Van Morrison's mystic
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
“Who's the Brown Eyed Girl?”, someone called out from the audience at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, on Monday night. After a pause, Van Morrison replied: “she’s called ‘faction’”. The packed auditorium shook with laughter. “She’s a composite”, Morrison continued, “not based on any one person. It’s the same thing when writing songs as it is with novels and films.”
It was a unique evening – partly because Morrison isn’t known for talking – of “words and music” to launch a book of lyrics, Lit Up Inside, that spans fifty years of his songwriting. Alongside Morrison, Dr Eamonn Hughes (of Queen’s University Belfast), who helped edit the collection, was joined by the novelist Ian Rankin, the poet Michael Longley and the writer Edna O’Brien who both read selected songs as poems. The second-half of the evening was devoted to Morrison and his four-piece band’s mixture of potent rockabilly- and blues-infused jazz, hymn-like chords and gorgeous melodies.
Hidden behind sunglasses, a black pinstriped suit, black shirt and, of course, black fedora, Morrison was somewhat elusive when answering questions from Hughes and Rankin. But he did give us a rare insight into his creative process. “Moondance” began in 1965 as an instrumental that centred on his saxophone riffs and Mick Fleetwood’s conga drums, until the lyrics were added three years later. “Tore Down a la Rimbaud”, Morrison told us, took eight years to complete, and when he showed Allen Ginsberg the lyrics, Ginsberg, apparently, responded: “Three words: message, purpose, writing. Yeah, you’ve got it”. (Before he picked up a guitar, the young Morrison wrote poems, one of his first being about an Irish shipyard.)
“Coney Island” (which Morrison read to music, and which Longley described as “a celebration of landscape and love”) was inspired by a daytrip in the 1980s to the Ulster coast (not the New York one), which brought back early memories for Morrison – one of his first jobs was as a delivery boy for a bakery in East Belfast, and he would drop off bread to the houses on the seafront. “On and on, over the hill to Ardglass in the jam jar / Autumn sunshine, magnificent and all shining through”.
Rather than telling us, as Rankin asked, how he’d decided when to stop repeating “mystic eyes” at the end of his song of that name, Morrison revealed that it was based on the scene when Pip stares at his parents’ gravestone in Great Expectations. The lyrics in full:
One Sunday mornin’
We went walkin’
down by the old graveyard
In the mornin’ fog
And looked into
Those mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes
Mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes
Here’s an impressive performance of the song by Morrison and Them (his first band) – showcasing its overlap with spoken word poetry – at a gig in 1965:
We also watched footage of Morrison jamming “Foreign Window” with Bob Dylan on a mountain in Greece in 1992, the day after a blow-out concert. “There aren't many musicians who can reduce Dylan to second string”, Rankin remarked afterwards. “Well, there’s Harry Belafonte, for one”, Morrison replied. He then spoke passionately about the jazz, blues, country and folk music he grew up with – Sonny Boy Williamson, Leroy Carr, Lightnin’ Hopkins (“how did supposedly uneducated blues singers, like Hopkins, come up with such incredible poetry full of Elizabethan language?”), Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Jimmie Macgregor – all thanks to his father’s record collection, listening to Radio Luxembourg and the show Stars of Jazz on American Forces Network: “I thought it was normal, but realized years later that it wasn’t”.
Indeed, at the Royal Albert Hall’s Blues Fest a couple of weeks ago, Morrison's blues education was very much to the fore in his wonderful re-workings of John Lee Hooker’s songs, “Think Twice Before You Go” and “Boogie Chillen”, interspersed with his own hyped-up skiffle tracks, including “Good Morning Blues” and “Talk is Cheap”. He surprisingly rounded off one of my favourite songs, “Rough God Goes Riding”, with impressions of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (“you talkin’ to me”), Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (“hoo-ah har”) and Clint Eastwood, in just about all of his films (“clop, clop, clop”).
Back to the Lyric Theatre on Monday, where Morrison ended the night with an intense performance of “On Hyndford Street” (a phrase from which the title of his book is taken) from his album Hymns to the Silence (1991). A build-up of tremolo pizzicato from the guitar and double bass, reverberating keyboard and sporadic rumbling drums finally tailed off as Morrison slowly drifted from the stage, his voice still echoing around the theatre.
Watching the moth catcher work the floodlights in the
evenings and meeting down by the pylons
Playing round Mrs Kelly’s lamp, going out to Holywood on the bus
And walking from the end of the lines to the seaside,
stopping at Fusco’s for ice cream
In the days before rock ‘n’ roll
Hyndford Street, Abetta Parade, Orangefield, St Donard’s Church
Sunday six bells and in between the silence there was conversation
Belfast – a source of inspiration, “in the same way as William Blake used London”, Morrison had explained earlier – secular spiritualism, and “a kind of living silence” – as Hughes puts it in the introduction to Lit Up Inside – are the musician's trademarks.
“Anyone who has seen Morrison perform live”, Hughes continues, “will know that he plays with the full dynamic range available to him: he and his band can switch from full-throated roar to stealth mode, as if trying to play silence itself. His words, too, attempt this impossibility.” They are enigmatic – as much a mystery to the creator, it seems, as to the listener – but they warm the soul.