1991 Now Dig This interview

by Paul Lewis
From Now Dig This, December, 1991, pages 22-26

Van Morrison is, without question, one of the giants of the rock era. Having first emerged as a prime mover in the British r&b movement of the early '60s with his Belfast band Them, Morrison has remained remarkably faithful to those roots, developing a musical style at once highly original but also greatly indebted to his early heroes - the blues singers and jazz musicians; the 'voices' of gospel and r&b; the original rock n rollers. His lyrics are peopled by legendary names - Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly etc. - figures that appear almost as characters in an ongoing dialogue; indeed the beginner could amass a terrific record collection simply by checking out the clues that Morrison sprinkles. To get a fuller picture of the man's musical background and primary influences, I met with Van on a recent trip to South Wales. We were joined by a mutual friend, Gordon McIlroy (Wales' leading promoter of blues, r&b and rock n roll gigs), and the conversation was lively, informal and enlightening. What emerged was an engrossing guide to the musical roots of one of our most important performers.

Paul Lewis: Can I start by asking how you got introduced to the blues and rock n roll and all that kind of stuff? I know your father was a great collector of blues and jazz records...

Van Morrison: Yes, well that's really it - I sort of grew up listening to it. You probably heard that before.

PL: And wasn't your mother a singer?

VM: She did some singing, but never professionally. She did some local sorts of shows.

PL: Did she sing jazz?

VM: I don't know exactly what it was. I think it was just the stuff that was happening. I mean the dance band era, that sort of thing...

PL: How did your father get hold of his records? Was there an outlet in Belfast?

VM: Yes, Solly Lipsiz was the guy's name. He had a jazz record shop in the High Street in Belfast - a collectors' shop. It was very small, a very small shop, just shelves of...well, they had 78's then, and they had 10-inch LPs and EPs. Nowadays you can go to these big stores, Virgin or something... In those days you had to go to a specialist shop to get any jazz or blues records.

PL: Was there a lot of interest over there in Belfast then?

VM: No, there wasn't a lot, just small pockets really. There were just small pockets of interest.

PL: So when did it first hit you that there was something you might have liked among your father's records?

VM: Right away! When I could breathe, I think. I just connected with it right away. The first things I heard were Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Clara Ward Singers...

PL: All the gospel people...

VM: Yes. The earliest thing I can remember hearing was gospel, but I heard Leadbelly too, right from the beginning. I don't know the exact sequence, but I heard it all at once. And he was into the big band stuff as well, so I heard Tommy Dorsey and Harry James - because that was his era - so it's all mixed up, you know. But I connected with the gospel and Leadbelly - heavily connected with Leadbelly - and that's how I got into music in the first place.

PL: How old were you when you started playing music yourself?

VM: Well, I got a guitar when I was about 11 or 12. Then I got this Alan Lomax book, and I learned the chords and picked the shapes out of this book. It was called 'The Carter Family Style' - that was what I initially started learning on guitar. And I was trying to pick up also what Leadbelly was doing, but that wasn't in there. If you did The Carter Family, then you could pick up from there, you know.

PL: You mentioned The Carter Family; did your father have any country records as well?

VM: Oh yes. Well I heard Hank from friends in the street. Friends of mine had the Hank Williams stuff, so I heard that from five or six doors down - they used to leave the doors open. One of my father's friends used to bring all these 78's over, they used to have 'Hank Williams Nights'. Have a few drinks, listen to Hank all night.

Gordon McIlroy: Hank parties! That's unbelievable. Never happened here, you know, never...

VM: That happened in Ireland all the time. It was a big thing.

PL: Ireland's got a strong tradition of country and western though, hasn't it?

VM: Yes, because I think they're very connected you see. The cultures are very connected.

PL: So, guitar was your first instrument - did you play in any bands early on?

VM: No, it was what you'd call 'folk' then. I can remember when I started playing, there weren't any guitars around, apart from on the records by Leadbelly, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. You never really heard guitar. You saw it on television - somebody like Ivor Mairants, or you saw people like Elton Hayes. And there were some comedians who played guitar - like I saw Max Wall play guitar once. But it wasn't 'in' then by any means; the guitar was not an instrument then.

PL: When you say 'folk' music, what exactly are you referring to - not 'traditional Irish folk music'?

VM: Yeah. Well when you started, you had to play on your own, because the players weren't available. It was so isolated to have a guitar. You'd see Delia Murphy, who was an Irish folk singer... There'd be Steve Benbow, who played Irish folk music - and English - and all kinds of stuff that you'd see on television. The only local traditional folk group that I heard were The McPeakes. But folk music was not something that was readily available; your entrance into playing guitar was folk music but it wasn't something that was everywhere, not where I was. You couldn't just walk in and hear it, as you walk in and hear rock n roll later on, when the guitar became fashionable and all the teenagers were getting the records. But people like Elton Hayes you'd see on television, so you'd only have that to go on: one person with a guitar, singing a song. Robin Hall, Jimmy McGregor - that's the only thing you'd have to relate to. Either that or the Leadbelly records, or Jimmie Rodgers who I listened to a lot as well. All of a sudden, in the next five years, I think it was - in this part of the world, the UK and Ireland - it was Lonnie Donegan who brought the guitar *in*. When I started playing they called it a banjo - that's what they called it! So they didn't really register about the guitar until then. I think Donegan was before all the rock n roll stuff...I can't quite remember the sequence.

GM: Donegan made the players, without a doubt. The *players* came from him, I believe.

PL: Had you been following Donegan through the 'trad' period with Colyer and Barber?

VM: Yes. My father had the Ken Colyer records and the Barber records - things like 'Precious Lord', where Donegan was singing in the Barber band. When 'Rock Island Line' came out, it was a Chris Barber record, so my father bought it and that's how I heard it. But what I connected with was that I was hearing Leadbelly before that, so that when Donegan came along, I thought everybody knew about it. So in retrospect now, I realise I was really lucky then - I didn't realise it then, because I thought everybody was hearing the same things I was, but they weren't. So consequently I think I was really lucky to grow up at that time and hear what I heard then, you know.

PL: Had you been trying to tell other people about these records you were listening to, and meeting with resistance?

VM: All the time, all the time. The 'country' people were the most relatable to at that time. My friends who had brothers or uncles or fathers into country music were the most relatable. Hank Williams was *the* most relatable thing, so those people who were into Hank, I connected with them. But they weren't jazz or blues people per se - they were into Hank, so there weren't a lot of people that I came into contact with that were into it. I used to meet people that were much older than me when I went to the collectors' shop, but I didn't really start connecting until the '60s. But the skiffle thing was the bridge really because that sort of crossed over - when I was going from Leadbelly and blues into skiffle, it translated very well. The next thing for me was the early '60s when all these groups started to emerge; then it was like everyone understood it, you know.

PL: Was there a skiffle scene among young musicians in Ireland as well as over here?

VM: Oh yeah, absolutely. That was what was happening then.

GM: I think all the musicians in this country came from skiffle, more than from rock n roll. When they brought rock n roll over here, nobody could play it. Couldn't play it directly...

VM: In that period, in Belfast, the one guy that I've heard of that was playing rock n roll was Brian Rossi. He was playing at The Plaza Ballroom, the Mecca ballroom in Belfast, and he was the first person that I saw that was 'rock n roll'. He had a three-piece, because they didn't have the electric bass then - they had two guitars and a drummer. The bass wasn't in then, wasn't happening. People didn't know about it. In rock n roll they didn't have electric bass until a couple of years after that, it was very slow to come in. But they had a piano, Rossi was playing piano, two guitar players and a drummer. He was the happening thing in Belfast.

PL: What year would that have been?

VM: Oh, '50s - late '50s. He was from the mid-'50s on, I would say. I wasn't getting into these sorts of venues until the late '50s, you know, because I was too young before that.

PL: How big a part did radio play in your musical education?

VM: It was actually more the records. I mean I heard things on the radio, but it was more the records that my father had. The radio stuff was just additional - you know, the AFN and Luxembourg - but it didn't really play as big a part. The records were the main feature.

PL: What was the first rock n roll record you bought?

VM: The first rock n roll record...it was the only one I could get actually, the only Bill Haley record I could find: 'Razzle Dazzle' (see right). I can't remember the other side...

GM: 'Two Hound Dogs'!

VM: That was it! 'Razzle Dazzle'/'Two Hound Dogs'. That was actually the first 45 I bought when they made the changeover from 78's to 45's.

PL: Did your father approve of the rock n roll stuff as well?

VM: Yes. But the thing is we were so much into jazz that it was sort of part of it, but it was more background, it was just passing by. We were so much into jazz and blues that rock n roll was peripheral. I mean we liked it, but it wasn't in my face all the time, because of the wealth of other stuff, you know. At the time when I got into rock n roll, I was also into jazz saxophone. I started studying tenor with a guy called George Cassidy in Belfast, learning to read music, so when I entered the rock n roll thing, it was coming from that end of it, that angle. So the whole thing wasn't rock n roll, there were other ideas and things I was listening to. People like 'Fathead' Newman, who was playing with Ray Charles - so that was sort of running parallel.

PL: And were you into all those r&b 'honkers' - the Earl Bostics and so on?

VM: I listened to Sil Austin, I had a Sil Austin record...'Pink Shop Shoes' was one of the tracks. I used to listen to him before I went to school, to get me up for school, you know. I heard 'Honky Tonk' too, but I was more into listening to a guy called Jimmy Giuffre than I was to rock n roll. I decided I wanted a sax when I heard Giuffre doing 'The Train And The River'. I couldn't get enough of it after that. If ever there's anyone who was a footnote or asterisk it was him, he's my main influence on saxophone.

PL: I suppose your father would have had his records with Woody Herman, so presumably that would ultimately have come from those?

VM: No, not really - I mean I liked that music, but I didn't connect that strongly with it, not as much as I did with r&b. My father had the first record that Parker played on, 'Dexter's Blues' with Jay McShann, so I heard that, but again I didn't connect so much with that as I did with this other stuff later on. I don't even know what it was called, just some sort of fusion. They didn't call it that then of course - today they'd probably call it fusion. In between Jimmy Giuffre, the Bill Doggett thing with Clifford Scott and The Bill Black Combo would be my area. And then I had these Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan Quartet records that I listened to quite a lot. But when I heard 'Ray Charles Live At Newport', that was it. I started to understand something about the harmony, harmony phrasing, playing together, ensemble - all that kind of stuff. But that's what I was studying - more the jazz end of it than the rock thing at that point. When I joined my first rock n roll band, I was still listening to blues and progressive r&b and jazz. I never saw rock n roll as the whole picture.

PL: Were you playing the sax in a showband?

VM: No, no this was strictly a rock n roll band. It had two guitars, drums and saxophone. We had a piano player but he didn't stay there. He was working in another job, so it was like two guitars, drums and a tenor playing "Peter Gunn" and "Tequila" and all that kind of stuff. Then we actually became a showband because in Ireland you had to have more bodies to work. Because groups weren't really happening there - they were everywhere else with The Shadows etc., etc., but for some reason the promoters didn't want groups (laughs), they hated, you know, 'guitars, bass and drums' groups, they just didn't want to know. You had to have a horn section, you couldn't really work properly if you didn't. All the showbands had horn sections and a lot of them were really good, like The Royal Showband, Dixielanders, Swingtime Aces, Clipper Carlton... The horn sections were the main thing, so you had to have at least a seven or eight piece band to work.

PL: Is that scene still thriving in Ireland now?

VM: No, no, it's all gone. That went with the ballrooms, they went at the same time. You had these five-hour dances, you see; the band would have to play for five hours for dancers. And people would come from everywhere, out of the woodwork. Some of these gigs were in the middle of a field, you know, in a ballroom. The Royal Showband were huge at the time and they went to Vegas for six months of the year. They'd come back and they were the biggest draw in Ireland.

PL: So presumably you were involved in this scene for quite a while. Were you trying to introduce r&b into it?

VM: Yes. Well, what happened was I was gradually trying to creep r&b in - we had this group situation and we had this piano player who was into Jerry Lee. So he used to come and listen to my Jerry Lee singles, and we'd gradually try to introduce them, and then Ray Charles. Bit by bit it was becoming more of an r&b band. And then we went to Germany where we could virtually play what we wanted. So at that point it was no longer a showband, they wanted more r&b in Germany. They had showbands there, but they liked r&b, they wanted "What'd I Say" and "Sticks And Stones", you know...

GM: Jerry Lee had been down there at The Star Club. There's an album out of Jerry Lee...

VM: And Ray Charles had already been. So that was when it was beginning to turn around. And then a strange thing happened, just as we started to kick off on the r&b thing - we were playing a club in Heidelberg - I can remember the exact situation. We'd done three or four numbers and then we were announcing the next one when this American G.I. - there were a lot of G.I.'s coming in - he came up to me and said, "You guys ever heard of Dave Clark?". And from that minute, everything changed. All of a sudden it was groups again. So I went back - Calais, Dover and London - and it had all changed from six months previously. Now, the group thing was back and The Beatles were the biggest thing, and The Dave Clark Five. The r&b thing with horns was less predominant, you know, and then of course The Rolling Stones came after that. So, after Germany I went back to Belfast and opened an r&b club at The Maritime Hotel.

PL: So the band in Germany, was that Them at that point?

VM: No, no, completely different band, much better musicians. This is something I'll never understand, you see. The musicians in this band, we'd never got any commercial success, and I started this other situation from complete scratch. You know they actually just went their separate ways and got jobs in different bands and I got a job with Brian Rossi at The Plaza Ballroom in Belfast. I was playing some tenor, playing some harmonica and sang a couple of numbers, so I had a spot with Brian Rossi.

GM: What were the numbers then - rock n roll?

VM: No, it was r&b - that's why he got me. Because he was rock n roll, complete rock. His thing was like Jerry Lee, you know. He was like Jerry Lee, Little Richard...so he had that going. What was I doing? I was doing r&b numbers, like Ray Charles - "Sticks And Stones" or "What'd I Say", or some slow r&b songs, and I was sticking some tenor solos in as well. Then, during this period, there was an ad in the Belfast Telegraph which blew me away when I read it. It said: "Musicians Wanted To Start R&B CLub". I went and met these guys and they were in some other business - I don't know what exactly, but they weren't in the music business. The said, "We want to start this r&b club in Belfast and we're looking for people". There was only me and this other guy there; only two people showed up from the ad. So I went out and found this club, it was a Seamens' Mission; it was called The Maritime Hotel and they had a room set up, that's really where I made it - well, it came out of that situation. I had to just get musicians in at short notice, so the people that I really wanted, I couldn't get. I got another lot of people and we went into this club known as Them, and then it built up from there.

PL: Do you think that you did your best work (with Them) at that club, rather than on record?

VM: Oh...well, it's hard to say. Yeah, in some ways - energy-wise - yes, and as far as stretching the numbers out goes...I think a lot of it was more intense than on record. The records didn't really capture the whole thing because they were limited, you know. Like when you made records in those days, it was all 2:58, wasn't even three minutes, so it never really came across. Live gigs were much more stretched out, you know...

PL: Presumably you still like that club atmosphere?

VM: Oh yes, I think I'm at my best in a club situation, but it's difficult for me now to get that situation. It's not so readily available now.

GM: It's difficult to cope with the people that want to come in, you see. It's too "high-profile" sort of stuff. If you could move in, like, say come in tomorrow, without anyone knowing, it would work.

PL: You were obviously listening to the Chicago blues people - Muddy Waters, guys like that - by this point...

VM: Well, I heard the first Muddy stuff, his folk things, the Library of Congress recordings, I think, on French Vogue. Vogue were issuing records in England - 78's - when I heard Muddy it was from the 78's. You know that "Rollin' Stone" song? "I'm A Rollin' Stone", Muddy Waters? I hadn't heard the electric stuff by then, I heard that later on. But Sonny & Brownie, I heard them electric before I heard Muddy. Sonny & Brownie made an electric album, I heard that before I heard Muddy Waters, so that was like the first electric blues band I heard. I think it was called 'Back Country Blues' or something, but it was with an electric band.

PL: You mentioned that you'd started playing harmonica earlier; who were your influences there?

VM: Oh, Sonny Terry. The first one I connected with was Sonny Terry.

PL: Was that because you'd been buying those records - as a guitarist - to listen to Brownie McGhee and then thought: "Well, I could have a go at harp as well"?

VM: No. As far as guitar goes, I was just sticking with Leadbelly and doing the runs on 6-string - nobody had even heard of a 12-string guitar - and I thought: "Well, where can I get a 12-string?". They used to think I was insane when I was 12 years old and talking about 12-strings. They wanted to put me away. So I was trying to play the Leadbelly runs on a 6-string guitar, the best I knew how - I played more like Lightnin' than like Brownie McGhee, the Lightnin' style. Lightnin' and Leadbelly were the two main influences - and Hooker.

PL: When did you get into John Lee Hooker?

VM: It was an album on the Audiolab label, Hooker was on the one side, on the other side was Stick McGhee.

PL: Of course he'd played with Sonny Terry as well...

VM: That's right. He was Brownie McGhee's brother or something. But anyway, to get back to Hooker: the Hooker record was like it was done in an echo chamber. The guitar and the vocal were soaked in this echo. I'd never heard anything like that, there was nobody doing that. That's where I got "Baby, Please Don't Go" - from that. I mean, Hooker's name was on it, it said: "'Baby Please Don't Go' (John Lee Hooker)", and it was his arrangement that I started to work on.

PL: So you hadn't heard Big Joe Williams or any of those older versions?

VM: No, but it turns out that he never wrote it either. (To GM) You know the guy who wrote it...

GM: The original was Papa Harvey Hull and Long Cleeve Reid, in the 1920s. Incidentally, a funny thing happened the other week: we had Paul Burlison - Johnny Burnette's guitarist - staying in Cardiff. I think he set a standard for most of the British guys. You know "The Train Kept A-Rollin"? That's possibly where the lick came from for Van's version of "Baby, Please Don't Go".

VM: I think that's where Jimmy Page got the lick from - 'cause Jimmy Page played that lick on my record. But I'm sure he got it from "The Train Kept A-Rollin". I didn't really get this until years later, that it was the same riff, because I'd been listening to that record by Johnny Burnette.

PL: Were you aware of many of the rock guitarists of the time? Cliff Gallup?

VM: Oh yeah! WIth Vincent I was, yeah! For me that was what the whole rock n roll thing was about. I heard the Johnny Burnette Trio first, then Vincent. I met him later on, about '65. I hung out with him, he was at The Royal Hotel in London and I got to know him a bit. He'd been to Egypt and he'd just got back; he was a really nice guy. For me he *was* rock n roll. I like Burnette, but not as much as Vincent. Whatever rock n roll is, for me it is Vincent.

PL: What about Jerry Lee?

VM: And Jerry Lee. To me, I couldn't say he was rock n roll. Jerry Lee's everything - he's jazz, blues, gospel, rock n roll... Jerry Lee to me means 'everything'. Vincent was to me what rock n roll was about.

PL: You recently did a gig with Jerry Lee. What was he like to work with?

VM: Easy. Dead easy. Very professional.

PL: You seem to me to be drawn to these people who cross over all these genres. I mean, Leadbelly is hard to pigeon-hole, and Jerry Lee as you said...Ray Charles... Would you say that's true - you like people that can straddle jazz and blues and country?

VM: Definitely. I think for me that's a key.

PL: I mean, you do that yourself...

VM: Yeah, I do.

PL: What about Ray Charles? When did you pick up on him?

VM: Oh, I bought three records - one was The Johnny Burnette Trio, another was a Ray Charles EP; it had "Don't Put All Your Dreams In One Basket", "Sittin' On Top Of The World" - it was the one they keep putting out every three years or something. But the first thing I ever bought by him was "What'd I Say". The first time I heard it was on AFN, late at night. It was a live version - it must have been out in America... The one I got was, you know, "Parts 1 and 2", and I was hooked. I was completely hooked after that.

PL: How about Elvis?

VM: I heard an Elvis Presley record - on Sun - was it his first record? It had "That's All Right Mama" on it...

GM: The first one we got was "Heartbreak Hotel". "That's All Right" never came across...

VM: I remember hearing one that was a Sun record. Somebody must've got an import. It was acoustic, had no drums on it. Must have been an import then, but I heard that one. But I never connected with that, I connected more with Vincent than I did with Presley.

PL: Did you explore all that stuff later on?

VM: I played it! When I was in a rock n roll band, I played it, jumped across the stage - did the whole thing. I did rock n roll for a couple of years really.

PL: Did you get the rock n roll films, the Alan Freed films, in Belfast?

VM: I saw 'The Girl Can't Help It', I saw that one. Vincent was in that. Little Richard... But I used to see Vincent on 'Oh Boy!'. He was on that fairly regularly, and 'Boy Meets Girls' and all that. Used to watch that every week. I remember seeing Ronnie Hawkins and Gene Vincent on 'Oh Boy!' with Joe Brown.

PL: What about the British rockers?

VM: Oh, Johnny Kidd, man. Johnny Kidd. He was it for me as far as the British end went. I remember he came to Romano's Ballroom in Belfast and he had a three-piece: guitar, bass and drums - and him. That was it, but it was like a big sound.

PL: What year would that have been?

VM: '62.

PL: Was Mick Green with them then?

VM: I think so, yes. But I mean, remember all those three-piece groups that came along much later? They were doing that *then*.

PL: The 'power trio' bit.

VM: Yeah, exactly.

PL: What about English r&b in the early '60s? Did it pre-date you doing it, or was it happening at around the same time?

VM: It was happening at the same time, but we didn't know. For instance, we played The Cafe A-Go-Go in Newcastle...

PL: The Animals' place...

VM: Yeah, but then nobody knew anything. They said there's this band in here called The Alan Price Band or something like that, which apparently became The Animals, but we never heard them. But we played this r&b club in the early '60s. I think there was a lot of crossover...probably Eric Burdon was doing the same kind of thing I was, but we never met each other then. This only came about when we had records out. We'd made a couple of records and The Animals and The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones had records out, what, in '63 was it? The first British r&b of that type I heard was The Downliners Sect. It was at The Ken Colyer Club, there were doing it then, really doing it. I heard The Pretty Things later, we were on tour with The Pretty Things, but The Downliners Sect were *it*.

PL: What about the slightly earlier ones, like Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and people like that?

VM: I heard Alexis during the skiffle thing with Ken Colyer, but you had to come to London to hear things like that then. Nowadays you could be in the outer Hebrides and you'd still be able to hear it, but then it was much more isolated. Alexis came and played the club I started about four years after I got it going.

PL: Were you, as a band, slightly out of it then, coming from Belfast? I mean, a lot of these bands evolved out of people that were sleeping on Alexis' living room floor. And they were all intermingled, those London-based bands...

VM: Yeah, probably yeah.

PL: Would that have made it harder for you?

VM: No. We met The Downliners Sect early on, when I was playing in a showband. I came through London and talked to them quite a few times, we went back to see them a few times, and so I started the r&b club I reckon about six months after that.

PL: Did you get many other bands in there outside of your own?

VM: Oh yes, loads of them. Because when it caught on - it took a while to catch on - but when it did, there were suddenly lots of r&b groups around, that came out of the woodwork, that just got into that when they discovered it could be done. Nobody thought it could be done before that. They just though: 'Oh, it's not gonna' work, it's not like a pop record...'. But when it did work, a lot of people that were playing in showbands suddenly wanted to be in rhythm and blues.

PL: I'd like to ask you about some of the people you met that had come across from America in the early '60s, some of the bluesmen that came across...

VM: I met Little Walter. We had a manager who brought us to London to stay at this hotel, called the Aaland Hotel, it was in Bloomsbury. We were sitting there for weeks, you know. We were having a jam session downstairs and all of a sudden these people were wandering through and somebody says 'Little Walter's coming in!'. I thought I must be dreaming, you know. And sure enough, he did, he came in. And I used to go for Chinese food for Little Walter - there was a Chinese restaurant a couple of streets away. I was always saying, "Well, can you show me anything on this harp?". But it was very tough, I mean he was tough, he didn't give anything away. His style was so 'off the wall' - I think he even had a number called "Off The Wall"! - that there's never been anybody since...the things he could do were just incredible. He had a scientific approach to playing the harp. As far as blues goes, he's the top, there is *nowhere* else. The outer limits. There's nobody to touch him. For me he's the outer limits.

PL: How different was he from someone like Sonny Terry?

VM: Well, I'm more like Sonny Boy Williamson, that's my speed. Walter, when he took the instrument to such an extreme, I haven't heard anybody come anywhere near it. But Sonny Boy, for me, I could manage my way around a bit, you know... But Walter was way, way beyond everybody.

PL: Did you meet up with anybody else then?

VM: We backed Jimmy Reed as a group - I backed Walter as well, backed him on guitar - met Jimmy Reed then, and I met Hooker in the same time period. That's really when I became heavily involved with Hooker.

PL: Hooker seems to have inspired you in all sorts of ways - phrasing and everything...

VM: I don't know what it is, but he had some sort of soul. He's got so much soul. When I heard him during that time, he had an acoustic and he came down to breakfast - he was just sitting around with three or four people in a room, and he got out the guitar and he started to play and I haven't heard anything like it since. It was just magic.

PL: I know you're not overly keen on much that's been written about you, but I came across something in 'Rolling Stone' that I'd like your opinion on. It was in a review of Paul Butterfield actually, it said: "Unlike Van Morrison, for instance, Butterfield always conceived of the blues as a tradition, not as a sensibility". Do you agree with that?

VM: Well, not really. I think I see it as both. The thing about it is, if you take Leadbelly or Lightnin' or Hooker, they're not always playing 12-bars. The blues is not always 12-bars, but somehow we've got it in our heads that that's where it is. I mean, some stuff Lightnin' does is not 12-bar - he plays different shapes. He's got records where he plays folk shapes. There's lots of different angles, but blues is a way of life. And it doesn't have anything to do with this thing about colour. When I was a kid, I used to think it was about 'black people' and this and that, but Hooker says "Blues is the truth", that's how he puts it. And I believe that. So whatever the truth is for you, that's what the blues is.

PL: You've always been quick to credit your influences in your own songs...

VM: A lot of that is tongue-in-cheek - you mean on the last album?

PL: Yes, well there's a couple on the last album: "Real Real Gone" and "Days Before Rock n Roll", but also going back to "Cleaning Windows" and so on.

VM: The last one ("Days Before...") was tongue-in-cheek, but "Cleaning Windows", that was reality. That was when I was listening to Blind Lemon, Leadbelly and Jimmie Rodgers.

PL: Do you see yourself in the role of some sort of educator?

VM: I think I could do that, it's a possibility. If I had a platform, I could get into that, it's a possibility.

PL: Do you ever think of doing an album purely in one of those styles? I know you did the folk album with The Chieftains, but a pure blues one or a pure rockabilly one...

VM: Oh, many times. Well there's stuff, actually unreleased material that is in that vein. Over the years you record things and there's only, like, 40 minutes on an album, so there's a lot of stuff gets 'canned'. This stuff exists, but it's long-winded going through all this material, finding out where the tapes are and getting it out.

PL: What was it like having Hooker record one of *your* songs? That's a rare occurrence!

VM: That was really strange, because Hooker recorded a version of "T.B. Sheets" and didn't give me any credit! At first I was really pissed off... Then I realized it was John Lee Hooker doing a *version* of it. He's doing an adaptation of it, it's not exactly the same. But I think if it had been anybody else, I would have done the legal trip. But seeing it was Hooker, I just don't see I could. I mean, it was a compliment, wasn't it, really, to do it - he would come to my gigs and say, "I dig this number 'T.B. Sheets', man. I wanna' do this number." You know, it's a compliment really.

PL: Were you involved in the 'Healer' project at all?

VM: He wanted me at the beginning to start on it, but they couldn't find me, they didn't know where I was physically, and they were trying to get in touch with me. By the time it got off the ground, Carlos (Santana) had got involved in it, and it became too far gone for me to get involved, but I became involved in the next one. I did two numbers for the next record: "Serves Me Right To Suffer" and "I Cover The Waterfront".

PL: You worked with Mose Allison...

VM: Yeah, I did a thing with him, two years ago, I think, in Bristol. A TV programme...

PL: Oh yes, but what I was thinking of was the concert that came out on video - that was from America though, wasn't it?

VM: Oh yes. Actually, the one in Bristol was better; there were more songs, it was stretched out a lot longer. The one I did in America was very rushed; the Bristol thing was shot over two days. There was much more chance to get into it, and he was playing some of my songs, which was good. But Mose has worked with me a lot, I mean been on shows with me for a long, long time, going back about 12 years. He's been on a lot of my shows in America. I saw him quite a lot when I lived over there. Sometimes I'd go see four sets in a row, you know. It's a completely different style, his music, from mine, but I really like it - I like his songs and I like what he stands for, what he's saying. He's a friend of mine; I've hung out with him, talked to him quite a bit, got a dialogue going - it's good.

PL: Of course you were playing with Georgie Fame around the same time, and he's obviously very influenced by him as well...

VM: Yes, I think Georgie's probably more influenced by Mose than I am. I don't really put Mose under 'influences', I put him under 'inspiration'. But Georgie's been into him for a long time as well. Georgie's a friend of his, too.

PL: How did you link up with Georgie? I imagine your paths must have crossed back when you were in Them and he was playing at The Flamingo?

VM: Well, our paths crossed, but we didn't actually connect up. We had the same agents when I was in a group called The Monarchs and he was playing at The Flamingo. So we had a lot of people in common, but we never actually connected with each other.

PL: Do you see much of the contemporary blues scene?

VM: No, it's like I have difficulty when the translation gets lost. I mean if you're brought up on Shakespeare, then it's difficult to read other things that aren't up to the same level. When you hear these people when you're very young - and it goes in all the way, it penetrates all the way and you absorb all that - the other stuff just seems feeble. I'm not putting it down, it just doesn't register. I always have to go back to Sonny Boy, Walter, Muddy Waters - I have to go back to these people because with the new stuff, there's something that's not there, there's something missing. I think it's got to do with people living it, and it was the consequence of this life and the way they really felt spiritually as well. And it's got watered down through the years. I mean it's good that people are still playing it, but there are very few things that I can say come anywhere near it. You know, I think the blues has become something else, it's become another vehicle. I think it's a good musical vehicle, but I don't think it's what it started out as, it's become chipped away. It doesn't really have the depth of the original stuff is what I'm trying to say. There are very few people now that are penetrating the depth of it. For me, Butterfield was the last person that penetrated the depth of it. I haven't come across many people since then that actually were living the thing to that extent, anywhere near that.

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