Jul 8 2009, 11h23
Jun 22, 1972 12:00 AM
This sullen, tweedy-looking little man, light sweater-vest pulled over checkered dress shirt, not saying a word, standing stiffly up there behind the mike, working his magic..."Into the Mystic," "Moonshine Whiskey," "Tupelo Honey." Six thousand people were packed into this old Ice Follies hall called Winterland to hear Van Morrison, but two songs later, when the mike went dead for an instant on the first verse of "Moondance," he took the snap as a sign. He finished the song instrumentally, thrashing at his acoustic rhythm guitar, barely allowed another song--an instrumental--to be completed, and stalked off the stage, up the back ramp, out of the smoke, away from the cheers...
Mark Naftalin, the pianist, was the first to reach him, darting into his path, pleading, not over dramatically, "Van, you gotta go back out there. We're really on!" Bill Church, the bassist, joined in, seating, eager, but Van just shook his head, still saying nothing, and marched into the dressing room. Taj Mahal, who'd played earlier, dashed in. "C'mon, man, you gotta go on again. They love you, it's beautiful. Let's get it together!" Van took a deep breath and finally sighed, resigned to his showbiz fate. Two more numbers: "Blue Money" and "Domino" to send the crowd crazy again.
Then Van Morrison dismissed his band and the Street Choir.
Two days before, he had told his manager and agent that Winterland would be his last booking. Now, despite the show he seemed to have done, despite the apparent rapport with his band, and despite the audience response, he quit. Here, in November, 1971, he was convinced that the world was crashing in around him.
This night, he'd been half-paralyzed by stage fright, which strikes just about every time he approaches a stage. But there were other circumstances. Just before the show, an LA Times reporter who'd heard about his impending "retirement" cornered him in the dressing room for a high-pressure interview. Van was caught unprepared and got completely unnerved, let his confidence be sabotaged. And Van kept saying he didn't know, for sure, why he wanted to to break away at this stage of his career. He was tired of being so nervous in front of large crowds. Tired of the road. Tired of doing the hits. Tired of the whole business.
Don't wanna discuss it,
Think it's time for a change,
You may get disgusted, and think I'm strange,
In that case I'll go underground,
Get some heavy rest
Never have to worry, about what is
worst and what is best....
But this story has a happy beginning. Van stayed in seclusion for just a few weeks, and right now he's on the road again. Crowds going crazy again.
"People have told me that I have this cult following, but I don't think that's true at all. It's really just people who have been hanging in with me for a long time."
But there is a cult of followers. And they love to give testimonials. "So there I am stuck for three days in my crummy apartment on the Lower East Side in the middle of a blizzard, right? I've had it with New York and my plane doesn't leave till Monday. I'd never heard the record but I happened to put it on and listened to it and then I just kept playing it over and over. Six, maybe eight times a day. It just kept bringing me up." This is Jeanette telling another how -Astral Weeks-helped-pull-me-through story. She escaped New York, her psyche intact.
An art student back from an eight-month bus trip through India and Afghanistan tells of picking up hitch hikers, many of them with knap sacks loaded with cassette recorders and tapes of his albums.
The name of the bus: THE VAN MORRISON.
A psychiatrist friend swears he has on repeated occasions been privy to certain higher truths listening to "Into the Mystic" with headphones while under the influence of an exotic gas. And a few nights ago in a bar a 40ish woman, overhearing Morrison's name, cheered: "He's my boy, I got his Tupelo Honey -- first album I've bought in three years." Asked why, she got a bit misty: "Well, it's warm... and it's got the kind of jazz feel that my father used to love."
Whether or not such endorsements parallel the feelings of his audience at large, there's no question that Van Morrison writes and performs songs that carry immense impact, songs that have a way of becoming associated with personal milestones. More often than not, it's his voice that makes it happen.
Dave Mason: "There's no one to compare his voice to. It's unique. That, together with the overall effect of his band and his arrangements, makes you feel so good, so alive."
Jackie DeShannon "Van is a great blues singer, one of the rare few who can drag you through the most down lyrics, really make you feel them, yet at the same time bring you up. Billie Holiday had that quality. So did Janis. Astral Weeks just brings you up from the lowest low. That album just cleansed my soul."
John Lee Hooker: "He's my favorite white blues singer--and one of the greatest around."
Taj Mahal: "I love his ideas and the way he approaches his music. He lives it, he puts the feeling on you, and that's where it all starts from."
Tom Donahue (record producer and manager at KSAN-FM, San Francisco): "He's got the voice and lyrics that remind you of generations of hard times and misery and that kind of black Irish soul."
There is no lack of hard times in Van's background. He was born August 31st, 1945, the only child of working class parents, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at a time when post-war Europe was in economic shambles. With jobs impossible to find, his father left his family behind and went to America where he lived in Detroit and for several years worked as a railroad electrician. Van grew up listening to the family collection of jazz and blues records. He heard Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles as well as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley.
"My family was supposed to move to America when I was five. Things didn't work out for the move, but like all the kids I grew up with thought they were American anyway. See, Belfast is not like England, even though it's a part of Great Britain. It's got its own trip going. The American influences are stronger than the English influences because of all the Irish who have emmigrated to the United States in the last few generations. Like all my relatives lived in Detroit and Toronto. Places like that."
While in grade school Van got a taste of the bitterness that today divides Northern Ireland. "I wasn't even aware of religious prejudice until one day a couple of kids I'd never seen before came up to me and two friends and started swinging. They were going around punching out Catholics. Or Protestants, I forget. It was weird, 'cause at the same time we were fighting 'em we were asking why they were trying to beat up on us. They stopped when we said we weren't whoever they thought we were. The whole thing was unreal. I really feel for what the people are going through over there, but I couldn't give you an elaborate statement because I haven't been home in over five years and I haven't followed the situation that closely."
Van began to sing at age 12, and by 13 was playing guitar, sax, and harmonica. During his early high school days he played in several neighborhood bands, some with names more reminiscent of Surf City than Belfast. "I used to play in a group called Deanie Sands and The Javelins. This chick Deanie and I did the singing and I played guitar. We did a sort of country-blues-rock type of music." Away from the Javelins, Morrison spent a lot of time hanging out in Belfast clubs regularly visited by American bluesmen such as Jesse Fuller, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree.
At 16, Van dropped out of high school to turn professional. With a group called the Monarchs, he toured England and the Continent, playing five sets a night at raunchy clubs that insisted they sound like a loud jukebox. "In some of those clubs," he remembers, "the audience might've worked us over if we didn't do at least three encores of 'What'd I Say.'" For Van it was a drastic change: "I was under age. I had to get special permission from the British Embassy in every country. We worked Germany a lot, playing US Army bases and places like the Odeonkeller in Heidelberg and the Storyville clubs in Frankfurt and Cologne." Van often did stand-by duty on bass and drums in addition to sax, harp, and guitar. Those months abroad were chaotic and exhilarating, a life of cramped and sweaty backstage rooms, trains, hotels, and learning what it's like to be bored and wasted on the road.
It was in Germany, too, that Van, as a Monarch, recorded his first single--"a really bad song," he recalls--"but we gave it a dynamite instrumental track." It was a bitter experience, this encounter with a producer wanting strictly commercial product. "But we needed the session money. You do when you're drinking your pay every night."
In 1964, Van was 19 and back in Belfast, this time to form Them out of the nucleus of the Monarchs plus a couple of old friends. The group found work at the Maritime Hotel and soon turned it into a home turf. There, under Van's direction as lead singer, Them developed a hard -core regional following. For Van, the first two years were the only time that Them was truly Them:
Yeah, good times, wild sweaty, cruddy, UGLY, and mad,
And sometimes just a little bit sad,
Yeah, they sneered and all, but up there, we just havin' a ball.
It was a gas, you know,
Some good times....
"The Story of Them"
By mid-1965, Them had a recording contract and had undergone several changes in personnel. According to Van, the group was Them in name only. "We began to split up about that time. When we started recording, the group was just me, a few from the band, and whoever was lying around the studio at that time."
Of those early days, Greil Marcus once wrote: "The feeiling Van communicates when speaking of that time in that place is that it hasn't happened again, with that sort of intensity of shared goals and desires. It happens to all great bands before they record--after that there's a standard, in some ways a false one and perhaps always an artificial one, against which the audience measures the performers and responds to their music....It has to do...with a sense of place; understanding a town--its ethics and its values and its emotional tone--instinctually and absolutely....
"To Van Morrison it's little more than a bad joke to hear someone praise the recorded work of Them....Great as those early sides are, and probably more important, as astonishing as it was to hear them in the wake of the early Sixties--what they put down on records was in fact the skeleton of the spirit of the music of Them....One realizes, after talking about those days, that what we know from a few records--those of Van Morrison and dozens of others--is in fact a slim glimpse into a music that one would have had to be there to hear, when the guts of it was right there on the floor."
Though it no longer sounded like the house band at the Maritime, Them sounded good enough to broaden the base of its popularity. Van's material, together with help from session men like Jimmy Page (he played lead on several early sides, including "Baby, Please Don't Go"), resulted in several hits, including "Gloria", a smash single in early 1966 that captured everything that Them ever was--angry, defiant, arrogant, talented, and punky.
"Gloria's" success as an American Top Ten single led to a quickie U.S. tour and--for Van--the start of a new chapter. After a gig at the Fillmore one night he met his wife Janet, a devoted Them fan. She is "Janet Planet" on the liner notes, herself a singer and Shakespearian repertory actress who since their marriage has been the mainstay of Van's back-up vocal trio, the Street Choir. After Them disbanded in 1967, Van moved to America, settled in Boston, and went out on his own, cutting an album for Bang Records, a New York label started by Bert Berns, Them's former producer.
"We knew each other pretty well," Van says, "and I respected him as a producer, especially in R&B. He was right up there with the best. Did some writing, too. Like he co-wrote 'Piece of My Heart' and cut it with Irma Franklin. She did it before Janis. Matter of fact, when he was writing the song he wanted me to help him finish it. I couldn't come up with anything and he later finished it with Jerry Ragovoy.
"The Bang people said they were going to give me artistic freedom but when it came down to the wire, they didn't. I wasn't very happy with the album. In fact I didn't even know it was an album. Like we had eight cuts. I thought we would need more. See, before we did the album I made some tapes for Bert with just myself on guitar. And he said a coupla times, 'Hey, that's great. Let's put it out.' But what finally went out was what we got in the studio. Then a while back Bang threw together another LP using a few cuts from the first album along with some other stuff they had in the can. I thought it was mixed very badly. I asked them to at least let me remix the tracks but I never heard from them. They released it as The Best of Van Morrison--which it isn't." Blowin' Your Mind, featured "Brown-Eyed Girl," which would be Van's only solo hit for the next four years. His direction was indicated by three extraordinary blues tracks on that album: "He Ain't Give You None" (in which Van coined the classic euphemism--the back street jelly roll); "Who Drove the Red Sports Car," and "T.B. Sheets," a ten-minute masterpiece of stark visionary poetry delivered in a talking blues style to a gutsy, sexy, R&B accompaniment:
Now Julie, there ain't nothin' on my mind further away than what you're looking for.
I seen the way you jumped at me, Lord, from behind the door, and looked into my eyes.
Your little star-struck innuendos, inadequate season, foreign bodies....
In 1968, Bert Berns died, Van's contract expired, and he signed with Warner Bros., a label which then saw him as a singles artist. Given artistic control for the first time in his career, Van began work on an album that represented a radical departure from his previously recorded material. The result was Astral Weeks --eight song-poems thematically related to a complex, obscure, often painful autobiographical framework. Warner's VP Joe Smith concluded that Van was not so much a hot source of singles as he was a gifted artist--and probably a genius at that. The album was released in late 1968.
Astral Weeks was different from the things I'd recorded previously but it didn't really represent a period of rapid change in my music. The change was more gradual. I had been writing my own stuff at home even during the Them days. But it wasn't possible for me to perform it because it was totally different from the group's style. And it was obvious from our gigs that people just wanted to hear us play our records. Than after I went out on my own to do Blowin' Your Mind, Bert wanted most of my material done in a blues and R&B vein. While all this went down the music for Astral Weeks was gradually coming together.
"I was really pretty happy with the album. The only complaint I had was that it was rather rushed. But I thought it was closer to the type of music I wanted to put out. And still is, actually."
If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams,
Where mobile steel rims crack, and the dents in the back road stop,
Could you find me? Would you kiss--a my eyes, lay me down, silence easy, to be born again?
To be born again?
Though Astral Weeks fairly oozed creative brilliance, it had no hit single potential, and no mass market appeal. Sales were disappointing. It did, however, spark a lot of controversy among Van's early following. Those who liked the album loved it passionately, while those who didn't, didn't at all. A cult sprang up that attracted many who knew little or nothing of Van's days with Them. Van went on the road with two side men (acoustic bass and flute). The tour lasted several weeks and was only marginally successful.
Returning East, Van accelerated; he forged together a tight, six-piece back-up band and by late 1969 had completed Moondance. More critics fell in love and Van had broken through to mass market acceptance again. His Band and the Street Choir, released at the end of 1970, was like Moondance, a nearly flawless balance of churning rock & roll and lyrical ballads. "Domino," the single from the album, went quickly to the Top Ten.
In the spring of 1971, Van moved his family from Woodstock to a new home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Tupelo Honeywas released last fall and it quickly outsold all previous albums.
"I'd always wanted to move to California. I didn't plan on staying in the East so long after leaving Boston. But we ended up living in New York City because of all the business. And then we rented a place in Woodstock for quite a while. I really liked it there."
When I hear that robin's song, I know it won't be long before we find out where we belong,
Girl, we're starting a new life,
We're gonna move, move way on down the line,
Tell me we've been standing in one place too long a time.
"Starting A New Life"
In the ten years he's been "professional," Van Morrison has explored--and now transcended--the major musical traditions he inherited. Yet while his music has changed, his basic vital strength--his drive for musical perfection; the authenticity of his spirit--has remained. Van Morrison has emerged as one of the most important artists in contemporary popular music.
And quite possibly the shyest. No one, least of all Van himself, can fully understand why after ten years of performing he now finds himself frequently fearing direct encounters with his public. It didn't used to be that way. Dave Mason recalled seeing Van perform with Them in England: "I saw him live several times and, man, he was crazy. He would jump up and down, and leap on top of the speaker cabinets. 'Matter 'fact he was pretty incoherent when he sang. I was glad to see him change his style."
Van didn't begin to experience any real anxiety on stage until some time after he was on his own in America and had to perform before not hundreds, but thousands of people. Ironically, many have interpreted his failure to communicate as a sign of hostility, contempt or arrogance. Sensing these feelings makes it all the more difficult for Van to relax.
Still there are times when Van enjoys performing, when everything--the band, the sound, the audience, his mood--comes together. Those moments are likely to occur when he has a small audience, like the one last October at Pacific High Recorders in San Francisco, broadcast live over KSAN.
Before a studio audience of 200, Van opened with "Into the Mystic," then went into "I've Been Working," a cooker with Van extending the break while the horns did jazz riffs off a flawless rhythm section. After singing a shorter, looser version of "Ballerina," he caught everyone off guard with "Que Sera Sera"--the first three lines anyway, complete with a tinkly four-octave piano flourish--up through "Here's what she said to me"...when he broke into a stomping honky tonk rendition of "Hound Dog" that set the tone for what turned out to be a rare two-hour set.
Van never really established eye contact with his audience, and he never said much except 'thank yous', but he was in great form. He would hold a long high note at the top of a crescendo, raising his right arm up, then shout "Hit it!" as he pulled a fist down to cue the band. "Just Like A Woman" was just like Van Morrison, taking a few extemporaneous liberties with the lyrics:
Your long time curse hurts, but what's worse is this queer in here, ain't it clear...
I believe I believe I believe I believe it's time for us to ...(pumping his arm down) ...quit....
Please don't let on that you knew me when I was weird, (half-talking now) and you were weird,
For those few moments the song was his. After a long and satisfying "You're My Woman," Van kicked the pace up with "These Dreams Of You" ("I dreamed you paid your dues in Canada, and left me to come through") and kept it there with non-stop roaring rock and rolling segues through "Domino," "Call Me Up in Dreamland," and "Blue Money." He ended the set with a novelty recitation to "Buona Sera, Senorita" while the band played a cornball vamp behind him, joining in on vocals:
Buona sera, senorita, buona sera [band: BUONA SERA!]
It is time to say good night to Napoli [NAPOLI!]...
Everyone at the jewelry shop will stop and linger [LINGER!]
While I buy a wedding ring for your finger [FINGER!]
Van broke up in the middle, then scatted the reprise as the band played a tearing, southern Dixieland finale.
Then came Winterland and his retreat. "I was serious about it. Like that was a strange time for me. I'd been trying out people for the band and it wasn't coming together the way I wanted. And that made it really hard on performing which I wasn't digging at all. Plus I'd only been living here for about six months and I wanted some time to get acquainted with the scene around Marin."
One evening several weeks later he dropped in to see his friend Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the Lion's Share, a small folk and blues club in nearby San Anselmo, and ended up playing and singing on stage with him. And he loved it; he even agreed to appear there on his own two weeks later--no band, no backup vocals, no extra sound equipment, just Van Morrison, his guitar, and harmonica. The booking was just what he needed. Van looked less nervous than usual. He wailed through blues and ballads, infusing lyrics with an ineffable sense of privacy, his voice edged with that peculiar mixture of celebration and sadness--bravado on the brink of tears. Midway through "The Way Young Lovers Do," he connected somewhere within and began to rock back and forth, slapping the chords out and scatting most of the remaining lyrics--'zaba zaba zoos' and grand glottal stops as the audience yelled encouragement. During the lull that followed applause, Van looked up--actually looked --and deadpanned, "I hope you can see the comedy in all this." His timing was perfect and the Lion's Share laughed with him. With the tension gone, the rest of the evening took on the feel of a semi-private party.
Among a few surprise drop-ins was John Lee Hooker (Van introduced him as "The greatest living blues singer...This is where all us British people got it from but they won't admit it") who jammed and boogied with his host for nearly an hour. Lending a hand on rhythm guitar was an unintroduced Rick Danko, and before the night was over, Bobby Neuwirth and Jack Elliott also shared the stage. Van closed with an inspired "Ballerina."
Whatever gets to you, and you feel like you just can't go on,
All you gotta do is ring the bell, step right up, step right up, step riiiight up, just like a ballerina.
Grab it, catch it, fly it, sigh it, come on try it, just like a ballerina.
He sang with his eyes nearly closed, but this time not to avoid contact, but to share it. Having occurred at a time when his future was uncertain, the Lion's Share gig was a great tonic for Van. Earlier this year he decided to book himself into a few small clubs, this time again with a band, to see if limiting the size of his audience might ensure his establishing rapport. Now Van has embarked on a two-month US tour.
With his band(s), Van Morrison demands a special rapport. He selects musicians who are both professionally skilled and emotionally intuitive, people who can blow the charts perfectly while at the same time knowing when--and just how much--to improvise when Morrison want to cut loose. "I need to have guys who can take an arrangement and work on it and rehearse until they get it right. Otherwise it's hard for me to feel confident when I'm out in front. I want the band to have the arrangements down to where the sound is really tight, then we can start loosening up. Also I find that, like, the horn players out here aren't into much variety. It's mostly high energy stuff where they start out loud and stay loud. But Jack [Schroer--alto, tenor and baritone sax] and I are building a dynamite band from the nucleus of the first band that we started here. And we're coming up with a lot of nice things."
Pianist Mark Jordan, who worked with Van last year and is now with Dave Mason, explained: "It's a question of reading his mood at the moment, a kind of challenge to your musical abilities. It's not easy, particularly when we would rehearse new material. Like Van expects you to run through a new song once and get it. But at the same time it's hard for him to express things in musical parlance. He doesn't read or write music, so a lot of times you have to follow his fingers on the frets. Sometimes he'll have really dramatic lyrics but he needs to flesh out the melody. We'll throw out suggestions and he'll tell us when something's not working. He has incredible instincts. "I've gigged with him many times but I think the highest I ever got was when I jammed with him at his home one night, just he and I and Doug Messenger on guitar. He ad-libbed both lyrics and melody and just totally blew us away. He's a genius."
In the studios, Morrison approaches his work with the same admixture of spontaneity, intensity and impatience. Ted Templemen, his producer at Warner Bros.: "Van's ability as a musician, arranger and producer is the scariest thing I've seen. When he's got something together, he wants to put it down right away with no overdubbing. He'll play guitar and sing at the same time. He works fast and demands the same of everyone there. I've had to change engineers who couldn't keep up with him. He hates to do re-takes on vocals so when he's recording we let a lot of little mistakes go by which we can go back and correct later. Afterwards I usually do the rough mix-down because Van can't stand doing it."
While recording and rehearsal activities have allowed him to freely exercise his artistic temperament, Van's outbursts of impatience outside the studio have hardly endeared him to a nervous Warner Bros. hierarchy. As much as everyone in the company expresses love for his music, Van has over the years been the cause of teeth gnashing in Warner's advertising, packaging, art, legal, business, creative services, and promotion departments. Last year, following the release of Tupelo Honey, Morrison called Burbank to complain that Warners was doing a lousy job of promoting the singles off the album. Several weeks later, when a Warner's promotion man called him to ask if several radio stations could interview him, he replied: "Don't bother me with such insignificant bullshit," and hung up. Subsequently a memorandum was issued notifying all departments that future contact with Mr. Morrison was to be channeled through Warner's president Joe Smith or label manager Clyde Bakkemo, who, when recently asked for comment by a reporter, sounded like the White House press secretary.
After Winterland, and his "retirement," Van Morrison was approached several times for interviews; he declined all requests with the suggestion that his petitioners listen to the words of "Domino." Even after agreeing to talk, it was evident he was doing so with considerable reluctance. It wasn't that he was trying to be mysterious. Rather, being interviewed, like performing, frightens him. In truth there is nothing outwardly mysterious about Van's role off stage. He's emphatically homespun, in fact. With two children--Peter and Shanon --a dog named Tupelo, and a "50-pound cat" named Sherbert, Van and Janet live in an airy three bedroom house near a Marin hilltop, surrounded by an acre or so of oak trees, manzanita and wild iris--a setting right out of Tupelo Honey. Home is first and foremost home, an essential retreat from all outside pressures.
It is difficult to obtain valid insights into Van's character on first meeting, not only because of the preconceptions one inevitably derives from his music, but because offstage he is also shy and uncommunicative. Physically he stands about 5'2" but any sense of diminution disappears within minutes of seeing him. To keep from being any more than a bit stocky he takes saccharine in his coffee and drinks diet Pepsi. He also puffs on menthol Tiparillo cigars (after first removing the plastic holder). He's never been a clothes horse and for the most part dresses casually--faded denims, long sleeved shirts, and a sport coat the pockets of which usually contain crumpled business memos, an address book, yesterday's mail, and tomorrow's itinerary.
Apart from keeping tabs on such tedious matters as bookings, recording schedules, and album deadlines, Van remains largely aloof from--or rather, unconscious of--the vicissitudes of the outside world. He doesn't subscribe to a newspaper, buys few magazines, has little enthusiasm for television, reads books sporadically (rarely finishing them), and has no consuming hobbies. Though he can drive, he has yet to obtain a license, largely because he has little desire to match wits with the California driver. There's a loneliness there, but it's mitigated by his family, a few close friends, and his music.
Twenty-third of December, covered in snow, you in the kitchen, with the lights way down low.
I'm in my parlor, playin' my old guitar, speakin' to you, darlin', find out how you are.
I wanna roo you, wanna get through to you, I wanna roo you tonight....
"I Wanna Roo You"
When people drop by, particularly those he doesn't know well, Van has a tendency to "sink to the occasion," as a close friend describes it. He relates best in one-to-one situations and generally lets Janet carry the social load when company's on hand. She carries it well. In fact, Janet is a perfect match for her husband. She has a clear grasp of his moods, knows when to joke about it and when to rescue him without being overprotective. Asked if Van's withdrawn nature might be related to the Irish temperament, she grinned: "Lots of people say that, but I can tell you for a fact that Van's never once said 'Top of the morning' to me." Janet has been a major source of inspiration throughtout Van's career as a solo artist.
You're my woman, you bore my child, I wanna thank you
And no one else will do, baby it's you, you are my sunshine,
I am your guiding light, like a ship out in the night, returning for light....
In Kingston town, now, walked up and down, now, looked at the ground now,
You went in labor, and all our friends came through...
One night we were at the home of KSAN disc jockey Abe "Voco" Kesh, sitting on the kitchen floor drinking beer and listening to vintage jazz albums. Van interrupted an inspired chain of thought to wonder "Say, do you think you could work into the interview what we were just talking about?" I reached for a pen and began scribbling. Later, we ended up sitting at a back table at the Lion's Share drinking more beer with the club's owner and hammering out more Q. and A. additions. At one point Van toyed with the idea of inventing several outrageous myths about his past but finally chickened out. At the time it was hard to escape the feeling that our earnest interview efforts were too serious--and too jive.
The next morning I faced the task of deciphering a pocket full of shorthand notes on paper towels, cocktail napkins and matchbook covers while Van had to call the owner of the Lion's Share to apologize and renege on a booking he had evidently agreed to the night before while under the influence of fellowship and 3.2 suds.
By his own admission--offered with apologies--Van is not an easy man to interview. At his request, the initial meeting was held at a mutual friend's. Once he was satisfied his privacy would not be compromised, he was happy to talk at home. His conversation required a little getting used to for he still spoke with a pronounced Irish brogue (examples, "down" is pronounced "dawn," "now" is "naw"). Like on stage, he was visibly nervous at first but after awhile began to relax, although never to the point of speaking freely while being taped.
You've been working without a manager?
Right. I feel I'm not the type of artist who can have a manager. So right there that puts the music business through quite a few changes. It means they have to deal with somebody who's not a puppet, who doesn't function like a clockwork robot. It's an old show business trend that we should get rid of. The sooner, the better.
Have you had a lot of problems with managers?
No, my management things were pretty good. But what I don't like is the way the whole thing is oriented. You can actually buy books on the music business that say "The artist relies on the manager to take care of this and that," y'know, like somebody being a babysitter. It's ridiculous. If I'm gonna work with somebody, they're going to be working for me and not the other way around. The word "product" keeps coming up. And if I'm the product, then these people are supposed to be an extension of how I operate. And if they're not, they're operating against me. And that's what happens to a lot of artists. It's part of an older generation setup that has nothing to do with this generation. There's a brand new world now--our generation. I want to do it the way of right here and now. I don't want to live by anyone's old philosophies.
Any part of that old philosophy in particular?
Sure. You know that expression, "The show must go on"? It's total bullshit. I don't think the show must go on at all. If you're putting together a puppet show or something, then groovy. But when you're dealing with people, with an art form, it ain't that way. I'm a human being, not some kind of wind-up doll.
Do you have a hard time getting that across to people?
Yeah, but what's harder for them to understand is that I don't want to be a rock & roll super star. And they can't understand that. 'Cause their whole business is set up to push you out there as far as they can to make as much money as possible. And they figure you'll go right along with it because naturally you want to be richer and more famous. But I don't want that at all, man. It's not worth it. You lose the freedom to live your own life. So you make a lot of bread. Beyond a certain point it just means you got more to worry about, more stuff that can gett ripped off. And the more famous you are the less privacy you have. 'Cause there's always people who'll be calling and coming around to lay their trips on you. It can get pretty unreal. Like someone you don't know too well will come by to introduce you to their friends and it's like you're some kind of new possession that they wanna show off. Y'know, where's that at? I don't wanna spend the rest of my life changing my phone number every 30 days.
Have you found people in the business who agree with you?
I'm gradually meeting people who think this way, especially since moving out here, but they're hard to find. But I think eventually because of it I'll be able to present more of my music in the right light. Do you find the scene out here different than the one in the New York area?
Definitely. There's a lot of good energy building here. People smile more than they did back East. They seem happier. Don't know why. [laughs] The vibes here are very similar to the ones in Belfast when I was first working bands there. A lot more musicians here are playing together and doing things for sheer enjoyment rather than for the bucks. But generally they're not as professional as the New York musicians.
Have you had much opportunity to hear some of the talent around the Bay Area?
Not a hell of a lot, but there's some relatively unknown groups around that I really dig. Like Asleep At the Wheel plays great country music. They're really good musicians. Clover is another one. They do C&W and rock and they're dynamite. Really tight. And there's Tom Salisbury. He's played keyboard for Lamb. I've been using him lately in the band and he's really good.
How's your writing coming?
It's been OK since that period where I was straightening out my business affairs. I've written a few numbers for the next album but it's been a little hard lately, what with doing gigs up and down the coast. And people dropping by to hang out or whatever. Some people don't seem to understand that you gotta work, y'know. Just the same as everybody else. And I can't do it when people are hanging out. Like I can dig hanging out when it's time to hang out. I dig having friends. But if I'm in the middle of working on an idea and I gotta stop because some people have come over to hang out, I may blow it. It's part of that fame trip, but it also has something to do with living in this area. Like when we were in Woodstock everything was cool because there were a lot of musicians around who understand what being a musician means and they left us alone when we wanted to be.
You've been pretty close to the Band. Did you first meet them in Woodstock?
No, I first met them in L.A. They were recording their second album. Then I met them again when we all got back to Woodstock.
You wrote "Pantomime" with Robbie Robertson for Cahoots. Have you done any writing for other artists?
No, that's the first. I felt we should have had more time to do it. I was rushed 'cause I was on my way out here. It was more of an in-and-out-type of thing.
How about other people who've done your songs? Any versions you've liked in particular?
I just heard Roy Head doing one of my numbers, "Bit By Bit." Dug that. Esther Phillips did a version of "Crazy Love" and "Brand New Day" not long ago. And Irene Reid did a good version of "Moondance." Dorothy Morrison did "Brand New Day" and I dug that. Miriam Makeba did it also. Saw her do it on TV. It was great.
Do you ever find yourself consciously thinking about the Top 40 market when you're writing?
No, there's no conscious thing one way or the other. I think a lot of the things I do just happen to be in that bag. Sometimes the way we record a song is the biggest factor. Like "Wild Night" was originally a much slower number but when we got to fooling around with it in the studio, we ended up doing it in a faster tempo. So they put it out as a single. It works OK that way but I still occasionally sing it to myself in the slow version just to make sure I don't lose it. Believe it or not, I sell more singles than I do albums. But I think all the music's merging anyway--Top 40 and FM.
"T.B. Sheets" gets an amazing amount of FM airplay. Do you ever change the lyrics when you perform it?
Oh, sure, a lot. I'm writing "T.B. Sheets Part II" now [laughs]. Keeping the same riff, the same groove.
Recently John Turpin of KSFX-FM (San Francisco) played a tape you'd given him of "Caledonia Soul." It had the same feel as "T.B. Sheets."
Right, it does. I've been trying to figure out a way to get it on an album, but it would probably take up a whole side.
Didn't you have the same problem with a track you recorded for Astral Weeks?
Yeah, it ended up being about 45 minutes long which meant we would have had to put out a double album if we used it. So it was left out. But at the time I was signed with an independent production company, not to Warners. So I didn't have the freedom to say what would come out.
Have you had that freedom with Warner Brothers?
Yeah. One thing I gotta admit. Warner Brothers has given me complete artistic freedom. No doubt about that.
How do you find your audiences out here?
Great. This is a great area for me. San Francisco. Marin. Also Los Angeles is definitely a big town for me. So is Boston--that's a place I can relate to very much. As for there being any difference in audiences, I'd say the kids out here are...like their idea of really getting it on is to, y'know, rock out. They're into that much more than back East. Like around Boston and New York people seem more aware of the troubadour tradition. And there's a lot of smaller clubs where it's easier to hear the lyrics. Out here I get asked to play "Blue Money" all the time. All the kids love it, the kids in the street. It's their favorite number.
Do these regional differences affect your establishing rapport with them?
I think it depends more on the type of gig. Like it was almost impossible when the festival thing was happening. When there were maybe ten or twelve bands and, y'know, the people in the tenth row didn't have an idea what was going on. I'm sure they couldn't have enjoyed the music whether they were stoned or not. I spoke to the guy who was booking me when the festivals were going down and I said, "The bread's pretty good and I appreciate that you can get me this kind of work, but I don't feel it's right to go out and perform my kind of music in an environment where it's totally impossible for me to communicate." And the reply I got was something along the lines of "Well, they probably just get a kick out of seeing you there doing your record." Which is to me, y'know...if they just want to hear the record, all they need is a good stereo. But if it's a performance, it's different. Like I don't do the same thing twice anyway.
Did you play many festivals? .
I did a couple. They made a movie of one of them--the Randall's Island thing. If the movie ever comes out I hope they kept the part in there where the band and I played. Like we went out there and started to play a couple of numbers and then we looked out into the audience and like everybody, man, was sailing paper planes. Making paper planes and throwing them at each other. And we were in the middle of the third song and I looked out and said to myself, "What is this for?" And so I stopped the band and we all sat down. And we just watched them sail their paper planes. And they didn't even notice that we had stopped playing. I guess part of what they wanted was just to be there together. Obviously some people wanted to hear us, so after a while things mellowed out and we started again. That part was interesting and if it's in the movie it should be groovy to watch.
Have you experienced the same problems outside of festivals?
Well, it's most noticeable at the big outdoor things, but now it's mostly in the big halls. Like I played the Pauley Pavillion in L.A. when I shouldn't have. It's not my type of room. The big auditoriums just don't work for me. In a way that's too bad because I've had a lot of offers to play big arenas and coliseums. And I could clean up playing the big halls, but I just don't feel I can be a performer under those circumstances.
What about Winterland last November when you were on the bill with Taj Mahal?
Well, that time Winterland was a little too far out for me, communications-wise. I felt I wasn't getting across. I just didn't feel like going back on because I felt so bad about it. Anyway, the situation is different now and I've changed my mind. And now I'm getting ready to go on tour. Which has put the music business through more changes. Like they're acting like I broke some law, like I'm not supposed to change my mind like an ordinary human being. Really the only thing that's important is that I play music for people to hear, either on records or at concerts. That's it, the music and the people. All the other stuff--the personal managers, the photographs, and the publicity kits and the articles and the pressure merchants and the music magazines--so much of it is bullshit.
I dunno, man, I've got mixed emotions about it. Maybe I'm just using this as an opportunity to say some things that have been on my mind. But at the moment I'm inclined to say it's bullshit [laughs]. Really. So I've moved to California and I'm managing myself and I'm putting together a new band and I'm uptight about certain things. Y'know? Who really gives a fuck? [laughs] 'Cause in the end it all comes back to the music. And it either says something to you or it doesn't. I dunno, maybe I'm just reacting to the pressure of this tour. I tend to be tense until after we've done a few gigs.
A lot of people have commented on your shyness on stage.
Yeah, a lot of times I am shy. I don't know. It's hard...It's hard to explain.
Is it usually hard to get out on stage?
Sometimes it's really hard to get on. Like, y'know, I almost withdraw five minutes before I go on. But then sometimes when I get on everything's cool. Sometimes it takes me about four numbers before I even know I'm there. [laughs] That type of thing.
You won't look at your audience.
Yeah, well, that's one of the things about, y'know, gettin' into it. I dunno, I get into it in a different way than a lot of people. Like I dig singing the songs but there are times when it's pretty agonizing for me to be out there.
Some audiences don't seem to be hip to your humor.
I know. And I don't know why...I think it's because of the way I look. But then part of the way I look is not to be taken seriously. It's kind of like I'm a straight man. [laughs] All I need is a partner and I could go into business. That's what I am, the perfect straight man. A lot of people haven't figured that out yet. [laughs]
You hardly ever talk to your audiences.
That's because I can never think of what to say. Y'know, I never dig saying anything serious. Like if I say something funny, they think it's serious. It always happens like that because a lot of people have this trip in their heads that I'm this really serious person who, y'know, never laughs or anything like that. I dunno. It's somebody's image of me. And I don't dig images, man. A lot of people love having them but I think images are just up the chute. I don't dig them at all.
I think the cult label which in the past has been part of your image stems from the fact that your music has such a profound personal impact on people. Particularly the lyrics. You're letting them share a private vision.
Well, like I've said, I'm not surprised that people get different meanings out of my songs. But I don't wanna give the impression that I know what everything means 'cause I don't.
Are you sometimes surprised by some of the things that come out when you're writing?
Really. There are times when I'm mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y'know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can't say for sure what it means. Like take...take "Crazy Face." Y'know, where does that come from?
There's unquestionably a strong mystical and visionary quality to your music.
Yeah, it's there. That's what it is, I guess. It's strange because I don't see myself as a mystical type person. But then every now and then these weird experiences happen. Like I'll be lying down on the bed with my eyes closed and all of a sudden I get the feeling that I'm floating near the ceiling looking down. I couldn't say whether that's supposed to be astral projection but it's pretty freaky when it happens.
Have you ever had any similar experiences that seem related to your writing?
Oh yeah, I had one just recently. I'd been working on this song about the scene going down in Belfast. And I wasn't sure what I was writing but anyway the central image seemed to be this church called St. Dominic's where people were gathering to pray or hear a mass for peace in Northern Ireland. Anyway, a few weeks ago I was in Reno for a gig at the University of Nevada. And while we were having dinner I picked up the newspaper and just opened it to a page and there in front of me was an announcement about a mass for peace in Belfast to be said the next day at St. Dominic's church in San Francisco. Totally blew me out. Like I'd never even heard of a St. Dominic's church.
How did the song turn out?
Great. In fact I'm gonna be recording it in a couple of days.
What did you end up titling it?
"St. Dominic's Preview." You know something? I haven't a clue to what it means.
We met once again in Van's living room after he had just returned from the East Coast and live sellout concerts in six days that had drawn rave reviews. He even saved the clippings.
The New York Times: "Finally Carnegie Hall came up with a rock concert that was an absolute joy from start to finish, a prime example of what this music can be when it is at its very best... Mr. Morrison put it all together in what was one of the season's finest programs of popular music."
The Boston Globe: "Only an austerity of space prevents more effusiveness of praise for the Van Morrison concert last night at the Orpheum-Aquarius Theatre before a packed house....Not since the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen's boffo one-nighter at Symphony Hall a couple of years ago has this team hosted such a near-perfect pop music concert."
In a few days Van would end the tour with a two-night stand at Winterland. He was exhausted but happy, and above all surprised how smoothly it had gone.
"I can't believe we're back already. The whole thing went off without a hitch. The band was dynamite and they loved everything we did. Absolutely nothing went wrong. And the energy, man. It was amazing. I can still feel it--I'm not down yet. Funny, this weekend we finish with a gig at Winterland--back where it all started. Can you believe that?"
He lit a cigar and stared off into space again.
"Y'know, I had planned to quit working for several months after this, but now I'm not so sure. First I gotta finish up the album so they can get it out by July. We changed the title from Green to Saint Dominic's Preview. I've still got two more songs I've got to put together and right now I don't know where they're gonna come from. I'm pretty confused right now, but, y'know, I've got a feeling that everything's starting to come together [smiling now]. I think it's all gonna work out."
If there is any single impression that lingers, it is that Van as a person is ultimately everything his music says he is. Which may partly explain his vulnerability on stage and off. There is always within him a tremendous amount of energy and he lives with the knowledge that he may choose the wrong time to let it all out. Ironically, while he knows this, Van has no real idea of just how important his music--as a vehicle of that energy--has been to people. Perhaps that's as it should be. Though he regards himself primarily as "an ordinary person," Van possesses an extraordinary--and largely unconscious--link to certain beautiful truths.
[From Issue 111 — June 22, 1972]