The answer is quick, blunt and impatient. “Yeah, yeah, I agree,” Van Morrison says, responding to a question about a song on his new album, Keep Me Singing. There is a brief silence. “What’s next?”
I had asked him about the first lines on the record, which sum up Morrison’s life in music over five decades: “Put another coin in the wishing well/Tell everybody got to go to hell.” Pressed for additional comment, Morrison, 71, curtly declines. “No, you got it,” he says in his low brogue. “There’s no need to explain it any further.”
It is a beautiful late-summer day in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where George Ivan Morrison was born on August 31st, 1945, the son of a shipyard electrician. Morrison now lives on the outskirts of the city, after years in America, England and Ireland. We are speaking in a hotel not far from his office, and just a short drive from Cyprus Avenue, a street he celebrated on his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Across the River Lagan, in central Belfast, there is a commemorative plate marking the site of the city’s first R&B club, co-founded by Morrison as he launched his band Them. “I didn’t even know there was a plaque there,” says Morrison. “I should go and have a look at it.”
It’s a rare admission of nostalgia during a conversation in which he often shows weariness with questions about his classic Sixties and Seventies records, and practically explodes with frustration over how his recent work is taken for granted. But the singer, wearing a light-blue shirt, a brown leather cap and tinted glasses, also smiles and laughs with surprising frequency. He said it was “exhilarating” to receive an honorary knighthood from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in February. And Morrison can turn reflective when you least expect it – like when he’s asked if there was a real-life inspiration for the 1964 garage-rock anthem “Gloria.” “I had a cousin called Gloria,” he says. “She was 13 years older than me. So it was her name. It wasn’t about her.” There is another pause. “But that’s old history,” Morrison adds quickly, ready to move on.
When did you first realize you had a voice – something unique as a singer?
I don’t remember the exact date [grins]. I was a teenager – singing for myself, just learning. My father had a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder. I was singing Leadbelly songs, and my father and uncle used to play harmonica. My father recorded some stuff. We played it back, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve definitely got a voice.”
What did it sound like to you?
It sounded like me trying to do Leadbelly songs. But I knew it was good.
What inspired you to start a rhythm & blues club? You were 18 when you co-founded one at the Maritime Hotel and first played there with Them.
I just wanted to play blues – that’s it. There was nothing here. There was a small group of people who were into blues and jazz. My father was one of them. That’s how I discovered it, through him and a guy named Solly Lipsitz, who had a record shop on High Street. My father took me there as a kid. It was called Atlantic Records, believe it or not. Solly’s sister lived in New York, and she got the records shipped over.
What did you hear in American blues that touched you?
It was working-class music. Working-class would be different here. In America, working-class was more like middle class [for us]. Here it was getting by on nothing. I related to the lyrics in Chicago blues and the stuff I heard by John Lee Hooker, not from their point of view – it was from my point of view.
It was the same with Hank Williams. He was a voice. Muddy Waters was a voice. They were both blues singers to me. . . . And a lot of people who immigrated to the Southern states came from this area, here and Scotland. It’s genetic.
How did Bob Dylan inspire you as a songwriter? You first covered “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” when you were in Them.
I did something totally different with that song. My version – I owned it. I didn’t really connect with Dylan as a songwriter. I connected with what he was doing with the songs. My influences were black. I learned to write songs from Sam Cooke – the slow stuff – and the guys who were writing for Bobby “Blue” Bland. There’s this standard scenario: Everything here started with the Beatles [laughs]. I started way before that, mixing black influences with Jack Kerouac – On the Road, The Dharma Bums. That was my starting point, the Beats putting poetry – spoken word – and jazz together.
“I didn’t really connect with Bob Dylan as a songwriter. … My influences were black.”
What about Irish literature – writers like W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde? You’ve cited and drawn from it over the years. Were you reading them in school?
No. I was reading Allen Ginsberg. But I was definitely influenced by William Blake – more Blake than Yeats. Blake was, in a lot of respects, a British nationalist. But he was beyond that as well in imagination and spirituality. You can’t get much more blues than “Let the Slave” [Morrison’s 1985 adaptation of a Blake poem]. I once saw Ginsberg do a gig at the Troubadour in L.A. He was doing Blake stuff. I thought, “This all connects.”
You often write about Belfast, going back to “Cyprus Avenue.” On “Keep Me Singing,” in the blues “Going Down to Bangor,” you mention the local spots Cave Hill and Pickie Pool.
It’s not about the actual place. It’s a satire, the whole thing – tongue-in-cheek. But I don’t analyze this. The words are there. If I had to explain them, I’d be somebody else. I would be . . . a critic.
If you listen to the music, you get the sense. But songs are make-y up-y. It’s called poetic license. You add stuff, subtract stuff. Someone once called it “faction” – I still use that. That’s how it works.
You lived in Northern California in the Seventies. Another new song, “In Tiburon,” is set in the Bay Area, with references to City Lights bookstore and seeing trumpeter Chet Baker at jazz clubs there. How true is that?
That’s not about me. That’s about a certain era – the Beat poets, North Beach. I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti way back. I met Chet Baker much later in London. But it started with an idea. I was in this house in Tiburon, and this guy was showing me around. He was talking about this woman: “She likes to listen to your music and look out the window, and nobody can touch her.” I go, “This is a fucking song.” I didn’t start writing it until last year. But that had to be a song: She sits up here in the Bay and no one can touch her. It couldn’t be anything else.
What were your first impressions of America when you toured with Them in 1966?
I was just a kid. That was a three-month trip. I know we played in Portland, Oregon. We went to Hawaii for a couple of days, and there were gigs in the Bay Area. But it was mainly at the Whisky [in L.A.], playing there. When I came back as a solo artist, there was one hit [1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl”]. And there were no more hits after that [chuckles]. It was, “Who are you?”
I got an award a couple of months ago. Somebody introduced me and said, “He was part of the British Invasion.” I got up and said, “Matter of fact, I was never part of the British Invasion. Because when I went to America as a solo artist, I couldn’t get arrested” – which was true. I had to go through several years of struggling and being blacklisted, all this crap that nobody writes about at all. That’s real history.
Why were you blacklisted?
Well, what do you think?
I don’t actually understand why. You’re a singer.
Well, you’re very naive. You shouldn’t be in the business you’re in. Because I didn’t go along with their program, that’s why. That’s the only reason why anybody’s blacklisted. Because you don’t want to be a fucking slave, right? They didn’t want anybody who wasn’t going to bend over for them. You’re not complying – and they want you to comply.
All this bullshit about rebels and all that crap – they’re all establishment and complying all the time. All these so-called rebels, rock & roll bullshit – they’re all conformists. Real rebels are people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. They were the real rebels, not these pretenders.
“All these so-called rebels, rock & roll bullshit – they’re all conformists.”
You have a drive to do this – writing, recording, touring – your own way.
It’s not a drive. It’s what I do. It’s like Robbie Robertson said to me: “It’s like breathing.” I’ve been doing a lot of touring in the past several years because I need the money. I was running out of money, paying for a lot of stuff. I had to go out there again.
How do you write songs now?
On the run – when I’m traveling or just driving. I pull over. I don’t do it like I used to. Now I’m running a fucking empire. And it’s a drag because I don’t get time to do what I really want to do.
When do you feel like an album is taking shape?
It’s just what makes sense. You don’t analyze it. It’s whatever feels right at the time. There is recording going on all the time, whenever I can get the time to do it. Back when I was recording in the Seventies, people would think that if you put out an album, that was your life – that it was about that year in your life. But that’s not all that’s going on.
There’s a lot more than what you’re hearing. I have so much unreleased stuff it makes my head spin. Back in the day, James Brown was putting out six albums a year, and two of them were instrumentals. You couldn’t do that now. People wouldn’t even know what that is.
This is the thing: I have hundreds and hundreds of songs on recordings. There’s a lot of stuff people don’t write about. When they talk about the history, it’s the history from way back. What about the history after that? [Laughs] That’s the real history, the stuff people don’t know. Get into that. If you want to know me, get into that.
OK – what parts of your catalog in the past 35 years do people need to know?
Where do you want to start?
Let’s start with this century.
“Talk Is Cheap” ; “Keep Mediocrity at Bay” ; “Goldfish Bowl,” “Get On With the Show,” “Too Many Myths” [all from 2003] – “Too many myths/People just assuming things that aren’t true/There’s too many myths/Coming between me and you.” Somebody said to me, “Why are you saying that? You’ve got everything. You’re at the top.”
I’m like, “You’re not listening to the song” – “There’s just too many myths/Can’t you see I’m just trying to stay in the game?” That’s the reality of it. You get tired of the myths, so you don’t want to stay in the game. People don’t see that. They see you’re successful. You’re “sir” this and “sir” that, and everything’s great. That’s the lie. When you’re famous, you see the lies.
“When you’re famous, you see the lies.”
If you knew then, as a young man, what you know now about the music business, would you have become a singer?
I have no idea. I didn’t have any choice. There was no Internet, no DIY, no make-your-own-CDs. People didn’t have anything here. Like you Americans say, they didn’t have a thin dime. And we had even less than that. They owned the game, and basically they owned you.
So I don’t know. That is speculation. But speculation is a luxury for people who haven’t had anything bad happen to them – yet. I didn’t have that luxury. I had to tote that barge, lift that bale and do what the boss man said.
Do you feel in control now?
More in control. But that has to be fought for, lest you become complacent. The minute you start getting comfortable, that’s it. [He mimes smacking himself on the side of the head] So you never get comfortable. Because people will take advantage. That’s the way of the world.
What goes through your head now when you’re onstage? What state of mind are you in as you sing?
It’s Zen. You can’t have all these thoughts, because you’re focused on doing it. You’re not thinking, “Did I do my laundry?” You don’t have time to think. If you start thinking, you get lost. You have to be there.
You perform with intense concentration, whereas many singers express themselves physically, like James Brown and his leg splits.
But that’s James Brown [laughs]. I just stand still. When I started out, I was doing all this crazy stuff. But then other people came on TV; they were doing that. So when I went out, people thought, “Oh, you’re copying so-and-so.” They didn’t know I was doing it before. So I just stopped doing it. I thought, “Fuck you, I’m just going to stand still.” I’m doing vocal gymnastics.
What are your future plans? I understand you are writing a memoir.
I’ve been compiling stuff over the last 40 years, just talking into a tape recorder. There’s stuff I’ve had typed up over the years. But it’s not something that has been consistent. It’s been very inconsistent, as a matter of fact.
I’ve got a lot of unreleased music I need to get out, from all periods. And I’ve got loads of really good live stuff from the last 10 years. It’s just getting an outlet. I’m not going to do it through a major label. I’m just going to do it independently – websites or whatever.
Do you listen to music online?
No, unless I’m working on a project. I’ll get it on the iPod to listen to. I don’t listen to a lot of music.
But what do you turn to, for medicine and comfort?
Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, the Modern Jazz Quartet – any kind of good jazz. I always go back to that.