A Van For All Seasons

On a recent visit to Liverpool I picked up a copy of  Low Down – The Definitive Liverpool Listings Magazine, an excellent publication. The main feature was an edited interview with Van Morrison, who’s new album ‘No Plan B’ has been a regular visitor to my my deck and is on the HD in the car. The interview with Van was quite candid as you can read here – nicked from the Low Down website. Hope they don’t mind……

An incredible career spanning over six decades, six Grammys, a Brit, an OBE, induction into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he’s still releasing records. ‘Van the Man’ is one of the most enduring legends of popular music.

John Bennett met Van Morrison at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast and asked him about his new album ‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’ – Blue Note Records/EMI).

Van, ‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’. That has been the working-title, as I understand it, right from the start of the album. That’s the one you have settled on. It’s going out as that then?

Yeah, but I don’t really want ‘No Plan B’ to be a distraction or a red herring. It seems that people have a lot of questions about that. There isn’t really any question. ‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’. It is what it says it is. There’s no hidden meaning or anything. I don’t know why people are always looking for hidden meanings or something else. It is what it says on the tin.

Elaborate on that a bit. How do you mean there is no plan B?
Well that’s my profession. Singing is my profession. There is no plan B. Maybe there might be one later on? I don’t know! There could be a plan B later but there isn’t one right now.

You were born to sing, do I take that literally?
Yeah, well I think so.

Even from when you were going to school?
Well apparently before that. What they tell me is that I was singing in the pram. That’s what I was told.

At what age were you aware then that this was going to be your livelihood?
I wasn’t really aware until I was looking at the Alan Lomax Folk Guitar book, do you know that one? I didn’t really know until that point because I was trying to work out, you know, what Leadbelly was doing on a 12 string, on a 6 string, so I didn’t really know until then because before then I wanted to be a vet.

A vet?

I don’t know why I should feel that that’s strange but given that you are now a singer, the two?…
(Interjects) Well they didn’t think it was strange in school. When the teacher went around and said, ‘Well, what do you want to be when you leave school?’ and ‘What do you want to be?’ I said ‘a vet’ and the teacher didn’t think it was strange at all. He said ‘Oh yes, jolly good!’

Do you have an affinity with animals? Do you like animals?
Well yeah of course I do, yeah.

Well not everybody does?
I didn’t know that, I thought most people did. I didn’t know that.

So at what stage did your veterinary aspirations give way to the music?
Well, when I heard ‘Irene Goodnight’ by Leadbelly, the version with Sonny Terry on harmonica. When I heard that, that was it. Everything else went out the window I suppose.

Leadbelly playing an accordion

Just incidentally, what do you think of The Weavers version of Irene?
I don’t like it. I don’t like The Weavers version because I had heard the original by Leadbelly. Leadbelly actually did several versions. The one I like best is the one with Sonny Terry on harmonica and there is also one he did with Paul Mason Howard on zither, I like those two versions best but there are other people that have covered it, like Little Richard. He did a version that is interesting too.

‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’ it is then. I have to say Van, listening to the album, it took me on the almost proverbial journey through a lot of my emotions but I suppose as an artist, whether you’re a visual artist or a musical artist, that’s the idea, to push as many emotional buttons as you can?
Well its all about doing what you’re meant to do and no frills, like Mose Allison said about me, if you want to look it up, ‘There’s no smoke or mirrors, there’s no lights. It is what you get.’ That’s basically what you get. I’m not a tap dancing act. It’s just singing and songwriting.

As I, and as most fans, would have expected it is an eclectic mixture and, going back to the emotions, I found myself listening to some of the tracks and I was uplifted by them. In some of them I was agreeing with you when you were having a go at materialism and how the bankers and the world elite are ruling us and then in other ones?…
(Interjects) Well I’m not really having a go. It’s like, as Lenny Bruce said. ‘It’s observation baby!’ It’s not having a go. It’s just observing what’s going on.

But if you put it as powerful as you do in your music, that surely constitutes a protest, would you not accept that?
A what? A protest? No, it is just observation. It’s just what’s around you on its most mundane level. If you turn on the box you get it, if you turn on the radio you get it. It’s money, money, money, money for several years now non-stop.

I take your point. Coming back to my point, if you show this discrepancy or the way this thing operates and you show it patently in your music people are going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that you are making a protest and they are going to label you, I think it’s a label you would fight against strongly, they are going to label you some sort of protest singer are they not?
No. So that means everyone that talks about financial crisis and how people are getting screwed and losing all their money is protesting? Is a protestor? Is that what you’re saying?  So that means that everybody that comes on the news or reads out the news is protesting?

But they are not putting it in as powerful a medium as you might be doing with your music? That’s the point I’m making.
Well it all depends on your viewpoint but I don’t see it as protest. I just see it as song writing. It’s simply observation. You can write an essay about this or write a piece about it or a journalist can write about it. Journalists write about this stuff so say Stephen Glover is writing for whichever paper, is he protesting?
No, he’s not protesting. He’s just writing a piece, so I don’t think it’s protesting.

Coming back to the album, I suppose if you were to follow the template of commercialism and you wanted to make a lot of money out of it you could simply put out 10 clones of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and almost be assured of it being a success?
Well I’ve ‘been there, done that’, but that’s not what it’s about. You start off young and then you get older and then hopefully along the way you gain more experience and you kind of absorb stuff and then you regurgitate that as songs. You’re not going to be the same as when you started out, no one is. Also, why would you want to clone ‘Brown Eyed Girl’?  That already exists and, on a different track, it’s not easy to clone ‘Brown Eyed Girl’s anyway, even if you wanted to because songs are unique within themselves. Some of them become more popular but you just can’t clone another one of those because there’s only one of them, you know what I’m saying?
So later on I got into writing more about my experiences because the songs I learned to write were the songs that were written during say, the 50’s, early 60’s period. They were usually kind of love songs so I learned to write from listening to those old fashioned love songs, you know, 2 verses, middle 8, verse, instrumental solo, go back into the bridge. I learned songwriting from the stuff I heard when I was growing up and listening to my fathers record collection and stuff like that and listening to Folk, people like Leadbelly, a lot of the blues singers, although the blues singers didn’t usually use middle 8’s, very rarely, they just used 12 bar but there was a lot of poetry in blues, so that was my kinda MO (modus operandi) for song writing and they were usually blues type of songs.
Blues, well that is more protest than anything if you think about it? Black guy singing about what he’s going through? They are real protest songs in the real sense of the word.  So I learned to write from that point of view, Sam Cooke, that type of thing. They are mainly kind of love songs, so later on then I started to write more about all the shit that you have to go through just to be and exist and keep doing what you are doing, which is more philosophical.

Can you isolate a point Van along your career, or maybe even along the chronological track of your albums, where you ceased to imitate the template of the 50’s and 60’s and when you became Van Morrison the singer/ songwriter doing his own thing?
Well, I’m always doing my own thing. I still use the 50’s template to write songs, even now.

But was there a point when you started actually putting your own experiences into the songs?
Well that’s what I’m getting to. That started later on with… I don’t remember the exact date… I think more going into the 90’s.

Was there one album that maybe started this trend?
I think there is one in particular with about 6 songs on it. I think it’s ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture’ but it probably started before that. There were a couple of songs before that, a song called ‘Fame’ (fame, they’ve taken everything and twisted it), so somewhere around there.

Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I describe your albums, or have done in the past, and this one isn’t any exception. There is soul in there, blues, it’s jazz, it’s a Van Morrison collection, so you have?…. I don’t know if resisted is the right word, but you haven’t been channelled into any one direction along the way?
No, you see I was lucky because Ray Charles was like my role model and he always said he did everything. It’s all music and he did everything and he reinvented a couple of things too while he was at it. And there were guys like Bobby Darin who did everything, I mean Bobby Darin was song writing before anybody even knew what that was but he could also do other stuff. He could do folk, he could do Frank Sinatra, you know, so there’s people like that who covered all the bases.

I suppose one of the dangers of writing your own songs and putting your own thoughts, you call them observations, the danger might be Van that you leave yourself vulnerable to people saying ‘Ah well that’s what he actually feels at this moment’, that’s him honestly saying ‘This Is Me’. Is this fair? Can I accept that what you’re portraying in this album, these are your thoughts at this moment?
No, it’s not this moment, but that moment.

The moment when you recorded them?

Well when I was writing them and leading up to recording them. They were my observations then but it doesn’t even mean that, you know, it’s like a guy asks me a question about… he said ‘In that song you mention God and this other one you call it Pagan soul?’ and I said ‘Well, look, just because you write about something you don’t have to believe in it’, you know what I mean? It’s a bit reductionist to say ‘Yeah, that’s Van Morrison and that’s his life and that’s what he believes’. That’s very reductive, what the academics call reductive. So, it’s not your life because something can happen a week later that totally changes everything that you thought then, you know? It doesn’t work that way.

But do you not see the paradox here Van because you are, by all accounts, a very private person and yet when you write and when you sing your songs?
(Interjects) Yes, but I am not singing about me specifically. Just because I wrote a song called ‘Pagan Heart’ it doesn’t mean I’m a pagan.

But the danger is that people might assume that you are?
But that’s their problem. You see, this is what the problem is. Whatever people want to take out of it, that’s it. Everybody has got their own interpretation of what they are going to take out of any song, by anybody. Whether that be nostalgia and they remember where they were or it reminds them of something else, everyone has got their own interpretation of what they are going to take out of any given song anyway and that’s the whole point, that’s the whole point. I mean, if you have a painting, 20 people can look at that painting and go ‘It’s about this’, or ‘It’s about that’. It’s what you get out of it. That’s what it’s about. So these are ideas, people are going to take out of them what they need or what they want and if they don’t need it they are not going to take it, they won’t buy into it but obviously they want to get something that they can put their interpretation on, that’s the whole point, I think, of songs.

But would you accept then that there are certain songs that shouldn’t be open to interpretation, where the message is so strong and so central that you would expect it to be picked up as you transmitted it or would you be happy that all your songs can be taken from various perspectives?
Well, it’s both. It can be both. I don’t know if you are referring to any specific ones?

No, not particularly. Well… yes I am. ‘Pagan Heart’ left me feeling… musically it’s superb but it left me feeling a bit uneasy (Van Morrison laughs) because I wasn’t sure whether you were A) writing from experience, or B) whether you have a very vivid imagination in that direction, so there you see I’ve got a dichotomy already?
Well I just read a lot. If you read enough books you’re going to get ideas and they’re going to come out in songs, it all comes out somewhere. I have also read a lot about Christianity too and I’ve written about Christianity but it doesn’t mean I’m a Christian.

I take your point. Lets just take a look at the album per say and start with the title track ‘Open The Door (To Your Heart)’ which is quite clearly anti-materialistic. ‘Money doesn’t fulfil’ you sing, it’s a statement of the human condition I suppose? Where are we headed? What would we want the goal to be? Where did the inspiration for this come from? Was it one particular incident or a phrase somewhere?
Well no, it’s not one particular incident. It’s just looking at greed. Greed has been around for a long time. I don’t know about your business but it’s been in my business. My business is just all based on total greed. People, they can’t seem to get enough, so what I’m saying is ‘enough is enough’. You only need enough to survive and live your life, that’s basically what I’m saying.

You had first hand experience of this, particularly in your early days in the music business?
Not just the early days. Even now. It doesn’t go away. You can get more on top of it if you are around long enough and you don’t die, then you can get on top of a lot of this stuff and you can come to grips with it but in the early days, I mean, I didn’t know anything! What did I know? I had to educate myself in all of this but the music business is predominantly based on greed and that’s what it attracts and fame attracts strangeness into your life. You can’t really get away from that, it just does.

It’s a great opening track; it’s almost like a retro soul backing?
Well, I don’t want to give the whole game away and I don’t want to give away trade secrets (laughs) but there was a song called ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’ by Darryl Banks, which I like very much. My song is different but sometimes other songs inspire songs so that was part of the inspiration. It’s a different song.

But the arrangement, the busy bass line and the clipped guitar?
Well that’s just Motown, see that’s a take on Booker T and the MG’s which is… no I’m giving away too many secrets here. Can we cut that out? (Laughs)

‘Going down to Monte Carlo’. I’m slightly confused here Van because there’s the beautiful ‘Ulsterism’ in it, ‘give my head peace’ which might be a bit confusing to international audiences (Van laughs). Explain what you mean by ‘give my head peace’?
It’s a local saying. People from here will get it and other people won’t, but basically it’s like, it’s seems very strange that you could go to Monte Carlo and find peace but yeah, hey, that happened to me.

That was the paradox I couldn’t understand. Why go from Nice to Monte Carlo?  Monte Carlo is probably the rip-off capital of the world, isn’t it?
Yeah that’s probably the only place I could have got it at that point and probably the only kind of places I can get peace now would be places like that which is a paradox but it’s true.

How do you get peace in Monte Carlo?  What do you do to? …
(Interjects) For one thing nobody cares. They are too busy with their own lives and they have enough money so nobody really gives a damn about who you are really so that’s part of it. They’re not going to approach you because they are all… kind of stars in their own way so I can be anonymous there.

Ah so your head gets peace when people don’t notice you?
Exactly. Absolutely. Anonymity. People don’t realise what a gift it is. They don’t realise what they have. People wanting to be famous, they don’t know what they’re getting into. Anonymity is a gift from God and people don’t realise what they have.

This is the biggest paradox of all Van. You’ve spent your life seeking publicity for your business?
No, no I haven’t been seeking publicity at all. That came along with the job.

Yeah, but you had to do it?
Yeah, but I was doing it for survival reasons. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to be famous. I was doing it because that’s what they told me you had to do, ‘If you want this cheque son you have to do this’. So it was like the carrot and the stick all the time. This was how the business was so until you can work your way through all of that to some other place that’s the way it is and that’s the way it still is for a lot of people who have not worked through that.

A lot of people would willingly swap places. There’s an old song that says, ‘whatever you want, whenever you get it, you don’t want it’, or words to that effect.  I think the vast majority of the population from that end of things would want to be famous?
No, they don’t know what they want. They’re brainwashed to think that’s what they want. It’s just brainwash because this is another distraction. They are brainwashed into thinking that they want fame. They want to buy that paper that tells them they want fame or they want to watch the TV shows that tells them that they want fame or they want to see the magazine that tells them they want that because they can’t think for themselves. Their thinking mechanism has been short circuited so its like what other people think and what other people implant in their heads because they don’t know how to think for themselves. It’s that simple.

You have a quote from Jean Paul Sartre in the song ‘Going Down To Monte Carlo’ which says ‘Hell is other people’.

And he makes the point that we can’t assert ourselves or we can’t give a judgement on ourselves without other people. So we all need other people, but you seem to be saying otherwise?
Well, but why did he say ‘Hell was other people’?

Because we can’t exist without them?
Exactly, but you can’t get away from that hell and you need them so again it’s another paradox.

Yeah, the basic paradox here is that the harder you have worked, the more successful you’ve been and the more records you’ve sold, the more you crave anonymity, the more you crave the licence to be alone when you feel like it.  Do you see this as the paradox it is?
Yeah, it is a paradox, but you see, I didn’t know this then. I didn’t know back then, I didn’t think it was going to last. I didn’t think all this stuff would still be out there with people saying ‘Oh yeah, I saw you on YouTube last night with such and such…’ and I don’t even remember doing it! But somebody has filmed it and I probably don’t even own the thing.
So I didn’t know this stuff was going to be regurgitated later on. I thought it was just then! I thought, ‘this record is coming out then so that’s going to die out in a while, those pictures are going to disappear’. I didn’t know that all this stuff was still going to be around, I had no idea. I thought that at some point you could just stop doing this and you could go back to normal life. That’s how naive I was. But in the kind of world we’re living in all of this stuff keeps getting regurgitated and regurgitated and that wasn’t happening when I started. They didn’t have the Internet, they didn’t have YouTube, they didn’t have Twitter, they didn’t have any of this stuff.  You had a record player. When I started, that was it!  That was a different world.

The music for ‘Going Down To Monte Carlo’, I am intrigued by it because of its ‘minor’ key sound; it leaves me waiting for it to resolve itself almost?
Well it’s not actually a minor key. It may sound like a minor key but it’s a Major 7th but I know what you mean. Yeah, resolve? Well, that’s it … To be continued. (Smiles)

But I must say I love the ending, it goes on for over 8 minutes (Van laughs) and I get the impression that the recording was done ‘as live’ almost?
Totally. Everything was ‘Live’, it was all done live.

But it sounded at the end Van as though, you know, you’ve got the bass coming in and you have what sounds like a muted trumpet with the organ and the sax? (Van: ‘That’s right’) and I got this feeling of serenity almost at the end, as though you have got your head showered. Is that right? Did I read that rightly?

Absolutely. It goes into the meditation process at the end, that’s right. Some sort of nirvana is achieved there.

In a live performance that could go on for 10 or 15 minutes, couldn’t it?

Yeah. Easy.

Back to ‘Born To Sing’, the title track. You say it comes with a ‘sting’?
The sting is fame because you’re not told about that when they tell you… ‘You were singing in the pram and your granny used to sing these little Scottish melodies to you’ ….  and you think ‘Yeah, well that makes sense’, but you don’t know about all this other crap that you’re getting into when you’re just starting out. When you’re starting out you have no idea. The sting is, having to deal with all the shit that this attracts.

And it’s in inverse proportion to the success and the fame isn’t it? The more success you get, the more the pain becomes? Is that the way it works?
Well it all depends on who you are. See, I’ve always done this because I love the music. It’s like what they say about jazz. You don’t do jazz for money, you do it for love. Same kind of thing, I’m doing this for love. Not fame, not money and that’s always been the M.O.(modus operandi) and that’s why I got into it because I heard people and they did something to me. They changed my consciousness, they changed my thinking. Something changed within me when I heard these people. So, I was like, ‘yeah, that’s what I want to do because I love it. I want to do that because that is something really’…. I don’t know what it is, Spiritual? It’s something that takes you somewhere else so that’s why I want to do it and that’s my whole modus operandi for doing this. But it has taken me into these other areas.
I’ve tried to do it without getting into these areas but because of where we are in history and because we have all this internet, all these magazines, all this hype like fashion, fame, all this fuckin’ crap, it’s only recent. All of this stuff is very recent. People used to be into music in my day. They didn’t care if someone was like wearing a shiny jacket or something so people usually got into it, why? Because they loved the music. If you wanted to do it you had to love it. It was all focused on the music if you were doing what I was doing. It wasn’t focused on anything else. So that became manipulated by “Oh yeah, blues! We can sell that!”  I came in on that.
People tend to forget that’s where I came in, as a  blues singer. The guy that came from London to ‘The Maritime’, he came to hear a blues singer and they wanted to sign a band that had a blues singer. So that was my calling card and this is all forgotten now but that’s the reality of how then I got to make records, Phil Solomon, and all that kind of stuff. That was the premise for kicking this off.
They wanted to sign a blues singer from Belfast. They had several from London, one from Newcastle, a few from other places and they wanted one from here. So my calling card was as a blues singer. I was doing that music because I loved it. Nobody else here was doing it. They didn’t want to know. If you mentioned blues in Belfast people were like, “yeah, what are you talking about? You’re away in the head. You need a gig in a show band”. That’s the way it was. It was a different world.
So I actually came out of a different era, different time, different consciousness, different everything.

That’s surprising because you’re saying, if I get you the way you mean me to get you, you can divorce the fame from the actual artistry and the music, but when you think to the 60’s, there was Beatle mania and that wasn’t ………
(Interjects) Yeah I know but how many people from that era, apart from the Beatles, can you now name? There were hundreds and hundreds of people and a lot of them were really good .You used to see guys in Germany that were amazing. Where are they now? You never hear about them. You only hear about the ones that made it. You don’t hear about the other hundreds of people that were good that didn’t have a manager like Brian Epstein that gave everything away so that he could get airplay.  It’s like horses for courses but you’re talking about the mainstream. I’m not in the mainstream, I never was, I never wanted to be in the mainstream. That’s not what I wanted to do.

In terms of record sales you are?
No, I sell enough for them to name check me. I sell enough and I’ve sold enough and there has been enough for them to bring me in because I’m actually credible. So they bring me in for credibility factor, not because I’m selling millions of records ‘cause I don’t. You know, some of them have done that over like, I think, 30 years or something? But, they don’t name check me because of that. They name check me because they want credibility there with all the non-credible people. They need credibility, that’s where I come in.

Bankable is the word they use I think, is it?
I don’t know. I’m bankable to a certain degree but I’m more bankable for gigs than I am for selling CD’s. There are more people come to the gigs than buy the CD’s.

Are you happy with that arrangement?

Yeah, sure I’m happy. I don’t want to be in the mainstream. I’m not in the mainstream. If people think I am, that’s their fuckin’ problem. That’s not my problem, that’s theirs. I know who I am, I know what I’ve done, I know what I’m doing, so I don’t have to buy into other peoples baggage. I know what’s going on, I know what the game is, I know where I fit, I know where I don’t fit, I know all this.

Going back to ‘Born To Sing’ and the backing here, I got Sun Records into my head listening to this. I got Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash?
Well Elvis wouldn’t be in there but Carl Perkins, yeah. I got to know Carl Perkins actually later, a really nice guy. I cut four tracks with him. One came out on a tribute to Sun compilation. It’s a version of ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’, not the show song, the blues song. Ahmet Ertegun produced it and there are 3 other tracks that haven’t come out yet.

It has that New Orleans, almost like a slow march, a big insistent beat to it. It’s something you have to listen to, isn’t it? (Van laughs) You can’t ignore that beat, can you? It’s a feel good sound, it’s a good song and that one will get a lot of airplay I would say.
That’s the one I would pick and you, being in that business, would know.

Well I would pick it for the reason that it’s a good radio song. It’s probably a good single record as well?
I just said that yesterday as a matter of fact.

It just shows you what brilliant intellects we both have (both laugh)

‘End Of The Rainbow’. Having a pop, maybe, at a false God and anti-materialism? ‘No pot of gold’? It’s not worth the search?
No, well it’s the same old story. I was just talking to somebody the other night who was saying how like Irish Americans still believe in leprechauns, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs). I think there’s this thing that because I’m famous then money is going to drop out of the trees and people want it because they think it just grows on trees. They don’t understand you have to work for it and it has taken 50 years.

Disappointed? Is that the message across when you reach the end of this fabulous rainbow?
No, it’s like I’ve been carrying this idea around for a long time, many, many, many years and that’s the first time it has come out in a song. But that idea is still predominant in the mythology of the music business and show business. It’s still a sort of mythology. It’s a bit like Dale Evans and Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset.  People have this idea but it’s all wrong. They don’t understand that it’s like… it’s work. So that’s really what the song is about.

The rhythm in that song is like a gentle bossa nova type rhythm isn’t it? Compared to some of the other tracks it hasn’t got the insistence and the pounding? It’s a gentle rhythm.
Yeah, well I call it more like a tango.

You’re probably better at South American dance tunes than I am, so I’ll take your word for it.

(Laughing) No.

The point I’m making is that there’s a riff on the sax, which I take it is you playing, in the middle?
(Interjects) No, that’s not me. That’s one of the Whites’ (Alistair or Chris – Van Morrison Horn Section).

There’s almost like a wail of disappointment in the middle of that because the sax can be a very plaintive instrument, can’t it?  It can almost cry?
Well yeah, but basically the song is about, it’s again about not believing in myths.  There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn’t exist. Except for leprechauns. That’s really what it is.

And John Wayne, riding off into the sunset? Or Roy Rogers?

Not John. Big John. Didn’t he come up with that thing that everybody thought Robert De Niro came up with ‘Are you talking to me?’ That was actually John Wayne came up with that.

It was in Taxi’ wasn’t it?

Yeah, but John Wayne came up with that in a previous movie.

The track, ‘Close Enough For Jazz’ I have to admit that when I heard this first it occurred to me that it would be a great instrumental because of how it bounces along, would you agree?
That’s the other one I picked. I picked that one for Europe. It might go in Europe that one.
It’s a universal message. It’s just an invitation to be happy, ‘why worry’? at the end of the day, isn’t it?
Well, think positive rather than negative. That’s kind of what the message is.

There’s one particular phrase I enjoyed (laugh)”Is it Persil, is it Daz?”
(Agreeing) Yeah, who cares?  As long as it’s close enough for jazz, that’s it.

Which implies that it doesn’t matter what it looks like on the outside, it’s what’s inside that matters? Tell me about Jazz. Tell me about? …. I was going to say your addiction to jazz, that’s maybe a bit strong, but your connection to jazz.
Well, I wouldn’t be here and I probably wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for jazz because jazz is another thing that has kept me going and is also what the whole thing is framed from. It’s framed from that improvisational changing, you know… changing the vocal line, scat. It’s a bit like those labels they put on people, they go ‘that’s pop’ and ‘this is? ….’  They always put me in these rock categories. Tell me what other rock singer does scat?  Name one … I don’t know any. I’ve always, because of my background, been coming from the jazz point of view and that’s probably why I’m still doing what I do. That’s probably why.

And like all good jazzmen you’re very democratic when it comes to your fellow musicians, they all get a turn on this, don’t they?

That’s part of jazz, isn’t it?
Absolutely, that’s it, yeah, that’s it. It’s like communion.

Take me through the recording, not necessarily the recording, the pre-recording arrangements you have for this. Do you have written scores for something like ‘Close Enough For Jazz’ or do you block it out in chords or what?
First of all it was just an instrumental. It’s worked out like it’s… ‘We’re going to do two verses, bridge, verse, instrumental, then after that we are going to go to solo’ and I think the trombone player arrived late so it was a guitar solo first and then the sax player next, ‘then in the bridge we are going to go to the piano player in the bridge.  Then we come out of the bridge and we’re going to sing the song again from the top, all the way through as a vocal’.

But you have a basic chord sequence and you leave the extemporising up to the … at one point, I think you called out ‘Who’s up next?’  Was it the trombone?
Oh yeah, ‘Who’s got it?’ yeah, that’s in one of them.

So if you were to play that again for me now the riffs would be noticeably different?
No, the riffs would be the same but the solos would be different.

And the vocals? Would they be any different?
The vocals would be totally different, yeah.

In what way? You wouldn’t change the words would you?
No, I wouldn’t change the words but I’d probably change the phrasing because every time I sing it the phrasing is going to be slightly different depending on where the, as they say, where the ‘1’ is, where the groove is.

I don’t understand the phrase ‘where the one is’?
It’s an American term.  ‘Where’s the 1?’ you know, they use it a lot in funk music ‘Get on the 1’. But probably in jazz it would be ‘2’ (laughs).

”Mystic Of The East” A bit of an ambiguity here? I take it you’re referring to ….
(Interjects) East belfast, yeah.

The centre of the world, to which you’ve come back. It’s a sort of coming back song really, glad to be back home again.
That’s right, yeah, but no brief. ‘Mystic with no brief, no reason to speak, can’t find any peace’.

As you say in the song. Oh yes, and we’re back to ‘give my head peace’ again? But not Monte Carlo?
Yeah, but that was two years ago when I wrote that you see. It’s different now. I’m in a different space now.

Is East Belfast important to you?
Yeah, for me it’s like, yeah like that’s the source. You see that when you go away, you know, I remember going other places. I always remember being in Greece. I felt really homesick and thought, ‘I need to go back’. I went back and I went up to Orangefield and thought, ‘yeah, this is my source’.  My source is not, you know, somewhere else. This is it. This is where my source is here.

And do the creative juices flow more freely when you’re back home?
Well, they can do if you stay with it and don’t get knocked off balance but you see the whole thing has become too much business now. There’s too much business and not enough music for me. That’s the problem I have now because of how big it has gotten and now you have to deal with the internet, now you have to deal with Itunes, now you have to deal with contracts coming up all over the place. You have to deal with old stuff and what’s happening with that. There’s a lot of business now so it’s taking away from actually being able to do what I do, unfortunately, but that needs to be addressed at some point.

So when you go back to Orangefield as you said, you couldn’t really dander down Hyndford Street anymore I suppose?
Of course I can.

Have you done that?
Yeah. Of course. Of course I have.

You don’t get stopped at every corner?
No. Sometimes I get stopped. Sometimes but not usually because people are getting on with their lives and I don’t look the same as I would look, say, on TV or something. I’m going to have a different hat for a start. It’s not that hard.

So when you walk along Woodcot Avenue, or past the Gospel Hall and round the school bend at Elm Grove, what sort of thoughts go through you mind?  Do you actually go back to your childhood?
Well, I go back to childhood and beyond and I go back to what it is now because it’s all in present time you see as well. You’ve got the past, the present and that’s it because you don’t know what the future is. Sometimes you know what you might be doing tomorrow or your plan next week but you’ve just got the past and the present, it’s all happening now. It’s like in the poem I wrote, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it?, I wrote a poem called ‘On Hyndford Street’. It’s all in that. If you really want to know the answer to that question, it’s in there. It’s difficult to answer it in intellectual terms but it’s in that poem and it’s all happening now is what it says.

It feels, I picked up somewhere, inarticulate speech of the heart, maybe would that describe it?
Yeah, that would describe it but ‘Hyndford Street’ would describe it better. It’s about the past but it’s also now and it’s always now because there is nothing else except now. That’s all that exists.

And on the outside, of course, the lovely thing about Hyndford Street is that it hasn’t basically changed much in the last 50 years, or maybe 100 years even since the houses were built?
No, that’s right.

The music in ‘Mystic Of The East’, I love the ending. There’s a big? … I was going to say fat, a big ‘well rounded’ trombone piece at the end, which says contentment to me? Trombone is a much-neglected instrument in popular music?
Well, that’s why I have it. I always wanted a trombone in the band and don’t know why it has taken so long but to me that was the ideal line up, trombone and tenor sax. That was it, a big sound because I liked the Louis Prima sound. Louis, he always used tenor and trombone. To me that was the sound. Now I’ve got that sound. It has taken that long.

It’s a reassuring noise the trombone, isn’t it?
Yeah, plus it’s big so you can use like, a tenor and trombone and it’s sounds like a big band. It can sound like a big band.

Even if you’re only given a couple of notes to suggest ‘I’ve got a big deep thing here if I need it’?
Yeah, it’s what they used to call the big sound, isn’t it? Yeah.

Tell me about the band, it’s basically a six-piece band isn’t it?
That’s what seems to work best. Six. Plus percussion. That seems to work best for me.

And how do you pick your musicians Van? Do you audition them?
Well, it’s a long-winded process. We’re actually lucky with the horn players because they somehow knew what was going on and it didn’t take them very long to integrate but you don’t always get that. That’s unique that people can come in and integrate that fast.

You mean musically as well as socially, or just musically?


Is there any social interaction at all outside of the music?
Yeah, of course there is but I mean some of the people take years to get to the point. You’re just about to give up. You’re going “Ah man, this guy doesn’t work” and all of a sudden they start to get it. It can take years. Some people can take months other people can take years to actually ‘get’ what the gig is.

To get on a wavelength with you?
Well, to understand what the gig is, that it’s not just, you’re not just playing from ‘A’ to ‘B’. It’s something called dynamics and a lot of people will tell you ’yeah, I know what dynamics is’. They’re just, you know, they’re bullshittin’. They don’t really know. Some of them, some people automatically know what it is and do it. I’ve had musicians like that but they’re hard to get now. I don’t know why but I think it’s because it’s from another era where people were more into music that had the kind of dynamics that I’m looking for, like soul music and all this kind of thing. Now you don’t get that so much so it’s harder to get musicians that understand dynamics outside of straight ahead jazz.

‘Retreat And View’ has resonances of the ‘Mystic’ track as well, looking at life from a safe vantage point as it were. The word retreat of course has got 2 meanings. It can mean running away, going backwards, or it can mean as a noun, somewhere where you can be safe, a harbour, or a haven. I take it that’s what you mean in this one? You’ve found somewhere that you can be happy and reasonably secure in and you’re having a look at life from there?
Well, part of the mystic is retreat, that’s a big part of it.

You mean in the sense of going backwards, or running away?
No, you’re not running away. There are different forms of what you can call spiritual discipline or you can call it yoga, there are various names for it. Some of these spiritual disciplines are like, more active and they’re more outgoing. The Mystic is built in with, that is you have to have your space and you have to have your retreat if that’s what you are. It comes with the job. So mystic must retreat otherwise he can’t do the gig, its part of what it is. It’s not like other forms, where its, say, Kung Fu or something. It’s built in. If you are a mystic you need to retreat. It’s as simple as that otherwise you can’t be.  You can’t be that.  You could never be that if you’re in the world all the time. Forget it! You won’t be that. So a lot of these songs and stuff, they come from that. So in order for me to do that, I need to have a certain amount of retreat.

And is this a physical retreat? Is there a place?
Everything. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s just retreat, period.

And can you see life from different perspectives from this retreat?
Well you need to be able to recharge and it’s the only way to recharge whereas say in other forms of discipline or spiritual paths one would need to have around people.

So solitude is the essence of this?
There’s another form where people need to be charismatic and they need to be around a lot of people and then they get it from that. I don’t get it from that. I get it from being away from people.

This is an inner strength you’re talking about?

And can you then, having achieved this level, can you then project the way ahead?  Can you see a path in front of you that you might want to take, having ‘recharged’ as you put it?
Sometimes. Sometimes but it’s quite difficult in the world we live in. I think it’s getting harder. It’s getting harder and harder. The things that we are given that were once givens are not givens anymore. It’s a difficult world that we now live in. It’s much harder.

From all that you say Van, I get the impression that you’d be happy enough to turn the clock back to the 1950’s or 60’s if you could?
(Laughs) If I could, yeah.

Would you?
Of course, I would, if I could, yeah.

It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, to go back and see how we coped?
Looking at, or rather listening to the music on ‘Retreat And View’ the saxophone has a big part in this because the opening is … I found it calm, I found it reassuring and then at the end the sax riff takes off and it’s driving and it’s urgent and then it mellows down to a sort of peaceful resolution almost. That was you playing the sax on that?
Yeah that’s right.

Yes, the ending to retreat and view Van with you on the sax and you seem to be saying, ‘I’m in this place, I’m recharging and I’m looking ahead’ and there’s a lovely mellow piece at the end where you sort of almost resolve your problems through the saxophone?

It does speak loud that instrument, doesn’t it? If played properly?
Yeah, well its breath, isn’t it?

‘If In The Money We Trust’. The futility of materialism; The essence of this one is, as I see it, a play on the mantra ‘In God We Trust’, where you’ve twisted it around and are now saying, ‘Well, is it the dollar bill in which we now trust’?

Well, as Solly says, it’s the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, but yeah, I always had the feeling that… I don’t want to offend a lot of people but when I looked at the dollar bill and I saw ‘In God We Trust’, I thought ‘Nah. What you really mean is ‘In Money You Trust’ that’s what you really mean’. I never bought that it was in God. That’s where that concept came from.

Would you maintain in fact that literally the pursuit of money has become the religion of today to many people?
(In a sad tone) Yeah.

‘Think it through again’ you sing? It’s saying to me, watch this space. Is it you going to think it through again or are you telling us to think it through again?
(Laughs) I’m just putting it out there. It’s not… you know, it’s up for grabs.

Well there’s a cry for help in there? You’re saying, ‘Where is God?’ and it’s a plaintive cry for help?
Yeah exactly, yeah, but if you take the Nietzschean concept then there is no God, only your God.

We’re back to Jean Paul Sartre again. He says, ‘It’s the essence, not the pre-existence, so it’s our own actions that design our destiny’?
According to Sartre.

What about Van Morrison? Do you believe in pre-destination? Is your life mapped out for you?
Well I’m not as adept as Jean Paul was. I’m struggling.

Two chords basically again? So the music doesn’t get in the way really of the message in this song. I’m going to say it’s in a minor key?
Yeah, you’re right.

Again, to me it means it’s unfinished business, you’re leaving me hanging up there, you’re not giving me any answers which is in fact? ….
(Interjects) No, I just mean you’ve got to… you need to think it through. What is it you’re going to believe in?  Is it money? Money and materialism and striving for what ‘they’ want to implant with you?  Is that what you want? Or do you want to think for yourself?  So that’s what it means. Are you going to accept responsibility and think for yourself or are you going to be controlled by what you’re fed and what they brainwash us in and what they want you to believe about? It’s all down to, ‘you can never have enough money, so you’re never going to be happy because you can never have enough’. But nobody’s saying ‘Oh, what about if you just have what you need?’ You know, nobody’s saying that?

‘Pagan Heart’ I found this slightly disturbing I have to say Van. I don’t know if whether you’ve actually engaged in any of these pagan rites (Van laughs), maybe you have for all I know?
No I haven’t, but there’s a friend of mine, I don’t want to give his name because maybe he wouldn’t want that, he has written a book on this kind of thing and he gave me it. It’s about the crossroads. The crossroads is an archetypal, it’s actually in the blues so that’s why it’s a blues and that’s why it’s called what it’s called and it goes back to, you know, the old legend about Robert Johnson going to the crossroads.

Well, they say that’s why he was able to play so well because he went and he met the devil at the crossroads and the devil gave him this gift that he could play the blues so well.

Delta blues, creakingly old, what I’d call a bottleneck guitar? Maybe you’ve a different phrase for it, have you?
No, that’s right. That was Dave, Dave Keary, yeah.

That’s a beautiful sound, a simple uncluttered sound.

Pictures of John Lee Hooker maybe there?
Well I’m doing the John Lee Hooker part.

He was a big influence on you, wasn’t he?
Absolutely, yeah, major. He was a major influence.

Tell me about him and his music.
Well, he would have known people like, he might have even met Robert Johnson. He certainly would have been coming from that place. A Shaman. That would be my description. John Lee Hooker would be what they call a Shaman. That’s what he would’ve been. A Shaman is like a witch doctor so he would fit right in there.

“Educating Archie” I’m sure might be a puzzle to our friend in New Zealand again (laughs) who maybe doesn’t remember radio in the 1950’s (Van laughs). Just by way of explanation, Archie was a puppet?
That’s right Peter Brough.

But it has got nothing to do with educating Archie? it’s back to …
(Interjects) Well, it does in a way, if you take Archie Bunker into it.

Archie is any man? Any man?
Well no, Archie is the working-class, just a working class kind of thing and Archie Bunker was the American archetype of that. Oddly enough they don’t really have a lot of American archetypes like Archie Bunker?

Archie Bunker was Alf Garnett in America, ‘Till death us do part’, wasn’t he?
That’s right, yeah.

But in terms of the song Archie is, as you say, the everyman working class who is being manipulated?
Yeah. I don’t know if we want to get into this because maybe it’s a taboo subject but I mean it’s about how the working class man is being sidelined.

The music, as befits the subject matter, is aggressive Van. In fact its truculent, it’s very much in your face and again the ending with our old friend the saxophone. ’Just Can’t Fight’, sort of an air of resignation, almost it’s just going to happen in spite of anything we do, isn’t it?  That seems to be what you are saying?
Well, that seems to what you said they are saying, more than what I am saying. That seems to be what the program is in spite of what anybody does whether they want to protest it or not it just looks like it’s happening and nothing can be done apparently.

Just to reiterate the point that you’ve made a couple of times in our chat, reviewers of the record and indeed your fans might assume that what you are singing about here is a statement of your state of mind and how you feel about these things but you would maintain that you are merely the observer passing on what is happening at the moment. I think it’s worth reiterating that? That it is not necessarily you preaching to anybody about anything?
No I’m not trying to get, or put myself, in that kind of position. That would be, you know, that would be a suicide mission. No, like I said, songs are merely observations. Not just these songs, but any songs. They are merely observations and ideas. It’s called the world of ideas. That’s what it’s called so ideas end up in songs. They go into your subconscious mind and they come out in some way but I’m not going to set myself up to be something I’m not.

But if it starts a debate about the subjects I suppose you’d be happy enough that maybe you started it off? (Van laughs) It might even start a row? (Laughs)
(Laughing) Maybe get to go on ‘The Nolan Show’ or something?  Is that it?

(Laughing) Van Morrison, ‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’ Thank you very much indeed.
Thanks John.

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