Laureate of yearning

Van Morisson’s incantations and repetitions, admonitions, yearnings and folk-music prove that people walked this earth yearning for a heaven elsewhere. Thomas McCarthy on a selection of Morisson’s lyrics.

LIT UP INSIDE: Selected Lyrics

By Van Morrison

Edited by Eamonn Hughes, with a foreword by Ian Rankin.

Faber and Faber, Hardback £14.99

IN A thousand years archaeologists will carefully extract fragments of a cassette-tape from the sands of Ballybunion, Tramore, Inchidoney and Salthill. With the patience of the late Michael J O’Kelly and his young UCC archaeologists, they will reconstruct an entire culture from these broken cassettes; fragments of what they will call, no doubt, Astral Weeks Beaker Folk.

In those years of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time of unprecedented hope and expansion in the Free State, a time when the young never had to worry about the future, Irish youngsters could indulge in the luxury of a personal self. Listening to Van Morrison, to Astral Weeks and Moondance, was part of the deep loveliness of that moment.

It wasn’t that personal life was easier then, it wasn’t. Personal life is never easy, as anyone can gauge from Carole King’s Tapestry, but the freedom to put all one’s energy into the personal was never so complete.

From the far side of the ocean, the wheels had been put in motion, so what was local, what was Republican or Unionist, could be born again as a personal relationship, as a moment of love-making or hopeless infatuation.

Van Morrison was the laureate of that human yearning, as local as any local ballad-singer but as universal as the Blues. Two decades later, Ian Rankin would fall under the spell, on yet another beach, windswept Scarborough. Morrison has a gift that is as subtle and powerful as the harpsichord in ‘Cyprus Avenue,’ a song curiously omitted from this volume, though ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is here:

‘Saw you walking Down by Ladbroke Grove this morning

Saw you walking Down by Ladbroke Grove this morning

Catching pebbles for some sandy beach

You’re out of reach Saw you early this morning With your brand-new boy and your Cadillac... ’

But this youth, like Goethe’s young Werther, knows that his lost beloved is dying; soon she will be lost both to him and to the world. The tone of that fierce, pride-saturated rejected lover is so universal in every adolescent culture, yet the concluding line is pure Van Morrison, honest and bleak:

‘I just don’t know what to do.’

That bleak honesty, that refusal to be merely charming, is part of the weather of this wonderful musician. By offering us nothing he has never let us down. ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down’ as he sings in ‘Moondance’, an angry feeling that is brilliantly recaptured in ‘If in Money We Trust’ from the 2012 album Born to Sing: No Plan B. Both songs are also missing from this selection, but I should stop mentioning songs that are missing and instead tell you about the wealth of Van Morrisson in this supremely attractive book.

Not least of these terrific lyrics is ‘In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ co-written with the poet Paul Durcan, a poet with his ear to the ether who has written not only on Van Morrison but on the less known Freddy White. Durcan and Van Morrison’s lyrics pull us back into this adolescent, mystic past:

Justin, gentler than a man I am down on my knees

At the wireless knobs I am down on my knees

At those wireless knobs Telefunken Telefunken

And I’m searching for Luxembourg, Luxembourg.’

The lyrics remind us of the ferocity of a Durcan reading of the 1990s, the precision, timing and performance. At the present moment poets like Billy Ramsell and Dave Lordan have also captured that Van Morrison/ Durcan awareness of the audience; that sense of a poetry reading as a totality, an experience of both author and audience in the manner of a singer-songwriter at a concert. Rhythm is obviously crucial to the song-


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