NORTHERN LIGHTS: Van Morrison

Garbhan Downey doesn’t believe Van Morrison needs to explain himself in his new film

I’ve been a Morrison fan since the day and hour I first heard Moondance as a child back in the 1970s. And nothing I’ve ever read about the man has ever annoyed or worried me, as it can’t impact on the fact that he’s the greatest white R&B singer since Presley, and a better songwriter to boot.

At different stages, I started reading two different biographies of Morrison, but in both cases I got bored rigid by the Charlie Brown psychoanalysis, threw them away and stuck on the records again. Truth is, I’m much less interested in the man than in the music. And if I’ve been listening to him properly these last 30 years, I think that’s the way he prefers it too.

All of which is why it’s a bit unsettling to read that Morrison plans to release an autobiographical film next year. Not that it won’t be first-class – any project Morrison involves himself will have degrees of excellence unattainable by any other Irish artist. They only have to include one of his songs.

The problem lies in the fact that whenever the singer attempts to explain himself in a non-musical manner, every ten-dollar critic from here to Venice Beach immediately opens their well-thumbed Thesaurus of Nasty Little Digs at 'whinger'.

They know they can’t attack the music – because let’s face it there are maybe two people alive, whose opinion you value, who are fit to pass comment on his music. (And Bob Dylan is in and out these days.) So, instead they have a rattle at the persona. And Morrison, for all his lyrical brilliance and melodic mastery, takes that sort of stuff to heart. And the cycle repeats itself.

I really hope I’m wrong. Morrison has an importance in my life unrivalled by any musician or, I’ll admit, author. I own just about everything he has ever released. I’ve seen him in concert countless times. And I’ve already picked out three of his songs I want used in the film version of my latest novel. ('Take It Where You Find It' from Wavelength even gets a name-check in War of the Blue Roses, if you’re wondering.) For most of my adulthood, he has been the wise old owl whispering in my ear not to sweat the small stuff. To keep my sense of wonder. To lift my fiery vision bright. Reminding me to feel the silence.

I’m actually listening to him now as I write this piece.

Morrison’s importance to the north as a whole should never be underestimated, either. He created a mystique about Belfast in a way that only the Beatles ever evoked about Liverpool. He defined the city and single-handedly gave it a culture in a way that Joyce did for Dublin.

Before Morrison, Belfast was an uninteresting, industrial cesspool. A damp and dour factory town, notable only for building the world’s biggest non-floating boat and spawning the most nasally-aggressive accent in Christendom. (What do you mean no-one’s ever said that before?) And that’s before you mention the war.

Morrison, however, took us on walks down Cyprus Avenue, to meet his lady with rainbow ribbons in her hair; over to Orangefield, where on a golden, autumn day, the sun shone so bright, it lit up all our lives; and then back home to Hyndford Street, feeling wondrous, where it’s always being now. We shared the craic of cleaning windows and eating Paris buns, the novelty of listening to Radio Luxembourg and Athlone, and the thrill of chasing brown-eyed girls behind the stadium.

And Belfast slowly became a magical place. A place of fun and joy. Even for hardened non-believers, like us Derry men.

We, in Derry of course, have a long and important culture (as, I’ll grant you, do Armagh and Downpatrick). We are also inordinately proud of our artists, and favourite sons and daughters. And we’ve never really envied anything you’ve had in Belfast as we invariably had something similar, and better, before you (c.f. the age-old Undertones-SLF argument). But I have to admit Van Morrison is the one thing that you can lay claim to that we are truly jealous of.

A few weeks ago, I was at a pool in a remote village in Lazio, when my six-year-old asked me did I know any songs about diving into the water. A line from Morrison’s 'And It Stoned Me' came into my head, so I sang it for her: 'We looked at the swim, and we jumped right in, not to mention fishing poles...'

An Austrian from the far side of the pool grinned over at me, and without missing a beat, continued: 'Oh the water, oh the water, let it run all over me...'

You’ll not get that with Louis MacNeice.

Stuff the film, Van. You don’t need it. If I were mayor of Belfast, I’d be erecting statues to you on every street-corner.


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