In the often superficial realm of popular music — where the word artist takes a constant beating — Van Morrison is the real thing.
A musical giant whose importance far outreaches his commercial impact, Morrison has steadfastly followed his Celtic-soul muse during the last three decades with often remarkable results. From his days as the frontman of the fiery Belfast band Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”) and his early solo work for Bang Records (“Brown Eyed Girl,” “T.B. Sheets”) to such classic albums as Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview and his more recent, less heralded triumphs like Into the Music, Avalon Sunset and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, Morrison has consistently broken ground while always standing his own. His music has influenced the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and more recently a whole new generation of famous fans, such as the Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers. Still at the height of his creative powers at age forty-four, Morrison remains a true master.
He’s also a tough man to talk to. On two occasions when I was being introduced to Morrison in order to begin this story, the singer quickly ran off in the opposite direction. The first time was last fall, when he was in New York City for an extraordinary series of shows at the Beacon Theater that were being filmed for Van Morrison: The Concert, a video recently released in conjunction with the successful Best of Van Morrison compilation. The second time came this spring in Boston, where Morrison and his current band — featuring British R&B veteran Georgie Fame on keyboards — were playing an equally extraordinary series of shows at the Orpheum Theater.
After much negotiation, Morrison finally agreed to meet for lunch in Cambridge. The first restaurant we tried didn’t strike his fancy, and he fled, as I followed him through the streets of Harvard Square, tape recorder and notes in hand. Finally, Morrison found an unpretentious cafe that struck his fancy, and we settled down to talk.
Then, of course, came the hard part. In a world where celebrities gladly play the publicity game, Van Morrison is one big exception to the rule. He does not smile, he does not charm, he does not offer anecdotes freely. Instead, he sits there, mostly scowling, shooting down some topics — including, for the most part, anything to do with his records — while answering others with brutal honesty. After a flurry of questions are rejected early on, Morrison is asked if there’s anything he’d prefer to discuss. “I don’t want to talk about anything with an interviewer,” he says. In his deep, distinctive, intimidating brogue, the last phrase sounds like some horrible Irish curse.
In the end, of course, it’s not Van Morrison’s job to make an interviewer’s life easy. It is, he explains, his job to make music, and that is something he does as brilliantly as anyone alive.
You seem to have lived a life making music without being part of the music business and without making as many concessions as many of your contemporaries. How have you managed that?
The fact of the matter is that I have to be in the music business to get the product out. So I am in the music business, but I’m my own person as well. The thing is, there really wasn’t any plan in all this. Everything was basically based on survival. There was Them, then there was the Bang thing — those were certain steps in a certain direction that didn’t work. So then you try something else. But there is no plan. That’s the sort of thing I don’t understand about the music press — there’s this idea that you have some sort of a master plan. The fact is, sometimes you do something because you’ve got no money, okay? Sometimes you’re starving, sometimes you do things for that reason. It all comes down to survival, and you can’t intellectualize survival, because either you survive or you don’t. That’s the way life goes, and I’m not going to intellectualize it, because that’s only going to spoil it. That’s a job for writers, not for me.
Do you care what’s written about you?
No. What people write about you is not real. It’s just their opinion. I’ve got some good reviews I can hang on my wall, and that’s great. But what they write about me has nothing to do with me. And that’s not what it’s all about anyway. It’s about producing music, writing songs, making records and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about me, it’s about that.
So is the fame aspect of what you do just a pain in the ass?
Yeah, it is predominantly. It might get you a good room in a hotel or a seat in a restaurant, but other than that it’s a real pain in the ass, yes. In fact, it’s more than a pain in the ass. It’s hard.
What’s hard about it?
Well, people crowd your space and your privacy. They don’t understand that you’ve got a life to live and that you don’t have time for everybody. I just want to be left alone to do my work and live my life.
Still, you must get some satisfaction from the fact that your music means so much to so many people.
It’s great, sure. But what do people want — blood? What I do is work. It’s not magic mirrors. It’s real hard work.
Is the work itself a source of pride for you?
Well, if a carpenter builds a set of shelves or something, he goes, “Yeah, I’ve done that.” It feels like that. It feels like you’ve done a lot of work and there it is.
It just gets more complicated because the carpenter generally doesn’t have all these people commenting on what he does.
That’s what I was saying before — society does that. There’s all this bullshit that has absolutely nothing to do with the music.
Is it your sense that society is getting worse that way, further from the substance of things?
It’s a TV world, isn’t it? I mean, when I was a kid, I experienced life before television. The only stars I knew were in the sky. There is very little original now. It’s like Dylan said — if there’s an original idea out there, let me know. I mean, everything now is built around celebrities and television — it’s unreal. How can you find anything to hold on to in that kind of world? You can’t.
Obviously your music is anything but trendy. I wonder, though, about the extent to which you keep up with what’s going on musically. For instance, have you ever watched MTV?
Yeah. Well, it’s been on. I haven’t actually watched it.
Did it make any impression?
It’s a load of crap, isn’t it? It’s not the kind of thing that I want to watch. I like a mystery or a drama or a Western — anything. I don’t want to watch that. It’s crap. Who wants to watch that? What are you going to learn by watching that? Nothing.
Do you see many concerts?
Occasionally, but I never go out of my way to see anybody.
In songs like “Domino” and “Wavelength,” you wrote about the power of radio. Do you still listen to the radio?
That was a long time ago, you have to remember. That’s not happening anymore. No, I don’t really listen to much radio. Not anymore. Lately I’ve been listening to jazz radio, that’s about all. There’s a new twenty-four-hour jazz station in London. I listen to that. But before that, I’d stopped listening to radio. I guess I did listen in the old days when radio was radio — when there really were a lot of stations playing different types of music. But I mean that was then.
Is it frustrating to you that a young person listening to radio these days might only be familiar with “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Gloria” and a few other older songs of yours?
Yes, radio does seem to be playing all the old stuff. And that’s not what I’m doing anymore. I’ve really completely changed what the music is about in the last ten years, but they keep playing the old stuff. I don’t know why. I guess that’s just where they are at.
Do you ever go back and listen to your old records?
No. What for? You make records for other people, not for yourself. That’s what it’s about. If you write an article that’s for other people, it’s not for you, right? I don’t write about music, I make it. So after that, it’s out of my hands. I’m making it for the marketplace. After I write it, I don’t think about it. I just go on to the next part of life.
But the music itself seems to be a healing thing for you. Sometimes when you’re onstage singing, it seems like some sort of religious experience.
Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s an experience and sometimes it’s just a gig. Sometimes you get halfway there, sometimes you get all the way there. It’s never the same. It’s very unpredictable. I’ve done it for years where it was predictable, so I don’t want to do it that way anymore. You work from the chaos. You work the material. Sometimes you get there and sometimes you don’t. There’s no set pattern. You just do the best you can do and that’s about it. What I do is just as much a mystery to me as it is to you.
Do you see yourself making records indefinitely?
No, I don’t want to. I’ve made a lot of them. There are other things I want to do, other things I want to say outside of this framework. I don’t know what they are, but I didn’t really plan to do this for this long. It’s not like I’m living from gig to gig anymore. I’m doing very well, and I have been doing very well for quite a while. It’s like I’ve become a successful businessman, you know. And I want to do something else now. ‘Cause I’m in a business, you see, and it’s a very hard business. It’s what it is. It’s just a business. Money is not enough to keep me in this business or any business that is not interesting to me. And this business is not interesting to me, because I don’t have the ego to keep going in front of people. You need an ego for that, and I don’t have that kind of an ego. I have other needs and other requirements. I don’t really need to be a star. I do need to play a certain amount of music. I do need to write. But I definitely don’t need to be a star, because I don’t even believe in the system.
How did you get interested in music initially?
I remember my father took me into town one day and there was this jazz band playing on the back of a truck. I was, like, five. I got into it because I saw people blowing horns and saxophones and singing. I thought it was great that people could do that. So I suppose in terms of why I got into it, it would be for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t about being a star or wearing certain clothes or having a certain image. It was just the idea that people could get up and sing and play. Then everything changed. Maybe jazz musicians are still like that now. But because of my age group, I got put into the pop field. I was doing blues really. I came out of a blues club when this record company came over and we made a record, and that somehow put me into this other pop thing. But that’s not at all where I was at.
When did you first start writing your own songs?
The first time I was aware of writing a song was about 1961. It was a very simple sort of country & western thing. Nobody was writing their own songs then; it was just doing covers.
What was your motivation for writing?
It was mainly because I get fed up with other people trying to dump their songs on me, just so they could get more money. I’d say, why should I do their songs? What’s so special about their songs? And so I really started writing as a reaction to that.
People obviously talk about the Irish music scene now, but what was the scene like in Belfast when you were beginning?
It was a small scene, but it was enough. It developed around certain record shops. There was a place called the Smithfield, where you’d go in for a certain R&B side and they’d already have it out for you. They knew what you were coming for. I sort of came out of the jazz scene because my father used to take me into these places where all these jazzers hung out. When I left school, I played with show bands, rock bands, whatever was going. I just took anything because I was a professional musician. I remember when everything changed. I went to Germany with a band called the Monarchs when I was a teenager. I remember we were playing in Heidelberg for GI’s there. One of the guys came up to us and said, “Have you guys ever heard the Dave Clark Five?” I hadn’t. I remember coming back on the train from Germany on my way to Dover and thinking, Everything’s going to change now. Sure enough, I got back to London and all the bands were dropping the horn sections. It was all pop groups.
Your music has always defied categorization. At times you seem more like a jazz singer than anything else.
I just feel like I’m a singer — not in any category. But my approach is jazz as far as trying to leave enough space for something to happen in the music, instead of trying to control it all the time. Leaving room for it to grow, give everybody some breathing space. So in that way it’s jazz. You’ll find that approach with any good musician. They did it in country & western, they did it in folk. All these styles merge at some point, at some person. Sometimes George Jones is like country, but sometimes he’s like jazz, you know. You can’t explain it. It is just the way you do it.
Is it true you’re thinking of writing an autobiography?
Well, I was approached to do one. But in order for me to write about something, it’s got to be interesting. And what I’ve done is not interesting to me. Because I’ve done it. I’ve lived it. I mean, I’m interested in what other people do, not what I’ve done.
You once said that people think you have to be miserable to write songs but that you write songs when you are happy.
I don’t see how anybody can write songs when they are miserable. I mean, I don’t see how. I think that one has been done to death, you know. I mean, maybe Leonard Cohen can do it, but I can’t.
Are you aware of your influence? People have pointed out that musicians like Springsteen and U2 really wouldn’t have made the music they made without having known your work.
I’ve heard this all before. I’m not taking the bait. I don’t really think about it anymore. I mean, Bono’s like a friend of mine — nice guy, you know. I like him, but we don’t stay on that topic. We bypassed that long ago.
Did you hear the cover the Waterboys did on Fisherman’s Blues of “Sweet Thing” from Astral Weeks?
What did you think?
Well, it wasn’t as good as mine, now was it?
Do you enjoy performing at this point? In past interviews you spoke about having stage fright and not being comfortable with it. But obviously that doesn’t seem to be the case now.
It all depends on who the people are I’m playing with. This band is happening now, and I’m enjoying it. But I don’t know if it’s going to last or not. I have played with other bands in other situations where I didn’t want to work because it was so mechanical and boring. Now it’s working, so we are working all the time.
Have there been times when the music wasn’t working and you didn’t want to perform at all?
Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, I just would do an hour and a half if I didn’t want to be there. Sometimes I’ve fallen asleep before a show and then wondered how I was gonna do it at all. But you just have to go out and do it. Some guys used to be watching a television program and cancel a gig because they wanted to see the end of the program. Not me. This is also a good time for me because things with the record company are going well for once.
Is that important to you?
Yeah. I’m dealing with people for the first time ever who do what they say they are going to do. What I should have been getting twenty years ago, it’s finally happening now. I was with Warner Bros. for years, and Phonogram for years, and they promoted the record for like six weeks. After that, it disappeared. They never promoted the records. What’s the point in spending a year out of your life to make a record and then they just sit on it? So for the first time ever in my career, I actually have people working records. When it came time to sign a deal, I said I’m not really interested in doing another go-round unless people are actually going to promote the records.
Did you have other offers?
I mean, I’ve had lots of offers from all these people for a lot of money. But they had no idea of who I was. The problem with the music business is that they have categories and think everybody fits into them. You couldn’t really explain to them that I’m not like that, that Van Morrison doesn’t do that, he does this. They don’t really understand these sort of concepts. When I started out with Bang, I was a sort of puppet for someone else’s venture. These days, I’m not signed as the performer, I’m signed as a producer. I make my records, I pay for them, I master them, and then I deliver them to the label who distributes them. I’m a producer and what I produce is me.
Your old label, Warner Bros., always had a reputation for being the enlightened artists’ label.
Oh, well, that was a myth. It might have been true in the beginning; that was the attraction in the beginning. But that was during the Sixties — when everybody was believing these myths. They were the current myth makers. Now they’re just the same as every other record company.
When you left Warner Bros., you were outraged that the music press reported that you had been dropped.
What happened, I think, is that Warners wanted to save face. They wanted to get the first dig in. In actuality, I had already left. I was already gone. Everywhere else outside the U.S. I had been already changed before that. They just had one more record, and then the contract was up. So, damn sure I wasn’t going to sign with a losing company. I was already gone, so they just put that out as propaganda. They didn’t want me to say it first. I mean, they are businessmen. You’ll notice they’re still putting out some of the old records, by the way. If they drop me, they could give me back the records, right? The business is horrible the way it spreads all these myths. Like, if you’re a star and have two cars and two houses and a summer home, then everything’s fine. It’s just propaganda. Then you get everything, and you’re still unhappy.
Do you think you ever contributed to the myth that all the old album covers and marketing campaigns suggested, that there was some hippie rock-star dream world
There was so much selling of images. Some guy said to me the other day something about an old album cover. He said, “Do you still have the dogs?” because there were a couple of dogs on one of the album covers. Then somebody else thought I had a farm or something. I always thought an album cover was just something that they put together to stick the album in. But they built this sort of quasi-pseudo-mythology about people. And a lot of people ran with it, and they’re still running with it to this day. But I can’t live a myth, so I don’t pretend to. Listen, an album cover is not real life. An album is not real life. It’s like a painting. A painting is not real life. You can’t live in a painting. All this is about people making money. Record companies are out to make money. That is their sole motivation.
Do you feel lucky at least that unlike so many of the great R&B and jazz guys who were so ripped off by the business, you at least came out okay?
I don’t feel lucky. I paid for it. Yeah, sure, man. This is not free, you know. This is all a price. Everything’s got a price, and I paid the price to be where I am. There is no such thing as luck. I mean, I hold my own with any jazzer.
So you’ve paid your dues?
Yeah, I feel like it. Yeah. I am still paying for it, you know.