TALK: Van Morrison in Conversation

Well, more of a sort of inarticulate speech of the heart, really. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
The jokes are too easy. Van Morrison talking about his work, talking about his work, talking about his work as part of the Closing Festival for the UK Year of Literature and Writing. It was, after all, a very unlikely concept: Van the man has been known to go whole concerts, whole years even, without speaking to his audience. The idea of him engaging in a little light chit-chat about his motives and methods just about beggared belief. His whole career, you could argue, has been built on silence, exile and cunning as well as a formidable body of music and lyrics that singularly defy interpretation.

The pre-concert stage furniture consisted of two overstuffed armchairs - on loan, one imagined from World of Leather - set down in front of the drum kit as if to represent a little domestic vignette awaiting the likes of George Best and Rodney Marsh. The routine was to be an intimate interview session with the poet Gerald Dawe - an old Belfast schoolchum of Morrison's - asking the questions. They arrived on stage to considerable applause, Dawe tall and academic looking and Van dressed in dark clothes and sporting a full Bobby Charlton.

Where, Dawe began, do you get your ideas for songs or poems?" "Well," said Van, "books, newspapers, dreams, there's no set thing." So far, so clear, and when Dawe established the fact of Morrison's father's personal library of nothing but Wild West novels, he had, you thought, hit a resonant chord. Just think of all those Zane Grey hardback covers offering up a virtual world of tumbleweed, cactus and deep mauve sunsets for the imagination of the young Belfast cowboy? But Dawes was, it became clear, somewhat fixated on Yeats (the poet, not the wine lodge), and the more he probed about the great WB's influence, the more Van, who had begun with what was for him incredible openness, became increasingly recessive. Yes, he said, Yeats was one of his influences, but he had written over a hundred songs before he got round to reading him.

The conversation by now more and more reliant on Dawe's prompts, then got around to fillums. Yes, Van said, fillums were important, Brando especially. Then Dawe changed horses suddenly to land thumpingly on Blake. By now the questions were arriving with a whole queue of subordinate clauses, with Van reduced to surly "Uh-huh" for the answer. "It's like Mutt and Jeff" Dawe conceded before they agreed to an adjournment.

The following concert answered some of the questions more eloquently than Van himself. In a rare live outing for his classic "Madame George" - arguably the best popular song of the century - the most affecting line goes: "the love that loves to love the glove, loves the glove." What, you thought, can you say about that, except that, in the cadences of Morrison's eccentric diction, it assumes a power that on the dead white carapace of the page, can never be revealed. Yeats of course, must have a word for it.

The UK Year of Literature Closing Festival runs to 21 Dec, Ty Llen, Somerset Place, Swansea (01792 652211)