Van Morrison is a toxic menace – Glastonbury shouldn’t be hosting him

The once-great Irish singer has trashed his reputation by preaching extremism around Covid. Oliver Keens worries that Glastonbury’s involvement with him could hurt the world’s greatest music festival’s impeccable reputation

Wednesday 16 June 2021 12:57 BST
Cantankerous pop star: Van Morrison performs in March 2020, before coronavirus struck
Cantankerous pop star: Van Morrison performs in March 2020, before coronavirus struck (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

What connects the town of Glastonbury in Somerset and professional sourpuss Van Morrison? Well for starters, they both have god-given gifts: Glastonbury is blessed with the mythical Tor, the Vale of Avalon and an abundance of natural beauty. Few would say that Van Morrison is blessed with natural beauty, but he does own a singing voice in the realm of the divine.

They’re also joined by the Glastonbury Abbey Extravaganza – an annual event organised by the Eavis family, who also run the Glastonbury Festival. Van is an Abbey favourite. He’s played the community-oriented event three times before, and will headline again this September. But this time feels different. Why? Because Van Morrison has become a stain on music, an anti-social menace and someone who probably shouldn’t have access to a platform for a while. As a fan of the festival, I’m worried that Glastonbury’s reputation could be damaged by working with such a toxic human right now.

Despite being prevented from gigging, Van Morrison has managed to have what you might call an active pandemic. Back in March 2020, as the deadly respiratory virus was starting to take hold in the UK, the singer told The Independent in an interview: “Like everyone else, I’m following the guidelines.” That was perhaps the last time Van acted “like everyone else”.

Lately, he’s decried scientists and their “crooked facts”, urging people to “fight the pseudoscience” surrounding Coronavirus. He thinks governments “enslave” people with their silly lockdowns, and points fingers at people in power “who haven’t missed a pay cheque since this lockdown began”.

Some of this nonsense is served via social media, but most has been in the form of song lyrics. After a career where the drama of Irish politics seldom featured in his work, Van Morrison now describes his deeply paranoid offerings as “protest songs”. He’s even teamed up with fellow Covid-sceptic Eric Clapton (under the name – kill me – The Rebels) to release dull songs that compare lockdown to historic slavery. For good measure, Van also likes to hint strongly at another ancient conspiracy theory: one song on his latest album is called “They Own The Media”. Wink wink, nudge nudge. I’m not saying that Van Morrison is peddling anti-Semitism, but he also sang in 2005 about how being “sold out for a few shekels” was “the oldest story ever told”. Make your own mind up, as conspiracy theorists are often wont to say.

As controversy around Morrison’s lyrics grew, Rolling Stone magazine – in what was surely a first – reached out to Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann for comment about the singer’s views. He classed them as “dangerous”. Last week, at a fancy five-course dinner at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, at which he was meant to perform, Morrison was filmed trying to lead a chant against a democratically elected official, slapping his hand down on a podium and encouraging the room to chant “Robin Swann is a dangerous man”. The bemused attendees had paid hundreds to hear his sumptuous voice and instead were being told to use their own. No matter that Swann had previously been threatened with beheading by an internet troll over the response to Covid, Van wanted vengeance served with a riotous chant.

I am aware that “famously cantankerous pop star has problematic views” is a spectacularly unoriginal story. What makes this more unusually awkward, though, is that Glastonbury Festival is choosing to put on this clown.

Glastonbury has always been a beacon of hope and an exceptional force for good in the world. It’s one of this country’s finest modern achievements. It’s the sort of thing Tories would stick in a trade fair if they had any imagination. Aside from the obvious joy the weekend creates via entertainment, the festival has given a huge platform to Water Aid, Greenpeace and Oxfam (plus raised millions in the process), and has given counter-cultural expression a sprawling home in the form of the Shangri-La area of the site. Even just as landowners, the Eavis family have shown an incredible social conscience in the past. Most notably after the shocking police violence doled out against the traveller and free party community in 1985 at Stonehenge (known as the Battle of the Beanfield), it was Eavis who immediately gave asylum to the convoys of battered, bleeding and broken survivors.

This is why it’s irksome and awkward that the festival now wants to host a gig by someone hell-bent on undermining public health advice, someone fixated on using his voice to spread misinformation and to moan boorishly about his inability to accumulate wealth while people all over the world are dying.

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“It’s so wonderful to be back together again enjoying this lovely space,” said Eavis about the upcoming gig at Glastonbury Abbey. “Especially to the songs of Van Morrison. What could be better?!” But Michael, do you really think you’ll just get the songs? The whole event could just be a load of dodgy political tub-thumping. I’m no expert, but if he’s asked for a “sturdy, bashable podium” on his rider, then be alarmed. Moreover, atop Morrison’s very long list of grumps and grinds is his perennial outrage that people dare to like his old stuff more than his new stuff. He is defiantly not a greatest hits machine. He’s a current artist with a current album – the problem being that his recent songs are loaded with anti-social sentiment and are a menace to society. Glastonbury has booked an extremist bigot, who is currently engaged in a forceful political campaign, to headline its event. It’s not a good look, is it?

Owner of a very long list of grumps and grinds: Morrison in June (Richard Young/Shutterstock)

You could argue that few people take musicians seriously, let alone ones who wear sunglasses and hats indoors. But perhaps it’s even more awkward that Glastonbury as a town has an active relationship with conspiracies. Remember the baseless health rumours about 5G? That is an untruth that has strong links to the town – be it via online campaigns against 5G trials at 2019’s festival or a discredited report conducted by the town’s council in 2020 that boldly asked the government to investigate the matter. The misinformation was so pervasive that in May this year, part of the town was left without broadband after someone attacked a benign 5Ghz transmitter box thinking it was a 5G transmitter.

Just at the weekend, local paper Somerset Live reported that around 200 people attended an anti-lockdown event in Glastonbury town centre. Spookily, the young man pictured speaking in their report wore a bright purple fedora and matching purple jacket, just like the kind Van Morrison often wears. I doubt that purple fedoras are going to be the next Gilets Jaune, but there’s still something a little uncomfortable about that artist playing in that town at this precise moment in time.

My gripe isn’t that Van Morrison needs to be cancelled as an artist. People can make their own minds up if they want to financially enable a rude and reckless singer by buying his records. My issue is that it feels like Glastonbury’s organisers are communicating their own attitude to lockdown and public health by booking an act with such a hardcore political stance.

I’ve always found it curious that Van Morrison hates the media so much, given interviewers’ ability to compartmentalise his staggering reputation for rudeness. Even last month, amid Morrison’s blaze of anti-social rhetoric, a feature in GQ neither challenged nor contextualised his dangerous views, choosing instead to dole out the praise with a heavy ladle.

I’m not a huge fan of Van Morrison, but I am a huge fan of Glastonbury Festival. I’d hate to see it lose its place as a champion of youth and of progressive causes by enabling a ranting dinosaur. The Staves are currently down as his support act. They’re a spellbinding trio of folk-singing sisters. I think bumping them up to headliners would make for a really smashing evening in the valley of the Tor, with none of the awkwardness, misinformation or potential for chanting.

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