Van Morrison at 75: Oisin Leech of The Lost Brothers reflects
AS Van Morrison's turns 75 today, Oisin Leech of The Lost Brothers shares his reflections
MY cousin and pal, the late Eugene Moloney, once told me that years ago when he was a student journalist writing for The Irish News he bumped into Van Morrison outside the Europa Hotel in the city centre.
Eugene explained to Van that he was a huge admirer of his music and asked him for an interview. Van cordially agreed and scribbled Eugene's number on a scrap of paper and promised he'd phone sometime. Later that night Eugene got home to his student digs to ask his flatmate whether any messages had come in. "Nothing much", said the flatmate, "but you just missed some prankster on the phone pretending to be Van Morrison".
Van turns 75 today and during lockdown I found myself going back to the Van albums that Eugene had kindly given me over the years - everything from Beautiful Vision to Common One. I kept returning to the songs not only because of his music's healing power but simply to marvel at the absolute brilliance of Van Morrison's artistry. Across a vast career he seems to have embraced American roots, blues and jazz; then transcended it and now has somehow come to redefine it.
In 1975 when The Band decided to mark the end of their touring days with an epic gathering in San Francisco with the very cream of American music, it was to be their final farewell concert that included the likes of Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan. Also upon that stage was Van Morrison and, arguably, he absolutely stole the show. How did the Belfast born son of a ship dock worker come to stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best rock n'roll, blues and jazz artists of our time - and he's still out there doing it and very much on top of his game.
In itself it's a thing of wonder and magic.
I find it difficult to imagine what Van Morrison has gone through to become the great artist he is today - the work he has done - the experiences he has had to endure. My guess is that no one has a clue.
He's been through so much since his time with Them, his California days and right across his astonishing career. His songs are like beautiful works of steel that have been through unimaginable heat and come out forged with alchemy.
People rightly rave about Astral Weeks, but I've come to cherish his more contemporary albums. There's a recent song from 2018 entitled Spirit Will Provide in which he sings "Let go ...let go ...then spirit will provide". This song is as powerful as any of Van's work. It sheds light on his consistent pursuit of some higher frequency and he reaffirms the notion that often what one is looking for is not far away in the distance but is right there within - like an internal flame. I find his records mysteriously comforting when I'm travelling and healing in that way - like old friends you can depend on a cold and lonesome day. Perhaps Van has captured "the sound of home".
His vocals too are unique. Sometimes it feels like Van is singing like a saxophone - with an endless range of tone and colour. It's a voice that has the power of Mahalia Jackson but can also fall to the quiet intimacy of Chet Baker.
The recent publications of his lyrics (Lit Up Inside and Keep ‘Er Lit) are testament to the fact that his words stand alone on the printed page as beautiful verse - up there with Coleridge, Cohen and Dylan. They evoke a magic that is rare. Linden Arden Stole The Highlights from the truly wonderful album Veedon Fleece leaves the door of meaning open just wide enough for the listener to fill that imaginative space. I've absolutely no clue what it means, but the adventure feels right.
Nowadays, Van's gigs are spontaneous and communal events. Last year on June 23, the day before Eugene Moloney's seventh anniversary, I travelled to watch Van perform in Belfast at the Botanic Gardens and scribbled out a few lines on the way to the show. As ever, it was a spellbinding inspirational performance from an artist still very much on top of his game.
Happy Birthday Van.
DRIVING TO BELFAST...
The hills of Belfast,
The bard of County Down.
The rain hits hard.
Veedon Fleece playing loud.
Has anyone seen Van the man?
He’s on the juke box.
Singing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”
The fog rolls down off the Holywood Hills,
And the ghost of the Maritime still walks these streets.
Mezz Mezzrow and Really The Blues.
Only the poet knows.
He must be made of a beautiful steel
To come through so many fires
And to still give the songs out
So generous of spirit
An artist in flux.
Seen him once feeding the ducks.
Now night falls on the city streets-
Echoes of American dreams across the docks in the city of steel.
Lonnie Donnegan started it all after Huddie Ledbetter showed the way.
Your fathers record collection - an education.
Put another coin in the jukebox.
How about “Spirit Will Provide”?
Or “Broken Record”?
There’s “Soul” and there’s “Van”
and there’s “the Mystic“...
Maybe it’s all the one.
Some say the music he makes comes from a spiritual place...
Others say he just earned it.
Magma rose then cooled and left a well-hewn jewel.
Smooth as aged old whiskey.
Sing it Van.
Sing it loud.
It’s too late to stop now.
Oisin Leech is one half of duo The Lost Brothers, who have released six albums - most recently After The Fire After The Rain. He also founded Joey Procida's Folk Club