Belfast Telegraph

At long last, I've come to appreciate why Van's the man

By Mike Gilson

I have a confession to make. I'm not really sure it's a wise move to confess it in this newspaper, but here goes. I never really got Van Morrison. When I was young, I took the road signposted punk rock, garage and New York, stuff like Talking Heads and Velvet Underground plus a lot of reggae. R'n'B, Caledonian/Celtic soul and all that sort of thing was another musical highway heading in another direction.

When friends said Astral Weeks, I said White Light/White Heat in the sort of uncompromising, boneheaded arguments that the young have over music.

Coming to Northern Ireland, you have to be careful, though. Van is yours and, no matter how often he has failed to return your affection, that far-away look in your eye when his music is mentioned is a warning sign not to be flippant.

Certainly not to suggest in jest, as I did once, that if Van was playing in my back garden I'd pull the curtains and put on the snooker. People in this office have still not forgiven me for that.

But in recent times I have been fascinated by his story arc. He's given so much back to Belfast lately and gigged so often I think he might actually be due to play my back garden soon.

We'll never know why he's come back to us big-style, because he'll never tell us. But his co-operation with the new Mystic Of The East heritage trail, which takes us to The Hollow, Connswater River, Cyprus Avenue and all the places that formed him and figure in his songs is perhaps a sign that, as we get older, those of us who have spent much of our lives "getting away" at some point spiritually or physically long to return.

We begin to forgive home for the sins we attached to it, recognise that in our impetuous, grab-at-life youth we were partially to blame for our acrimonious separation and start to make our peace. And perhaps Van has now turned this life journey into one of the most artistically poignant performances we are likely to witness.

The chance to see this is why, together with hundreds of others, I am crammed into the plastic moulded chairs of our school-day nightmares as Van plays the last of his gigs at Orangefield School's assembly hall on Sunday night.

Surreal isn't really the word. The place is closing down almost before our eyes, the last pupils having left last term. The fixtures and fittings are being taken down. You half expect the doors to be removed from their hinges by the time you come to leave.

But here we are in the hall where the young Van probably sat dreaming of escape while the headmaster droned on up on the stage. Now we are in Van's place and he is up there. Except we do not take our eyes off him nor refrain from listening.

On the tiny stage he is delivering what might be one of the gigs of his life using a voice of such astonishing lustre and beauty it's like he's stolen it from a man half his age.

He doesn't really acknowledge us, but nobody expected him to. The songs, full of the loving references to this place and its surrounds, are moving even to this sceptic's ears.

Around us all is changing and soon, when the bulldozers come, this gig will join the ghosts of thousands of kids being ordered not to run in the corridors, in detentions, winning sports days, just vague outlines, hazy memories.

Sunday night's audience know how lucky they are to have such a chronicler for their small part of the world. Van's songs are timeless even as buildings are reduced to dust.

Would you still pull your curtains, my companion asks as we head out into the night? Probably not, I admit.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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