MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Birthday boy Van Morrison: Have I told you lately...

Van Morrison turns 70 today. There should be a lot more going on to pay tribute to somebody whose contribution to music and popular culture has been spectacular, suggests Michael Clifford

The occasion is, of course, being marked in his native Belfast with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the street immortalised in Morrison’s breakthrough 1968 album, Astral Weeks. BBC Ulster and RTÉ are also giving him the nod with a series of programmes.

There should, however, be a lot more going on to pay tribute to somebody whose contribution to music and popular culture has been spectacular. Van is the man — the greatest singer songwriter ever to emerge from this island, and up there occupying a pantheon with Bob Dylan and perhaps a few others.

His influence is spread right across contemporary music, most recently in some of the work by the latest star in ascent, Hozier.

Among the many books written about Van’s work is one by the American rock and cultural critic Greil Marcus, called ‘Listening To Van Morrison’. Throughout the book, Marcus returns to the subject of the “The Yarragh”, a term originally coined by Count John McCormack to reference occasions when a voice can break through the normal boundaries of communication.

Marcus writes: “The feeling is that whoever it is that is singing has not simply abandoned language, but has returned himself to a time before language, and is now groping towards it.”

To anybody who has not spent much time listening to Morrison that summation might sound a tad pretentious. To those who know the music, it will make perfect sense, proving a more comprehensive description to what is often referred to as Morrison’s inarticulate speech of the heart, which serves as the title of one of his albums. (By the way, “The Yarragh” should not be confused with “yerra”, an expression used most notably by Kerry footballers to prefix a response to any question that might seek to big up their status.)

I conducted my own private celebration during the week by pulling out an old concert film of his. ‘Van Morrison in Ireland’ was recorded in 1979, and the concert footage is interspersed with shots of Van and his band on the road around the country, revisiting his childhood neighbourhood and checking out Dublin city centre.

The off-stage shots are something else. Video making for concert films was in its infancy then, and the footage is primitive by today’s standards, just catching Van on foot, or the band on the bus, big collars and flared trousers as loud as the music.

One reel has Van and his rhythm guitarist Peter Bardens popping into the Shelbourne for a spot of lunch, complete with views of the menu on offer and giving their orders to a waitress. Rock ’n roll Babylon, eat your heart out.

The meat of the film though is Morrison on stage. He was in his prime then, at the fag end of a decade in which he produced a stunning series of albums which traversed all genres, through blues, jazz, rock, soul, and plenty of indefinable work that was uniquely just Van.

Surrounded by a group of handpicked musicians, he gives a performance that veers from hypnotic to pure foot-stomping rock, all moderated through a unique voice forged somewhere on the road between East Belfast and the Mississippi Delta.

That may have been his prime, but he has kept at it, turning out new material constantly in the intervening 35 years, culminating with an album of duets earlier this year.

It wasn’t all necessarily predestined. Back when he was in school, it took a while before he was visited by the muse of invention.

“When I was in school I wanted to be vet,” he told an interviewer a decade ago. “One of the teachers said he thought I was going to be a singer. He was going around the class saying, ‘what are you going to be?’ and he pointed at me and said: ‘you’re going to be a singer, obviously’. And I said ‘Me?’ He knew more than I did.”

Had he pursued such a career, then animals’ gain would have been music’s loss. Can you imagine Van the vet? Togged out in his surgical gear, a dog lying on his back on the surgical table, the vet’s head would be involuntarily bobbing up and down to the sound of the old blues brothers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee floating out from somewhere. He lifts a scalpel, turns to the dog, his arm coming down in a chopping motion.

“Turn it up,” he barks at the mutt, who, being on Van’s wavelength, sets his upturned paws off into motion like the hammers of hell. Oh Mercy.

Any discussion on Van the Man will inevitably turn to his legendary status as a curmudgeon. Many of those who know him personally have related the opinion that he is a “sweetheart”, and his reputation is down to misrepresentation by nefarious elements in the media. This school of opinion has it that Van simply does not suffer fools.

I don’t know. His on-stage persona gives little away. He does not engage in discussion with his audience beyond a single syllable grunt every now and again and a mumbled introduction of the accompanying musicians. He doesn’t have the cut of somebody you might approach to ask the time of day, or even directions to the next whiskey bar.

Personally, whenever a fantastical notion floats through my head of an encounter with Van, I shiver to my core. As a devotee, nay, a disciple, of his music of more than 30 years’ standing, I couldn’t bear to defy the dictum that you should never meet your heroes.

The music rarely leaves me. A few years back, it dawned on me one day that I had not for at least three months listened to Mr Morrison. Then, one day, or realisation that my life had been missing something, I called up the Hard Nose the Highway album, and found myself born again, thrown back to my teenage years when I first came under the spell of the music and all the possibilities it offered.

So, as you can imagine, the thought of ever meeting the creator would be daunting. What if a man, who apparently doesn’t suffer fools, quickly came to the conclusion that I was, well, a fool? What if he’d read this column?

Would he turn on me, instruct that I am not worthy to ever again listen to Veedon Fleece? Would he call security, have me escorted from the building, cast out into a wilderness where I would be forced to wander aimlessly in search of The Yarragh?

Yerra, no way. Those kind of risks would just not be worth taking. Why mess with a mojo that has served so well for so long. Cherish the work, and what matter the flesh and bone behind the mystery of such creative power.

Happy birthday, Mr Morrison. Thanks for the music, and we’ll leave it at that.


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