Van Morrison: the pain and joy of being a young fan of Belfast singer
Morrison releases his 36th studio album, Keep Me Singing, next month
Van Morrison's Keep Me Singing will be released next month – it is his 36th studio album, joining a body of work that is rivalled in quantity, quality and diversity perhaps only by Bob Dylan.
Over the past decade, the prolific Van the Man, now a knighted Sir Morrison, has developed a penchant for producing easy listening music.
Not that such sonic smoothness is matched by the personality of the man himself; he is far from easy. And Van's infamous obtuseness has rendered my own Van fandom a complicated thing, a distinctive mixture of difficulty and pleasure.
I discovered Van's music a couple of years ago, during my second year of university. As my Bowie phase was losing steam, I recalled the Van Morrison vinyl sitting on my dad's shelf at home, and took to YouTube. Like many before me, after hearing his seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks, I was hooked.
Unfortunately, I quickly came to realise that this newfound hunger for Van's music would be tricky to satisfy. In 2009, the famously curmudgeonly singer declared to the world: “I'm not a download artist.” Bar a few albums, he pulled his entire musical corpus from iTunes.
Apparently he wasn't a CD artist either, for most of Van's output also disappeared from Amazon. I was left with two unattractive options: ridiculously overpriced second-hand CDs, most over £50, or bad quality versions of his music on YouTube. I wanted to give Van my money, but he just wouldn't take it.
I’m of the internet generation, where everything is instant and easily accessible, but Van dictated that I would hear his music the old way. It worked: I purchased a small record player, just to take advantage of the vastly cheaper second-hand vinyl.
Finding anyone at university with even half my enthusiasm for Van was almost impossible. There were enough "Brown Eyed Girl" fans, but no true, vinyl-clutching Van fans. It’s not a generational issue: at school and university, there were plenty of people who loved the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, David Bowie... but no Van, and I'm not sure why.
There seems to be no community of Van fanatics on Twitter or Tumblr, as there are for so many other old musicians. Van's absence from these spheres of music fandom is baffling – especially given that last autumn, he relented and made all his music available once more on iTunes and Spotify.
This lack of popularity among young listeners may be, in part, down to Van’s own relative reclusiveness, which has lasted for most of his career. My Bowie obsession introduced me to Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Brian Eno, and so on. A Dylan obsession might bring you to artists such as Joan Baez, the Band, George Harrison and Johnny Cash.
But it seems nobody will bring you to Van. The circles of friendship and collaboration formed in the 1960s and 1970s by major musicians never seemed to have interested the Northern Irishman. Van sits in isolated obscurity partly of his own making.
Of course, whenever I did get my hands on Van's music, it was a joy to listen to. As an English student, there was much pleasure to be had in chasing down all the literary references packed into his work. Among others, he name checks Joyce, Eliot, Wilde, Thoreau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Donne and Yeats. Part of Van's poetry is his singing about poets.
Still, his obtuseness comes through even in his lyrics. Take, for example, the ongoing debate about what he sings on title track "Astral Weeks": is it “leatherette shoes” or “little red shoes”? I don't begrudge Van his tendency to smother words with his accent, but it was hard not to take issue with his decision to exclude "Astral Weeks" from his book of lyrics, Lit Up Inside, published in 2014.
I suppose I'll never know what type of shoes he is singing about. This difficulty is often a comical and endearing part of Van’s personality – but sometimes, it can be exasperating.
Fortunately, the pitfalls of being a Van fan are easily made up for by his great music. For me, he has more soul than any other white musician, is one of the greatest male vocalists we have, and produced one of the greatest albums ever written in Astral Weeks. He made that masterpiece aged just 23, and has found it impossible to top.
And no wonder: he simply set his own bar too high, too early. For Astral Weeks, Van employed an orchestra of flutes, recorders, banjos, strings and a harpsichord to enrich his acoustic tracks, producing a sound that has remained both timeless and unique.
Van can also lay claim to giving one of the most legendary live performances ever. In 1976, he took to the stage during the Band's farewell gig The Last Waltz – a rare instance of Van playing nicely with his contemporaries.
In a sequined maroon jumpsuit, he belted out his song "Caravan", complete with uncharacteristic high-kicks. Joni Mitchell's set had killed the concert's momentum, but Van gave the gig an injection of fiery intensity.
His vocals are astonishingly good, even by his own high standards. As he said about the performance to his biographer Ritchie Yorke in 1977: “When you're in your element, you're in your element and things just come.”
At 71, today Van's energy has understandably decreased. "Too Late", his lead single for the new album, moves along at a pedestrian pace. It is pleasant enough, offering some fine brass, but it would be wrong to expect anything like his work of 40 or 50 years ago.
Still, the album titles Van has recently opted for certainly make a point: retirement is far from being on the cards. 2012's Born to Sing: No Plan B and now Keep Me Singing seem to prove that, irrespective of how much we enjoy or criticise his work, Van's music is ultimately for himself.
Independent News Service