Van Morrison: The Poet
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.
500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’
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.