Van Morrison: Dark Knight Of The Soul
Van Morrison has lived an extraordinary life. Here, Van The Man looks back on it all with typical candour...
T￼he Portobello Hotel, the venue chosen by Van Morrison to tell his story of the blues on a clear, late September afternoon, lies a short walk from Notting Hill Gate. A lot has changed in this West London neighbourhood since Morrison first came to the area from his native Belfast in the mid-60s.
Much has changed for Sir George Ivan Morrison too – the knighthood bestowed in this year’s honours list merely the latest of several belated symbols of prestige. An honorary doctorate, Grammy and Songwriter awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, a place on Obama’s playlist, a picture with Lady Gaga – all bear witness to a pre-eminent, world-shaking talent bred in the humble backstreets of post- war, working class east Belfast.
And yet, regardless of the wealth and material rewards his talent, tenacity and hard work have brought him, Morrison has remained forever bound to his early roots, both in song and in actuality. Just like the blues that first brought him there, Notting Hill and its surrounding area have been recurring staging posts in Morrison’s musical journey.
First mentioned in Them’s Friday’s Child and then in the torrid, end-of-his-tether, Bert Berns-produced solo recording He Ain’t Give You None, ‘The Gate’ and nearby Ladbroke Grove featured alongside his home city in the shifting cinematic scenarios of transitional, landmark 1968 album Astral Weeks. That album may have signalled a farewell to the haunts of youth but it seems that Morrison will never be done revisiting them.
After spending most of the 70s forging his reputation in the States, he could often be seen in the Notting Hill Gate area when he relocated to live in England and Ireland in the 80s. Often to be seen in local coffee shops, the wanderer returned to his home from home. In an onstage improvisation of the period he sang of ‘sitting down in the mystic church, in the Notting Hill Gate’. He last performed his latter-day revamp of Astral Weeks live in its entirety at the nearby Albert Hall in April 2009. That evening Morrison took some time to emphasise the connection between the album and his current location. Setting up the record’s senses-stalling blues tragedy Madame George, he offered a few words of explanation to the audience by way of introduction.
“The next song takes place in several locations, one of them near here. The protagonist...” As he spoke, an appreciative gathering hubbub from the crowd threatened to drown out his voice. So he raised it. “The protagonist,” he continued, “is given something to smoke – that contains opium. This explains what happens later.”
Thus Madame George was pulled back from the gentrified, £100-a-ticket setting, the polite murmur and the chatter, and restored to its rightful, transcendent, opiated, vernacular home on high.
In the years before and since, Morrison’s recordings and live performances have offered many examples of such a steadfast, determined attitude that has kept him true to his calling. Through Belfast and Boston, from Woodstock to San Francisco, through the £250 hotel gigs with dinner and the days of wine and roses.
Always taking time to pay tribute to his sources, Morrison has simultaneously celebrated and, through his own compositional and improvisational genius, extended the blues form. His endlessly autobiographical lyrics contain the names of early but eternal musical inspirations. Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Ray Charles, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Gene Chandler, Mahalia Jackson and more ring out, touchstones and talismans on a tireless journey.
In his time Morrison has been a disciple and pilgrim, trailblazing originator and wandering exile – not just from his homeland but also from the machinations of fame, the record industry, even the material world itself.
Now, in his eighth decade, he stands as a blues champion and ambassador, a living repository of knowledge about the music he has spent a lifetime learning and listening to, often playing with the very musicians (Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, Lonnie Donegan, BB King, Ray Charles) that inspired him in the first place. However, as numerous of his songs have made clear, following and staying true to the blues has never been an easy path.