Belfast Telegraph

Sir Van Morrison: Here Comes the Knight

By Ivan Little

He's never been a man to bow the knee to anyone but Belfast's most famous and most gifted singer will make an exception later this year so that the Queen can utter the once unimaginable words - Arise Sir Van, instantly putting a different spin on his old hit, Here Comes the Knight.

Sir Van the Man who was inspired to write one of the most popular songs on the planet, Brown Eyed Girl in the terraced streets of Bloomfield where he grew up, has at last become royalty's blue-eyed boy in recognition of a lifetime at the very pinnacle of rock music.

The mercurial singer and composer of classic contemporary songs who celebrates his 70th birthday in August with a concert in his mystical childhood haunt Cyprus Avenue, another east Belfast landmark he made world famous, is said to be highly honoured.

It's understood that a number of influential people in Northern Ireland put forward Morrison's name for a knighthood two years ago and ran the proposal past the First and Deputy First Ministers at Stormont, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

And while Van's acceptance of a knighthood may confound his detractors - some of whom have never met him but still brand him as surly and sour - it's a fitting accolade for a man who once saw more of the Queen than he wanted to ... on coins thrown at him and his colleagues in his old Belfast group Them.

The story goes that the RUC were called to Cookstown Town Hall in December 1964 when a crowd booed and threw pennies and halfpennies at Them who'd just had their first hit Baby Please Don't Go in the British charts.

The problem was that the Tyrone teenagers couldn't dance to Them's blues music, which one promoter later ruefully admitted to a newspaper "doesn't seem to go down well in country halls".

It was a different story in America after Them toured there and hooked up with the likes of the Doors, but the band didn't last and after a series of re-groupings and splits, Van went back to the States to work with producer Bert Berns.

He had written Here Comes the Night for Them and he wanted to put Van on the Top 20 conveyor belt seeing the potential earnings from the Belfast man's ability to write instant hits like he had done in with Brown Eyed Girl.

But there were a succession of fall-outs and legal rows before a disillusioned Van returned to Belfast where instead of kicking his heels he set about writing songs for his seminal album Astral Weeks which astounded the music world in 1968.

Nearly half a century later, Astral Weeks with its masterpiece songs about the likes of Cyprus Avenue is still lauded as one of the best ever bodies of modern music.

Van was to stay in America and didn't come back to Belfast for years - which rankled with his fans here, some of whom travelled to 1974 concerts in Dublin to let him know in no uncertain terms.

It was to be another five years before Van ended his exile in February 1979 with a return to the Whitla Hall where journalists were told they would have to pay for the privilege of reviewing the gig.

But speaking from experience - as a ticket-purchasing fan, not a hack - it was a memorable, magical night which almost made the wait worthwhile.

The healing had begun but in June 1980 Van wrote himself into the wrong type of headlines by playing part of an outdoor gig at Belfast's Balmoral showgrounds with his back to his fans.

Van's lack of engagement with his audiences has long been a bugbear but as one of his fans who knows what to expect from his hero told me recently: "I don't go to Van shows to hear him talk. I'm there to listen to his music."

Van's reluctance to talk to the mainstream press is also legendary. But in recent times he has mellowed, though his private life is strictly a no-go area especially after court cases over aspects of his personal relationships.

However in one interview featured in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year Van sought to dispel the decades-old image of himself as a grumpy man, blaming "lazy" journalists for creating a myth around him.

Not everyone was convinced but friends from his days at Orangefield Secondary School where he played a concert before its demolition last year insist he does have a sense of humour.

Not so long ago he arranged a reunion of his Orangefield friends in the Crawfordsburn Inn.

I've seen some of the pictures and if Van was having a miserable time he forgot to send the message to his face.

And it's in Co Down that Van has chosen to live in recent years and he's often seen out and about in Holywood though he doesn't do meet and greets with strangers.

Everyone it seems has a horror story to tell about Van's cold shoulder techniques in coffee houses and restaurants but the constant thread running through them all is that they are invariably second-hand.

Morrison may have a house nearby but he regularly has breakfast in a local hotel where he also has a base for his business operations.

Last year singer Ed Sheeran, who is one of the fastest rising stars in Britain, told anyone who would listen to him that getting an invite to break bread at breakfast with Van at the Culloden was one of the greatest thrills of his life.

Sheeran joined a long list of Vanatics who proudly pose with him for photographs which they clearly think will do their careers more good than his.

One of the most touching tales about Van and his fans came when the late actress Farrah Fawcett, who was battling cancer, couldn't attend one of Morrison's shows in Los Angeles. So he had the shows filmed and the videos were sent to her.

Van is still close to his widowed mother Violet and pays her regular visits in east Belfast and whenever she can Mrs Morrison, who friends say will be particularly pleased with her son's knighthood, goes to see him in concert.

She had pride of place at the Orangefield school gig and a few years back got up to sing at a birthday party in a tiny Belfast city centre club where her son was playing.

The intimacy of the place underlined Van's fondness for getting back to his musical roots by performing in small venues around Belfast like the Strand Cinema where he used to go as a child to a Saturday morning film club. He has also appeared at the new Harp Bar in Belfast though a newspaper report that he was going to play a residency there was dismissed with a curt statement that Van wasn't a pub singer.

Van does play regular gigs however for the Hastings Hotel group across Northern Ireland which attract well-heeled Americans who fork out thousands of dollars on airfares and tickets.

A number of the US visitors are understood to be high-powered executives across the States who enjoyed Van's music from their teens.

Investment opportunities are believed to have been opened up by the high-fliers who have followed a newly-established Van tourist trail around east Belfast.

One man who has known Van for many years said it was the music and not the money that drove Morrison on at a time when other singers would have retired.

He said: "Van could make a fortune touring in the States but he has grown weary of the travelling and prefers to stay close to home. Nothing pleases him more than gigging and he doesn't need huge arenas to give him a buzz."

Whether or not Her Majesty knows the words to any Van songs is a moot point.

But having already received an OBE, Van will know what to expect when he gets his knighthood.

The very notion that the six-times Grammy winner would have been too truculent to accept honours like the freedom of Belfast was knocked on the head by a concert at the Waterfront Hall and he has also been granted honorary degrees by Queen's University and the University of Ulster.

But Van-knockers always hit back at the honorariums for Morrison by referring back to the time he didn't show up at the unveiling of a plaque on his old home in Hyndford Street by blues legend Buddy Guy.

Sources close to Van recently said he didn't turn up because he wasn't invited ...

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