Profile: Still that sense of wonder: David Lister on the reclusive singer-songwriter whose non-stop touring is a spiritual quest - Van Morrison

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The Independent Online
IN HIS three decades as a popular music star, Van Morrison has given only a few interviews. One of them, on television, was with Mick Brown, the rock writer. He answered all the questions happily enough in a run-through. But when the cameras were turned on, Morrison grunted, called his interviewer mad and complained: 'Nobody asks a bricklayer about laying bricks. Why ask me about writing songs? There's no difference.'

Van the Man to his followers, Morrison has been Van the mannerless all too often. He wants musical success but also, and impossibly, complete anonymity. When a rock journalist wrote his biography he wanted to buy up the entire 30,000 print-run to prevent the public learning about his private life.

No wonder that the dinner guests were on edge at the Brit Awards, the premier pop and rock music ceremony, held at the Alexandra Palace in north London last Monday. Morrison was due to receive the special award - previously won by the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Queen and the Who - for an 'outstanding contribution' to the British record industry. (When he was inducted into the American Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame - a far more prestigious event - he didn't turn up at all, sending his acceptance by fax.)

And he was scheduled to perform at the Brits ceremony. What would that be like? He has given some memorable concerts, but he sometimes mumbles his way through them. Once he halted a number halfway through and asked the audience if he could stop the whole show. Once he reprimanded the audience for clapping along rather than concentrating. Occasionally, he would announce his retirement. He has hardly ever been known to smile in public, or to speak.

But on Monday, fortified by backstage beer and by his new inamorata, the former Miss Ireland and Eurovision Song Contest presenter, Michelle Rocca, Morrison actually muttered a few words of thanks. Then he played a short set that brought the hard-bitten gathering of record company executives spontaneously to their feet. His explosive rendition of his Sixties hit 'Gloria' showed exactly why Morrison's talent has proved far more important than his mood swings.

Yet for many people watching on television the next night, this grand finale must have been something of a mystery. Some might have remembered the song from a handsome young band called Them. But who was this moody, podgy 48-year-old under a large hat that was clearly there to cover a balding pate?

Morrison is a prolific singer and songwriter with 26 albums to his name. He extended Sixties pop into experimental jazz and blues complete with mystical lyrics. Musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and U2 have named Morrison as an important influence, and to many of his fans, he is Britain's Bob Dylan.

But his record sales have never been huge and they have always been confusing. A number of his albums celebrate Celtic mysticism, but, in his last entry into the singles charts, he sang a slightly embarrassing piece of churchy pop with Cliff Richard. If Van Morrison has been at the top for 30 years, why isn't he better known?

GEORGE Ivan Morrison was born into Protestant working-class Belfast. His father, an introverted shipyard worker, was an avid collector of blues records. Van claims that he can remember, at the age of three, hearing a record of the American gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. His mother was more sociable but, while Van was still a young boy, became a Jehovah's Witness. Morrison was already a shy and withdrawn boy, one of the few at his school uninterested in soccer. His biographer, Steve Turner, thinks his mother's conversion compounded his feelings of being an outsider. 'Who else in Belfast had a father who played Jelly Roll Morton records, and a mother who indulged in doorstep evangelism?'

As a teenager he spent his evenings reading Jack Kerouac and listening to Muddy Waters records. He hated a short spell as an apprentice fitter and the only job he took to, after leaving school at 15, was cleaning windows. He was engrossed by the Belfast music scene which, he explained later to Rolling Stone magazine, had little to do with either English or Irish music: 'It's got its own identity, it's got its own people . . . it's just a different race, a different breed of people.'

Morrison joined a group called the Monarchs which, Beatles-style, played in Germany from 8pm to 3am seven nights a week. When he returned to Belfast, at 19, he became chief singer and songwriter for Them - a group which, like the Animals in England, defied the Mersey pop sound for rhythm and blues. They were signed to Decca in London by Dick Rowe, who also signed the Rolling Stones, but went down in history as the man who turned down the Beatles.

Them had a run of hit singles - but Morrison began to hate the round of interviews and teeny-bop adulation. Decca made the best of a bad job by marketing its surly new band as Angry Young Them.

Morrison grew even angrier. He left Them and settled in Woodstock, New York, near his heroes, the Band. He found an American following with his first solo single, one of his few overt love songs and one of his most catchy tunes, 'Brown Eyed Girl'.

He also fell in love with and married Janet Planet, a San Francisco flower child who bore him his daughter Shana. He was then, according to his friends, a happy man. He had left behind the pop scene with which he had never felt comfortable and was experimenting with jazz and blues rhythms and different vocal styles, repeating words, hanging on to syllables, words splintering into grunts and moans. The lyrics were increasingly a mixture of the mystical and a search for roots, with many allusions to his Belfast childhood.

The album that emerged from this period was Astral Weeks, regarded, though it never sold in large numbers, as one of the great rock albums. Morrison's performance has been described as getting 'closer to the naked cry at the heart of human singing than anyone has ever done'.

Was he on drugs at the time, fans wondered, detecting references in the lyrics? Morrison's reply, in an interview years later, was characteristic: 'I didn't need drugs to have experiences. I had always had experiences without drugs, and so anything like that would impair them. Alcohol would impair them. It produces a false ecstasy.'

By the early Seventies Morrison had built up a cult following, particularly on the student circuit, in Europe and America. He was known as the Belfast Cowboy or Van the Mystic or, most enduringly, as Van the Man.

The introverted public image was not, according to his wife, a facade. Janet told a magazine at the time: 'Really he is a recluse. He is quiet. We never go anywhere. We don't go to parties. We never go out.' Divorce followed. Morrison fought for custody of Shana, but, to his great distress, lost. 'He flipped,' said John Platania, his then guitarist. 'He couldn't cope with it at all. He would cancel shows. He would talk about it as much as he possibly could, and then just go into periods of silence. But everybody knew it was killing him.'

He and Shana remained close and she still often sees him. As he put it recently: 'She's going through her teenage years and I'm going through mid-life crisis. It matches up. We're running parallel.' But Steve Turner agrees that the loss of the custody case renewed his interest in religion.

By the late Seventies, he was describing himself as a Christian mystic. 'We used to meet and talk about metaphysics,' said Mick Brown, the rock journalist. 'He has a voracious appetite for the esoteric and a great interest in the mystical poets. He is the only singer who could namecheck the Buddhist judge Christmas Humphreys, John Donne, William Blake and Jack Kerouac in a song. Van saw his music not just as entertainment but as a form of meditation, a vehicle for his own spiritual ideas.'

Brown points out that Morrison's songs are littered with Belfast imagery and that much of his work is an attempt to make sense of his childhood. But what Brown calls his 'search for a kind of enduring truth' took him into a brief flirtation with scientology in 1983. Then, at Brown's instigation, he embraced the Wrekin Trust, set up by Sir George Trevelyan 'to awaken the vision of the spiritual nature of man and the universe, and to help people develop themselves as vehicles for channelling spiritual energies into society'. Under the Trust's auspices, he organised a conference at Loughborough University on 'The Secret Heart of Music', described as 'an exploration into the power of music to change consciousness'. The conference notes referred to 'his struggle to reconcile the mythic, almost otherworldly vision of the Celts, and his own search for spiritual satisfaction, with the apparent hedonism of blues and soul music'.

The struggle goes on. Like Bob Dylan, he is now on a never-ending tour. He will play anywhere and everywhere, making him the only superstar who still does gigs in universities and even pubs. He loves playing as much as he hates attempts to analyse him. 'I believe,' he says, 'that an artist does not belong to the public but to himself. When a working man comes home on Friday night, what he does Saturday and Sunday is nobody's business but his own'.

(Photograph omitted)