A Sense of Wonder

Biographer David Burke attempts to define Van Morrison

There is something about Van Morrison’s inimitable music that seems to make commentators take leave of their senses. Mullingar journalist, editor and author David Burke, in A Sense Of Wonder, quotes journalist Sean O’Hagan, for example, comparing Morrison to Ian Paisley.

Then musician Michael O’Suilleabhain compares him to Francis Bacon, poet Tom Paulin to Jackson Pollock, novelist Garbhan Downey to George Gershwin, poets Gerald Dawe and Paul Durcan to Patrick Kavanagh, critic Brian Hinton to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, academic Peter Mills to CS Lewis, and film star Al Pacino, going for broke, to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, James Joyce and Sean O’Casey.

And let’s not forget jazz critic Ralph Gleason who, Burke tells us, described Morrison as ‘one of the children of the rainbow, living in the morning of the world’, while broadcaster Shay Healey delighted, mystifyingly, in the ‘neaaah’ in Morrison’s voice.

Mercifully Burke, who writes throughout this biography with commendable clarity, is more realistic about Morrison’s talents asserting bluntly that ‘it’s patently ridiculous to label Morrison a poet’ and regarding as risible Morrison’s own claim that ‘my songs are better than Yeats’.

In fact, Burke’s mission is to ascertain ‘how and to what extent… Ireland moulded [Morrison’s] artistic vision… how he then remade Ireland in his music [and] the minor role he played in bringing together a nation divided'.

Burke's exploration of these themes depends heavily on previously published books on Morrison by the likes of Clinton Heylin and Johnny Rogan (who are referenced over 65 times each), and on interviews with Morrison and others from magazines such as Mojo, Q and Uncut.

Burke’s trawling of such sources is impressively thorough, but his approach is problematical, for he has to take the tales he retells from his predecessors’ works on trust, which may not always be wise.

The story, for example, about Morrison flinging his keys in anger at Bangor artist Cecil McCartney in the Crawfordsburn Inn, in a bizarre argument about Myra Hindley, and storming out – retold from a 2006 Guardian article – feels apocryphal. (To be boringly pedantic about it, if you throw your keys away, how do you get home?)

And, for what it’s worth, I also find the tale, retold from Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel The Silence?, of Morrison and Dublin saxophonist Richie Buckley being chased from a Loyalist drinking den in the mid-1980s for ordering Guinness hard to believe.

Another problem for Burke is that inevitably any attempt to establish the Irishness or Northern Irishness of Morrison’s music is complicated by the difficulty of establishing what Irishness or Northern Irishness means. Burke contends at one point that Morrison is ‘the archetypal hard-done-by Northern Irish Protestant’. That archetype certainly exists but whether it’s fair or not is surely moot – one could, perhaps, talk of ‘the archetypal hard-done-by Northern Irish Catholic’ with as much, or as little, validity.

Some musicians, nevertheless, evidently buy into these archetypes, or, shall we say, stereotypes. Burke notes that in John Glatt’s The Chieftains: The Authorised Biography bodhran player Kevin Conneff, who recorded with Morrison, is quoted as saying, in bewilderment, that Morrison was ‘a very curious person coming obviously from a Protestant background in Belfast but singing in such a broad scope of understanding’.

Burke then quotes academic Peter Mills’ response, in his book Hymns To The Silence, that Conneff seemed to be implying that he would expect a narrowness of scope in a Belfast Protestant.

Queen’s University academic Paul Bew’s observations, in one of Burke’s original interviews, are helpful here. He argues: ‘When Van was growing up, East Belfast was distinctive politically in that it was represented by Labour in the Northern Irish Parliament, and leaned towards a progressive, secular – at least by Northern Irish standards – culture… Morrison is inexplicable unless one understands that he emerges from this culture of relative openness.’

Burke’s job is made more difficult by the fact that only one or two brief song lyrics are quoted in the book, presumably for legal or financial reasons. That is a pity because some of Morrison’s lyrics could have been argument-clinching, and also because Burke can be an astute critic.

Of the version of ‘Rave On, John Donne’ recorded on 1984’s Live At The Grand Opera House, Belfast album, for example, Burke perceptively writes that ‘we are less concerned with what Van’s singing about – empiricism, theosophy, the Industrial Revolution, Walt Whitman, Omar Khayyam, Kahlil Gibran, Mr Yeats – than we are rapt by the reverie of the sound and the prayer-like invocation of the words'.

Ultimately, A Sense of Wonder is a stimulating, highly readable book that anyone interested in Van Morrison will savour. If it feels, finally, somewhat inconclusive, but that is perhaps inevitable, for Morrison’s music at its best is ineffable.

So let’s give the final word to east Belfast’s finest living son himself who, in a 2012 interview with Radio Ulster’s John Bennett, quoted by Burke, put his inspiration in a nutshell saying simply and movingly of the east Belfast he had physically left nearly 50 years before, but had never really left: ‘My source is here.’

A Sense Of Wonder: Van Morrison’s Ireland is published by Jawbone Press.