The scholar, dreamer, dancer and one of the few originals in rock parses out his lyrics and blues
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."
"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.
Your "Country Song" sounds very nostalgic and very Irish, too.
That was the inspiration . . . . Most of Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece was written in Ireland and recorded here. The songs on the other records were done mostly in this country. But nowadays I go between two places: the United States for recording, working and organizing, and Ireland – Belfast and the South – for inspiration and composing.
You've said that you've been influenced by Leadbelly and other kinds of American black music – as if in Ireland you're drawn to this country, and in the States you're drawn back home.
You find that you're pulled by different things at different times. You find that something is pulling you that you have to get to because it's telling you different things about yourself. And I just kind of go where the pull is strongest at the time.
So Ireland is stronger for you in terms of writing?
I think it always is, because it's my roots, really. I don't have those business distractions there.
Do you still have friends in Ireland?
Yeah, I've got a few, both in Belfast and Dublin. I see people I used to grow up with, people I played with in bands, and it brings back into perspective what you're doing. It brings you back to reality. In my new band, Peter Bardens was formerly with Them, and I've known him a long time. Peter Van Hooke is a Dutch drummer I worked with on an American tour. Herbie Armstrong, who's on rhythm guitar, and I used to play together with a guy named Brian Rossi a long time ago at Plaza Mecca ballroom in Belfast – and in other show bands during that period. I'm going back to my roots, really – I mean, if I turn around in the middle of a set and look at Herbie . . . I mean, how can I take this whole thing seriously?
I didn't know you played in show bands.
A lot of people only think of Them, but I had a whole other career. The Monarchs and various show bands. When I started out, I had my own skiffle group. A lot of bands.
You've been a musician since you were really young.
Yeah, short pants. I went for that before I went for anything else. You just walk into it totally blind.
I heard that your mother was a singer and that your father was a blues fan.
Yeah, he was into jazz and blues records. But my mother was a great singer – and still is. She could sing anything from Al Jolson to "Ave Maria."
In one of your new songs, "Take It Where You Find It," you sing: "Change, change come over,/Change come over,/Talkin' about a change." What change do you think has come over you? People have been wondering what you've been doing during the past few years.
I've gone through quite a few big changes in the last couple of years as far as how I'm relating to what I'm doing. Because in 1974 I was completely at the end of my rope. I was doing gigs, I was uptight, I wasn't getting anything out of it. I felt like I was a robot, and I had a lot of tension – there was tension in my shoulders, my neck, my feet. All this sort of stuff.
And I remember I was in Belgium, sitting in my hotel room looking out the window, and I was thinking, "This isn't worth it, man." I'd done two American and two European tours in the 1973-74 period. These record-company people were always ear-bending with their line: "He never works," and I blew that one out the window. So I was just kind of sitting, thinking that I had all those people, doing these gigs, and something wasn't right. I wasn't getting off, it wasn't what I had planned my life to be like. I wasn't going to let show business control my life. So I decided to take a break, get my shit together for me, and think about what I was doing being in this music business – it was becoming oppressive. I wanted to shift out of it for a while.
Was the time between 1974 and now a kind of fertile void for you, or did you just flip out?
No, I didn't flip out. I've never flipped out, I'm too crazy to flip out. People who change their minds a lot don't flip out. It's those who have one kind of fixation that do that. My mind changes too much. No, it was a conscious decision. Like I was William Buckley or somebody sitting there looking at the movie, and I wanted to change the movie.
What about the audience watching the movie, your audience?
Well, the thing is, if you're not together, you can't do it. I wasn't happy in any way – I wasn't writing – so I didn't have anything to give anybody.
You were pretty courageous to do what you did.
The usual thing happened, you know: the William Morris Agency called me up every three days and said, "What are you doing?" "Doing a break, what do you think I'm doing?" I was traveling in England, Ireland, Scotland, Los Angeles, Switzerland – all over the place. I was just kind of living life as opposed to being somebody, being like Van Morrison or somebody. I was just looking at things, getting my energy together, doing things I like to do, and just living as if I were nobody instead of somebody. I have to be nobody so I can live my life.
In "Wavelength," you have the lines: "I heard the voice of America/Callin' on my wave-length/Singin', Come back back/Come back, come back."
It's got several meanings. When I was growing up in Belfast, I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg and the Voice of America, which broadcast from Germany. And those lines are about returning to Europe and getting back to my roots, because being brought up in Europe is completely different from being brought up in America – it's a completely different ball game. So that's what that's about.
In "Take It Where You Find It," you sing: "Lost dreams and found dreams in America."
I wrote that on a plane from Los Angeles to San Francisco and carried it around with me for a long time – it didn't make any sense to me at all. I knew people were going to ask what it was about. And not really knowing or even caring what it was about, I tried changing it to "Lost dreams and found dreams in Scunthorpe" or "the Bahamas" or anywhere. But that line kept sticking. When I played it on the piano I couldn't get away from it. And the rest of the song I wrote later on.
Some of these lines, especially, "You will build on whatever is real/And wake up each day/To a new waking dream," suggest something common to a lot of your songs.
You get this thing coming through – it comes through in different spaces and times, and you don't really know what it is. If you're receptive to it, you channel it and you write it down.
Those lines suggest that reality and dreams are both real you don't get a sense that there's a split – and in many of your songs it's hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
I don't know what to say, I don't know what the answer to that one is [laughing].
You said that in 1974 your body's energy was all blocked up. In "Kingdom Hall" now, you sing about "good body music" and about clearing inhibitions away. Almost all your songs are full of deep and lively feelings about dancing.
When I started out, I was in dance bands, and people were on the floor dancing. And that's really what I wanted to do, when I started in this game – play dance music. And I just found myself getting further and further away from the dance thing with concerts and all that. And I wanted to get back to it.
A philosopher once suggested that even thoughts could be expressed in dance, that dancing could be a form of thinking.
I see it as a way of not thinking, really. I see dancing as just dancing. When you're really into playing music, the words become irrelevant because you're in that space. And I feel that way about dancing – it goes beyond words.
But a lot of your most danceable songs have very profound lyrics.
I don't know, this thing about lyrics – I'm just catching on to this. If you get some of the facts together . . . I mean, I sell records in places where they don't speak English. And I've experienced listening to Greek singers, for instance, and not knowing what the words are, but I get a story and a feeling from it even though I haven't a clue to what's being said. So if English-language songs can sell in non-English-speaking countries and people can be touched by them, then we can see how irrelevant the words are.
Sometimes it seems that you let the words dance when you sing them; you release them, and they take off in their own directions.
The only time I actually work with words is when I'm writing a song. After it's written, I release the words; and every time I'm singing, I'm singing syllables. I'm just singing signs and phrases.
So you're really connecting meaning and sounds.
I don't know.
What about "Madame George" and "Listen to the Lion"?
To me, I'm just singing the songs, I'm just a singer.
I wanted to speak to you about water, about how images of it appear in many of your songs – rivers flowing and, as you sing in "And It Stoned Me," "Oh, the water . . . let it run all over me."
I've never thought about it, but now that you mention it . . . water is a healing thing. But I never thought about the fact that many of my songs are about water.
In "Redwood Tree," a boy and his dog go out looking for a rainbow. Then the boy and his father go out looking for the lost dog. And the question that's asked in the song is: what have they learned?
The thing is, we've become so serious, we get too heavy about all this – what everything means. I was sitting one day feeling very heavy, and my daughter, who's eight years old, came up to me and started cracking up. And then I started cracking up when I realized it. I'm sitting here thinking that this is all serious, and it's not.
You're the one who wrote: "Well, I'm caught one more time/Up on Cypress Avenue." That's serious. Well, that's what I'm saying, we get too serious about it all.
Is there something wrong with being serious?
Yeah, I think there's something wrong with being serious.
Ernest Renan wrote a book called 'The Poetry of the Celtic Races' in which he said that the Celts had a "realistic naturalism . . . a love of Nature for herself a vivid feeling for her magic, commingled with the melancholy a man knows when he is face to face with her, and thinks he hears her communing with him about his origin and his destiny." Do you feel close to that?
At times I feel close to it, and at times I don't. I mean, we're living in the world, and it's a world with different emotions – a push-button world. And sometimes you feel closer to things and sometimes you don't. I mean, life is full of little surprises.
In a song like "Slim Slow Slider," the image of the woman riding a horse white as snow seems to be connected to the Celtic symbol for clairvoyance and death.
I thought the song was about Ladbroke Grove . . . . I don't have a clue what I'm writing about. If I knew, I'd tell you. But I don't. It's the unknown.
Yet your new album connects with your other albums. There's some sensibility or physical and spiritual being putting all this together, and it sounds like you. 'Wavelength' sounds like a Van Morrison album, not like someone else's.
I don't know, I never think about it. The only time I'm confronted with anything like this is in an interview situation. Otherwise it never enters my head.
In "Come Here My Love," you sing: "In fathoms of my inner mind/I'm mystified by this mood,/This melancholy feeling that just don't do no good."
That's it, that says it right there, that's what I'm talking about: I am mystified.
The song continues: "Come here my love and I will lift my spirits high for you,/I'd like to fly away and spend a day or two/Just contemplating fields and leaves and talking about nothing."
That's it. Talking about absolutely nothing.
That must be why interviews bother you, because people like myself insist on talking to you about something.
Interviews tend to drain you – you have to backtrack and make something out of the past which is dead.
I suppose if I were in the countryside with you, I'd probably ask you about the flowers and birds and bees, not about who Madame George really is.
A friend of mine thinks Madame George it a perfume – you sing the name as "Madame Joy," and then there's that scent of Shalimar.
[Laughing] I still think Madame George might be a drag queen.
The question is: who's singing the song?
The question might really be: is the song singing you?
It's been singing a lot of people . . . . Once something is created, though, what's wrong with thinking about it, what's wrong with thinking about things that are real?
I don't see anything wrong with it. I just don't do it – not with my own songs. I'm just writing songs, and I'm not trying to do anything or suggest anything or say anything. These songs just come through, and that's about it . . . . On a human level, we're living, as I said, in a push-button world – we're just dealing with whatever we deal with when we're living. You get up in the morning and have to do certain things; one day goes into another day, and I don't really have time to think of this stuff. I wish I did.
Some people have interpreted "Madame George" to be about a boy's father who's in drag, the madam of a bordello in which the boy hangs out and does errands and from which he eventually runs away.
If you're writing something, you get ideas from all over the place. And the songs aren't necessarily about you or what you're involved in or what you're doing. Some of them might be about me or about somebody I knew when I was four years old. You write about other situations, you get ideas from everywhere. I These songs are kinds of cameo stories or whatever, and that's about it. It's whatever it means to you. Something I wrote ten years ago means different things to me now. It means what it means now. I've forgotten a lot of this. It's the past, and the past is dead.
An album like 'Astral Weeks' is still pretty alive, and when I listen to it now it seems to be about a series of journeys: a journey out of the body ["Astral Weeks"]; a journey from childhood to adulthood ["Madame George"]; a journey into a moment of the past ["Cypress Avenue"]; a journey of a young boy from a back street, through fog and rain onto a highway ["Beside You"]. You once said that 'Astral Weeks' was originally conceived of as a rock opera, so there must be some connection between the songs.
Let's see, I remember I must have said that somewhere, but I don't even remember what it's about anymore. You forget all this stuff about what it means and what it's about.
When I was a kid of maybe ten or eleven, I thought I wanted to be a rock & roll singer . . . and there was a certain dream there. The dream was that this kid had some goal or ambition. And that dream was lived out – I did whatever my dream was. But the thing is, you grow up and you're not that kid anymore. So you have different goals and ambitions, sometimes you don't have any ambitions, sometimes you find you don't really have that ambition. We have these different stages, and it's called life. Obviously the dream of the kid isn't the dream of the adult, because you change. You're not always a teenager, you're not always in your thirties or forties. And at certain points you look back and you realize: I'm not there anymore, what do I want to be now, what's my goal?
For me, I realized that when I became twenty-eight or twenty-nine I'd lived out a certain thing, and that was the dream of the kid. The boy had his vision, but the man had a different one, and it's your option whether you want to change your vision of life. And it was time for me, as an adult, to have another dream. And I realized I didn't have any ambition.
What's your dream right now?
I don't have any at all.
Why are you going on this tour now?
Because I like playing music. It's really a physical thing, it's why I got into it in the first place – my body has to play music, it has to come through me, I have to get it out of my system. My body needs to have exercise, my body needs to have sex, my body needs to play music. That's why I'm doing it. I've been out of it, and I feel as if I were coming into it for the first time.
You don't seem to be playing larger halls.
I play in small places where there's more physical contact with the audience. I prefer an intimate setting. I won't make as much money, but that's what I do. And I have to do what I do.
Isn't what you're doing now sort of what you dreamt about doing as a kid?
Yeah, but I'm doing it in a different way – I'm dealing with it and relating to it in a different way. I'm seeing that there are periods when you do this and periods when you do that, periods when it's not time to play music or to be that public personality and periods when you do it.
Of all the leading Sixties' rock performers, you seemed to have the least obvious public image.
A long time ago I met someone who knew who I was – I was a kid and he taught me who I was. He said: "I know who you are," and in a very subtle way laid a thing on me. And I believed what he said. Other people have said things that I know are total rubbish. What I'm saying is that you take out of it what you want. Somebody can come in a room and say: "Hey, man, you look sick." It's the power of suggestion, so it's up to you what you believe.
I have a certain viewpoint as to what the music business means to me, and I've known that since I was a young kid. So certain things that people in the music business get off on and believe in, I don't. And I just go with whatever way I'm looking at it, because there's nobody else to look at it but me. Maybe somebody else sees it a different way; maybe Mick Jagger sees it this way, may be Pete Townshend sees it that way, may be a topless dancer in North Beach sees it another way.
How do you see it right now?
I see it as a business – nothing but a business. Personally I do tours to enable me to travel so that I can write to make more albums which cost a lot of money.
It's what you buy and what you don't buy. In the early days I bought things that I don't anymore. In the Sixties, what people would or wouldn't buy, what they thought was right or wrong . . . it all changed. We all went through that – it's just stages, phases. Before I had a hit record, I was just a working musician in a band, like 10,000 other working musicians, driving around in a bus or truck, and not making much money. But then you find out you've got to take care of business because it's the music business, it's more business than it is music. You don't have much of a choice: if you're going to be in the "music business," you'd better be a businessman. You only get shafted by ignorance, and nothing else. I've had a lot of good business situations, but I don't compromise on certain things. I'm not a good business venture. I don't tour a lot, I don't play big halls, I don't sell a tremendous number of albums.
You're not a rich rock & roll star.
No, I'm not. I own a small house and have a small income, and that's it. Who needs it? Sometimes I like to jet set, and sometimes I don't, but basically I'm just from the streets. I think any musician in what they call rock & roll is from the streets, otherwise he couldn't sing it or play it.
You avoid that image, though.
Image is a definite problem. I don't have an image, I don't want to have one, I'm not interested in it. I went through that when I was a teenager. I wasn't modeling myself after someone, there was an image that was projected – people will project an image, and you can either buy it or not. I was just being me, a street cat from Belfast, and was probably like thousands of kids from Belfast who were in bands. But the management built an image around that – "The Angry Young Them" – the punk image, when in actual fact there were lots of people like me in those days. Everybody's got different sides to them, but an image is like taking one thing and saying a person is that. Most of the time it sells more albums if somebody is somebody. Who wants to package nobody?
They do it all the time.
There you go.
Is that why you object to people like myself focusing on you as the poetic, sensitive songwriter?
Well, probably, because sometimes I'm that and sometimes I'm something else. Sometimes I'm ten people. Isn't everybody?
What about the "wind night calling"? That must be one of your ten sides.
[Laughing] That's like the streets, man. "Wild Night" was written in New York City.
You have a lot of songs about wild nights calling. Maybe that's what rock & roll is all about.
I don't have a clue to what it's all about. I think maybe the only person who knows is Phil Spector. I think he might know what it's about.
In your new songs, "Checkin' It Out" and "Lifetimes," you sing about "Guides and spirits along the way/Who will befriend us" and about a "nighttime angel." There are lots of spirits and angels in your songs.
It's not me saying that. "Lifetimes" begins: "You sit in silence/And the river answers." You see, it's like the river is talking to this person who's sitting at the river, and the river is answering.
Your song "Heavy Connection" begins with the line: "In the land of a thousand dances I danced with you." That's a very romantic line.
I'm not romantic, actually. I think I was, but that was some other dream.
What about the lines: "Yonder comes my lady/Rainbow ribbons in her hair . . . /Six white horses in a carriage/Just returning from the fair." That's very romantic, too, especially when you realize it seems to be about a fourteen-year-old girl.
That's what I was saying, it's another dream – it's the dream of a kid, basically.
You sing about a lot of places, but you always come back to a place named Caledonia. What and where is it?
I don't really know. All I know is that Caledonia used to be Scotland. This funny thing happened a long time ago – a lot of people from northern Ireland went over to Scotland to settle, and vice versa. They changed spaces or something. So a lot of people from Northern Ireland are of Scottish descent. And my name suggests that I am, My grandmother was Scottish, so I'd guess I'm of Irish and Scottish descent. I'm Irish and a British subject.
What about the conflict in Northern Ireland? How do you fit into it?
How do I when I'm here? I've never been political, and I haven't physically lived there in a long time. Ask the people who are calling the shots. Do you know any people who have come from Belfast? C.S. Lewis, William Johnson, George Best all come from there, and that's only a few. You don't ask me: "Did you ever sit up in the Mourne Mountains with a picnic lunch?"
I suppose it's like thinking of New York City only in terms of the South Bronx.
Right. You don't ask me: "Have you ever been in County Down on a summer's day?" Which is a different vibration from what you're talking about.
Before we started this interview, you mentioned in passing that you had been curious about Jack Kerouac when you were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Sixties. Were you reading his books then?
In the Sixties I read Kerouac – I don't relate to him the same way now. But then, when I was a teenager, his books were in vogue. I read J.P. Donleavy and Henry Miller, too – but Miller not that long ago. But I never read that much of anything in the old days. I don't really get things from books, I get it from within. I started writing poetry when I was really young, before I knew what poetry was and what lyrics were.
Did you keep any of your early work?
I had a book of poetry actually at one point – it was all put together in book form, stuff from the Sixties – but I burned it . . . . The first time I was aware of writing was when I was in a band around 1962. I had written a couple of songs, and one day a trumpet player named Harry Mack said to me: "Let's do one of your songs." And that was the first time it ever entered my brain. Later, other musicians said: "That's good, you should record that song." But it hadn't been for somebody saying it, I don't think I'd ever have thought of it because at that stage of the game, everyone was doing cover versions of songs.
You mentioned to me that you liked some of the trancelike works of poet John Giorno. Did you yourself ever think consciously about using repetitive phrases and rhythms in songs like "Madame George," "Almost Independence Day" and "Ballerina"?
It's hard for me to talk about because I don't think it, it's a feeling that comes through. It doesn't come from any kind of intellectual thing on my part, it comes from folk lore and rhyme.
Are there other writers who interest you now?
There are lots of people. Donleavy is one, In The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar, he describes this journey where he goes to Northern Ireland. And it's so exact – I get the same feelings from this passage in the book that I did when I was eleven years old. Being in a certain place or a certain vibe. So you ask yourself how he knows about that. The thing is, he wasn't born there, he wasn't even brought up there, but he went into that space and captured it and got it on paper. But if you went to Donleavy and asked him what he thought about when he did that . . . I mean, it's a nonthinking thing.
That's the trap people fall into when they ask you how you went about creating "Cypress Avenue" or "Madame George."
Yeah, you don't create them, you go into them . . . I don't really know exactly what I'm doing yet. I don't even know if I have to know.