Van Morrison, the Poet

The scholar, dreamer, dancer, and 'one of the few originals in rock' parses out his lyrics and blues

November 30, 1978
Van Morrison
Van Morrison
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In a 1971 review of the album 'His Band and the Street Choir,' Jon Landau called Van Morrison "one of the few originals left in rock." From the days of his classic recordings with Them ("Gloria?" "Baby, Please Don't Go," "Here Comes the Night," "Mystic Eyes") through the six years (1968-1974) during which he produced his extraordinary Warner Bros. LPs ('Astral Weeks' to 'Veedon Fleece'), Van Morrison has elicited unstinting praise not only from critics but from such people as blues musician John Lee Hooker and German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who wrote: "I know of no music that is more lucid, feel able, hearable, seeable, touchable, no music you can experience more intensely than this. Not just moments, but extended . . . periods of experience which convey the feel of what films could be: a form or perception which no longer burls itself blindly on meanings and definitions, but allows the sensuous to take over and grow . . . where indeed something does become indescribable."

In 1974 Van Morrison stopped performing and releasing albums in order to get his "energy together, doing things I like to do, and just living as if I were nobody instead of somebody," He reappeared in 1976 to give an electrifying performance at the Band's Last Waltz concert, and last year he released a somewhat sluggish LP, 'A Period of Transition' (which did, however, contain two wonderful songs – "Flamingos Fly" and "Heavy Connection"). But today, Van Morrison is again proving that he is "one of the few originals left in rock." His latest LP, 'Wavelength,' is ravishing, and, under a new management affiliation with Bill Graham, he is now on his first nationwide tour in four and a half years.

Accompanied by a brilliant band of five instrumentalists (keyboardist Peter Bardens, drummer Peter Van Hooke, Bobbie Tench and Herbie Armstrong on guitars, Mickey Feat on bass) and two backup singers (Katie Kissoon and Anna Peacock), Morrison's recent performance at San Francisco's Old Waldorf revealed him in total control of his vocal powers, as he presented – without a trace of theatrics – one of the most passionate and inspiring sets I've heard since the concerts of Ray Charles and Otis Redding more than ten years ago. He interspersed songs from his new album with intimate yet exuber ant renditions of "Warm Love," "Wild Night," "Caravan," "Into the Mystic" and "Moondance," among others – songs that draw you into Morrison's mysterious poetic world. It is a world of fields and gardens wet with rain, country fairs and magic nights, gypsies with hearts on fire, boats in the harbor, cool evening breezes and rivers ever flowing – a world where, to quote from "Streets of Arklow" our souls were clean and the grass did grow."

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"I see it all now/Through the eyes of a child," he sings in his new song, "Take It Where You Find It." And it is this perspective that unifies almost all of his songs of innocence and experience, from "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Cypress Avenue" to "Redwood Tree" and "Country Fair," as he recalls and re-creates the feeling of the space of childhood ("And I shall watch the ferry boats and they'll get high/On a bluer against tomorrow's sky./And I will never grow so old again").

Yeats once suggested that the ancient Celts "lived in a world where anything might flow and change, and become any other thing . . . . They had imaginative passions because they did not live within our own strait limits, and were nearer to ancient chaos, every man's desire, and had immortal models about them. The hare that ran by among the dew might have sat up on his haunches when the first man was made, and the poor bunch of rushes under their feet might have been a goddess laughing among the stars; and with but a little magic, a little waving of the bands,' a little murmuring of the lips, they too could become a hare or a bunch of rushes, and know immortal love and immortal hatred."

Van Morrison's "little murmuring of the lips" reveals what I think is the richest and most expressive voice in rock music. Reviewing Morrison's 'Moondance' album, Ralph J. Gleason once quoted a remark by John McCormack, the Irish tenor, to the effect that what made a great singer different from a merely good one was "the yarrrrragh in your voice." And in an astute elaboration of this remark, Greil Marcus has written: "The yarrrrragh is Van Morrison's version of Leadbelly, of jazz, of blues, of poetry. It is a mythic incantation, and he will get it, or get close to it, suggest it, with horns (no white man working in popular music can arrange horns with the precision and grace of Van Morrison), strings, in melody, in repetition (railing the same word, or syllable, ten, twenty, thirty times until it has taken his song where he wants it to go). To Morrison the yarrrrragh is the gift of the muse and the muse itself. He has even written a song about it: 'Listen to the Lion.' Across eleven minutes, he sings, changes, moans, cries, pleads, shouts, hollers, whispers, until finally he breaks away from language and speaks in Irish tongues, breaking away from ordinary meaning until he has loosed the lion inside himself. He begins to roar: he has that sound, that yarrrrragh, as he has never had it before. He is not singing it, it is singing him."

As a performer, composer and writer, Van Morrison seems almost possessed – a medium through which the voices of bards and mystics ("Blake and the Eternals" as he called them in one song); of children and lovers; of rivers and mountains; and of blues, gospel and jazz singers join and interfuse. Off stage, and at first meeting, Van Morrison seems to be a shy, private, occasionally moody and melancholic person who has little time for small talk and less time for "significant" inquiries about his life and poetry. He finds interviews distasteful and, one discovers, even painful. Rather than use the interview format to project some intended image, and rather than undermine both the format and the image – as other public "personalities" sometimes do – Van Morrison makes it clear that he prefers to be left alone to compose and perform. He is certainly not interested in being caught and confined by other persons' images of him or by interpretations of his songs, which are part of what Yeats called the Great Memory and to which we all have access anyway.

In early October, I met up with Van Morrison in Sausalito, California, where he currently resides. We got together at my hotel for dinner, and afterward Morrison drove me up to Bill Graham's beautifully situated hilltop house in Mill Valley, where we sat in a study that overlooked both the glittering, distant San Francisco Bay and nearby Mt. Tamalpais. While I drank wine, Morrison put up with the questions as best he could, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee – heading out often for refills.

I've heard that one of the first and biggest influences in your life was Leadbelly.
He was my guru. Somebody once sent me a huge poster of Leadbelly just beaming down with a twelve-string guitar. I framed it and put it up on the wall, and I've had it on the wall everywhere I've been. I always take pictures with me all over the world – I have a poster of Them, too – and as long as I have these certain photographs on the wall, I could be anywhere.

And this Leadbelly picture on the wall – well, one day in Los Angeles I was looking at it and was thinking, "I've got to get rid of this, it's doing me in." So I took it down and was about to throw it out. At that moment I was fiddling around with the radio – I wanted to hear some music – and I tuned in this station and "Rock Island Line" by Leadbelly came on. So I just turned around, man, and very quietly put the picture back on the wall.

Keep your picture at the station of the Rock Island Line. He was telling you something.
That's it. I heard his records first when I was ten or eleven, and I thought it was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese [laughing]. The energy, the way he was singing, the guitar – it was the vibe of the whole thing. "Rock Island Line," "Backwater Blues," "Goodnight, Irene," "Bring Me a Li'l Water, Silvy," "Boll Weevil," "On a Christmas Day" and "Ella Speed" – "Come on and all take heed,/Tell you about the death of Ella Speed."

I once heard recordings by the McPeake Family Singers, a traditional Irish folk group from Belfast, and was deeply moved by them – much as you were moved by Leadbelly.
I heard the McPeakes at a party years ago, and their version of "Wild Mountain Thyme" just blew me out of my gourd. The way they did that was ridiculous, I'd never heard anything like it . . . with Da McPeake, the younger kids, the pipes.

Is that a Scottish or an Irish song?
We don't know. It's both. I probably did my version of the song ["Purple Heather"] because I heard theirs.

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