"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Van The Youth

David Blake Knox

In Another World: Van Morrison & Belfast, by Gerald Dawe, Merrion Press, 135 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1785371462

At the last count, there were more than twenty published biographies of Van Morrison. Some of these make what might seem like extravagant claims on his behalf. According to one writer, “long before there was a peace process in Ireland”, Van Morrison “did his bit to unite a nation divided”. According to another, Morrison’s life can be viewed as “an extended metaphor of the psychological and political “No Surrender” siege mentality of Unionist Ulster”. According to yet another, his music is “primal but sophisticated”, “accessible but inscrutable”, “steady but wildly unpredictable”.

The enigmatic character of much of Morrison’s work, and his reluctance to provide a convincing ‑ or even a consistent ‑ explanation of his lyrics may help to explain why he has attracted the attention of so many critics and commentators. Now Gerald Dawe has added to the number of studies of Morrison, and he would seem to be ideally suited to the job. Not only did he grow up close to where Morrison spent his childhood, he also attended the same secondary school in East Belfast. What is more, as a poet and academic, Dawe brings a new and valuable perspective to our understanding of Morrison’s substantial body of work.

The sub-title of In Another World is Van Morrison & Belfast, and much of Dawe’s short book is focused on Belfast in the critical decades between the end of the Second World War and the start of the most recent Troubles. From an early stage in his career, Morrison has also written about the Belfast of that period. Over the course of almost forty albums, he has returned repeatedly to the scenes of his childhood and youth: the back streets, shops, parks, avenues and rivers from which he seems always to have been “walking away”.

At times Morrison’s impulse to name locations in Belfast can seem almost Joycean in its compass, and, like Joyce, he seldom ventures outside the city borders. His song “On Hyndford Street”, for example, includes references to the exclusive neighbourhood of Cherryvalley; the river that is known locally as the Beechie; the Castlereagh hills which overlook the east of the city; the gardens in affluent Cyprus Avenue; the electricity pylons in The Hollow, near to Conn O’Neill’s bridge; the bus to Holywood on the North Down coast; Fusco’s Italian ice-cream shop on the Woodstock Road; the North Bridge Road, where a railway used to run; Abetta Parade, the street next to Morrison’s home; Orangefield, where he went to school; St. Donard’s Church of Ireland on the Beersbridge Road, where his parents were married; and “Mrs Kelly’s lamp”, around which he played as a child.

Morrison was born just a few weeks before the Second World War ended in Europe. The war years had been a time of extraordinary social, economic and cultural change in Northern Ireland. Local businesses had boomed and unemployment had fallen. Cinemas and pubs were allowed to open on the Sabbath and baseball was played in Windsor Park, the home of the Linfield soccer team. Tens of thousands of US servicemen had been stationed in Northern Ireland during the war. Many of these GIs were black soldiers, and they brought with them the jazz and blues of Chicago, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. After the war, the sanctity of the Sabbath was soon restored and baseball no longer played in Windsor Park. But, perhaps unexpectedly, the music from black America had taken root, and it flourished in Belfast.

The decades that followed the war were also ones of modest economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, and the bitter sectarian conflict that had marked the birth of the state seemed on its way to becoming a distant memory. For some – mainly Protestants ‑ the Ulster of the 1950s and early 60s can assume the innocence and charm of a lost Eden. In the words of Gerald Dawe, this was a time when Belfast was “full of music” – before it fell into “a kind of fragmented darkness”. These were also the formative years for Van Morrison as a creative artist.

He first gained recognition with a band called Them. From the beginning, this band was viewed as closer to the Rolling Stones than the Beatles: they were, in Morrison’s words, “wild, sweaty, crude (and) ugly”. But while Mick Jagger merely struck a pose of youthful insolence and dissent, Morrison came across as someone who did not need to affect an intractable and defiant character. Unlike some other performers, he clearly felt there was no need to disguise his Ulster accent or apologise for his working class roots. As Dawe observes, Them’s “music, dress and mannerisms were guaranteed to satisfy a desire for rebellious self-assertion”. According to Dawe, it followed that fans of the band also “carried the aura” of being “anti-Establishment”.

More than fifty years have now passed since that April day in 1964 when Morrison and the rest of Them walked into Decca's studios in West Hampstead, London, to record Gloria”. The song had been written by Morrison the previous year, when he was playing sax with an Irish showband called the Monarchs, and it can justly claim to be Ireland’s first genuine rhythm and blues record. Indeed, since its release in 1964, Morrison’s song has been regularly selected as a seminal track in the history of rock music around the world.

“Gloria” was written when Morrison was just eighteen, and its musical structure may seem fairly basic. This proto-punk anthem consists of just three chords, which are played in the same sequence throughout the song. However, this apparent simplicity is deceptive: the high degree of repetition is one of “Gloria’s” crucial strengths, helping to generate an unstoppable build-up of energy and excitement. The words are not sung, but half-spoken – or rather growled out by Morrison. There are clear similarities in his gruff vocal style to the “talking blues” of John Lee Hooker. Indeed Morrison's version of “Baby, Please Don't Go” - the original A side of this single – has much in common with Hooker's 1949 recording of that song, although Morrison’s version is rather more up-tempo.

Above all, Morrison brings his own distinctive voice to “Gloria”, and his delivery is astonishingly assured for a teenager. The vocal is direct, demanding and insistent. But somehow Morrison’s performance also manages to come across as unguarded, open and romantic. Perhaps, it is this unusual combination of musical simplicity and emotional intensity that has helped to make the song irresistible to young garage bands all over the world. 

Even though Morrison wrote “Gloria” when he was still in his teens, the track reveals some of the themes and influences that have informed the hundreds of songs that he has written since then. At that time there was, in Dawe’s words, a “raw, almost belligerent energy” in his voice. However, his vocal technique involves a kind of verbal incoherence – at times, close to scat singing ‑ that is often charged with emotion and seems utterly authentic. This is, perhaps, best described in his own words as the “inarticulate speech of the heart”. Key words and phrases are often repeated in this song, and in his subsequent compositions. They are played around with, and mined to give up new meanings – but there is also something elusive in his lyrics, and they usually resist a single defining interpretation. His song “No Religion”, for example, has been construed both as a powerful defence and an equally powerful critique of Christianity.

The lyrics of “Gloria may seem plain and unpretentious, but Morrison infuses them with a palpable sense of physical desire. In fact, when the single was first released in the USA, it was not played on radio stations in the Southern states because it was considered too sexually suggestive. The song was eventually covered by an American band called The Shadows of Knight. It went straight into the US Top Ten – but only after the lyrics had been changed: the original line “she comes in my room”, for example, had been altered to “she hears me calling”. 

When Them split up, following a short tour of the USA, Morrison returned to Northern Ireland, and it seems that this period – though brief – also had an influence on his subsequent development as a recording artist. While in Belfast he began to associate with a different and a somewhat more bohemian set: jazz fans, college students, young artists and writers: nowadays, they might be described as “hipsters”. I knew some of these people slightly – including a young woman of whom Morrison was allegedly enamoured ‑ and I thought of them as ultra-cool and super-sophisticated. One of their haunts was a rented house in Fitzroy Avenue in the university quarter of South Belfast – equally distant (in more ways than one) from up-market Malone Road and the working class district of Sandy Row. The house had become a kind of haven for British bands when they visited the city, and it would later be name-checked by Morrison in one of his most famous lyrics.

Morrison was persuaded to return to the USA by the producer Bert Berns, who had written Them’s 1965 hit “Here Comes the Night”. In 1967, Morrison recorded a number of songs for Berns’s Bang Records – including “Brown Eyed Girl”, which would become a major hit, and is still frequently played by radio DJs on both sides of the Atlantic. This was the period when, according to Dawe, Morrison’s Belfast fans had “lost sight of him”. That coincided with a dispute between Bang Records and Morrison which left him unable to record any new material until late in 1968.

Instead, he found work playing in clubs in and around Boston. He hooked up with a jazz bassist and a flautist, and began to develop a looser, more reflective style of performance. A record producer called Lewis Merenstein went to see him play, believing that Morrison would perform similar material to “Brown Eyed Girl” and other songs he had released with Bert Berns. Instead, he found “another person with the same voice”. Merenstein left the gig determined that he would produce an album with Morrison.

By September of that year, Morrison’s contractual dispute with Bang Records had been resolved, and he was free to work with Merenstein and to record his most important solo album to date, Astral Weeks. The album was recorded in New York in three sessions, and Merenstein had recruited some exceptional talent as the backing musicians. They included Jay Berliner, a classical guitarist who had worked with Charlie Mingus, and Connie Kay, a drummer with the Modern Jazz Quartet. A key role was taken by another jazz veteran, Richard Davis, a highly inventive player who had recorded with Miles Davis: he laid down the bass lines, and led the other musicians on every track.

It seems that he was somewhat bemused by Morrison’s behaviour during the recording sessions. According to Davis, Morrison remained “remote”, and hardly ever spoke to the other musicians. None of the session musicians had ever played with each other before, but, according to Morrison, there was no need for any dialogue: “those type of guys play what you’re gonna do before you do it. They (were) that good.” The exceptional degree of freedom which Morrison and Merenstein allowed these musicians contributed greatly to the production of an album that combined a sense of creative spontaneity with artistic confidence and composure.

None of the songs that had been recorded on the second session made the final cut. This winnowing of material helped to ensure that there is an overall coherence to the eight songs that do appear on the album. That may explain, in turn, why Dawe regards Astral Weeks as “one continuous mood poem”. However, the album did not prove a commercial or a critical hit when it was first released. Most of the reviews in the music press were negative, and the record did not sell well. The respected editor of one magazine singled out the track called “Madame George” for particular censure, claiming that it was “plagued by nonsensical lyrics and incoherent singing from Morrison”.

In retrospect, the striking originality of the album seems all too obvious. Astral Weeks shows the influence of several different musical genres – jazz, blues, soul, folk and rock – and yet it belongs to none of these. Even though the session musicians were of the first rank, there are no virtuoso solos from any of them. Instead, their playing is designed simply to support Morrison’s lead vocal, allowing the sweetness of the flute and soprano saxophone to counterpoint and soothe the roughness of his voice. And, in the words of one critic, it is Morrison’s voice that reveals itself as “the most extraordinary instrument” on Astral Weeks. The depth and complexity of the emotion that he is able to convey through his vocal range is quite remarkable, and so is the degree of unspoken self-belief that he was able to bring to this album.

Forty years after the release of Morrison’s album, Lewis Merenstein described the impact of his initial trip to Boston to hear him sing. “The first tune he played was Astral Weeks,” Merenstein recalled, “Thirty seconds into it, my whole being was vibrating. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.” Merenstein was already a well-established and highly regarded music producer when he recorded Astral Weeks. In the decades that followed he went on to produce acclaimed albums for, among many others, Cass Elliot, Curtis Mayfield and Phyllis Hyman. However, he regarded Morrison’s album as the crowning achievement of his career, and, when he died in 2016, the obituary headline in Rolling Stone read: “Lewis Merenstein – the producer of Astral Weeks ‑ is Dead”.

If there is one stand-out track on this album, then, for me, it has to be “Madame George”, laid down on the evening of the first session. I first heard this song one afternoon in The Gramophone Shop in the centre of Belfast. I had been killing time, flicking through album covers, and was about to leave when the record began to play, and I stayed to listen. Ten minutes later, I asked if it could be played again.

Morrison had already recorded an unreleased version of Madame George with Bert Berns the previous year. While the lyrics of the two tracks are very similar, the moods they convey are radically different. In the first version, the tempo is a good deal faster, and the atmosphere is one of a boozy celebration. Berns had even added crowd noises of shouting and cheering to give the recording the feel of an unruly party. 

In the second version, the mood has become much more contemplative and nostalgic. As in the case of Gloria, Morrison’s vocal works with just three chords that are played in a recurring sequence on his acoustic guitar. But now the arrangement of the song is much more sophisticated than on “Gloria”. At times the only accompaniment seems to be Davis’s pulsating bass line: at other times, a host of strings arrive to swirl around Morrison’s voice before they drift away again.

There is not a conventional narrative in “Madame George”, but it still manages to tell its own story. Morrison’s lyrics may be fragmentary, and somewhat inchoate – rather like a half-remembered dream – but he creates images that are both vivid and tender: snapshots that are full of meaning, and remind me a little of a series of Joycean “epiphanies”. Overall, there is a sense of something precious that has been forfeited and can never be recovered. 

Dawe describes the song as “a haunting portrait of belonging and leaving”. The celebrated rock journalist Lester Bangs reckoned that “Madame George” was “one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made”. For me, the principal emotion conveyed by Morrison in this song is one of loss. There is, it seems, no way to regain the fleeting state of innocence that his lyrics conjure up. It is irretrievable because, in the words of another of Morrison’s lyrics, the momentum of life means that it will always prove to be “too late to stop now”. But there is a counter-current of emotion in this album that is also characteristic of Morrison’s work: the possibility of being “born again”, and moving from “the dark end of the street” to the “bright side of the road”.

For Dawe, this album represents “a huge poetic shift away from the raucous energies of Them”. He believes that the extent of the ways in which Morrison had moved “into another mode, another mood” was shocking to some of his fans in Belfast and that it took them time to adjust to the sheer scale of this development. However, he also acknowledges that the album was scarcely noticed in Belfast when it was first released. By that stage, there were other issues on the minds of the people of Northern Ireland. It was some years later, according to Dawe, before the full significance of Morrison’s album was properly recognised and appreciated in his home town.

That is because Astral Weeks is not only also a farewell to Morrison’s youth: for many it has also become a farewell to an era in the history of Northern Ireland. Morrison began recording the album on September 25th. 1968. The following week, a protest march took place in Derry. It had been organised by the local Housing Action Committee, and when their plans for the march were announced, the Apprentice Boys of Derry declared that they would hold a counter-demonstration on the same day.

Both parades were banned by the Stormont government, but the Housing Committee decided to go ahead and about 400 people showed up for their demonstration. The RUC blocked the route they had intended to take, and then baton-charged the protesters when they refused to disperse. Gay O’Brien, a news cameraman from RTÉ, was present, and the footage he shot that day of police violence was screened around the world. October 5th, 1968, is often regarded as the start of the recent Troubles, and it helped to ensure that Morrison’s album would in time acquire a further and continuing resonance. It the light of all the horrors that ensued, the album has come to represent what Dawe aptly describes as “the calm before the storm”.

Reading Dawe’s evocative descriptions of Belfast in the 1960s, it is hard to resist the temptation to imagine what might have been: if only the Unionist leadership had been more politically astute and accommodating; if only British governments had accepted their responsibilities at an earlier stage; if only the IRA had not embarked on a campaign of sectarian terror. We can try to imagine what might have happened if the whole dreadful trauma of the Troubles had somehow been avoided: a parallel universe where Ian Paisley confined himself to saving souls; where Gerry Adams continued to pull pints in the Duke of York’s; and where young men from Hyndford Street could still drink cider in the Spanish Rooms off the Falls Road. In this context, it seems fitting that it was also one of Van Morrison’s songs, Days Like This”, which eventually became an unofficial anthem for the Northern Irish peace movement of the 1990s.

In Another World is a slim volume, and it does not attempt to offer a detailed biography of Van Morrison or a comprehensive analysis of his complete work. There is also no discussion of some of the more controversial aspects of his private, or his professional life. Indeed, in some respects, the book is almost as much about Dawe’s experience of growing up in Belfast as it is about Morrison’s. According to Dawe, the book has been developed from existing material about Van Morrison that he has published since the early 1990s. That may explain why, at times, it feels like a compilation of different articles, including the transcript of a lengthy interview that the author conducted with Morrison in 1995, rather than an entirely original and unified book.

This may also explain why it contains a fair amount of repetition, and we are given, more or less, the same information about certain events at different points in the text. I do not agree with all of Dawe’s conclusions: I think, for example, that his attempts to connect Morrison’s lyrics with the poetry of WB Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh are less than convincing. Nonetheless, his book does provide many telling insights into both the work of Van Morrison and the social history of Belfast. The integrity of Dawe’s passion for Morrison’s work is indisputable, and his feelings for his native city seem equally intense – if somewhat more ambivalent.

1/2/2018

David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His latest book The Curious History of Irish Dogs was published this year by New Island Books.

Categories