Monday 20 November 2017

Van Morrison: Mystery Van

I had breakfast with Van Morrison. Twice. Once was in my local greasy spoon in London. That was a sensible mid-morning repast. Both of us regulars in that cramped establishment, we often happened to find ourselves there at the same time so naturally we had a bit of a chat over the cup that cheers.

Another notable occasion was more of a late night-early morning session in Dublin when I was pouring something Russian-flavoured from my teapot.

If I said I'd brunched with the mystic William Blake or poet WB Yeats, you'd probably expect me to share a few gripping yarns about celestial visions and out-of-body experiences. You might even expect to hear the same about Van. But you'd be wrong.

The Belfast Cowboy is different.

He's not a guru. Or a shaman. He's a sax-player first. So the conversation was perfectly normal. A bit about music and this and that.

He can be a funny guy, too. Off-the-wall humour. Like John Cleese, he'd have loved The Goons.

Of course, he's also a gifted songwriter. And a performer who possesses a powerfully expressive voice that combines many of the finest traits heard in rock'n'roll, rhythm'n'blues, jazz and folk music.

Van has been releasing records since 1964 when he was a member of Them. That's 48 years ago. In a business that thrives on promoting the latest musical fad, Van is one of a few major artists to have endured. Bob Dylan is another. Both men have their musical roots deep in tradition. And, remarkably, both men shun publicity.

While Paul Simon and Neil Diamond are happy to share their thoughts in the media, Van prefers, as he has always done, to avoid dealing publicly with journalists and broadcasters.

And if he's not going to speak then woe betide those who do. Salman Rushdie got the lash from Van when he revealed details of a late-night session in Bono's gaff.

Ironically, this absence from the media spotlight makes the public even more keen to hear news about him.

Astonishingly, in an age when every second person has access to instant communication technology, camera phones, Twitter feeds, online blogs and so on, Van still manages to make Howard Hughes and the Scarlet Pimpernel seem as ubiquitous as Simon Cowell.

Van has an ability to become invisible in a crowd. He doesn't throw superstar shapes. He blends in and could be mistaken for a delivery man or, even a window cleaner, one of his old jobs.

Some folk with a special talent, whether they be sports people, painters or carpenters, become lazy and squander their gift.

Others, like Van, feel compelled to express themselves through their work. In Morrison's case, that's writing songs and performing in concert. He knows when a recording is to his satisfaction. He doesn't need critics to point out where they think he went wrong.

Life in the public eye had become unbearable for Bob Dylan long before he discovered fanatics rummaging through his rubbish bins. In Van Morrison's case, scrutiny of his private life by public commentators continues to be the cause of personal dismay. And who can blame him?

But in an era that has spawned a pervasive culture of celebrity, where Andy Warhol's prediction of 15 minutes as a timespan for fame seems overly generous, Van's clandestine nature itself becomes the centre of attention.

It's not just the chattering classes and gossip columnists who crave insights into his life with legendary Irish beauty Michelle Rocca, the woman many believe has been his muse since the early '90s. But what do they know of his family life, his children and social habits? Precious little.

It's not been for want of trying by a host of biographers and social diarists. Unfortunately for Van, the curiosity extends beyond his music and into personal and private matters. It's a credit to his rigid discipline of secrecy that the recent tragedies in his life, the death of a baby son and the child's Texan mother, should have wrongfooted the newshounds until quite some time after the awful events.


Over the decades, Van's music has been a source of great consolation and solace for many people. From Gloria to Madame George, Coney Island to Behind the Ritual, listeners can sense that the music has been a healing balm in the writer's private emotional life. And, most likely it'll be through his art that Van will find a way to come to terms with the grief and turmoil of the recent past.

Indeed, the old trouper is already back on stage. For many great actors and creative artists, the stage is a place they can put themselves in touch with something transcendent. It can be a place of expression and redemption.

As the former Miss Ireland, Michelle Rocca, Van's partner for almost 20 years has written, "He is the kind of loner who finds real peace and solitude in front of an audience of thousands."

It puzzles Van that he can't be left to do his job without intrusion and persistent media surveillance. But were things any different for his earliest influence, blues singer Huddie Ledbetter? Of course not. Even back in the day, newspapers were anxious to write about Lead Belly, "the singing convict".

It remains a source of great annoyance to him that commentators analyse, dissect and then construct bizarre theories around the songs that came from his heart. Over the years he has railed at being called a "rock star". He despises the crude broad-brush mythologies that shape the public's perception of what he is and what he does for a living.

While he remains an enigma and a reluctant star in this Pop Idol world, Van is nothing if not consistent. In 1970 he was already telling Rolling Stone how much he hated doing interviews.

"I did about four a day and I just got so pi**ed off I was ready to . . . Everybody just asked me dumb questions and they had dumb faces."

There you have it. Anything Van wants us to know is in his music. And I'm good with that.

Van Morrison plays the O2 on Saturday

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