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Van Morrison: Into the Mystique

Caught between gigs in Ireland promoting his new album, “The Healing Game,” the folk-rock icon makes clear he still has no use for the usual rock-star blarney

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The first five minutes are torture.

Van Morrison enters the Europa Hotel with a face as sullen as the Belfast sky. He takes a chair by the window. Out on Great Victoria Street, the February clouds over the capital of Northern Ireland look like they’re going to burst. You can only pray that Van the Man doesn’t do the same.

It’s happened before. He’s been known to shoot down an interview with a fusillade of grunts and mumbles. The last time he spoke to the mainstream American press, seven years ago, the stocky bard actually bolted from a Boston restaurant and fled down the street with a Rolling Stone journalist in hot pursuit.

This time he stays put, but it’s touch and go for a while. He coughs, peers out from the brim of a Calvin Klein cap, greets the first few gentle inquiries with conversation killers like ”Fine,” and ”I don’t know,” and ”I can’t remember.” The journalist, in turn, shrinks into a ball of shredded nerves.

But in fits and starts, Morrison begins to loosen up. The first topic he warms to is ”Rough God Goes Riding,” an apocalyptic R&B workout that opens his new album, The Healing Game. It contains the following lyrics: ”There’ll be no more heroes/They’ll be reduced to zeroes.” What, you ask, was he getting at?

”I don’t know, it just seemed to fit at the time,” he says, then stops. Unlike the hickory-smoked tenor you hear on record, his speaking voice carries a trace of a brogue, making a word like down sound like dine. At 51, Morrison — who grew up here in Belfast, and who’s flown in from his London home for two homecoming gigs — is physically imposing. No longer the picture of a dashing Celtic troubadour, he’s got the belly of a baker and skin the color of boiled cabbage.

”I don’t think there’s any heroes, anyway,” he suddenly decrees. ”There’s just people. I mean, you can be the world champion one day, and nobody the next day. So there’s no heroes. That’s just a myth.”

Now this, it turns out, is a subject close to Morrison’s spleen. The music world considers him a legend — the man responsible for sacred texts like Astral Weeks and Moondance, the visionary behind soul-stirring pearls like ”Brown Eyed Girl” and ”Have I Told You Lately” — but the legend himself has no time for worship.

And while we’re on the subject, he’s got no patience for people who think he’s some Celtic mystic chasing moonbeams and tilling the soil — an image that stuck in the early ’70s, back when PR snapshots featured Morrison and his wife Janet Planet frolicking in ancient forests. ”I had this album cover years ago, Tupelo Honey, where there was a horse in it,” recalls Morrison, who split with Planet in 1973. ”So the myth then was that I was living on a ranch and had horses on that ranch. I didn’t have a ranch; I didn’t have a horse. I don’t have a farm, and I never will. I mean, this is all part of the f—kin’ mythology. Let’s get on with it, you know?”

In the spirit of getting on with it, Morrison offers a self-portrait: He’s a singer and songwriter. Period. It’s a job. ”People talk about mystery,” he says. ”There’s no mystery about what I do. It’s straightforward.” Just because a guy’s written hymns like ”Into the Mystic” and ”Whenever God Shines His Light” and, um, ”The Mystery” doesn’t mean he’s a saint. ”Some of the songs might be mystic, but some of them are very nonmystical. Some of them are very brutal.”

Good point. These days, Morrison’s grappling with issues of a less-than-celestial nature: namely, the twin burdens of fame and depression. “People get depressed,” he says. “It’s a fact of life. So, write a song about that. Write a song about melancholia, which is just the blues, anyway, under a different name.”

And if anyone gets the blues, it’s Van Morrison. The weather that passes over Northern Ireland can switch from sunshine to gloom in the time it takes to cross Cyprus Avenue. So can he. One of Morrison’s former publicists remembers how he once agreed to sing on the Today show and Late Night With David Letterman, then threatened to split minutes before going on the air. “With most artists, they’ll say, ‘The sound sucks’ or ‘I’m not cutting my song down to three minutes,'” the publicist says. “But with him, it was just like ‘I don’t feel like doing this now.’ There’s no rhyme or reason to him.”

The actor Liam Neeson, who grew up 30 miles outside Belfast in the town of Ballymena, remembers hearing Morrison as a teenager and being inspired by “the fact that some local talent could produce this extraordinary sound that literally made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.” Years later, Neeson got a chance to meet Morrison and do a spoken-word cut on 1994’s No Prima Donna, an album of Van covers by various artists. He defends Morrison’s mood swings as the mark of an old-school tortured artist. “When someone is always at the cutting edge with his own music and his own inner voice, that cannot be an easy existence, because he’s continually foraging within himself, his own psyche,” Neeson says. “And I know because I’m a moody son of a bitch myself and I totally recognize it in him. He’ll never settle for second best.”

Still, like Belfast itself, where Morrison’s serene “Days Like This” recently became the anthem of the Ulster peace process, the Celtic curmudgeon seems to be going through his own personal cease-fire. The British tabloids have made hay of his romance with Michelle Rocca, 37, a former Miss Ireland who appears on the cover of 1995’s Days Like This walking a muzzled dog, but the fiercely private Morrison shields himself from the spotlight the old-fashioned way: “Basically, I just do the work,” he says.

He also takes refuge in the past. From time to time he revisits his birthplace, a brick row house at 125 Hyndford Street where the Belfast Blues Appreciation Society has secured a brass plaque in his honor. “It’s called healing through the past,” he says. “I don’t yearn for it, but you have to sort of go back to find out where you are.”

Indeed, Morrison often comes across as a man trapped in a time warp. He never listens to ’90s pop; he refuses to lip-synch in his videos. Mark Isham, a composer and trumpeter who played with Morrison on five albums in the early ’80s, says the singer feels closer to lofty poets like Blake and Wordsworth than to the sordid trappings of pop. “He loves the tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, but he also hates it,” Isham says. “He loves Jackie Wilson, who was pretty overtly sexual and rough around the edges. On the other hand, there’s an aspect of that that drives Van crazy, because it isn’t this higher-aesthetic thing.”

That schism has been a Morrison trademark since his salad days. Just as Merseybeat hit big in the ’60s, he stuck to the American jazz, blues, and gospel that had thrilled him as a kid. “When the Beatles came around, everyone wanted Beatles songs,” Morrison says. “If you had horns, it was like ‘Don’t bring the horn players up.'” Sure, he broke out of Belfast with British Invasion barn burners like “Gloria,” but his band’s name was prophetic: Them. To Morrison, rock was always Their music.

It still is. These days, he fills discs like The Healing Game with the lost echoes of ’50s doo-wop and roadhouse blues—”stuff that got buried in the Elvis Presley thing,” as he puts it. If that frustrates the fans, so be it. “You can’t please everybody,” he says. “First, you have to please yourself, and then it might be interesting for other people. But if it’s not interesting for you, then you’re f—ed. You’ve got nowhere to go.”

Even though Morrison’s albums routinely go gold, he steers clear of the rigmarole—tour for months, go unplugged, butter up the press—that can goose sales into the stratosphere. If singing is just a job, he seems to resent it as much as your average desk jockey. Of course, that didn’t stop Shana, his 25-year-old daughter, from applying for the same line of work (she and Dad have recorded duets on Days Like This and A Night in San Francisco). “I never thought she’d become a singer,” Morrison says. “If it had been up to me, I would’ve advised her not to. I just think it’s a very hard way to go in life.”

In the bar at the Europa Hotel, Georgie Fame grabs the journalist’s pint of Guinness, takes a chug, and offers his own view of Van. “He communicates,” says Fame, 53, Morrison’s organ player and longtime crony. “He communicates all the f—in’ time. It’s people like you got the wrong idea about him. He’s a wonderful Irish poet and a great musician. What else do you want?”

Well, plenty. On stage, Morrison has been known to sneer at the audience, stumble through a lackluster set, walk out. Anything can set him off—a bum solo, a heckler. He’s still steamed about the Haight-Ashbury loafers who packed a show at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium way back in the ’70s. “I looked out, and there’s all these hippies down there,” Morrison sniffs. “And I thought, ‘This is not what it’s about at all.’ I cut the set short. I just didn’t want to be part of all that hippie crap.”

There are times, though, when all of that malt vinegar turns to tupelo honey. Tonight in Belfast, it happens. Hours after the interview, Van the grumpy gnome is gone, replaced by Van the fire-breathing soul dragon. He drives his 11-piece band through a set so blustery and ecstatic it sends shivers up the spine. He roars through oldies like “Into the Mystic” and “Tupelo Honey”—songs he usually shuns. He takes the brand-new “Burning Ground” to a sweltering crescendo, leaping in place, hurling the microphone stand to the floor, and finally strutting backstage while a band member drapes a towel over his back, a la James Brown.

In other words, the last five minutes are heaven.

“You never know how it’s gonna work out,” Fame laughs. “But when he turns it on, he turns it on so heavy.”