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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

By Charlie Clissitt

Published 30/08/2016

New album: Van Morrison
New album: Van Morrison

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.

Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, east Belfast. Picture: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, east Belfast. Picture: Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Presseye Northern Ireland - Van Morrison Concert - Cyprus Avenue - 31st August 2015 Photograph by Declan Roughan - Presseye Van Morrison fans at the concert on Cyprus Avenue. Van Morrison celebrated his 70th birthday with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the area of Belfast where he spend much of his early years. Heavy rain did not dampen spirits of the large crowd.
Presseye Northern Ireland - Van Morrison Concert - Cyprus Avenue - 31st August 2015 Photograph by Declan Roughan - Presseye Arlene Foster at the Van Morrison concert on Cyprus Avenue. Van Morrison celebrated his 70th birthday with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the area of Belfast where he spend much of his early years. Heavy rain did not dampen spirits of the large crowd.
Presseye Northern Ireland - Van Morrison Concert - Cyprus Avenue - 31st August 2015 Photograph by Declan Roughan - Presseye Van Morrison on stage at the Cyprus Avenue concert. Van Morrison celebrated his 70th birthday with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the area of Belfast where he spend much of his early years. Heavy rain did not dampen spirits of the large crowd.
Presseye Northern Ireland - Van Morrison Concert - Cyprus Avenue - 31st August 2015 Photograph by Declan Roughan - Presseye Van Morrison fans at the concert on Cyprus Avenue. Van Morrison celebrated his 70th birthday with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the area of Belfast where he spend much of his early years. Heavy rain did not dampen spirits of the large crowd.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Pacemaker Press Belfast 30/08/2015: Van Morrison play's Belfast's Cyprus Avenue on 70th birthday. It is a quiet, leafy street in east Belfast that has inspired two songs on one of the greatest albums of all time. Van Morrison is returns to Cyprus Avenue to perform two concerts on his 70th birthday. Fans have travelled from across the world to attend the gigs that are the climax of the EastSide Arts Festival. Picture By: Colm Lenaghan.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Pacemaker Press Belfast 30/08/2015: Van Morrison play's Belfast's Cyprus Avenue on 70th birthday. It is a quiet, leafy street in east Belfast that has inspired two songs on one of the greatest albums of all time. Van Morrison is returns to Cyprus Avenue to perform two concerts on his 70th birthday. Fans have travelled from across the world to attend the gigs that are the climax of the EastSide Arts Festival. Picture By: Colm Lenaghan.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 30/08/2015: Van Morrison play's Belfast's Cyprus Avenue on 70th birthday. It is a quiet, leafy street in east Belfast that has inspired two songs on one of the greatest albums of all time. Van Morrison is returns to Cyprus Avenue to perform two concerts on his 70th birthday. Fans have travelled from across the world to attend the gigs that are the climax of the EastSide Arts Festival. Picture By: Colm Lenaghan.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is crowds gathering for Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph
Pacemaker Press Belfast 30/08/2015: Van Morrison play's Belfast's Cyprus Avenue on 70th birthday. It is a quiet, leafy street in east Belfast that has inspired two songs on one of the greatest albums of all time. Van Morrison is returns to Cyprus Avenue to perform two concerts on his 70th birthday. Fans have travelled from across the world to attend the gigs that are the climax of the EastSide Arts Festival. Picture By: Colm Lenaghan.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph Belfast - Northern Ireland - Monday 31st August 2015 - Van Morrison birthday concert Pictured is Van Morrison as he performs at his birthday concert in Cyprus Avenue, East Belfast Picture - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

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.

Van was born and bred in Belfast.
Van was born and bred in Belfast.
The singer has gone on to global success from his humble beginnings in east Belfast..
VAN MORRISON/SINGER
Van has sampled global success.
Van has toured the world with his unique singing style.
Van has sampled global success.
Van during his time with group 'Them'.
Van 'The Man' Morrison.
Angry Van Morrison approaches photographer Charles Cochroft, the only photgrapher to capture his arrival at Belfast International Airport in June 1980.
Van trying to stop the photographer taking his picture at Belfast International Airport.
Van Morrison and Eric Clapton backstage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009. The paired performed Van's classic 1968 recording of Astral Weeks.
Morrison performs on stage during his concert at the Blue Balls Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, Friday, July 22, 2005.
Van Morrison performs on the Pyramid Stage, during the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm in Somerset Sunday 26 June 2005.
Van performs on the Pyramid Stage in June 1989.
Radio star Van in his younger days.
Van played in the jazz band Them.
Michael Buble and Van Morrison perform at the 46th Annual Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
Van Morrison before a Concert in 1964.
Van and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Van Morrison received an honorary doctorate from Queen's University Belfast.
A young Van Morrison.
Van (centre) with the Chieftains.
Michelle Rocca and Van.
With Michelle Rocca.
Van Morrison and Michelle Rocca
With Gigi Lee
Singer-songwriter Shana Morrison with her father Sir Van Morrison.
With Rory McIlroy ahead of the 2015 Irish Open at Royal County Down, hosted by the Holywood golfer.
Morrison was granted Freedom of the City of Belfast in 2013.
Van returns to his east Belfast roots.

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.

Class act: Van Morrison
Class act: Van Morrison
Rory McIlroy meets Van Morrison at the Slieve Donard Hotel
Intimate gigs: Van Morrison now plays small venues
Van Morrison
Cyprus Avenue in Belfast, where Van Morrison will play a concert on his 70th birthday (EastSide Arts Festival/PA)
Van Morrison denied allegations that he fathered a child with his former tour manager
Van Morrison returns to east Belfast for his first tourist trail, which features many places he sings about
The Van Morrison tour map of Belfast
Van Morrison performing at his old school, Orangefield High
Van Morrison
Van morrison
Van 'The Man' Morrison
VAN MORRISON
Van Morrison's career spans five decades
Van Morrison
VAN MORRISON AND MICHELLE ROCCA
VAN MORRISON AND MICHELLE ROCCA.
VAN MORRISON
VAN MORRISON:IRISH SINGER.Receiving an honorary doctorate of letter from Lord Grey of Naunton, Chancellor at the University of Ulster graduation ceremony at Jordanstown.
VAN MORRISON:IRISH SINGER.Pictured during his time with group 'Them'.
125 HYNDFORD ST - THE CHILDHOOD HOME OF VAN MORRISON
van morrison.jpg
Van Morrison
Them (including Van Morrison):Jazz/Pop Group
Them (including Van Morrison):Jazz/Pop Group
VAN MORRISON (CENTER) WITH THE CHIEFTAINS.

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.

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