On a recent visit to Liverpool I picked up a copy of Â 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 heâs still releasing records. âVan the Manâ 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 âBorn To Sing/No Plan Bâ – 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. Thatâs the one you have settled on. Itâs going out as that then?
Yeah, but I donât 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 isnât really any question. ‘Born To Sing/No Plan B’. It is what it says it is. Thereâs no hidden meaning or anything. I donât know why people are always looking for hidden meanings or something else.Â It is what it says on the tin.
Elaborate on that a bit. How do you mean there is no plan B?
Well thatâs my profession. Singing is my profession. There is no plan B. Maybe there might be one later on? I donât know! There could be a plan B later but there isnât 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. Thatâs what I was told.
At what age were you aware then that this was going to be your livelihood?
I wasnât really aware until I was looking at the Alan Lomax Folk Guitar book, do you know that one? I didnât 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 didnât really know until then because before then I wanted to be a vet.
I donât know why I should feel that thatâs strange but given that you are now a singer, the two?…
(Interjects) Well they didnât 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 didnât 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 didnât know that, I thought most people did. I didnât know that.
So at what stage did your veterinary aspirations give way to the music?
Well, when I heard âIrene Goodnightâ by Leadbelly, the version with Sonny Terry on harmonica. When I heard that, that was it. Everything else went out the window I suppose.
Just incidentally, what do you think of The Weavers version of Irene?
I donât like it. I donât 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 youâre a visual artist or a musical artist, thatâs the idea, to push as many emotional buttons as you can?
Well its all about doing what youâre 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, thereâs no lights. It is what you get.’ Thatâs basically what you get. Iâm not a tap dancing act. Itâs 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?âŠ
(Interjects) Well Iâm not really having a go. Itâs like, as Lenny Bruce said. ‘Itâs observation baby!’ Itâs not having a go. Itâs just observing whatâs 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. Itâs just whatâs 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. Itâs 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 itâs 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 youâre saying? Â 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? Thatâs the point Iâm making.
Well it all depends on your viewpoint but I donât 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, heâs not protesting. Heâs just writing a piece, so I donât think itâs 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 âBrown Eyed Girlâ and almost be assured of it being a success?
Well Iâve ‘been there, done that’, but that’s not what itâs 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 âBrown Eyed Girlâ? Â That already exists and, on a different track, itâs not easy to clone âBrown Eyed Girlâs anyway, even if you wanted to because songs are unique within themselves. Some of them become more popular but you just canât clone another one of those because thereâs only one of them, you know what Iâm 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 50âs, early 60âs 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 didnât usually use middle 8âs, 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 heâs going through? They are real protest songs in the real sense of the word. Â 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 50âs and 60âs and when you became Van Morrison the singer/ songwriter doing his own thing?
Well, Iâm always doing my own thing. I still use the 50âs template to write songs, even now.
But was there a point when you started actually putting your own experiences into the songs?
Well thatâs what Iâm getting to. That started later on withâŠ I donât remember the exact dateâŠ I think more going into the 90âs.
Was there one album that maybe started this trend?
I think there is one in particular with about 6 songs on it. I think itâs âWhatâs Wrong With This Pictureâ but it probably started before that. There were a couple of songs before that, a song called âFameâ (fame, theyâve 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 isnât any exception. There is soul in there, blues, itâs jazz, itâs a Van Morrison collection, so you have?…. I donât know if resisted is the right word, but you havenât 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. Itâs 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 thereâs 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 âAh well thatâs what he actually feels at this momentâ, thatâs him honestly saying âThis Is Meâ. Is this fair? Can I accept that what youâre portraying in this album, these are your thoughts at this moment?
No, itâs 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 doesnât even mean that, you know, itâs like a guy asks me a question aboutâŠ he said âIn that song you mention God and this other one you call it Pagan soul?â and I said âWell, look, just because you write about something you donât have to believe in itâ, you know what I mean? Itâs a bit reductionist to say âYeah, thatâs Van Morrison and thatâs his life and thatâs what he believesâ. Thatâs very reductive, what the academics call reductive. So, itâs not your life because something can happen a week later that totally changes everything that you thought then, you know? It doesnât 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 âPagan Heartâ it doesnât mean Iâm a pagan.
But the danger is that people might assume that you are?
But thatâs their problem. You see, this is what the problem is. Whatever people want to take out of it, thatâs 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 thatâs the whole point, thatâs the whole point. I mean, if you have a painting, 20 people can look at that painting and go âItâs about thisâ, or âItâs about thatâ. Itâs what you get out of it. Thatâs what itâs about. So these are ideas, people are going to take out of them what they need or what they want and if they donât need it they are not going to take it, they wonât buy into it but obviously they want to get something that they can put their interpretation on, thatâs the whole point, I think, of songs.
But would you accept then that there are certain songs that shouldnât 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, itâs both. It can be both. I donât know if you are referring to any specific ones?
No, not particularly. WellâŠ yes I am. âPagan Heartâ left me feelingâŠ musically itâs superb but it left me feeling a bit uneasy (Van Morrison laughs) because I wasnât sure whether you were A) writing from experience, or B) whether you have a very vivid imagination in that direction, so there you see Iâve got a dichotomy already?
Well I just read a lot. If you read enough books youâre going to get ideas and theyâre going to come out in songs, it all comes out somewhere. I have also read a lot about Christianity too and Iâve written about Christianity but it doesnât mean Iâm a Christian.
TRACK ONE: âOPEN THE DOOR (TO YOUR HEART)â
I take your point. Lets just take a look at the album per say and start with the title track âOpen The Door (To Your Heart)â which is quite clearly anti-materialistic. âMoney doesnât fulfilâ you sing, itâs 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, itâs not one particular incident. Itâs just looking at greed. Greed has been around for a long time. I donât know about your business but itâs been in my business. My business is just all based on total greed. People, they canât seem to get enough, so what Iâm saying is âenough is enoughâ. You only need enough to survive and live your life, thatâs basically what Iâm 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 doesnât go away. You can get more on top of it if you are around long enough and you donât 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 didnât 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 thatâs what it attracts and fame attracts strangeness into your life. You canât really get away from that, it just does.
Itâs a great opening track; itâs almost like a retro soul backing?
Well, I donât want to give the whole game away and I donât want to give away trade secrets (laughs) but there was a song called âOpen The Door To Your Heartâ 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. Itâs a different song.
But the arrangement, the busy bass line and the clipped guitar?
Well thatâs just Motown, see thatâs a take on Booker T and the MGâs which isâŠ no Iâm giving away too many secrets here. Can we cut that out? (Laughs)
TRACK TWO: âGOING DOWN TO MONTE CARLOâ
âGoing down to Monte Carloâ. Iâm slightly confused here Van because thereâs the beautiful âUlsterismâ in it, âgive my head peaceâ which might be a bit confusing to international audiences (Van laughs). Explain what you mean by âgive my head peaceâ?
Itâs a local saying. People from here will get it and other people wonât, but basically itâs like, itâs 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 couldnât understand. Why go from Nice to Monte Carlo? Â Monte Carlo is probably the rip-off capital of the world, isnât it?
Yeah thatâs 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 itâs true.
How do you get peace in Monte Carlo? Â What do you do to? âŠ
(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 thatâs part of it. Theyâre not going to approach you because they are allâŠ kind of stars in their own way so I can be anonymous there.
Ah so your head gets peace when people donât notice you?
Exactly. Absolutely. Anonymity. People donât realise what a gift it is. They donât realise what they have. People wanting to be famous, they donât know what theyâre getting into. Anonymity is a gift from God and people donât realise what they have.
This is the biggest paradox of all Van. Youâve spent your life seeking publicity for your business?
No, no I havenât 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 wasnât doing it because I wanted to be famous. I was doing it because thatâs what they told me you had to do, âIf you want this cheque son you have to do thisâ. 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 thatâs the way it is and thatâs the way it still is for a lot of people who have not worked through that.
A lot of people would willingly swap places. Thereâs an old song that says, âwhatever you want, whenever you get it, you donât want itâ, or words to that effect. Â I think the vast majority of the population from that end of things would want to be famous?
No, they donât know what they want. Theyâre brainwashed to think thatâs what they want. Itâs 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 canât 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 donât know how to think for themselves. Itâs that simple.
You have a quote from Jean Paul Sartre in the song âGoing Down To Monte Carloâ which says âHell is other peopleâ.
And he makes the point that we canât assert ourselves or we canât 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 âHell was other peopleâ?
Because we canât exist without them?
Exactly, but you canât get away from that hell and you need them so again itâs another paradox.
Yeah, the basic paradox here is that the harder you have worked, the more successful youâve been and the more records youâve sold, the more you crave anonymity, the more you crave the licence to be alone when you feel like it. Â Do you see this as the paradox it is?
Yeah, it is a paradox, but you see, I didnât know this then. I didnât know back then, I didnât think it was going to last. I didnât think all this stuff would still be out there with people saying âOh yeah, I saw you on YouTube last night with such and suchâŠâ and I donât even remember doing it! But somebody has filmed it and I probably donât even own the thing.
So I didnât know this stuff was going to be regurgitated later on. I thought it was just then! I thought, âthis record is coming out then so thatâs going to die out in a while, those pictures are going to disappearâ. I didnât 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. Thatâs how naive I was. But in the kind of world weâre living in all of this stuff keeps getting regurgitated and regurgitated and that wasnât happening when I started. They didnât have the Internet, they didnât have YouTube, they didnât have Twitter, they didnât have any of this stuff. Â You had a record player. When I started, that was it! Â That was a different world.
The music for âGoing Down To Monte Carloâ, I am intrigued by it because of its âminorâ key sound; it leaves me waiting for it to resolve itself almost?
Well itâs not actually a minor key. It may sound like a minor key but itâs a Major 7th but I know what you mean. Yeah, resolve? Well, thatâs it âŠ 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 âas liveâ almost?
Totally. Everything was âLiveâ, it was all done live.
But it sounded at the end Van as though, you know, youâve got the bass coming in and you have what sounds like a muted trumpet with the organ and the sax? (Van: âThatâs rightâ) 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, thatâs right. Some sort of nirvana is achieved there.
In a live performance that could go on for 10 or 15 minutes, couldnât it?
TRACK THREE: âBORN TO SINGâ
Back to âBorn To Singâ, the title track. You say it comes with a âstingâ?
The sting is fame because youâre not told about that when they tell youâŠ âYou were singing in the pram and your granny used to sing these little Scottish melodies to youâ âŠ. Â and you think âYeah, well that makes senseâ, but you donât know about all this other crap that youâre getting into when youâre just starting out. When youâre starting out you have no idea. The sting is, having to deal with all the shit that this attracts.
And itâs in inverse proportion to the success and the fame isnât 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, Iâve always done this because I love the music. Itâs like what they say about jazz. You donât do jazz for money, you do it for love. Same kind of thing, Iâm doing this for love. Not fame, not money and thatâs always been the M.O.(modus operandi) and thatâs 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, âyeah, thatâs what I want to do because I love it. I want to do that because that is something reallyââŠ. I donât know what it is, Spiritual? Itâs something that takes you somewhere else so thatâs why I want to do it and thatâs my whole modus operandi for doing this. But it has taken me into these other areas.
Iâve 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 fuckinâ crap, itâs only recent. All of this stuff is very recent. People used to be into music in my day. They didnât 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 wasnât focused on anything else. So that became manipulated by âOh yeah, blues! We can sell that!â Â I came in on that.
People tend to forget thatâs where I came in, as a Â blues singer. The guy that came from London to âThe Maritimeâ, 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 thatâs 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 didnât want to know. If you mentioned blues in Belfast people were like, âyeah, what are you talking about? Youâre away in the head. You need a gig in a show bandâ. Thatâs the way it was. It was a different world.
So I actually came out of a different era, different time, different consciousness, different everything.
Thatâs surprising because youâre 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 60âs, there was Beatle mania and that wasnât âŠâŠâŠ
(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 donât hear about the other hundreds of people that were good that didnât have a manager like Brian Epstein that gave everything away so that he could get airplay. Â Itâs like horses for courses but youâre talking about the mainstream. Iâm not in the mainstream, I never was, I never wanted to be in the mainstream. Thatâs 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 Iâve sold enough and there has been enough for them to bring me in because Iâm actually credible. So they bring me in for credibility factor, not because Iâm selling millions of records âcause I donât. You know, some of them have done that over like, I think, 30 years or something? But, they donât name check me because of that. They name check me because they want credibility there with all the non-credible people. They need credibility, thatâs where I come in.
Bankable is the word they use I think, is it?
I donât know. Iâm bankable to a certain degree but Iâm more bankable for gigs than I am for selling CDâs. There are more people come to the gigs than buy the CDâs.
Are you happy with that arrangement?
Yeah, sure Iâm happy. I donât want to be in the mainstream. Iâm not in the mainstream. If people think I am, thatâs their fuckinâ problem. Thatâs not my problem, thatâs theirs. I know who I am, I know what Iâve done, I know what Iâm doing, so I donât have to buy into other peoples baggage. I know whatâs going on, I know what the game is, I know where I fit, I know where I donât fit, I know all this.
Going back to âBorn To Singâ and the backing here, I got Sun Records into my head listening to this. I got Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash?
Well Elvis wouldnât 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. Itâs a version of âSitting On Top Of The Worldâ, not the show song, the blues song. Ahmet Ertegun produced it and there are 3 other tracks that havenât come out yet.
It has that New Orleans, almost like a slow march, a big insistent beat to it. Itâs something you have to listen to, isnât it? (Van laughs) You canât ignore that beat, can you? Itâs a feel good sound, itâs a good song and that one will get a lot of airplay I would say.
Thatâs the one I would pick and you, being in that business, would know.
Well I would pick it for the reason that itâs a good radio song. Itâs 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)
TRACK FOUR: âEND OF THE RAINBOWâ
âEnd Of The Rainbowâ. Having a pop, maybe, at a false God and anti-materialism? âNo pot of goldâ? Itâs not worth the search?
No, well itâs 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 Iâm saying? (Laughs). I think thereâs this thing that because Iâm famous then money is going to drop out of the trees and people want it because they think it just grows on trees. They donât 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, itâs like Iâve been carrying this idea around for a long time, many, many, many years and thatâs 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. Itâs still a sort of mythology. Itâs a bit like Dale Evans and Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset. Â People have this idea but itâs all wrong. They donât understand that itâs likeâŠ itâs work. So thatâs really what the song is about.
The rhythm in that song is like a gentle bossa nova type rhythm isnât it? Compared to some of the other tracks it hasnât got the insistence and the pounding? Itâs a gentle rhythm.
Yeah, well I call it more like a tango.
Youâre probably better at South American dance tunes than I am, so Iâll take your word for it.
The point Iâm making is that thereâs a riff on the sax, which I take it is you playing, in the middle?
(Interjects) No, thatâs not me. Thatâs one of the Whitesâ (Alistair or Chris â Van Morrison Horn Section).
Thereâs almost like a wail of disappointment in the middle of that because the sax can be a very plaintive instrument, canât it? Â It can almost cry?
Well yeah, but basically the song is about, itâs again about not believing in myths. Â There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesnât exist. Except for leprechauns. Thatâs really what it is.
And John Wayne, riding off into the sunset? Or Roy Rogers?
Not John. Big John. Didnât he come up with that thing that everybody thought Robert De Niro came up with âAre you talking to me?â That was actually John Wayne came up with that.
It was in Taxiâ wasnât it?
Yeah, but John Wayne came up with that in a previous movie.
TRACK FIVE: âCLOSE ENOUGH FOR JAZZâ
The track, âClose Enough For Jazzâ 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?
Thatâs the other one I picked. I picked that one for Europe. It might go in Europe that one.
Itâs a universal message. Itâs just an invitation to be happy, âwhy worryâ? at the end of the day, isnât it?
Well, think positive rather than negative. Thatâs kind of what the message is.
Thereâs one particular phrase I enjoyed (laugh)âIs it Persil, is it Daz?â
(Agreeing) Yeah, who cares? Â As long as itâs close enough for jazz, thatâs it.
Which implies that it doesnât matter what it looks like on the outside, itâs whatâs inside that matters? Tell me about Jazz. Tell me about?Â âŠ. I was going to say your addiction to jazz, thatâs maybe a bit strong, but your connection to jazz.
Well, I wouldnât be here and I probably wouldnât be doing this if it werenât for jazz because jazz is another thing that has kept me going and is also what the whole thing is framed from. Itâs framed from that improvisational changing, you knowâŠ changing the vocal line, scat. Itâs a bit like those labels they put on people, they go âthatâs popâ and âthis is? âŠ.â Â They always put me in these rock categories. Tell me what other rock singer does scat? Â Name one âŠ I donât know any. Iâve always, because of my background, been coming from the jazz point of view and thatâs probably why Iâm still doing what I do. Thatâs probably why.
And like all good jazzmen youâre very democratic when it comes to your fellow musicians, they all get a turn on this, donât they?
Thatâs part of jazz, isnât it?
Absolutely, thatâs it, yeah, thatâs it. Itâs 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 âClose Enough For Jazzâ or do you block it out in chords or what?
First of all it was just an instrumental. Itâs worked out like itâsâŠ âWeâre going to do two verses, bridge, verse, instrumental, then after that we are going to go to soloâ and I think the trombone player arrived late so it was a guitar solo first and then the sax player next, âthen in the bridge we are going to go to the piano player in the bridge. Â Then we come out of the bridge and weâre going to sing the song again from the top, all the way through as a vocalâ.
But you have a basic chord sequence and you leave the extemporising up to the âŠ at one point, I think you called out âWhoâs up next?â Â Was it the trombone?
Oh yeah, âWhoâs got it?â yeah, thatâs 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 wouldnât change the words would you?
No, I wouldnât change the words but Iâd 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 â1â is, where the groove is.
I donât understand the phrase âwhere the one isâ?
Itâs an American term. Â âWhereâs the 1?â you know, they use it a lot in funk music âGet on the 1â. But probably in jazz it would be â2â (laughs).
TRACK SIX: âMYSTIC OF THE EASTâ
âMystic Of The Eastâ A bit of an ambiguity here? I take it youâre referring to âŠ.
(Interjects) East belfast, yeah.
The centre of the world, to which youâve come back. Itâs a sort of coming back song really, glad to be back home again.
Thatâs right, yeah, but no brief. âMystic with no brief, no reason to speak, canât find any peaceâ.
As you say in the song. Oh yes, and weâre back to âgive my head peaceâ again? But not Monte Carlo?
Yeah, but that was two years ago when I wrote that you see. Itâs different now. Iâm in a different space now.
Is East Belfast important to you?
Yeah, for me itâs like, yeah like thatâs 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, âI need to go backâ. I went back and I went up to Orangefield and thought, âyeah, this is my sourceâ. Â 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 youâre back home?
Well, they can do if you stay with it and donât get knocked off balance but you see the whole thing has become too much business now. Thereâs too much business and not enough music for me. Thatâs 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 whatâs happening with that. Thereâs a lot of business now so itâs 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 couldnât really dander down Hyndford Street anymore I suppose?
Of course I can.
Have you done that?
Yeah. Of course. Of course I have.
You donât get stopped at every corner?
No. Sometimes I get stopped. Sometimes but not usually because people are getting on with their lives and I donât look the same as I would look, say, on TV or something. Iâm going to have a different hat for a start. Itâs 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? Â 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 itâs all in present time you see as well. Youâve got the past, the present and thatâs it because you donât know what the future is. Sometimes you know what you might be doing tomorrow or your plan next week but youâve just got the past and the present, itâs all happening now. Itâs like in the poem I wrote, I donât know if youâre familiar with it?, I wrote a poem called âOn Hyndford Streetâ. Itâs all in that. If you really want to know the answer to that question, itâs in there. Itâs difficult to answer it in intellectual terms but itâs in that poem and itâs 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 âHyndford Streetâ would describe it better. Itâs about the past but itâs also now and itâs always now because there is nothing else except now. Thatâs all that exists.
And on the outside, of course, the lovely thing about Hyndford Street is that it hasnât basically changed much in the last 50 years, or maybe 100 years even since the houses were built?
No, thatâs right.
The music in âMystic Of The Eastâ, I love the ending. Thereâs a big? âŠ I was going to say fat, a big âwell roundedâ trombone piece at the end, which says contentment to me? Trombone is a much-neglected instrument in popular music?
Well, thatâs why I have it. I always wanted a trombone in the band and donât 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 Iâve got that sound. It has taken that long.
Itâs a reassuring noise the trombone, isnât it?
Yeah, plus itâs big so you can use like, a tenor and trombone and itâs sounds like a big band. It can sound like a big band.
Even if youâre only given a couple of notes to suggest âIâve got a big deep thing here if I need itâ?
Yeah, itâs what they used to call the big sound, isnât it? Yeah.
Tell me about the band, itâs basically a six-piece band isnât it?
Thatâs 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, itâs a long-winded process. Weâre actually lucky with the horn players because they somehow knew what was going on and it didnât take them very long to integrate but you donât always get that. Thatâs 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. Youâre just about to give up. Youâre going âAh man, this guy doesnât workâ 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 âgetâ what the gig is.
To get on a wavelength with you?
Well, to understand what the gig is, that itâs not just, youâre not just playing from âAâ to âBâ. Itâs something called dynamics and a lot of people will tell you âyeah, I know what dynamics isâ. Theyâre just, you know, theyâre bullshittinâ. They donât really know. Some of them, some people automatically know what it is and do it. Iâve had musicians like that but theyâre hard to get now. I donât know why but I think itâs because itâs from another era where people were more into music that had the kind of dynamics that Iâm looking for, like soul music and all this kind of thing. Now you donât get that so much so itâs harder to get musicians that understand dynamics outside of straight ahead jazz.
TRACK SEVEN: âRETREAT AND VIEWâ
âRetreat And Viewâ has resonances of the âMysticâ 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 thatâs what you mean in this one? Youâve found somewhere that you can be happy and reasonably secure in and youâre having a look at life from there?
Well, part of the mystic is retreat, thatâs a big part of it.
You mean in the sense of going backwards, or running away?
No, youâre 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 theyâre more outgoing. The Mystic is built in with, that is you have to have your space and you have to have your retreat if thatâs what you are. It comes with the job. So mystic must retreat otherwise he canât do the gig, its part of what it is. Itâs not like other forms, where its, say, Kung Fu or something. Itâs built in. If you are a mystic you need to retreat. Itâs as simple as that otherwise you canât be. Â You canât be that. Â You could never be that if youâre in the world all the time. Forget it! You wonât 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. Itâs physical, itâs mental, itâs just retreat, period.
And can you see life from different perspectives from this retreat?
Well you need to be able to recharge and itâs 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?
Thereâs 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 donât get it from that. I get it from being away from people.
This is an inner strength youâre talking about?
And can you then, having achieved this level, can you then project the way ahead? Â Can you see a path in front of you that you might want to take, having ârechargedâ as you put it?
Sometimes. Sometimes but itâs quite difficult in the world we live in. I think itâs getting harder. Itâs getting harder and harder. The things that we are given that were once givens are not givens anymore. Itâs a difficult world that we now live in. Itâs much harder.
From all that you say Van, I get the impression that youâd be happy enough to turn the clock back to the 1950âs or 60âs if you could?
(Laughs) If I could, yeah.
Of course, I would, if I could, yeah.
It would be interesting, wouldnât it, to go back and see how we coped?
Looking at, or rather listening to the music on âRetreat And Viewâ the saxophone has a big part in this because the opening is âŠ I found it calm, I found it reassuring and then at the end the sax riff takes off and itâs driving and itâs urgent and then it mellows down to a sort of peaceful resolution almost. That was you playing the sax on that?
Yeah thatâs right.
Yes, the ending to retreat and view Van with you on the sax and you seem to be saying, âIâm in this place, Iâm recharging and Iâm looking aheadâ and thereâs a lovely mellow piece at the end where you sort of almost resolve your problems through the saxophone?
It does speak loud that instrument, doesnât it? If played properly?
Yeah, well its breath, isnât it?
TRACK SEVEN: âIF IN MONEY WE TRUSTâ
âIf In The Money We Trustâ. The futility of materialism; The essence of this one is, as I see it, a play on the mantra âIn God We Trustâ, where youâve twisted it around and are now saying, âWell, is it the dollar bill in which we now trustâ?
Well, as Solly says, itâs the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, but yeah, I always had the feeling thatâŠ I donât want to offend a lot of people but when I looked at the dollar bill and I saw âIn God We Trustâ, I thought âNah. What you really mean is âIn Money You Trustâ thatâs what you really meanâ. I never bought that it was in God. Thatâs 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.
âThink it through againâ you sing? Itâs 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) Iâm just putting it out there. Itâs notâŠ you know, itâs up for grabs.
Well thereâs a cry for help in there? Youâre saying, âWhere is God?â and itâs a plaintive cry for help?
Yeah exactly, yeah, but if you take the Nietzschean concept then there is no God, only your God.
Weâre back to Jean Paul Sartre again. He says, âItâs the essence, not the pre-existence, so itâs our own actions that design our destinyâ?
According to Sartre.
What about Van Morrison? Do you believe in pre-destination? Is your life mapped out for you?
Well Iâm not as adept as Jean Paul was. Iâm struggling.
Two chords basically again? So the music doesnât get in the way really of the message in this song. Iâm going to say itâs in a minor key?
Yeah, youâre right.
Again, to me it means itâs unfinished business, youâre leaving me hanging up there, youâre not giving me any answers which is in fact? âŠ.
(Interjects) No, I just mean youâve got toâŠ you need to think it through. What is it youâre going to believe in? Â Is it money? Money and materialism and striving for what âtheyâ want to implant with you? Â Is that what you want? Or do you want to think for yourself? Â So thatâs what it means. Are you going to accept responsibility and think for yourself or are you going to be controlled by what youâre fed and what they brainwash us in and what they want you to believe about? Itâs all down to, âyou can never have enough money, so youâre never going to be happy because you can never have enoughâ. But nobodyâs saying âOh, what about if you just have what you need?â You know, nobodyâs saying that?
TRACK NINE: âPAGAN HEARTâ
âPagan Heartâ I found this slightly disturbing I have to say Van. I donât know if whether youâve actually engaged in any of these pagan rites (Van laughs), maybe you have for all I know?
No I havenât, but thereâs a friend of mine, I donât want to give his name because maybe he wouldnât want that, he has written a book on this kind of thing and he gave me it. Itâs about the crossroads. The crossroads is an archetypal, itâs actually in the blues so thatâs why itâs a blues and thatâs why itâs called what itâs called and it goes back to, you know, the old legend about Robert Johnson going to the crossroads.
Well, they say thatâs 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 Iâd call a bottleneck guitar? Maybe youâve a different phrase for it, have you?
No, thatâs right. That was Dave, Dave Keary, yeah.
Thatâs a beautiful sound, a simple uncluttered sound.
Pictures of John Lee Hooker maybe there?
Well Iâm doing the John Lee Hooker part.
He was a big influence on you, wasnât 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. Thatâs what he wouldâve been. A Shaman is like a witch doctor so he would fit right in there.
TRACK TEN: âEDUCATING ARCHIEâ
âEducating Archieâ Iâm sure might be a puzzle to our friend in New Zealand again (laughs) who maybe doesnât remember radio in the 1950âs (Van laughs). Just by way of explanation, Archie was a puppet?
Thatâs right Peter Brough.
But it has got nothing to do with educating Archie? itâs back to âŠ
(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 donât really have a lot of American archetypes like Archie Bunker?
Archie Bunker was Alf Garnett in America, âTill death us do partâ, wasnât he?
Thatâs right, yeah.
But in terms of the song Archie is, as you say, the everyman working class who is being manipulated?
Yeah. I donât know if we want to get into this because maybe itâs a taboo subject but I mean itâs about how the working class man is being sidelined.
The music, as befits the subject matter, is aggressive Van. In fact its truculent, itâs very much in your face and again the ending with our old friend the saxophone. âJust Canât Fightâ, sort of an air of resignation, almost itâs just going to happen in spite of anything we do, isnât it? Â 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 itâs happening and nothing can be done apparently.
Just to reiterate the point that youâve 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 itâs worth reiterating that? That it is not necessarily you preaching to anybody about anything?
No Iâm 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. Itâs called the world of ideas. Thatâs what itâs called so ideas end up in songs. They go into your subconscious mind and they come out in some way but Iâm not going to set myself up to be something Iâm not.
But if it starts a debate about the subjects I suppose youâd be happy enough that maybe you started it off? (Van laughs) It might even start a row? (Laughs)
(Laughing) Maybe get to go on âThe Nolan Showâ or something? Â Is that it?
(Laughing) Van Morrison, âBorn To Sing/No Plan Bâ Thank you very much indeed.