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Van & the pandemic

No need for social distancing up on Cyprus Avenue

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Last year I spent a long and convivial morning in Belfast in the company of Van Morrison. True, Morrison was not there at the time — truth be told, I’ve never actually met or spoken to the bravest man in rock — but that’s not the only way you can get to enjoy an unforgettable encounter with the controversial singer.

Over a couple of drizzly hours amid the horseshoe hills of the Northern Ireland capital, I walked the Van Morrison Trail, a cost-effective option for visitors to East Belfast with a decent smartphone, a bit of spare time and lots of curiosity at their disposal. Memorable enough in its own right, the 3.5-kilometre journey also sheds valuable light on the artist who in recent days appeared to be annoying all the right people with his musically expressed political views.

The trail begins where Morrison’s life began, at the little red brick house he grew up in at 125 Hyndford Street, before heading out along past the very field where he once frolicked with a brown-eyed girl. Then to Elmgrove School and the flower-strewn Orangefield Park. As any certified ‘Vanatic’ can tell you, these are lyrical locations, too, the settings for some of his most celebrated works.

Judging by the generally indignant reception to his Save Live Music campaign, the critical lovefest Morrison has enjoyed throughout much of his seventy-five years has seen better days.

Stand and Deliver, a surprisingly catchy, blues-soaked composition Morrison recorded with Eric Clapton and which appeared this month, has been the latest to create apoplexy, but there have been three others as well, all placing a very sharp compass-point upon the political antics of political leaders, from New York and London to Adelaide and Auckland, as they have worked to stop the virus going viral. No More Lockdown, an earlier entry, went after over-zealous government officials, less-than-imperial epidemiologists and their evermore fanciful models, an altogether credulous media and ‘celebrities telling us what we’re supposed to feel’ about the pandemic.

The new track appears at a time when political leaders in many cities are once again shuttering business activity. Not least to be affected has been the touring industry Morrison has been so much a part of ever since he first surged on to the radio in 1966 as the energetically rough- and-tumble singer from the band Them. His next five or six mystically tinged solo albums (reasonable people may agree to disagree about the merits of Moondance) are generally considered essential additions to any self-respecting musical library, culminating with a gorgeous song-cycle that closes out the most glittering record of his career, Into the Music, which came out in 1979 and more than lived up to its name. These are the works that have supplied the lion’s share of the exhilarating material people still fork out money to see him perform.

Performing is a big deal for Morrison. Even though his influence on other musicians is huge, he has never sold a vast number of albums. The stage is where he makes most of his money — or rather, that’s where he used to make it before live touring got classified as a ‘non-essential’ activity in most places.

No more. Morrison is upset about his work opportunities drying up — in a recent interview he described the situation as ‘heartbreaking’ — but others are just as upset with him for raising the matter in the first place. Critics who once might have fancied themselves as sticking it to the Man are now getting by on doing as much to the Van.

Writing in Variety, one reviewer probably spoke for many when he said it was ‘beyond unconscionable’ for Morrison to be playing musical politics with the pandemic. ‘Braindead,’ another ventured. Presumably, though, these sentiments aren’t shared by recipients of the hardship fund Morrison set up on the proceeds of these protest songs.

Certainly, singing about politics is a new groove for him. Time was and not so long ago, you could only infer what Morrison thought about social matters, even when it came to a volcanic issue like the Troubles that roiled his native city for much of his career.

Strolling past the terraced old family home, however, you do get a sense of why ‘cleaning windows’ — his first job after quitting school aged fifteen, but also a hummable metaphor for the simple pleasure of an honest day’s work — may have had more immediate lyrical appeal. For Morrison, it has always been about turning up at the office and punching a clock; albeit, in his case, in front of thousands of jitterbugging astral freaks whenever possible.

If Belfast is the most quintessential of Protestant cities, and working the most Protestant of ethics, then Morrison may be said to have always channelled both influences rather well.

Every year without fail he crafts a new album — some of them admittedly better than others — and every year he blitzes the clubs and larger venues to flog the new tunes along with the old. It’s a job, and it’s a job that makes for happiness as well as income, and it’s how he usually likes to describe what he does.

It’s probably also the reason, I think, why he hasn’t toured Australia in thirty-five years and never been to New Zealand at all. Oh, he could sell out the stadiums here in an Irish heartbeat. You do suspect, though, that he would hate spending all that time in business-class sipping sparkling wine and staring out the window when he could be working instead on one of those marathon sound-checks for which he is famous or rehearsing for his next bunch of new tunes.

As far as the Antipodes might be from Ireland, however, it isn’t a patch on the distance between gritty working-class Hyndford Street, Belfast, and the tree-softened, luxurious Cyprus Avenue, all sprawling mansions and immaculate gardens, the final point on the Van Morrison Trail and the title of one of his most loved songs.

Only minutes apart, the space between the two might just as well be light years, something the song fleshes out really well in its account of a working-class kid beholding serious wealth for the first time, marvelling at the privately educated schoolgirls with rainbow ribbons in their hair and feeling decidedly tongue-tied by it all. So he picks up a guitar, finds a hidden chord and starts to growl.

He’s growling still, that’s what Van Morrison told me last year, and if anyone wants to shut him up, it’s too late to stop now.

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