The legendary singer passes the time in lockdown with a revealing and personable chat with Martin Chilton, reflecting on growing up in Belfast, a new book about his lyrics and his efforts to write his autobiography.
A lockdown conversation with Van Morrison seems to fit these strange times. We were due to meet in London, during his Palladium residency, but instead he phones from Belfast, on the dot of the appointed time, joking about how he is “twiddling his thumbs”. He says that “like everyone else, I’m following the guidelines”.
Over the next hour, he talks with passion about books, jazz, blues, his youthful football-playing days and penning his memoir. Morrison, who turns 75 in August, has a sharp memory. Although he has been known to have fractious interviews, I find him friendly and happy to share anecdotes, his voice a mixture of a low drawl interspersed with sudden moments of lightness.
Morrison has a new book of lyrics out with Faber called Keep ‘Er Lit (the title tips a nod to his first book of lyrics, 2014’s Lit Up Inside). He is disappointed that his appearance at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival was cancelled. I wonder whether the enforced break has at least given him time to pen new songs? “I want to write, but I am kind of getting a bit lazy at the moment,” he says. “I was supposed to be doing six gigs in London, so I went from touring to basically just being at home. I am trying to get back into writing.”
His friend Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Does Morrison consider lyric writing the equivalent of poetry? “Some of my works are just straight poetry, some could be a song or a poem and some are poetry with a music back-up, like On Hyndford Street, which was based on my early days, listening to my father’s record collection and Radio Luxembourg,” he replies. Morrison grew up in a street of small, terraced houses barely a mile from the Lagan river that runs through the centre of Belfast. “I have a book of Cole Porter’s songs and his lyrics are just poetry. I don’t think there is a lot of difference.”
Morrison’s work has always been full of literary references, from William Blake to Seamus Heaney, and he sometimes uses book titles for the names of songs, such as Haunts of Ancient Peace. He is intrigued when I tell him the phrase was first used by Alfred Tennyson in the 1840s. “Oh, was that a Tennyson thing?” asks Morrison. “I took that from a book title by Alfred Austin, but he must have got it from Tennyson.”
Although he can be reluctant to talk about his own craft, he gives an insight into how some songs come about. “A lot of it is below the surface,” Morrison says. “I notice things or I might hear a phrase I like, but I won’t necessarily think that’s a good idea at the time. Then it will come out later from the subconscious. Sometimes I get an initial idea and then paint a picture with that idea. As I start writing the song and putting music to it, I get more pictures and more impressions — mainly impressions. It’s never exactly the same twice. It’s on a subliminal level. A lot of it I don’t really understand myself. In the 1970s, people were taking everything I wrote personally and seeing every song as personal, but it can’t be — that’s impossible.”
He is amused that the song I ask about from Keep ‘Er Lit is not Astral Weeks or Sweet Thing but an obscure 1974 composition called Mechanical Bliss, a comedy one that Morrison sings in a parody English upper class accent. “Oh, yeah. I remember Mechanical Bliss well, because I also played piano on that,” he replies. “It’s probably one of the only tracks where I played that many chords on piano. It was in A-flat, as far as I remember. It was just a take-off of British comedy, The Goons and such, which I had grown up enjoying. ‘Stiff upper lip’ and all that, right?” he says.
After a truncated time at Orangefield Secondary School — like many working-class kids of his generation, Morrison left school at 15 — he became a voracious reader of publications from The Jazz Book Club, to which his father George, a shipyard electrician, subscribed. Morrison recalls a key moment from his early teenage years, when a door-to-door salesman came round selling encyclopaedias.
“My father opened the door and then shut it again,” recalls Morrison with a chuckle. The canny salesman knew that most people in Belfast supported either Glentoran Football Club or Linfield. “And then we heard the guy shout, ‘Wait a minute, which football team do you support? Is it the Glens or the Blues?’ So my father said, ‘I support the Glens.’ When the salesman said, ‘Oh, they are a great team,’ my dad let him in and bought a set. That was basically my education — my father buying a set of Encyclopedia Britannica,” adds Morrison.
Morrison’s song Bulbs starts with the line “I’m kicking off from centre field”. Was he also a fan? “I used to go to matches with my dad. I liked football, but I wasn’t that big a fan. I liked to play football more than I liked to watch it,” he replies. I attempt a guess at which position Morrison played. Midfield? “No! I was a centre-forward,” Morrison says, with feeling. “Yeah, I was good at it. I used to play with my cousin — and he went to Manchester for trials at the same time as George Best and some other friends. My cousin came back because he was homesick. He was quite good. I was quite good at the time, too.”
Morrison’s father went to find employment in Detroit in the early 1950s, “but it didn’t work out and then he came back”, says the musician. Back home, his father ordered records from the long-gone Dobell’s shop in London — and frequented Atlantic Records, Solly Lipsitz’s smoke-filled shop in Belfast. “Dad would take me there every Saturday from when I was very young,” says Morrison. “Solly was the connection for all the recordings my father was into — mainly New Orleans jazz, like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven records. I used to pick out Lead Belly 78s. I sort of egged my father on to buy those.” Morrison’s mum Violet was also a good singer and he talks fondly about the “Saturday night get-togethers” where friends and neighbours would gather to sing. “I was always good for a Lead Belly song,” he says.
When Morrison recorded the 2003 Blue Note album What’s Wrong with This Picture? he included a homage to Armstrong with the track St James Infirmary. “That was based on the trumpeter’s All Stars version with Jack Teagarden,” says the singer. A couple of years ago, Morrison paid a sight-seeing visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York. “I wanted to basically get the vibe of the place,” explains Morrison, who did a brief vocal impression of Satchmo on his 1979 hit Bright Side of the Road. “The museum is in Queens and there were lots of photographs and recordings of him talking he’d made at home. I was doing a gig a couple of streets away and I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this trip.’ Nostalgia, you know.”
Although Morrison is one of the most admired vocalists of the modern era, he started out purely as a tenor saxophone player, later also trying soprano. “At 15, I was taking lessons from a guy called George Cassidy, who lived in the same street. He was a great jazz player. He had the chops. I played tenor to begin with in the early 1960s, mainly in the clubs in Germany, when I toured at 17 with The Monarchs,” he explains.
It was only when he returned to Belfast that he began fronting a band as vocalist. “Nobody else knew the material. Originally, I was not a singer but nobody else could do it, that’s how I became a lead singer. That’s when I stopped playing as much sax. Later on, I came back to it, but with an alto instead of a tenor.” In most concerts nowadays, he always sings and plays saxophone. “When I picked it back up again in the 1970s, I had forgotten a lot of the stuff from my lessons. I gradually developed my own style, which I called ‘Celtic saxophone’.”
Morrison’s ground-breaking 1968 album Astral Weeks featured top-class jazz musicians — bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner and drummer Connie Kay — a choice that continued down the years. He talks about the “great attitude” of the respected bass player Leroy Vinnegar (who played on the track Almost Independence Day on Saint Dominic’s Preview) and recalls his pleasure at appearing on a Coast to Coast cable TV show in 1990 with keyboard players Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. He also played with Chet Baker at Ronnie Scott’s in London, for a filmed version of Send in the Clowns. “I think I chose the wrong song, though, you know,” he reflects wistfully. His 2017 album revisited the Baker song Let’s Get Lost. “I still listen to Chet a lot,” he adds, “and I just love the slow stuff and the ballads, same with Billie Holiday.”
Morrison is undeniably a complex man, yet at heart he seems to be all about the music. It seems he’s most relaxed around jazz and blues players. “I have felt more comfortable around those musicians because I have always been influenced by mainly black music,” he says. “As a performer, I actually feel more comfortable just doing blues, but because I have written so many songs, people want to hear my songs, mainly. It would maybe be a bit indulgent of me just to do blues at concerts but that’s really where I live, where I am at.”
Morrison readily acknowledges the early influences on his singing — including Lead Belly, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke — but always knew it was important to have his own style. “I developed my own style after a bit, which is what one has to do if you are going to continue to do it. Nobody wants something that is a copy of a copy. You have to put your own stamp on music,” he says.
After more than 55 years as a musician, he’s heard a lot of the same questions. I try to throw in a new one. The two most famous big-band leaders in jazz are arguably Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Which band would he have most enjoyed fronting as a singer? “That’s a hard question,” he says laughing. “I would say Basie’s band. When Basie had guitarist Freddie Green, and that rhythm section with drummer Sonny Payne. There was so much space, because Basie didn’t play a lot. The two albums Basie made with Frank Sinatra, the live one at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and the studio one, were so good. That band really knew how to set up a vocalist.”
Jazz musicians often talk about their fantastic impromptu jam sessions, often away from an audience. Morrison enjoyed some in the 1990s with blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, and relished those he had as a youngster with a celebrated Chicago bluesman. “When I came to London in the 1960s, Little Walter was staying at a hotel in Bloomsbury,” Morrison recalls. “Sometimes he would rehearse there in the afternoon and the jam sessions I had with Little Walter, where I was just playing rhythm guitar for him, were brilliant.”
What did Morrison learn from Little Walter, a revolutionary harmonica player? “I would pick up stuff while he was rehearsing, but the lessons were a bit concealed. He gave me ideas of what you could do with the harmonica. I had a diatonic version and he said, ‘Play something for me.’ So I did this Sonny Terry thing, Hootin’ The Blues. Little Walter made a joke and said, ‘I don’t play that John Henry sh*t anymore,’ (Walter was referring to a traditional style of blues) and pulled out this huge chromatic harmonica and started to blow that. Then he said, ‘This is what I do now!”’ Morrison laughs again as he adds, “It was definitely a learning curve... those guys were tough, you know.”
By coincidence, blues great John Lee Hooker was staying at the same hotel and the twentysomething Morrison used to hang out with his hero. “I got to know him and had a good relationship with him until he died (in 2001). We cut a few records over the years. I had some of my best jams with John Lee, some great sessions at his home in California, with local people. His nephew Archie Lee Hooker, a singer, was also there. They were truly memorable.”
With no jams in sight, he is focused on his work with Faber, who are putting poetry-style performances of his songs online, with readers such as Eamonn Hughes, who teaches literature at Queen’s University Belfast, and poets Paul Muldoon and Scarlett Sabet. Has he been tempted to write his life story? “I am working on it on and off, but it’s a slog, writing a book,” Morrison reveals. “Sometimes I get going when I feel like I have a certain part I want to write, and then it dries up for a while. I’m very disorganised really, very disorganised. You really have to be disciplined to write that kind of a book. I used to write sections on a typewriter years ago. But I have moved too many times. I lost track of the typewriter, so I am doing it in longhand now.”
He still talks with enthusiasm about the thrill of discovering authors Christmas Humphreys (the British barrister who wrote many books about Buddhism) and Jack Kerouac in his younger days. What will he be reading during this coronavirus crisis? “I’ve been trying to get back into reading and I’ve got more time now, so I probably will. I actually have a Samuel Beckett compilation that is sitting on my table here — and I haven’t looked at it yet,” says Morrison. “This chat is inspiring; it’s given me the impetus to get going.”
There’s just time to slip in a final question. What does Morrison sing while he’s washing his hands? He pauses and replies, “Humpty Dumpty.”
Keep ‘Er Lit: New Selected Lyrics by Van Morrison is published by Faber, £14.99