- that's another story.
Danny: So there are other things that you care about besides money.
Van: Well, as I say, I don't have money.
Danny: But you could get it, so there must be something.
Van: I could get it, but I don't really think that some of the things that you do for money are the right things that you should do.
Danny: What do you mean by "right"?
Van: I mean, for instance, I don't think you should throw together an album, go in there and say "This is gonna be an album we're gonna have to make some money with, and get something commercial and throw it together and put it out." I don't believe in that. I think that it is something that you're gonna have to listen to in ten years and you just don't do things like go in and stick something together, because you're gonna have to sog it later on `cause you did it -- stuff like that. I just think there's a lot more to take into consideration. Maybe you're offered this fantastic gig and it's out in the middle of nowhere and you gotta travel on planes and shit like that, and by the time you get there you're wasted and you wait around for maybe about eight hours and by the time you get on stage the audience is wasted. They've seen everything there is to see already, heard everything there is to hear, and they're ready to fall asleep. So you go on, and you think, "Why did I even bother coming?" It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen, and that's where a lot of it's at. You know, "Let's throw this thing together and see if we can make any bread out of it, chuck it together and do it." I don't believe in doing things like that. I dig where most of the college kids are at. They really come to listen, they know what they want. They know when something's obnoxious and when something's good, they understand what you're saying and what you're playing. But some of these things that are just thrown together, like festivals -- it's a whole other scene, you know, "Let's all go over to the festival because that's where we should be." You get a lot of people who are just there because they think it's really hip to be there.
Danny: Do you ever go into the audiences at festivals?
Van: You mean from the stage?
Danny: No, no, I mean out in the crowd, when you have a lot of time.
Van: Just to look at the people -- yeah, that can be good, I guess, just getting together with other people.
Danny: I always thought so. I always thought the whole thing with having the stars there was like giving out free dishes.
Van: Like jampots -- they used to give away jampots in movie theatres. You know what I think would really get people together is instead of having a band they should just have this big hall and show Lash LaRue movies all day. Throw in a couple of Hopalong Cassidy. I dig it when Hopalong Cassidy goes up to a bar and orders a sarsaparilla. It's really heavy. They could wind it up with the Cisco Kid.
Danny: Did they have Gabby Hayes?
Van: Yeah, Gabby Hayes and Hopalong Cassidy. Did you ever see that Dead End Kids movie where they get caught in this big water tank? I saw that on a late show one night.
Danny: I love them.
Van: Do you like to watch people suffer?
Danny: No, I like to watch people being funny while they're suffering.
Van: Right. [Pause] You know I dig playing places that aren't too large . I think that's really when you can communicate, small theatres where everybody's together. That's really good, I dig that. I try to get a lot of gigs like that.
Danny: When you were a kid did you always want to be a musician, a singer?
Van: No, no, I wanted to be a cowboy. I think I had it in the back of my head somewhere. When I started, anybody who actually thought about being a musician was considered to be a maniac, a nut or something.
Danny: When you really hated yourself and you really wanted to go out and be put down, you became a musician.
Van: I remember we went for this job one time, this place in London, we were just hanging out, we'd been sleeping in the park. They didn't pay good money in those days.
Danny: This was with Them?
Van: No, this was with another band before that, a much tighter band. We worked for five years and we'd hang out in the park and sleep there because we didn't have the money for a hotel. Anyway, after about two weeks of sleeping in the park, we finally got this audition for a job, and when we showed up everybody in the band was wearing something different. You know, somebody had a brown sweater, somebody had long hair, somebody was wearing sneakers. We played about six numbers, and the cat comes up and say, "You're really fantastic, one of the best things that I've ever seen in my whole career managing this club, but there's just one thing wrong. You're a scruffy pack of bastards, and if you get some suits you get the job." So we went off and ripped off about seven suits.
Danny: So you played there?
Van: Yeah. We had to. There was nothing else to do in those days. Either you take it or you leave it. Man, we used to play in these places, if you didn't play what they wanted to hear, you were lucky if you got out alive. If you didn't do What I Say about 20 times by the end of the set, you were lucky to leave alive. "One more time -- do it one more time!"
Van: That's where entertainment was at -- you were there to entertain. That's it. It's really bullshit.
Danny: What was your idea of success then?
Van: My idea of success was -- getting it on, really getting it on. That was really successful. Just to play a really dynamite set.
Danny: Did that happen?
Van: Yeah, it happened every night. Every single night.
Danny: What kind of music were you playing then?
Van: Mostly R&B. Mostly the black man's music. Stuff that we picked up from the States. Something really dynamite. Somebody had a record of Bobby Bland singing "Stormy Monday" or something that really gassed everybody out; we'd rip off a version of that. Somebody had a couple of Ray Charles things. Sometimes we'd just write songs as we went along.
Danny: Were you writing stuff then?
Van: Yeah, I was. In fact, I was thinking about putting one of the songs I wrote then on an album. I got this song I wrote about 1963, I was thinking of sticking it on the next album, see if anybody would notice. They probably wouldn't.
Danny: If the music sounded the same.
Van: Don't you think they'd make a point of noticing?
Danny: Would they be smart enough to notice, though?
Van: Oh, I think they would.
Van: Have they listened to me since then?
Van: Because I think your voice has changed.
Van: But the song hasn't changed.
Danny: Have you got any other plans? Van: Me and Richard Manuel were thinking of making an album of Ray Charles songs.
Van: Oh no you're not -- I heard you two talking about it and you were very big on it but he was just kind of scared.
Van: No, no. He was up for it. Maybe if we could just get the studio to come here. 16 tracks -- we could sit around here and work it out.
Danny: They've got mobile studios.
Van: Sure they do; A&R has got one they don't know what to do with.
Larry: But you wouldn't do What I Say on it.
Van: Yes, of course we would. That will be the single.
Danny: It will probably be a hit. Are you gonna record live?
Van: No, but I was thinking of recording here in Woodstock instead of in the city. But you need the right people, you know? At the board.
Janet: [with bottle of wine in hand] Van, can you open this?
Van: It'd be groovy if that was your gig -- just to get these things open. This astrologer I saw in Boston: first she said something about my parents, something very strange. Then she was talking about Indian music, the new sound is Indian music. Supermarket jive stuff.
Mary: Yeah, but then Dylan came out with "Wigwam".
Van: Oh, maybe she meant Indian Indian.
Danny: I love him for doing that.
Danny: I just love anything that gets people out of thinking that they know things that they don't really know. There are a lot of people out there who said, "Oh, Dylan would never do that." It changed their conception of what "Dylan" is. Every time people think they know him, it turns out that they don't. That's the nice thing about him. He probably goes through the same stuff with himself -- I'm sure he never thought a couple of years ago that he'd be doin' stuff like that now.
Van: If you had told him two years ago that that was gonna be on his next album...
Van: He would have caught the next boat.
Van: I often wonder about things like that. What if you could grab something from the future and pull it into now and say, "OK,look at this."
Danny: That's probably why we're not allowed to see it yet.
Van: Have you heard any of these tapes that Richard Manuel has?
Danny: Which tapes?
Van: With Dylan and Robbie Robertson. That's where I think Dylan is at -- or maybe he's not. It just seemed much clearer. There was always something you had never heard before. It just seemed like he was having a ball.
Danny: But that's what you liked about Dylan. I mean, you're the same way.
Van: What way?
Danny: I'm sure people got one impression of you listening to that Bang album. There are people after listening to Self-Portrait who never liked Dylan before really start liking him..
Van: Stuff like what he did usually never comes out, so people don't even know about that. They don't know the tapes that are buried away.
Van: Do you know that on the Bang album cut of "Brown-eyed Girl" the line "making love in the green grass" was blipped?
Van: I just don't believe that anyone could find that obscene.
Danny: What does it sound like?
Van: They took a line from another verse and stuck it in. That was when I decided to leave the company.
Danny: How anybody could find that line obscene is just obscene.
Van: They didn't even tell me about it. It was pretty heavy. Then they did this other trip, they took the rhythm track from it and sent it up to Canada and had some guy sing it in French and released it.
Danny: As Van Morrison?
Van: No, they just used my tracks.
Danny: Van, would you play "Domino"?
Van: What for?
Danny: Oh, I'd like to hear it. [aside] He's been liking it during the days and hating it at night. ["Domino" is Van Morrison's new single.]
Van: Oh, I don't know if I should play it. What if somebody says it's terrible...
Danny: No one's going to say it's terrible. Why don't you just play it?
Van: To break a habit. Okay, I'll play it, but if somebody doesn't like it, I think I'll just cry.
Danny Goldberg, then a writer and staffer for Billboard, the music business trade paper, went on to found Gold Mountain Records and Management, to close friendship with Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, the presidency of Atlantic Records and now of Mercury, and ACLU activism.