Last month, we held a contest asking for your best Van Morrison stories. These could be chance meetings with Morrison himself or personal stories having to do with any of the great songs in his 50-year career. Van handpicked what he considers his creative contribution in the recently released Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics from City Lights.
We received a lot of interesting stuff, ranging from personal (and perhaps fictitious) relationships with specific albums and deep cuts to recollections of memorable moments with Van onstage and fortunate run-ins on the streets after a show.
Van fan Nicky Crewe from Bakewell, Derbyshire in the UK sent us this story that links one’s personal journey with Van Morrison’s entire career trajectory and all its contradictions:
The first time I saw Van Morrison live was in the summer of 1973, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. I was nineteen. He was touring with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. I knew he had been the lead singer with Them. I had also listened to Moondance and Astral Weeks until they were hard wired into my emotional life. I couldn’t yet reconcile his romantic image as a poet with the fierce energy of “Gloria”, but we were all in the process of changing our minds in all kinds of ways. Van arrived on stage with the now legendary Caledonia Soul Orchestra. I had never seen anything like it. A classical string quartet and Terry Adams’ flowing blonde hair. The venue was the home of the Hallé Orchestra and I had been to the occasional classical concert there, but at that time the two worlds rarely met. It was spellbinding.
There was a request that there be no flash photography. A few songs in, the bulbs started popping. Van Morrison lashed at the audience with his microphone lead and stormed off stage. It was a fit of anger and frustration that seemed out of character with the gentle mood of his recent music. The audience responded angrily. Eventually he came back on and continued with the concert. Here was the link between the raw power and sexual frustration of “Gloria” and the man who had taken us all “Into the Mystic”.
This short, stocky, angry man defied our expectations. He was a troubled soul. He was complex and contradictory. I was hooked.
Over the years that followed I went to see him live as often as I could, usually in Manchester or Sheffield. I even had friends who worked on his tour crew. They described him as an unpleasant man, selfish and self-centered. This was difficult to reconcile with someone who produced such beautiful music, with all the spiritual nuances of gospel and soul and the transcendence of jazz.
Only a couple of months ago I was at a festival of music journalism, Louder Than Words, in Manchester. More than one contributor made a joke along the lines of, “There are those who like Van Morrison and those who have met him.”
So here we have a man without charm, who works magic.
He connected different aspects of my life. I had studied John Donne, William Blake, and Yeats’ Irish mysticism. The singer Jackie Wilson was a Northern Soul favorite from my early teens. Irish Heartbeat took me back to my dad’s love of traditional music and the songs we sang at family parties. It’s hard to recall the element of surprise in recognizing these links. Nowadays it is so easy to look up a reference or a lyric, to find out where someone is coming from, but back then it was all down to discovering a shared wavelength.
Inspired by Veedon Fleece, I spent my first holiday in Ireland with the man who was to become my husband, and father of my children. There are photos of us on the streets of Arklow. Van’s music got us through sleepless nights and long family car journeys, dark days, and divorce. All those old cassette compilations, losing track of what song came from which album. A sense of place, prose poems to music, took me from the dark end of the street to Coney Island, higher than a cloud when I needed to recover and heal. Some of his collaborations were strange. Where did religion and Christianity fit in? Were the love songs earthly or divine? Like Van, I thought there was no need for a guru, method or teacher in my life.
Raised by Catholic nuns, I had friends affected by the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so I deliberately avoided identifying which foot he kicked the football with.
The sense of his role as a spiritual healer as well as a musician hit me with the force of an epiphany at a concert at the aptly named Apollo Theatre in Manchester in the late 1980s. I now realize that others recognized him as a shaman, but this was my personal experience, and it came out of nowhere. Theater as temple, audience as congregation, music as religious experience – it isn’t a huge leap to make. At the end of the concert he left the stage, walking through the audience, singing “She Moves Through The Fair”. It was deeply moving, people were reaching out to touch him. It could have been a church healing service. I couldn’t discuss this with anyone at the time, I didn’t know how to put it into words. My younger sister summed it up, “Touch a lucky leprechaun.”
She had been at that 1973 concert. At the age of 13, she was on a first date with the boy she has been married to for all these years. Van Morrison’s music played a big part in their love story. Like me, they tried to see him live whenever they could.
I continued to go and see him when I could, enjoying the contradictions. A healer who had no interest in charisma. A romantic poet who looked like one of the Blues Brothers, with all their stocky pent-up energy. A cantankerous character who could transform and transport the lives and emotions of those who followed him.
I haven’t seen him in too long. Writing this has made me realize I need to enter into the slipstream once more.
Congratulations to Nicky! And congratulations to the other 4 finalists who will also receive a copy of Lit Up Inside:
Steven from Sacramento, CA
Robert from Salem, OR
Carol from San Francisco, CA
Hannu from Porvoo, Finland
Thanks for entering for those who did. In Van news, he announced a new album coming out soon called Duets where he opens the old songbook again to reinterpret some old favorites with various vocalists like Steve Winwood, Joss Stone, and Bobby Womack.