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Van Morrison: Fifty years a fan – and it's too late to stop now

Rob Steen

It’s far too bloody late to stop now. For yours truly, never mind Van the Man. Sorry, Sir Van the Man.

At 78, George Ivan Morrison still can’t stop recording (11 albums over the past eight years compared with nine in his 1970s heyday). Or gigging (kicking off in Belfast on March 31, then on to Cork, Marlow and Utrecht). Or blabbing on about facemasks. And I still can’t stop massaging my spirits listening to someone who has made millions of hearts sing while striking even his most ardent adorers as being as happy as a newly widowed basset hound.

How do you remember the milestones of your life? My crutches are music and sport, cultural touchstones that instantly evoke births and deaths, red-letter days or French- letter nights, indelible and unfailing reminders of time, place and mood. And nobody has ever captured the past and thrown away the key quite like His Vanness.

Which I suppose is why, 50 years after our unrequited love affair began, my lone dip into the polluted waters of memorabilia remains a signed Astral Weeks, secured from the grimly unsmiling author in the Capital Radio car park in 1977 after an interview with that sweetie Nicky Horne, an exchange most kindly described as unlistenable. The spot Morrison occupies in my affections is still softer than mush.

We’d first bumped into each other when he was fronting Them on Ready Steady Go! – though I’d been convinced, on first hearing Gloria, that I was listening to Eric Burdon. Nevertheless, it took nearly 10 years for that vague familiarity to breed a hopeless lifelong crush, albeit occasionally disloyal (my idols weren’t supposed to be L Ron Hubbard fanboys).

Sporting and musical crutches were both present for my conversion on May 4, 1974, FA Cup final day, a coincidence that helped heaps. Back then Cup Final Grandstand was the only guaranteed chance every year to watch club footie without queueing to buy a ticket and risking having venom spat at you by opposing supporters, being bopped by coppers or robbed of a key organ – i.e. unmissable.

Thanks primarily to Let It Rock, a scandalously shortlived magazine, and the near-prohibitive three-quid-plus a 16-year-old paper rounder had to stump up for an album, I’d read way more about Van than I’d heard. Charlie Gillett and other trustworthies claimed he could turn a telephone book into a sonnet, but the UK airwaves were no place for proof. I couldn’t recall him appearing on a Radio 1 playlist, let alone Top Of The Pops; Brown Eyed Girl, a US Top Tenner in 1967, didn’t breach the Limey chart until 2013 (peaking at 60). No FM, no comment.

Hard evidence for that up-there-with-The Bobster repute? A 1973 Old Grey Whistle Test special from The Rainbow in London – the Beeb’s first live televised rock concert would have been a must-see had the attraction been anyone bar a Bay City Roller or a Womble. And even though all that howling and yowling and growling and behind-the-back conducting and mikestand-jerking tattooed themselves on my hard drive, I still couldn’t make the leap to buyer. I was too busy getting progged.

No one I knew owned a Van but my musical jigsaw was still missing a vital piece. Thus it was that, sound unheard, I strolled down the high street that Saturday morning, past the former forge where a certain George Frideric Handel found inspiration for The Harmonious Blacksmith, marched into Stephen Siger Records and demanded Moondance. Why not the critically designated starting place, Astral Weeks? Reviews suggested this was more accessible, more cheery, more summery.

I was off to my best mate Andy’s house for a doubleheader: Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool v ‘Supermac’ McDonald’s Newcastle and O-level revision (classmates didn’t call us The Swot Gang for nothing). Hole met spindle sometime between The Road To Wembley and Cup Final It’s A Knockout. We weren’t so much blown away by a full-force gale as a hurricane of warm love.

Liverpool won 3-0, giving the national pastime’s most zealous disciple, Bill Shankly, a fitting last hurrah, but that was nothing on Jack Schroer’s saxy volley on the title track or Jef Labes’ twinkle-fingered harpsichording on Everyone, let alone the unique way that mini-dumptruck upfront turned repetition into another instrument, stretching, texturing and deepening every vowel and consonant.

As impossible to describe adequately as it was to forget, the gateway drug was that sometimes wordless, sometimes scatty, AI-challenging voice, nourished by the blues-jazz-and-folk-flavoured stew its owner had been weaned on. Yet the trip had so many components: John Platania’s precise, emotional guitarwork; John Klingberg’s stately, nimble bass; Gary Mallaber’s cool brushes and deft sticks; Collin Tilton’s cumulus-piercing flute; Labes’ ivory-tickling, smoother than creamed silk; Schroer’s toots and wails, passport to The Boss, Graham Parker and Southside Johnny. From the wistful It Stoned Me to the effervescent Glad Tidings, everything chimed and rhymed, sublimely. As Ian Drury would have put it, what upfulness.

Here was 3D music; the soundtrack to a movie celebrating the mystical power of glistening fields, gentle rivers and simpler times, a time before the world was remade. I hadn’t the foggiest about the context: having left Cyprus Avenue, Sandy Row and Hyndford Street behind just as The Troubles (a topic he would sagely skirt) were brewing, Van had found himself tangling with mobsters, Bert Berns (ace songwriter turned producer and label owner who penned Twist And Shout, Hang On Sloopy and Here Comes The Night) and US immigration. In order to win, you must be prepared to lose sometime, as my favourite Morrisonian couplet has it, and leave one or two cards showing. Time for new dawns, new days, new ways.

So enrapturing and transporting were those early tastes of Moondance, I couldn’t just smell the sea and feel the sky; I could picture those dark clouds rolling away and Emma Rose playin’ with the radio and Van letting his soul and spirit fly and rockin’ his lover’s gypsy soul and hearing her heartbeat from a thousand miles away. Ah, Caravan. No wonder Papa Coppola, Marty Scorsese and Wes Anderson would embed his creations in their canon. Or that an unplugged live version of Sweet Thing from 1971 would inspire and form the emotional bedrock of a movie of the same name (not to mention being the go-to rendition whenever my cheeks fancy a shower).

Turn it up? Even a dial going past 11 couldn’t make it loud enough. It’s still the most optimistic and romantic album these ears have ever encountered. Hell, Van even supplied the ultimate minimalist review for all those lazy typewriter-pounders he would spend too much of his life obsessing about: fantabulous. It was a baptism by county fair, fishing rod, foghorn whistle, an idyll darkened only when Ray Charles is shot down (but gets straight back up again) in These Dreams Of You. Full immersion ensued with a religious zeal I have never relived.

Within a month Astral Weeks was jostling for a spin on my mono record player. It was as if the two-part, four-hour version of Sleeper Woody Allen had originally devised had come to fruition. Those recordings felt brotherly, a cleansing, joyful pick-me-up to follow Neil Young’s down-in-the-ditch twins, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night.

The hat-trick was completed by It’s Too Late To Stop Now, an inspired fusion of the string-driven and the horn-drenched, r’n’b covers, Them chestnuts and fan favourites, recorded with Schroer, Platania, Labes and the rest of the matchless Caledonia Soul Orchestra at The Rainbow, The Troubadour in Los Angeles and in Santa Monica, had displaced The Allman Brothers’ Live At The Fillmore East as my most-spun live album, a throne it has never shown the slightest inclination to abdicate. While its closing refrain supplied the album title, Cyprus Avenue was the lone Astral Weeks extract on the original release (Volumes II-IV remedied that), which is all you ever needed to know about the difficulties of recapturing lightning or time in a bottle.

October, amazingly, brought a fourth wicket in consecutive deliveries in the shape of the immaculate Celtic soul of Veedon Fleece, the misty-wet fruits of a brief holiday tramping those peaty shamrock roots. By Christmas I was rotating the other five solo albums and taking a fierce pride in being, apparently, the only Vanboy who didn’t think Hardnose The Highway was a stuffing-free turkey. My first infatuation – and it didn’t involve a kiss.

Barely a decade after falling hook, line and sinker for that (mostly) joyous sound, Van had piled up more than enough credit to last a lifetime. Good thing too. Much as I’m a sucker for the neckhair-tuggers (Before The World Was Made, Someone Like You, Have I Told You Lately?), the sole post-70s album I’ve forged a lasting relationship with is Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart, a visionary folk-jazz-prog epic that marked Van’s creative peak but sank like a stoned stone 41 years ago. Carrying on regardless, I dutifully bought each fresh release for another two decades, but as productivity soared, the muse grew ever more nostalgic for the days before rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet there’s still no human I listen to more, or rave on about more to my daughters, or their mother. I seriously doubt there are any albums I’ve replayed more than Astral Weeks, Moondance, It’s Too Late and Hardnose... or songs I can recite more readily than Autumn Song, Into The Mystic, Ballerina or St Dominic’s Preview. Regrettably, that grudgingly signed Astral Weeks has vanished (a long story). The Vannest playlist, nonetheless, exceeds 20 hours while the bootleg pile has surpassed 50: both easily house records.

It ain’t why. It just is.


1 Comment

S Rice
S Rice
Apr 23

Van IS the man! Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and Hymns to the Silence are FANTASTIC!! I have everything he's done.

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