Why we should celebrate Van Morrison, bard of Belfast
The awarding of a knighthood to Van Morrison is not just recognition for a musician right up there with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and all the greats, but also acknowledgement of the redemptive power of art.
As an artist Morrison (below) has redeemed, reimagined and recreated not just himself, but his native Belfast. Not even Dylan, Mitchell et al can post such a claim.
We all know the cliches of Belfast as dour, hard, at best pragmatic, at worst unimaginative and dull. Belfast, the city of sectarianism, of political division, of ingrained harshness.
Morrison showed us another way. Belfast, for all its grim realism, is a place capable of transcendence: 'Down on Cyprus Avenue/With a childlike vision leaping into view/Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe/Ford & Fitzroy, Madame George/Marching with the soldier boy behind/He's much older with hat on drinking wine/And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through/The cool night air like Shalimar/And outside they're making all the stops/The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops/Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops.'
Belfast like Shalimar? The east Belfast of Cyprus Avenue and Orangefield as valid a place to see the eternal, the unchanging, not just facilitating, but in itself a beautiful vision. Where the transcendent and the mundane don't merely exist side by side but are the same thing.
Morrison's first album, Astral Weeks, caused a sensation with its audacity, its inventiveness, its simplicity, its melodic charm; its follow-up, Moondance, was equally acclaimed and both albums, song by song, feature regularly on lists of the greatest albums ever made - Astral Weeks as possibly the greatest debut album of all.
But there is a Van for every mood. Each decade seemed to call for a different version of Orangefield's finest; a seemingly endless appetite for renewal, from the old truisms of R&B, to new sounds and orchestrations, new lyric potential in English and Irish mythology, an odd new directness and positivity as the Nineties turned into a new millennium.
For some it is the TB Sheets Van - raucous, noisy, driven - who holds their allegiance. For others, it's the Mystic Van of Veedon Fleece and Into The Music. For more, probably, it's Beautiful Vision Van - those amazing, long, rambling melodic grunts and groans of Common One, Sense Of Wonder, Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart, Poetic Champions Compose. Still again, there is Days Like This Van - almost an old romantic crooner, wending his way via the nostalgic odyssey through to Coney Island right back to Cleaning Windows - Paris buns, lemonade, Woodbines, fanlights and little terraced houses with wrought-iron gate roses.
Experts are making careers out of analysing Van Morrison's lyrics and melodies - sort of University Van. I can't join them. All I know is he has managed to bulldoze his way through the natural and off-putting self-deprecation of our culture to the humane core of everyday life here.
It's not unjust to say that, in the medium of popular song, as a travelling minstrel, as a massively successful communicator and much-loved - yes, much-loved - personality worldwide, Morrison has achieved something very like what we all said Seamus Heaney had for our small towns and villages. Given the world another reference point for Belfast and Northern Ireland, rather than devastated town centres and torn bodies. Who else would have been able to put Shrigley on the map, only a poet and songster of Morrison's stature? Star Van.
This is our world, our northern world. It isn't the creation of politicians, or commentators. This is the world of one imagination speaking to anyone who cares to listen - Global Van - be they in Madrid, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, San Francisco. Or even Tupelo, Hibbing or Hoboken.
The particular and the universal. It takes a genius to puncture the cliches of the Northern Protestant psyche, making the simple connection between dances at the Kingdom Hall and being a Dweller On The Threshold.
'All over Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales/I can hear the mothers' voices calling/Children, children, come home children/Children, come home on the Celtic ray'.
And that is why we, here, in this particular place and time, should celebrate Morrison's legacy.
He calls us home: to our mothers and fathers, to those gone, to those little terraced streets.
Some were dismayed that Van would accept a knighthood. Most were pleased at the recognition that this is a star on a par with the greatest artists.
But, as we all know well, there is one guy who doesn't care a hoot what anyone else thinks.
That'll be Belfast Van.
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