1985 New Age interview
Van Morrison was standing patiently in the lobby of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge's Harvard Square, waiting to check in. Slight, balding, non-descript in blue blazer and tan slacks, the 40-year-old Irish-born singer--one of the great stars of his generation--had just flown in from Toronto, where the night before he had opened his first North American tour in six years.
The last time I had seen the notoriously sensitive and volatile Morrison had been at a 1979 New York concert where something about the show--the sound, the audience, perhaps the band--had bothered him and he had walked off stage after only four of his beautiful, visionary songs. Now he stood unrecognized in the hotel lobby, looking alternately pained, bored, and brooding. What, I wondered, did this blank expression portend for our imminent interview and that night's concert?
Some background: George Ivan morrison was born in August 1945 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he began his career as a professional musician in 1960, playing out-of-control Celtic teenage rhythm and blues in the city's pubs and dance halls. In the mid-sixties, in the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he formed the Irish band called Them, for whom he wrote such sweaty, garage-based classics as "Gloria" and "Here Comes the Night." By 1967 he was a solo singer, and anyone who was around that year remembers his first record, the lilting and summerish "Brown-Eyed Girl." By the late sixties he had emigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he put the finishing touches on his first superb album, Astral Weeks.
Moving on to Woodstock and then northern California, Morrison spent the early seventies crafting a series of brilliant recordings -- Moondance, Veedon Fleece, and St. Dominic's Preview, which combined American R&B and gospel music with rhapsodic references to the English lyric poets and lots of pure Irish soul. In the process he established himself as a blues belter 'cum' mystic and soul-searcher, someone who could sing about seeking (and finding) enlightenment with total credibility. His more recent records -- Common One, Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, and the new A Sense of Wonder -- delve even more deeply into Morrison's relentless quest for spiritual transformation.
For a so-called pop singer he is oddly somber and religious. As in a gospel performance, his earthy, barely contained singing lends human drama to what are essentially meditations on spiritual and abstract themes. Along with his friend Bob Dylan, Van Morrison has a palpable moral authority that is unequaled by any contemporary singer save perhaps Stevie Wonder.
However, this undeniable authority is also accompanied by the usual eccentric personality that so often comes as part of the package with great artists. Van Morrison has often been described as temperamental, dour, and slightly paranoid about the press. Almost all requests for interviews have been routinely turned down. Van Morrison videos are hardly staples of MTV. Both musicians and journalists seem slightly afraid of Morrison; the former say he is awe-inspiring and difficult to work with, while the latter have on more than one occasion been victims of a sarcasm that can be absolutely withering.
Yet the man who spoke into my tape recorder over a preconcert supper of scallops, cigarettes, and coffee was anything but frightening. Rather, he projected the air of someone who has been hurt in life and so responds to the world with a wary and vulnerable watchfulness. He answered my questions to the best of his naturally taciturn ability. When pressed on a topic he didn't wish to discuss, he simply refused or said, "Next question." This cultivated aura of vulnerability and poetic detachment managed to keep even as avid a Van Morrison fan as I am at arm's length. I couldn't lay a glove on him--out of pure respect.
At his Boston show that night, I noticed that the members of the great Van Morrison Band seemed to treat their boss with the same deference. When first the stage monitors and then the cord to his Les Paul guitar failed at the beginning of the show, the other musicians clustered around him protectively, solicitously. Band leader Pee Wee Ellis, who cut his teeth with James Brown's band, glowered at the roadies as they scurried around trying to fix things. Van Morrison just stood there without his guitar and sang in his Anglo-Irish tenor, barely acknowledging the enraptured audience, barely even moving, his expression running the gamut from thoughtful to grumpy to perturbed. He interwove his own songs with tributes to Chicago blues ("Baby, Please Don't Go"), Memphis soul ("Green Onions"), and favorite singers -- Ray Charles, Mose Allison (who opened the show), and the late Jackie Wilson. At the end of a brilliant show, highlighted by "Rave On, John Donne," "Summertime in England" (which includes references to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth smoking dope in Kendal), and a heartbreaking encore of "Tupelo Honey," the audience stood on its feet and cheered for more than five minutes. But Van refused to come out. The show was over. The poet had returned to his private reverie.
Stephen Davis: Van, your most recent songs, especially the spiritual content of your last few albums, has given a lot of inspiration to me and to people I'm interested in. What about your own inspiration? In your recent music--"Haunts of Ancient Peace," "Ancient of Days," "Celtic Ray," "Aryan Mist," "Northern Muse"--there's a palpable respect for what might be called "white roots," the great Celtic traditions as filtered through the visions of William Blake.
Van Morrison: Well, "Ancient of Days" is from the Blake poetry. Allen Ginsberg has had similar kinds of inspiration and experience. I spoke to him about Blake a couple of weeks ago, actually.
SD: In London?
VM: Yeah, so that's coming from that lineage. Naropa just put out a book in which Ginsberg explains his own visionary experience, not on drugs, and it sounds like the same as mine. I just read this a few weeks back, but his experience is the same as mine as far as the *way* poetry happens, which I think is in the Blakean lineage.
SD: Did you ever read "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves?
SD: Graves is very convincing when he writes about Celtic bardic traditions as if they were genetically encoded into descending generations of poets, especially Gaelic and Welsh poets. Do you find any identity in that?
VM: Sure, I find identity there. I think it all comes down to lineage as far as I'm concerned, and that's my lineage, musical or otherwise.
SD: Is that identity something that you misplaced and are now rediscovering?
VM: Well, the thing is, when I was growing up in Ireland, my father had been to America, and he'd come back, and he was interested in jazz music, gospel music, and he had loads of these albums. So my exposure to black American music at that time was greater than to Irish music. We did sing Irish music in my family, but we were very into blues as well. And that sort of came together for me in "Irene, Good Night" by Leadbelly. The Irish tradition and the blues tradition merged in that one song, you know? Eventually, in the sixties when I started my first bands, my influence then was more R&B, for want of a better word. I was R&B oriented at that point. So the "folk" element of the music I was into was sort of buried temporarily. But I suppose I've come back around again to that basic folk element I started with. But at the same time I'm still very much into integrating R&B into that.
SD: On your Inarticulate Speech of the Heart album, you gave special thanks to L. Ron Hubbard, the developer of Scientology. Have you met or worked with Hubbard?
VM: No, I just happened to be in a good mood that night. I mean, that was it. Nothing more than that.
SD: It would seem to follow that you've been inspired by Hubbard and his teachings at some point....
VM: No. You see, that was misunderstood. That was only my personal thing. It had nothing to do with the music. That was me personally, putting that on. It had nothing to do with being inspired musically, but I just forgot how the press system operates when I was doing it, so I've had a lot of questions like that, and I've had to explain that.
SD: I've seen reports in the British press that you are or were teaching Scientology on a part-time basis in London.
VM: No, not true.
SD: But the subject of Scientology must resonate for you, especially these days when many prominent Scientology people are going public to defend the organization.
VM: I don't really want to comment on Scientology because there's too much bad publicity about it. That's the reason why I don't even want to touch that. Because I figure that if anyone really wants to find out about it, they have to do it themselves. They have to go and check it out themselves and then go and make an evaluation.
SD: You're the only serious singer I know who includes his own instrumental compositions on his albums, often accompanied by wordless chants or the sound of faraway bagpipes. No one else could get away with it.
VM: Well, there are several other groups doing it in the U.K. I just think it helps the pacing of an album and makes the vocal songs stronger.
SD: You are obviously widely read. Is it true that you left school at 14?
VM: That's right.
SD: When did you start playing music?
VM: I started playing at 12. I was just on my own.
SD: Playing saxophone?
VM: No, guitar. I started out playing folk music before this whole rock-and-roll thing came about. When I was 15, I went to work with a rock R&B band. It was a show band, but it was a show band that was making a transition into rhythm and blues, which was very rare in those days.
SD: I heard that you did comedy routines onstage in that era.
VM: Everything. We had to do everything. Did you ever hear of Charlie Drake? He used to do a number called "My Boomerang Won't Come Back." So we did that kind of comedy. At least that's the only one I can remember.
SD: On your new album, you again raid William Blake for lyrics. Your song "Let The Slave" is adapted from "The Price of Experience," while a great deal of the imagery in 'A Sense of Wonder' is drawn from the Irish mystical poet William Butler Yeats. I understand that the album was even delayed because the Yeats estate demanded that a Yeats lyric be removed from the album.
VM: Well, I really wish it hadn't been so blown up by the press. To tell you the truth, I'm sort of reluctant to talk about it, because it was actually a bit of stupidity.
SD: What verse did you try to use?
VM: Oh, it wasn't a verse. It was a section of "Crazy Jane and God." We were told by the Yeats estate that they wouldn't give us permission to put this song on the album, right? So I thought about it for a couple of days, and I thought, OK, fine. I figured I was doing them a favor, you know? But they said that Yeats had only intended the lines to be put to so-called classical music. So I thought, Fine. I mean, my songs are better than Yeats, so we'll see ya. I don't need that. That was it, simply.
SD: So you substituted a Mose Allison song.
VM: That's right.
SD: I think he's as good as Yeats also.
VM: I think so, too.
SD: A Sense of Wonder begins with a song called "Tore Down a la Rimbaud." It's a song that resonates for me because it's about artistic block and lack of inspiration.
VM: I'd been reading Arthur Rimbaud when I got the original idea, particularly "Illuminations." Is that what it's called? Actually, the idea for the song is ten or twelve years old. I sort of rewrote it last year and recorded it.
SD: Is it fair to say the song is about writer's block?
VM: That's what it *is* about, because at the time I got the idea, I wasn't writing anything at all. And I didn't really understand why. It was very frustrating.
SD: How do you get past a creative block?
VM: Well, sometimes I get over block by sitting down at a typewriter and typing what I've just done: got up, had breakfast, drove to Chelsea, came back. Sometimes I do that and get out of it that way. But sometimes nothing that I do seems to help.
SD: Do you compose at the typewriter?
VM: Well, it's not the one I like to use. Inspirational writers don't use that....
SD: Rimbaud believed that true art could only be produced through what he called "constant and systematic derangement of the senses." To this aesthetic end, he smoked a lot of hashish.
VM: I prefer coffee, personally.
SD: "The Master's Eyes" is an amazing devotional chant on your new album. At the risk of absurdity, did you have any particular master in mind?
VM: No, it's not really a specific master in mind. It's the Master within, that's what it is.
SD: What about "Let The Slave"? It is taken from one of William Blake's most powerful and transcendent visions. One doesn't expect to see this kind of emotion on a pop album.
VM: But it's all so *timeless*, I think. The lyric on that is relevant anytime.
SD: Have you thought of doing an album of only instrumental compositions?
VM: Yeah, I have. I've been developing some piano pieces out of my own piano meditational music. I'd like to do an album of just piano tunes alone.
SD: You've been playing a little saxophone on recent albums.
VM: You see, when I started with the show bands, it was a different ball game than it is today. First of all, you couldn't get a gig if you just played an instrument or just sang, so you had to play at least three instruments, right? So in the show bands I was playing drums, guitar, sax. I was singing, and so were other people in the band. I mean, in Germany [in the early sixties] we were playing seven sets a night, seven nights a week, *nine* on Saturday and Sunday, you know? So you had to rotate; you had several singers, several guitar players. Everybody doubled. And I played a lot more sax in those days. I suppose that when I got into writing songs more, the sax sort of faded into the background. The thing with horn is that you have to blow every day to keep your chops together, which I find very hard to do.
SD: There's also an homage to Ray Charles on the new album.
VM: I discovered Ray Charles on my own. That album--Ray Charles Live At Newport--I mean, I used to listen to that album for *hours*. I mean, I sort of got carried away. I was very influenced by Ray and other people when I was starting out, but there came a point when I found my own voice. And then I found myself influencing lots of people after I had originated something.
SD: Let's talk about that. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger...
SD: ...Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Daryl Hall all grew up with and were obviously influenced by your music. Do you get a twinge hearing yourself in the music they're putting out?
VM: Well, I do now. You see, for a long time I'd never even heard of these people, because I don't really listen to pop radio or any of that. I have my own preferences for music and my own albums that I play. So I'm not really influenced by what the media are running through. For years people have been saying to me--you know, *nudge, nudge*--have you heard this guy Springsteen? You should really check him out! I just ignored it. Then four or five months ago I was in Amsterdam, and a friend of mine put on a video. Springsteen came on the video, and that was the first time I ever saw him, and he's definitely ripped me off. There's no doubt about that. Not only did Springsteen...I mean, he's even ripped my movements off as well. My seventies movements, you know what I mean? *This* stuff [demonstrates].
SD: What do you feel about this?
VM: Well, I feel pissed off now that I know about it. I'd never seen it before, so I didn't know.
SD: You mentioned listening to records. What's on your turntable these days?
VM: I always keep going back to the old blues stuff--Howlin' Wolf, Sonnyboy Williamson, John Lee Hooker. But I don't really listen to a lot of music at present. I do like some of the Alan Stivell stuff.
SD: The Breton harper who's interested in Celtic revival.
VM: Yeah, good music. A different stream of Celtic music. It relates to the Irish stuff I grew up with. But I like *any* good music. I still listen to JB [James Brown] just for pure enjoyment. I mean, you know, everybody should listen to James Brown first thing in the morning, for medical reasons.
SD: You mean for psychic hygiene?
SD: There's a lot of the gospel sound in your music. Is it true your family were Jehovah's Witnesses?
VM: No no no no, not really. My mother was in it for a while, a brief encounter, that was all.
SD: Were you taken door-to-door as a child with the Witnesses?
VM: No, but I was taken to a couple of meetings. I found them quite pleasant, but that was all.
SD: It must be difficult for someone like you, more an artist than an entertainer, to survive in the dreaded music business. For instance, last year you were quite loudly and publicly dropped by Warner Brothers, which had been your label for fifteen years. You had to survive a lot of negative publicity. This North American tour is your first in six years and must be interpreted as the classic show-business comeback. Did you feel like you had to prove your worth in the marketplace all over again?
VM: Not exactly. I know my audience, and they know me. We're old friends. So there's no real problem. Basically what happened was that they [Warner Brothers] dropped a lot of people, and I was the biggest name on there in terms of popularity, as far as I could tell. So I just figured that somebody there thought I was in Timbuktu, sleeping under a hedge. Anyway, they announced this in 'Rolling Stone' before anyone heard about it, and we got very upset. Then the president of the company told the 'Los Angeles Times' that we were negotiating, which was a lie because we weren't negotiating. I mean, the fact is that I'm on Polygram everywhere else except the United States, right? And Warner had my U.S. rights up through Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. After that they didn't have anything. My next move was to give my U.S. rights to Polygram because they've been representing me for six years everywhere else. That's what happened from my end.
SD: Sound like the classic case--corporation screws artist and gets away clean.
VM: That's right.
SD: Anyway, not looking back, you shrugged it off and went on tour with Bob Dylan.
VM: That's right.
SD: Your career and Dylan's parallel each other in many way, both musically and especially thematically. I'm thinking of the religious awakening you both experienced in the late seventies.
VM: Yeah, but I think some of that was coincidence.
SD: What was that tour like?
VM: I was doing a U.K. tour, and we got a call to open for Dylan in Paris, so we went to Paris, and my band did a set before he came on. Then they asked me to come along to Wembley [Stadium in London], and I sat in with him and Eric Clapton.
SD: What did you and Dylan sing together?
VM: We did "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" in London and "Tupelo Honey" later in Dublin.
SD: What do you think of Bob Dylan?
VM: I think Dylan's great. He's *got* it, he's an originator, and there's only one of 'em--one in every generation.
SD: In the Irish paper 'Hot Press' I saw an interesting three-way interview between you, Dylan, and Bono Vox [singer for the successful young Irish band U2]. Bono asked what sixties music he should be listening to, and you answered the Yardbirds. I thought that rather odd, since you were the singer for Them [his early group]...
VM: Yeah, well, I actually said *Yardbirds* because I felt sort of embarrassed when we were talking about sixties music. I was trying to be diplomatic and not put the arrow right in the bull's eye because I *was* going to say *Them*. But I didn't say Them because I figured that somewhere along the line he must have missed a connection on the Irish music scene, but I didn't want to say it that way.
SD: U2 is the first Irish band to hit big in America. Their music, like yours, is often described as very passionate and spiritual. Have you heard them?
VM: I've heard some of their stuff, yeah. I like some of the messages in the songs. The messages are good. It's not my cup of tea otherwise.
SD: You record in a Bay Area studio called Tres Virgos. You are a Virgo yourself. Does astrology interest you?
VM: Um...a little bit.
SD: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and other great musicians were also born under Virgo. It seems to be a good musicians' sign.
VM: It seems to be. You're right there. It's a good sign for musicians from the point of view of getting shapes on things, because Virgos have that analytical thing going. Very often, when you're making steps in arranging music, you have to analyze the various stages, and that Virgo thing is helpful.
SD: My favorite song of yours is called "Cleaning Windows." The lyrics have to do with the dignity and pleasure of work and involve a narrative about cleaning windows during the day and "blowing saxophone on the weekend in a down joint." Is that autobiographical?
VM: Absolutely real. All that happened.
SD: During the seventies, you lived in America--first in Cambridge, then Woodstock, then for most of the decade in Marin County. Why have you now resettled in London?
VM: Well, basically, it's home for me. That's where I want to be.
SD: What part of London do you live in?
VM: Kensington, but it's actually Notting Hill, but I don't like saying Notting Hill because it has "connotations" [Notting Hill is a racially diverse, lively neighborhood, whereas Kensington's reputation is more sedate].
SD: Before we go, let's talk about fatherhood. I understand you have a teenage daughter named Shana. Do you see yourself in her?
VM: Oh definitely! Any parent does.
SD: What kind of music does she like?
VM: Modern stuff. Rock stuff. U2, as a matter of fact. She likes classical, too. She plays piano and has had voice training. Sometimes we play together; she plays piano, and I play saxophone.
SD: How old is she?
SD: It's a difficult age.
VM: Yeah, but it's OK. She's going through her teenage years and I'm going through midlife crisis, so it matches up. We're running parallel.
SD: Van, you're going to be forty years old this summer. Albert Camus called forty the age of saints and suicides.
VM: I think I'd prefer to be the saint, thank you.