Van Morrison In Conversation With R. D. Laing

The following appears in a recently published book called R.D. Laing: Creative Destroyer, edited by Bob Mullan, published by Cassell, London, 1997, ISBN 0-304-70114-9 (hardback) and ISBN 0-304-70115-7 (paperback), 431 pages. Apparently the title is now officially changed to Memories Of R.D. Laing

This "chapter", of which there are a few dozen (being commentary, etc. by those who knew Laing, including Allen Ginsberg and Maureen O'Hara), is the final one. Gathering from the interview, this took place sometime in early 1986 prior to the release of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

Laing died in August 1989.


RDL: St Germaine des Prés - the church is just on the corner, by Boulevard St. Michel, all that territory there I find quite magical.

VM: I must visit that. For a while I bought that whole teaching, at one point lock stock and barrel, up until where I got into blues. There's Summit Lighthouse who take the hardline approach that blues came from jazz which came from Voodoo, and that's the lineage, and therefore blues are still the dark forces basically. I don't believe that, I think that blues is a sort of a way out of oppression, you know. Maybe the oppression comes from the dark forces, but I don't see the music itself as being particularly black or white. I think it's some form of release.

That's a difficult area. I mean, some of modern jazz, I agree with them on their bits about modem jazz as a dischord and a disharmony, I definitely agree on that. Any kind of discordant thing that's coming through modern jazz, I would agree on that level. The teaching on gospel music is pretty basic, that's devotional music and that's okay. But for me, also rock and roll hasn't really been explored. [She] gives examples on the tape, it's very convincing, starting with Bill Haley, remember "Rock Around the Clock"? She starts off with that and goes right through, and lectures her way through until Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, you can actually, you could take that literally, you really could, because the actual sound of the music and the way it probably had effect to shock was ... I would agree is destructive. I could even go as far as to take that literally, but somehow I can't, just the sound of the Bill Haley music I can't see ... I don't feel had any particularly destructive effect. Although it definitely did at that time, have a destructive effect.

I remember when he played Belfast for instance, they just ripped out all the seats in the theatre, they ripped the place apart. That happened apparently at a lot of places that he played. So there was some element of that I suppose in it. Or maybe that was the beginning of it or something. But that whole Fifties time period seems to be full of that sort of stuff, like James Dean, Brando and all that.

VM: Is it making any sense so far?

RDL: Oh sure ... I've never felt happy about theorizing.

VM: There's a chapter (in there) on the blues actually. They didn't really explore soul music which I thought he should have explored that more ... he seemed to have gotten into Chinese soul music. But he didn't get into Scottish or Irish soul music. It took me 20 years to get this particular thing down in ten minutes you know. That last part's the title of the album. The album's called No Guru. No Method, No Teacher.

RDL: Has that album come out yet?

VM: It's coming out on 14 July.

RDL: You couldn't be convicted of rabble rousing or inflaming unpleasant energies.

VM: Yeah, that's right, exactly.

RDL: You were born in Belfast in 1945?

VM: East Belfast.

RDL: Was that sort of thing polarized... the whole Catholic/Protestant thing?

VM: Was it polarized? East Belfast was totally Protestant, there was a couple of Catholics but it wasn't, there wasn't any problems, there wasn't any friction or anything like that, it was West Belfast. That was always the centre and still 4s. It's only now it's spread to East Belfast with the RUC thing and all that. Is that what you mean by polarized? Why do you ask me that?

RDL: Just in terms of the immediate music that you were exposed to. For instance you would never, as I never, have heard Gregorian chanting.

VM: I just heard the family stuff, the Irish country and western. Irish songs and Scottish songs and country and western things. That was it.

RDL: What's the first piece of music you ever remember having heard in your life?

VM: I think it was - Bing Crosby - I remember Mahalia Jackson, "Silent Night", that made a very big impression on me.

RDL: I didn't come across her until the mid-fifties.

VM: My family had all these records of Mahalia Jackson, a lot of gospel music. My father was into that big band jazz 78s, he had all that Harry James stuff, but then again a lot of gospel music and blues stuff. Leadbelly.

RDL: Let me put to you that assertion by Johann Sebastian Bach that music that doesn't come from God, isn't music.

VM: Well, I think that that's true. I mean everything comes from God. Understanding the way He meant it, I'd say that was true. Music coming from the spiritual worlds, I think by the time it steps down to this plane, the material plane, it's got to change somewhat, I suppose from the original song.

RDL: When you've composed a melody or write a song do you write it down or do you play it first of all? Where do you first hear it, in your mind's ear or, as it were, outside of yourself?

VM: I'm inspired and driven. That's one part of it. I would call myself a channel, not a medium but like a channel when I get this inspiration coming through me. Then I write it down. Or it can come in a musical idea, without words and then the words are added or it can come in a spontaneous poem. I can also just have a thought and that thought will lead into a song. Or a series of thoughts that I might carry around for like a week, a year, there's no set time. So it can either come from an idea, thought or hearing a melody, even getting them both together, getting a melody and words together.

RDL: When you write in a manner of a troubadour, say you're addressing a lady, are you hoping that people will be able to hear that about their girlfriend or at the same time in a spiritual sense you and their beloved that you're making love with?

VM: I think that's the purpose of trying to talk like this, trying to disseminate that. I'm hoping that this is understood, but probably nine times out of ten it isn't, so the reason for doing this kind of interview, is to get that information out there or, in relation to that, this could be the love for one person, or it could be trans-personal. In relation to the troubadour thing, and particularly one song on this album, which you understand, maybe a lot of people wouldn't. That's sort of the idea I'm talking about, the new platform would be to explore that more. When I started writing songs, it was totally unconscious. I didn't start writing consciously, or shall we say observing it consciously until I was 28 years old. Before that everything I wrote was completely unconscious, I hadn't a clue what it was about.

RDL: Well there was the music that you must have grown up with, the music coming from the 1940s, Bing Crosby and later Sinatra and say a song like "Stella by Starlight", or "Ain't Misbehavin'" or "Me and My Shadow", I think were very much taken for granted at the time, as just being one-dimensional ...

VM: As a matter of fact when I heard Ray Charles doing a version of "Until There Was You", from a live tape, before that song for me was just another song. When I heard Ray Charles doing it, it had a completely different meaning, The whole song and the approach to it. But that's when I first started to listen to those kind of songs in that way.

RDL: I must say I'm a bit sceptical of the possibility of converting many people by talking about hearing with the third ear, fourth or fifth ear. Who among your own contemporaries, do you feel most heartened by?

VM: For me I think Dylan is. That definitely appeals to me. The various levels he's writing in, on several levels at the one time. I more or less have been delving into the past actually, because I can't find a hell of a lot on the contemporary scene. I've been listening to Dowland, John Dowland a lot. That appeals more to me than anything I can find on the contemporary scene. The depth of the lyrics and the music, the depth of the whole thing. There isn't anyone writing like that today I don't think. I'm having to go backwards it. terms of finding music I like.

RDL: Do you move across that strange boundary between so called classical and non classical music without any effort? Music that is not in the classical tradition of western music ...

VM: I have to find my way in. No I have to bridge that. The way I bridge that is I play some of my own piano music which I haven't really put out yet, and that is leaning more towards what you would call classical. And I just play that for my own enjoyment and for med. itation actually, I play it for meditation purposes. So that's the way I'd get into it, and then I'd find my strings somewhere. You know with a Cyril Scott sort of thing, you know The Bells? A piece like that and Debussy, I sort of connect up there with Debussy, Cyril Scott, those type of things and find my way in that way. Also with songs, Vaughan Williams, Greensleeves. I find that easy to wander around in to find a way in there. But it's not such an easy jump say to jump to Bach or something. From where I am in music it's not that easy. Listening-wise it is, but not in terms of actually playing it or anything. I find my way more in to Renaissance music and Debussy, things like that. Irish traditional music or Sean O'Riorda, that type of thing.

RDL: Do you find the people who, as listeners to your music, feel most affinity to your music, do you feel that they are ready to resonate with your resonance? Resonate with those sort of subtle vibrations. Are they there with you?

VM: I don't know but I think they could be or I think I could maybe do that on a smaller scale. Maybe it would be exploring it really to begin with, maybe on a more behind the scenes level. Rather than being in the public eye sort of format, I thought we'd try and explore it in that way and explore the meditation part of it more. For instance on this record here I've talked a lot more about this album in those terms than any of the other albums. Simply because I wanted to explain this a bit more.

The first number I played you "In The Garden" right? I'd been explaining that that is an actual meditation process. If you actually listen to that song and go into meditation, by the end of it you should be - if you're following the thing attention wise - you should be in a state of transcendental mediation by the end of it. Because that's what it is that I'm actually doing in that song, as I'm actually singing it, and by the time I get to 'From the shiver from my neck down to my spine ignited me in daylight and nature', if you follow all that, at that point you should be there. 'Then I turn to you and I say no guru, no method and no teacher', etc. That is it in actual words you know. I suppose we could be exploring that more. That's what I want to do really. But I don't know what the format is yet so, I think first I develop it, and have conversations where I get feedback. So initially the thing could be developed in that way where it's talked about and there's feedback and then I get more ideas from that, or maybe in a sort of workshop format, or something along those lines.

RDL: You're talking about the elements of music, tempo, rhythm and harmony, timbre and the scale or mode that it's in ... When you say you're not sure of the format are you saying you're wondering in terms of your range of inspiration, what possible options are available for you, in which musical format this sensibility could resonate with most deeply with people?

VM: What I mean is the format would have to be a format where the audience or the listeners would have to hear and they would have to be there for the reason of participating in a sort of a meditation experience for that night, for that performance. Now at 'Lhe minute that's not what's happening. People who come to see me now would be coming and it would be an exciting thing. The dynamics of it would be excitement. Now what I'm aiming at is to get my prerequisite aligned with an audience coming to spend an evening to listen to music and get involved in depth meditation and music, you see, That would be the format. I don't know exactly how to do that the minute, but that's what I'm aiming at.

RDL: Have you any simple meditation recipes focused on breathing, or focused on the heart?

VM: No the actual music, the dynamics of the music will, actually do this. If you close your eyes and listen, the dynamics will do all the rest. With the dynamics of the music, I would direct the music and play with it dynamically so that this will definitely take the people into a meditated state. I don't want to say well you c6unt down from 50 to I and you'll be there, I think it's just a matter of if they follow the music then they will arrive there.

RDL: How would that be done?

VM: It would have to be done in the programme, or something.

RDL: In advance so they would know that ...

VM: Yeah, exactly, But there might have to be other things as well, some sort of steps involved, maybe breathing exercises. I can see that probably would have to be part of it. Maybe some visualization techniques as well. I can see that now, I didn't before we started.

RDL: I'm not suggesting that that would have to be part of it, I was just wondering whether you were thinking along these lines.

VM: I had thought of that a couple of years back, and I can see where that might have to be part of getting in to it.

RDL: What type of audience are you mainly playing to these days?

VM: That's what I'm saying, I don't know. Part of this desire for another platform is that I don't feel part of this whole rock and roll thing - I never have really. So I don't hang out with rock and roll musicians or I don't listen to this kind of music or anything, and I don't live the lifestyle. I'm about as far away from that as I can possibly get, Some refer to me as a recluse, so it's getting to the point when I'm simply not going to be able to do that anymore. I just have to find some way of 'doing my own thing' as they used to say in the 1960s. Of just getting another shape on it, another angle on it to find another way to do the music, and it seems to me that this would be maybe tied in with some sort of meditation thing. That's just what I've felt intuitively.

RDL: I don't know whether you know him personally, but Dizzy Gillespie a number of years ago was quite upfront about it, he was light, humorous, played his music and just shut them up right away, he was serious, he meant it and let them know that. I remember it worked. I don't know what you think yourself, say about maybe the single track that you're best known for is "Moondance". Maybe you don't want that tribute in case . . . I think that's a great track.

VM: I know what you mean but that's not really what I'm doing. What I'm dealing with is repetition, that's really what it is. Repetition and the meditation thing really comes out of the repetition. When I'm performing, the songs are like the background, the songs would be the exoteric bit, behind that I go into passages that might be on the end of songs. I do a song called All In the Game, at the end of that I go into a passage where it's like a gospel format where it's two chords played over and over and over again ad nausem. Now that's really what I do. I have written some good songs, but that's not really what I'm about, and part of this whole process is to get this other thing out. For all these years it's been this rock star image or whatever it is. It's been this sort of thing, album tour and playing this sort of game, so now what I'm trying to do is say that's fine for those people that want to do that. What I want to do is I want to go over here and start another game on my own. Just make tapes and distribute them myself. Be in more control of my own destiny and what I want to do without having to play everybody else's game.

RDL: There's no problem about doing that, but you could lose quite a lot of money doing this.

VM: Well that's what I'm saying, it wouldn't be a commercial venture. I wouldn't want it to be set up like a commercial venture. It would be to explore these other ideas, because what I'm really interested in is this other thing which is based on this repetition, and that's what I really want to do and that's what I've been trying to get at for 20 years.

RDL: One four, one five

VM: It's like one four ad infinitum. That's my thing, that's what I want to do, that's what gets me off. One four for ever. I can play this one four thing dynamically, if I have the right musicians, from here to there, to there, the dynamic range is tremendous, what I can do with one four. That's really it. That's the whole thing in a nutshell, I just want to play one four for ever, and transmit this to people and take this repetition through these stages of boredom, and run that whole range up until high. From boredom through all the other ranges to I suppose, serenity. I don't know if you're familiar with that Hubbard scale, are you? Well Hubbard did this scale on the emotional tone scale.

RDL: I know of it, I'm not familiar with it. What's the scale?

VM: The scale starts with 0-40 and below, that there's sub-scales. it was interesting to me because it was actually below death. There were actually scales below death. It would start at death, apathy, confusion, doubt, above doubt there'd be a couple then you'd get to boredom. You'd go beyond boredom and you'd have mild inter- est and once you get to mild interest then it starts to go up into the higher scales. Mild interest then stronger interest, etc., etc., up into enthusiasm, past enthusiasm to the top - one's serenity of being, So between serenity of being at the top and apathy which Is right before death ...

RDL: He's using an octave level ...

VM: No no, this is just purely an emotional tone scale, Everything in between.

RDL: How are you going to handle that with conventional instruments?

VM: I just do it with repetition. When I start, the one four thing you can take from boredom, and on up from there, into the higher, you could take it up to enthusiasm and then ... I would actually bring it down from enthusiasm. That scale is not really in terms of straight up or straight down, it could be ... Actually to take it from enthusiasm I would drop, it to serenity.

RDL: All the times that I've listened to your voice, you seem to sing somewhere between your throat and your heart. Sometimes it's right in your heart, sometimes it's more up in your throat. When you do that now, is that the zone that you want to both come from and resonate in other people, the heart . . .

VM: Eventually it'll get into the heart. That's what the eventual goal is ... exactly.

RDL: In your own musical imagination, do you see these zones with specific colours?

VM: Colours? No I've never seen them as colours.

RDL: Eisenstein. He was very attracted to the whole idea of the chromatic, colour of the different notes. The Tibetans?

VM: No I haven't explored colour yet.

RDL: The idea of a trumpet is red.

VM: I think some at Lighthouse teach that. What Chakra are they related to, all that. That's part of my research programme, that one. That's on that tape I was telling you about, it's all on that tape about that. Not the colours but the instruments. It talks a lot about the violet flame in the heart, so they relate violet to the heart.

RDL: I think that sort of thing takes care of itself. There's only a few musicians i.e., Mozart and Debussy and Cyril Scott, at the same time their musical theory didn't get in their way as actual per. formers or musicians. A certain type of musicologist who can talk about music and feel it and so forth. When they try to actually do it themselves they're nowhere. You're already there, in that respect. The major scale for instance, we talked before about this, the major scale, I don't believe in this absolute consistency of definite sort of intervals. The major scale was banned in churches until the late Middle Ages. It was called the modus lacivicus, it was supposed to be inciting to lasciviousness. We don't really think of that now, I mean "I'm Dreaming of White Christmas" doesn't really incite people to have orgies under the Xmas tree at all.

VM: When did they think that, the Middle Ages?

RDL: I'd have to check it ... twelfth or thirteenth century.

VM: What I find very interesting when exploring the Renaissance period, Dowland wrote primarily about grief, that was the main thing he wrote about. You know this 'down in the dumps', you know where that expression comes from? Well they actually called music pieces a dompe, they called something like, Lady Fanshawe's dompe [My Ladye Careys Dompe] there was a piece of music called that. That's where the expression 'down in the dumps' comes from. They were into moods of despair and all sorts of things. You don't find that in songs hardly at all now. You find the sentimental folk thing, but you never actually find songs about despair or death. Dowland wrote some stuff about death as well. There must have been a completely different society at that stage, if that was the popular music at that time.

RDL: Shakespeare's sonnets ...

VM: Yeah. Did he write songs Shakespeare? He must have ... sonnets ...

RDL: He wrote "Fly Away, Fly Away Death", and "Let Me Be Late". Have you been interested in the Russian music, central European music, gypsy music?

VM: No, I've been trying to come to grips with what you might call broadly this Celtic music thing. Because, when I was about five or six or something, I used to hear all this blues music at home. Then later on they started to call this soul music, So for ages I was think- ing of soul music in terms of R 'n' B and all this. Until when I started meditating and doing sounds and seeing what I could do with my voice when I was meditating. That led me more into listening to Irish folk music and Scottish folk music and the drone, the pipes and all this sort of stuff. Of course, that's soul music.

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