My last ever record request is a Van Morrison song at my funeral. My party, my tunes. Van’s music has been the soundtrack to many great moments, so it’s only right that he’s there for the finale.
It’s hardly an original choice. Into The Mystic has taken a lot of souls over that bridge; a song that leads us from the regular world into the vaporous other. Like the best records, it invites you to give way, to surrender to something you might sense but can’t ever comprehend.
So that’s my ticket sorted. I will get my send-off with saxophone, a deal of wonder and the voice of a testy little fella, squalling over Belfast Lough in response to the foghorn.
We’ll never know how it must feel to write something like Into The Mystic when you’re young and strangely possessed by the music. It may be daunting to carry such songs for 50 years, but Van rolls onwards, a conundrum of talent, scowls and joy.
On a recent song, Pretending, he tells us more. He sings about depression and fatigue. He returns to the opposing forces of art and show business.
Depending on how you catch the man, he’s in one sphere or the other. This time, he’s bothered by the fake routines and the artifice of the job.
It’s a lonely admission, a list of failures and missed chances and honest feelings behind the social mask. The line “Pretending that I’m some kind of sage” is a rebuff to the fans (like myself) who will project their fanciful stories into the work.
But the real target in the song is himself. The artist is insecure, disconnected and blue. He can’t sleep and he’s not living in the present. And, interestingly, this is the track that Van Morrison chooses to close his current album, What’s It Gonna Take?
I’ll confess that I listened to the record reluctantly. Many of the song titles were a turn-off and a first skim of the record suggested a surplus of vocal mithering and tired boogie-woogie. But there was reason to press on.
Firstly, a lot of Van records are slow to reveal their depth. Even a fairly recent track such as The Prophet Speaks is quietly excellent. And secondly, the voice still has a capacity to fly. While Paul McCartney has sadly lost much of his impactful range, Morrison can summon up the surprise dynamics.
Proof of this was the 2021 streamed gig from Real World Studios in England. Near the end, he performed Saint Dominic’s Preview and it was majestic. He was singing about flags, emblems and a civil rights march. It was emotionally rich and the band performance was transformed in a flash.
But, of course, you also struggle with his actions outside of the music. In particular, that cranky moment at the Europa Hotel with Ian Paisley Jnr, when all grace was gone. He was Victor Meldrew in a stingy brim hat. We could not believe it.
And we could not find love in our heart for the song No More Lockdown. Around that time, my mother had contracted Covid-19 in a care home. Her dementia had just reached the point where she had forgotten how to use a phone. So we spent 10 awful days waiting at home for the worst news from a beleaguered staff. She survived, but the illness damaged her terribly. Arguably, we were lucky.
It was painful to hear the 2021 Van album, Latest Record Project Volume 1. It was clear that he had another perspective and therefore I let it pass. While he had been putting together lyrics such as “Why are you on Facebook?”, I had been writing a book called 75 Van Songs, using my isolation to spend time with all his high points.
I’m impressed by Van’s connection to the live performance. That’s where he catches the lightning, when the mystery goes through him.
The idea of retirement may not be so attractive and, yes, lockdown must have been a chore for a gigging artist.
Van Morrison has some common issues with the rest of us. He suspects that government is damaged and corrupt. He believes that media ownership can be malign and the message is suspect. He upholds the right of a citizen to question important system change. Is it too late to strop now? No, it’s not.
But then I hear a new song like Damage And Recovery and I feel sad. “Snowflakes hiding in their houses,” he sings, “Most of us need to get right back to work.” It sounds like an internal memo from Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Van Morrison was fortunate to come out of the Age of Aquarius, when the baby boomers were encouraged to reach for self-discovery and individual growth. But this was built on the war generation, their collective effort and the welfare state that they gifted us.
So I’ll cherry-pick from the new record, away from the sour moments and the swipes at Bill Gates. Rather, I’m drawn to the closing tracks when the conversation clears. I Ain’t No Celebrity sounds like Chas & Dave, which is a decent thing. Also, Stage Name is an amusing discourse on the post-war entertainers and their jivey facades.
The curtains are parted for Fear And Self-Loathing In Las Vegas, with mention of backstage tedium and family custody battles. And then he signs off with Pretending and the tender tones return. The track doesn’t actually redeem the previous songs — that would be far too simple — but the course is an admirable one. He’s away from the misanthropic and headed for the mystic.