I really like Van Morrison’s music. I’m no rabid fan: I don’t have everything he ever recorded. Like many wankers, I ‘discovered’ him via the gateway album that is Astral Weeks, a glorious, stoned, jazzy, sprawling thing, during my very early twenties. The music was a predictable soundtrack to the experimental, hedonism of first year university students who believe themselves sophisticated and edgy as they lounge around the squalid front rooms of their equally squalid student houses whilst actually, really inhaling and nodding sagely as Van works manfully to find the tune in classics like Sweet Thing and Cypress Avenue.
Then, the exploration of the rest of his work, searching at first for something as mysterious and, well, difficult and finding that the rest was all a bit Radio Two, really. It took a few years for me to get my head around his mix of Celtic folksiness, Dylanesque rootsiness, jazzy punchiness and bluesy earthiness. The songs were all tightly structured! The choruses were singalong! There were no extended, loose jams on one chord! (Of course, there were, I just hadn’t found them yet). In amongst the punk and pre-Britpop indie Van just didn’t fit.
And yet… I bought St Dominic’s Preview and couldn’t get the rolling I Will Be There out of my head. I loved the Celtic gospel of the title track and there was at least a hint of the wiggier stuff on Listen to the Lion. Into The Music, which I bought next, lost me a bit; too much violin, too folksy. But still, I loved Bright Side Of The Road even though its breezy tunefulness went against all principles of what I believed music was at that stage in my life.
As I got older, so my interest grew. I listened to more, bought Moondance and the live album, Too Late to Stop Now, each time finding that there was a hole in my life that Van and only Van could fill. Meanwhile the man himself continued to release music. I tried to ignore Whenever God Shines His Light, which he recorded with Cliff Richard (this before I had my Road to Damascus epiphany with Cliff’s late 70s early 80s purple patch. I won’t have anyone say a bad word about We Don’t Talk Anymore these days but that’s a whole different blog post). I gritted my teeth through Have I Told You Lately, impossible as it was to ignore through the early Noughties. I tried to understand what he saw in Tom Jones. By now Spotify allowed me to dig deep and I discovered TB Sheets, which is just about the greatest of all 9 minute plus folk rock grinds, far more emotional and gritty than anything Dylan or Neil ever recorded. To me, it placed him in a similar place to Lou Reed – a reporter from the frontline of despair.
I knew he was a curmudgeon but I loved him for it. I didn’t want to know his thoughts on ‘the big issues of our time’ because I feared we probably wouldn’t agree and that would put me in a difficult position. But Van kept his cards close to his chest and everything was fine. And then came COVID-19 and it bloody ruined everything. Van decided that he was going into full twat mode with a trio of anti-lockdown songs, then joined forces with the tirelessly twattish Eric Clapton to ram home more of the same message as the deeply embarrassingly named ‘Rebels’.
It won’t matter to him one bit and it’s a first world problem but there’s a whiff hanging around Van that I can’t shift now. It’s there when I play Moondance. It’s there when I play Jackie Wilson Says. It’s always bloody there now. He’ll say that he’s a human being and that if I don’t like his opinions then I can stuff it (or words to that effect) and he’s quite right, but from a purely selfish perspective, it’s a bloody shame.
It all comes back to the thorny issue of whether an artist’s political views make any difference to your enjoyment of their art. Can I listen to Van Morrison, or Morrissey, or Isaac Hayes and Prince (both Jehovah’s Witness’ with some nasty views on women) or even (God forbid) Crapton, knowing that their politics don’t align with mine? This isn’t the same as Gary Glitter or Michael Jackson. Obviously, it is very very difficult to hear their music without feeling disgust at their crimes. It’s not the same in my view because in Van’s case, we are talking about a political or personal choice rather than any directly inhuman behaviour.
It’s all to do with our relationship with artists we love, I guess. We can never know them, not really but we think we do because we have their music. Van in particular leaves himself open in his music; his whole approach insists that he holds nothing back and it is this more than anything that pulls us in. We like to think that the ‘real’ Van is there in the grooves of every record and, because so much of the music is joyful and beautiful then that is the man’s true soul so he can’t really be campaigning against taking measures that protect the most vulnerable can he?
But what really happens when we lose ourselves in a piece of music? What is that magic alchemy that happens when we let a song into our hearts? The language we use is interesting: we ‘let music in’; we are ‘touched’ by it; we ‘lose ourselves’ in it. The music slots into our psyche, like a missing jigsaw piece and we build an intense relationship with it; to us it is a gift from a deity, one that we utterly ‘relate’ to and, most importantly’gets’ us. It is completely understandable that we extend those intense emotions to the human being who created the music. So, when we find that they are human, that they say things we don’t like, or choose to live their lives in a way we don’t agree with, then we feel that personally and deeply. We can’t match up our feelings for the song to the person who made them.
Van would say that’s our problem, and he’s right. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t live up to the godlike expectations we have of him. It’s ours. We have created a whole meaning, personal to us, around the man and the music and projected it onto him. No one could possibly live up to it. He’s even tried to get us to understand this in his recent work: in ‘Only a Song’ he says his words are ‘only a poem that could change in the long run.’ In interviews, he talks about ‘free speech’. Anyway, he may well add, is it so surprising that a man whose music so often pursues spiritual freedom would rail against state-enforced lockdown? That a man who sees himself as a poet in the gypsy tradition would not like being forced to stay at home?
Ultimately, we have to decide whether what we now know about the person behind the music will effect the relationship we have with their music. Deep down, I’ve always known that Van Morrison was a bit of a tosser. But he would say the same about me if he knew me. And this is how the world turns. I don’t know why anyone would look to artists for political insight anyway; their lives are not like ours. They won’t get it. They can help us to make sense of the personal but they rarely get the political stuff right.
I’ll still listen to Van’s music, like I still listen to Bowie despite the Nazi salutes and flirtation with fascist imagery (and just writing that makes me question myself). But the whiff of his cranky bollocks is stronger than ever. Maybe, the less we know about Van ‘the Man’ the better…