RS#239: Van Morrison

Van Morrison Finds Himself on the Road

“This was one of those interviews that was preceded by weeks of third-party negotiating. It was a rare interview for Van Morrison, and I was told up front that he might bolt at any time. When I finally met him, he struck me as a shy blues-man, far apart from the ego-driven world of rock & roll. The interview itself was a symphony of nervous answers… until he realized his own song was on the restaurant radio. Suddenly his demeanor crumpled into a kid’s enthusiasm. He relaxed and felt less like he was behind enemy lines.”
- Cameron Crowe – Summer 2000

LOS ANGELES — The neighborhood is filled with a pleasant, folksy cacophony. Children are squealing as they play on their tricycles. A baseball is going on down the street. The man next door is listening to a transistor radio and working on his car in the driveway. It’s a setting straight out of Father Knows Best. And it is here, sequestered in suburban Brentwood, that Van Morrison lives.

His is a typical L.A. rent-a-home, procured for the nine months Morrison has spent recording A Period of Transition, his first album in three years. After supervising his remaining business affairs at Warner Bros., Morrison is leaving California, his home for the last six years, for good. His next base will be England.

Van Morrison answers the door himself, throws on a tweed jacket and hops into his rented Nova for the ride out to a restaurant in Malibu. He looks peaked from spending too much time indoors, but he speaks about his career with surprising force. I’ll tell you,” he remarks at one point, “you gotta have a manager to take all the phone calls, but managers and producers have become really overblown things. Nobody does it like you.”

He’s interested in any new artists worth listening to. “Have you heard Boston yet?” he wonders. “I’d like to go see their show. I get caught up listening to the same Ray Charles live album all the time, you know….”

We finally pull into some beach-front steak and lobster joint–the kind where tourists come to gawk at the spectacular view of the ocean. Morrison gawks right along with them, thinking aloud: “I never really fit into California. It’s strange I stayed so long. But I see sights like this and I know I’Il be missing it here….”

Morrison tugs off his shades. He seems to have escaped any sign of aging and looks exactly as he did on the back cover of Moondance. He orders coffee and, in a shyly businesslike manner, approaches his first interview since ’73.

Sparked by all the reports that his stunning, high-kicking performance of “Caravan” nearly upended the Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, Van Morrison’s radio airplay has grown unusually strong in the last months. Older albums like Moondance, Tupelo Honey and Saint Dominic’s Preview are even beginning to pick up sales again. In the past Morrison has consistently turned his back on mass commercial acceptance, stubbornly refusing to tour or record at any pace but his own. But this time he intends to make his mark. A Period of Transition, an aggressive new collection of songs, has just been released. A touring band is being assembled for summer roadwork from Europe to the States, and in a jam session taped last month for Midnight Special (where he was joined by, among others, George Benson, Carlos Santana, Etta James, Dr. John and Tom Scott) Morrison proved his momentum is no illusion.

The first issue at hand, though, is Morrison’s three-year disappearance. “I didn’t really go anywhere,” he explains in a thick Belfast singsong. “I just had to stop. I wasn’t getting out of it what I wanted…it just wasn’t worth the hotels and the airports and all that. I’ve been doing this since I was 12. I personally reached a place where I wanted to take it apart so I could put it together in a way that I could live with it, and could maybe even be happy with it.”

This process included several much-publicized abandoned album projects. One of them was a nearly completed LP with jazz producer Stewart Levine on which Morrison was backed by most of the Crusaders. “I backed off from it because it wasn’t feeling right. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do a whole album.”

At 31, Morrison is notoriously difficult to work with. He freely admits that finding musicians who are compatible with him has been his biggest problem. “I’ve had situations where I’m offered whole bands,” he says. “But they have to be tuned into what I’m actually doing, more than even the music. It’s more than just playing the songs, it’s the total thing … and what I’m doing is very difficult for people to just come in and play.”

Another scrapped project had Morrison recording a rock & roll album, a throwback to his days of fronting Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”). Al Kooper was set to produce. “It never got specific; we were just tossing ideas around,” Morrison sighs. “It just didn’t come together.”

He then followed up a lingering hunch about Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) as a producer. “I’d had a feeling about working with Mac for a couple years. It was kind of an intuition, a basic kind of feeling that I had somewhere for Mac to fit in. So there just came a time where he was free and the vibes were right.

“I don’t like working in the studio . . . normally I get too keyed up about it. I just want to get out of there as soon as I can. But Mac slowed me down. It was really good for my head and we had a lot of fun. It came off the way I wanted it to…no real concept. Just the same players on every track. That way it’s a clean album.”

In a sense. But A Period of Transition is more the authentic, dirty R&B that Van first built his reputation on in the clubs of Ireland. Is the period of transition just beginning? Is the album a document of the actual period? Is the transition over?

Morrison gives the archetypal evasive answer: “All of that. It’s been going on for about three years …it’s like, there’s been lots of highs and there’s been depressions… there’s been starts and stops…it’s just a period, you know.”

I ask him if he, like many others, feels he has made a classic piece of music. He has a ready answer.

“I think Astral Weeks is a classic,” Van says. “It’s revolutionary, it was completely original. Moondance is classic. It’s the first time that anybody had assimilated things that way. Not coming from the ego place now, but the way I did it was classic. I put things together that nobody’s ever put together like that before. I’m proud of that.

“I would like to have a hit single again,” he continues. “It makes it more direct: like if you’re playing a gig and you have a hit single, you get through to the audience quicker.” Morrison fixes a stare on a couple strolling hand in hand down the beach. “The crossover between the recording and live thing is something that I’ve worked on for a long time. When I’m performing, I’m performing … and it’s different all the time. I am not an entertainer. No song is the same way twice, no performance is the same. It’s what you find in jazz musicians . . . but I’m working in this context of rock & roll, and my trip at the minute is to integrate the records and the gigs. They just have to be taken kind of separately together.

“A lot of times people say, ‘What does this mean?’ A lot of times I have no idea what I mean. If you can’t figure out what it means, or it’s troubling you, it’s not for you. Like Kerouac, some of his prose stuff, how can you ask what it means? It means what it means. That’s what I like about rock & roll– the concept–like Little Richard. What does he mean? You can’t take him apart; that’s rock & roll to me.”

Morrison is anxious to clear up the notion that he may have turned his back on rock. I ask him what he thinks when he’s driving along and, say, “Gloria” comes on the radio. He flashes his first big grin of the conversation. “Yeah, well, there’s nothing wrong with that, man,” he says. “I mean, if I can work that in my act, you know, I might do that. I might do, like, half the show rock & roll. Rock & roll is great. Some of the new stuff that’s coming out is real good. Rock & roll is like total life energy, and it’s great. I was listening to some of that old Them stuff yesterday. I’ve got this album that just came out, rereleased old stuff . . . it sounds great. Some of it sounds like it was cut yesterday. That blows me away.”

And what of Patti Smith’s now-classic punk reworking of the song? Another smile.

“Yeah,” he chuckles. “I’ve heard that. I could even dig that for what it is. It doesn’t floor me like some things. I’m the type of cat that would listen to black soul music or black gospel music … that’s what I listen to. But if something comes along like what Patti Smith is doing, I have a tendency now to accept it as what it is and I get off . . . it’s just what it is and I enjoy it that way.”

Morrison seems genuinely pleased with his diplomacy. As he relaxes I sense that, in his own guarded way, he is in a happy frame of mind. Surely his happiness has something to do with this rush of productivity. “I haven’t been too prolific in the last few years,” he says. “But there comes a time when you have to let go of your ego. The ego is very useful for doing a lot of things, but it can also come back at you and blow your mind at times, and screw you up. I just had to let go on the whole thing, even the writing at some points. I didn’t have anything specific to say. Right now there’s definitely things I want to say.”

His next album will probably be another coproduction with someone in another realm of music. “I’m going to do a lot more collaboration over the years,” he says excitedly. “It’s great. Especially to get people from different areas that aren’t close to you. Take somebody from a classical context or somebody from a country and western context– then you’ve got something to work with. But if your name is on the album, you are responsible for it. In the end, it’s like that song . . ..” Morrison mimicks Frank Sinatra. “I’ll do it my way…”

The Last Waltz was a definite impetus for this former recluse. “I never played with Bob before,” says Van. “It was a real highlight for me. I don’t usually come out in situations like that. I didn’t want the promotions…but it was the right situation because of something karmic. One of the basic principles is that it was not hype. Robbie didn’t want to hype it and it wasn’t hyped, it was a pure situation! That show couldn’t be done–it’s something that happens.”

Morrison had unquestionably earned his place on the stage. His effect on music can be heard in everyone from Bob Seger and Elton John to Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy. Van hears it too. “In doing what I did I know I paved a certain amount of ground,” he declares. “But I’m at the point now where it’s paying off, no matter if people copy me or not. It doesn’t matter if people are ripping me off, I just love it all. I love it because it means that it was worthwhile . . . other people are getting things from it.”

Then it dawns on him what’s been playing on the restaurant’s piped-in music system–his own “I Wanna Roo You” from Tupelo Honey. He is genuinely surprised. “That’s me ” he exclaims. It prompts a final monologue. “Success, to me, is not album sales. It’s being happy with what I’m doing. Every artist, of course, wants the album to sell if they’re going to stay up late at night and I work on it and think about it and come up with the songs… of course, he wants it to sell. But what’s important to me is just being able to sit here and dig everything for exactly what it is, and feel good about it. To sit here and look at the Pacific and think, “That’s okay, That feels good,’ ”

As he drains his fourth cup of coffee, it seems the right note on which to shut off my tape recorder. I do, and Van Morrison is instantly animated. “I liked that. I dug that. Let’s listen back…”

I rewind and play back his last few words. No problem.

“No, no,” Morrison exclaims. “From the top. Let’s listen to the whole thing.”

Courtesy of Rolling Stone #239 – Cameron Crowe -  May 19, 1977