I joined the Van Morrison Appreciation Society late. I knew of him from the Belfast-based band Them and liked his raucous, blues-shouter vocals on tracks such as Baby Please Don’t Go and Gloria. But, following the group's break-up, I didn’t really follow his solo career and my exposure to his music over the years came chiefly via the various singles given radio airplay.
Then about a decade ago I read a magazine article, a ‘what to buy’ review of his musical output, and began to gather some of the recommendations. On playing the CDs I was hearing many songs for the first time and began to appreciate why Van the Man had developed such a dedicated following. I was getting hooked – and wondering how Astral Weeks et al had passed me by.
I came to realise how often Morrison has drawn on his Belfast, Ulster and wider Irish roots for his lyrical meditations, and was struck in particular by one track on Avalon Sunset. Coney Island is a short spoken-word piece with musical backing and recalls a boyhood day trip by car, apparently with his mother, to the eponymous seaside area on the County Down coast south of his native Belfast – ‘Out all day bird-watching and the craic was good’.
Various stopping points are name-checked where photographs are taken, Sunday papers picked up and mussels and potted herrings are bought ‘…in case [they] get famished before dinner’.
The music starts with soft cymbal swells and string sweeps, and then steadily moves back and forth between the major chords G and F with each taking a bar in turn. The lush arrangement is punctuated with synth, harp and guitar and the whole piece is carried along by rolling phrases from the strings.
For me it evokes perfectly images of the ‘autumn sunshine, magnificent and all shining through’ that Morrison holds dear, as well as the hills of the Down countryside they’re passing through. As the music slows to a halt he ends the song with a thought we’ve probably all had at one time or another. Heading to Coney Island in the sunshine he muses: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it could be like this all the time.’
Coney Island may not be one of The Man’s most substantial offerings but in my introduction to his wider catalogue it genuinely appealed. Not only did it sound magical, but it showed a different Van Morrison than the one reports have often portrayed – that of him being difficult and curmudgeonly.
Elsewhere on Avalon Sunset Morrison addresses a problem with writer’s block and sings the lines: ‘I’d love to write another song but nothing seems to come’ and ‘I’d love to write another song to get some peace of mind’.
For Coney Island it looks as if he sought inspiration by going back to a time when the simple things of life were important, and this rewarding journey through his memory banks produced a track of atmosphere and no little charm.
Twenty-five plus years after Avalon Sunset and Coney Island, Morrison at 71 is still going strong. We saw him recently on a UK tour to promote his latest CD Keep Me Singing. Backed by an excellent, tight band, he sang or blew saxophone for 90 minutes with admirable lung power. Mind you, he did conserve breath by not saying anything at all to the audience! But that’s Van.
As well as selections from his new work he included old favourites such as Moondance, In the Garden and Jackie Wilson Said. Some were given revamped arrangements but not a la Bob Dylan where you have to play a game of guess the song. With his distinctive voice, well-crafted songs and fine all-round musicality the evening was a treat. So, yes, keep yourself singing, Van – the craic was good.