Van Morrison-John Bennett

Van Morrison's career  spans five decades
Van Morrison’s career spans five decades

He is arguably our greatest musical superstar with a career spanning five decades and acclaimed as a major influence by many of the world’s leading pop performers.

Van Morrison, universally known as Van the Man, is a complex character, a gifted musician and songwriter, but unlike most stars, notoriously publicity shy.

Born in Hynford Street in the Bloomfield area of east Belfast in 1945, he began his career with a number of showbands performing cover versions of hits of the day in the late 1950s before finding international fame with Them and the classic hit, Gloria. He went solo in 1967, releasing Brown Eyed Girl, before cementing his place as a major star with the albums, Astral Weeks and Moondance, still cited in many Best Albums lists.

>>Van through the years – click More Pictures above to launch gallery<<

His music contains strong soul and R&B influences, but over the years he has performed with such diverse artists as Georgie Fame and The Chieftains. Now rarely seen without his trademark black fedora, his performances cross musical boundaries and continue to win critical acclaim. He is frequently accompanied by his daughter, Shana, at gigs. Ahead of his new album Born To Sing:No Plan B, we carry the first of two in-depth interviews with the star who has won six Grammys and been inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

The Interview

John Bennett: Van, Born To Sing/No Plan B — that has been the working-title, as I understand it, right from the start of the album. That’s the one you have settled on. It’s going out as that then?

Van: Yeah, but I don’t really want No Plan B to be a distraction or a red herring. It seems that people have a lot of questions about that. There isn’t really any question. Born To Sing/No Plan B — it is what it says it is. There’s no hidden meaning or anything.

JB: Elaborate on that a bit. How do you mean there is no plan B?

Van: Well that’s my profession. Singing is my profession. There is no plan B. Maybe there might be one later on? I don’t know! There could be a plan B later but there isn’t one right now.

JB: You were born to sing, do I take that literally?

Van: Yeah, well I think so.

JB: Even from when you were going to school?

Van: Well, apparently before that. What they tell me is that I was singing in the pram. That’s what I was told.

JB: At what age were you aware then that this was going to be your livelihood?

Van: I wasn’t really aware until I was looking at the Alan Lomax Folk Guitar book. I didn’t really know until that point because I was trying to work out, you know, what Leadbelly was doing on a 12 string, on a 6 string, so I didn’t really know until then because before then I wanted to be a vet.

JB: I don’t really know why I should feel that that’s strange but given that |you are now a singer, the |two …?

Van: Well, they didn’t think it was strange in school. When the teacher went around and said, ‘Well, what do you want to be when you leave school?’ and ‘What do you want to be?’ I said ‘a vet’ and the teacher didn’t think it was strange at all. He said ‘Oh yes, jolly good!’

JB: So at what stage did your veterinary aspirations give way to the music?

Van: Well, when I heard Irene Goodnight by Leadbelly, the version with Sonny Terry on harmonica. When I heard that, that was it. Everything else went out the window I suppose.

JB: Born To Sing/No Plan B it is then. I have to say Van, listening to the album, it took me on the almost proverbial journey through a lot of my emotions but I suppose as an artist, whether you’re a visual artist or a musical artist, that’s the idea, to push as many emotional buttons as you can?

Van: Well it’s all about doing what you’re meant to do and no frills, like Mose Allison said about me, if you want to look it up, ‘There’s no smoke or mirrors, there’s no lights. It is what you get.’ That’s basically what you get. I’m not a tap dancing act. It’s just singing.

JB: As I, and as most fans, would have expected it is an eclectic mixture and, going back to the emotions, I found myself listening to some of the tracks and I was uplifted by them. In some of them I was agreeing with you when you were having a go at materialism and how the bankers and the world elite are ruling us and then in other ones … ?

Van: Well, I’m not really having a go. It’s like, as Lenny Bruce said. ‘It’s observation baby!’ It’s not having a go. It’s just observing what’s going on.’

JB: I take your point. Coming back to my point, if you show this discrepancy or the way this thing operates and you show it patently in your music people are going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that you are making a protest and they are going to label you, I think it’s a label you would fight against strongly, they are going to label you some sort of protest singer are they not?

Van: No. So that means everyone that talks about financial crisis and how people are getting screwed and losing all their money is protesting? Is a protestor? Is that what you’re saying?

JB: So that means that everybody that comes on the news or reads out the news is protesting? But they are not putting it in as powerful a medium as you might be doing with your music? That’s the point I’m making.

Van: Well, it all depends on your viewpoint but I don’t see it as protest. I just see it as song writing. It’s simply observation. Journalists write about this stuff, so say is he protesting? No, he’s not protesting. He’s just writing a piece, so I don’t think it’s protesting.

JB: Coming back to the album, I suppose if you were to follow the template of commercialism and you wanted to make a lot of money out of it you could simply put out 10 clones of Brown Eyed Girl and almost be assured of it being a success?

Van: Well I’ve ‘been there, done that’, but that’s not what it’s about. You start off young and then you get older and then hopefully along the way you gain more experience and you kind of absorb stuff and then you regurgitate that as songs. You’re not going to be the same as when you started out. Also, it’s not easy to clone Brown Eyed Girl’s anyway, even if you wanted to, because songs are unique within themselves. Some of them become more popular but you just can’t clone another one of those because there’s only one of them, you know what I’m saying?

So later on I got into writing more about my experiences because the songs I learned to write were the songs that were written during say, the Fifties, early Sixties period. They were usually kind of love songs so I learned to write from the stuff I heard when I was growing up and listening to my father’s record collection and stuff like that and listening to folk, people like Leadbelly, a lot of the blues singers, there was a lot of poetry in blues, so that was my kinda MO (modus operandi) for song writing

JB: Can you isolate a point Van along your career, or maybe even along the chronological track of your albums, where you ceased to imitate the template of the Fifties and Sixties and when you became Van Morrison the singer/songwriter doing his own thing?

Van: Well, I’m always doing my own thing. I still use the Fifties template to write songs.

JB: But was there a point when you started actually putting your own experiences into the songs?

Van: Later on with … I don’t remember the exact date … I think more going into the Nineties.

JB: Was there one album that maybe started this trend?

Van: I think there is one in particular with about six songs on it. I think it’s What’s Wrong With This Picture but it probably started before that. There were a couple of songs before that, a song called Fame (“fame, they’ve taken everything and twisted it”), so somewhere around there.

JB: Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I describe your albums, or have done in the past, and this one isn’t any exception. There is soul in there, blues, it’s jazz, it’s a Van Morrison collection, so you have …? I don’t know if resisted is the right word, but you haven’t been channelled into any one direction along the way?

Van: No, you see I was lucky because Ray Charles was like my role model and he always said he did everything. It’s all music and he did everything and he reinvented a couple of things, too, while he was at it. And there were guys like Bobby Darin who did everything, I mean Bobby Darin was songwriting before anybody even knew what that was but he could also do other stuff. He could do folk, he could do Frank Sinatra, you know, so there’s people like that who covered all the bases.

JB: I suppose one of the dangers of writing your own songs and putting your own thoughts, you call them observations, the danger might be Van that you leave yourself vulnerable to people saying “Ah well, that’s what he actually feels at this moment, that’s him honestly saying ‘This is me’.” Is this fair? Can I accept that what you’re portraying in this album, these are your thoughts at this moment?

Van: No, it’s not this moment, but that moment.

JB: The moment when you recorded them?

Van:: Well, when I was writing them and leading up to recording them. They were my observations then, but because you write about something you don’t have to believe in it, you know what I mean? It’s a bit reductionist to say “Yeah, that’s Van Morrison and that’s his life and that’s what he believes.” That’s very reductive, what the academics call reductive. So, it’s not your life because something can happen a week later that totally changes everything that you thought then, you know? It doesn’t work that way.

JB: But do you not see the paradox here, Van, because you are, by all accounts, a very private person and yet when you write and when you sing your songs …?

Van: Yes, but I am not singing about me specifically. Just because I wrote a song called Pagan Heart it doesn’t mean I’m a pagan.

JB: But the danger is that people might assume that you are?

Van: But that’s their problem. You see, this is what the problem is. Whatever people want to take out of it, that’s it. Everybody has got their own interpretation of what they are going to take out of any song, by anybody. Whether that be nostalgia and they remember where they were or it reminds them of something else, everyone has got their own interpretation of what they are going to take out of any given song anyway and that’s the whole point. I mean, if you have a painting, 20 people can look at that painting and go “It’s about this”, or “It’s about that”. It’s what you get out of it. That’s what it’s about.

JB: No, not particularly. Well, yes I am. Pagan Heart left me feeling … musically it’s superb but it left me feeling a bit uneasy [Van laughs] because I wasn’t sure whether you were a) writing from experience, or b) whether you have a very vivid imagination in that direction, so there you see I’ve got a dichotomy already?

Van: Well, I just read a lot. If you read enough books you’re going to get ideas and they’re going to come out in songs, it all comes out somewhere.

I have also read a lot about Christianity too and I’ve written about Christianity but it doesn’t mean I’m a Christian.

JB: I take your point. Let’s just take a look at the album per se and start with the title track Open The Door (To Your Heart) which is quite clearly anti-materialistic. “Money doesn’t fulfil” you sing. It’s a statement of the human condition, I suppose? Where are we headed? What would we want the goal to be? Where did the inspiration for this come from? Was it one particular incident or a phrase somewhere?

Van: Well, no, it’s not one particular incident. It’s just looking at greed. Greed has been around for a long time. I don’t know about your business but it’s been in my

business. My business is just all based on total greed. People, they can’t seem to get enough, so what I’m saying is “Enough is enough”. You only need enough to survive and live your life, that’s basically what I’m saying.

JB: You had first-hand experience of this, particularly in your early days in the music business?

Van: Not just the early days. Even now. It doesn’t go away. You can get more on top of it if you are around long enough and you don’t die, then you can get on top of a lot of this stuff and you can come to grips with it but in the early days, I mean, I didn’t know anything! What did I know? I had to educate myself in all of this but the music business is predominantly based on greed and that’s what it attracts and fame attracts strangeness into your life. You can’t really get away from that, it just does.

JB: [The song] Going Down To Monte Carlo … I’m slightly confused here Van because there’s the beautiful ‘?Ulsterism’ in it, “Give my head peace” which might be a bit confusing to international audiences (Van laughs). Explain what you mean by “Give my head peace”?

Van: It’s a local saying. People from here will get it and other people won’t, but basically it’s like, it seems very strange that you could go to Monte Carlo and find peace but yeah, hey, that happened to me.

JB: That was the paradox I couldn’t understand. Why go from Nice to Monte Carlo? Monte Carlo is probably the rip-off capital of the world, isn’t it?

Van: Yeah, that’s probably the only place I could have got it at that point and probably the only kind of places I can get peace now would be places like that which is a paradox but it’s true.

JB: How do you get peace in Monte Carlo? What do you do to?

Van: [Interjects] For one thing nobody cares. They are too busy with their own lives and they have enough money so nobody really gives a damn about who you are really so that’s part of it. They’re not going to approach you because they are all kind of stars in their own way so I can be anonymous there.

JB: Ah so your head gets peace when people don’t notice you?

Van: Exactly. Absolutely. Anonymity. People don’t realise what a gift it is. They don’t realise what they have. People wanting to be famous, they don’t know what they’re getting into. Anonymity is a gift from God and people don’t realise what they have.

JB: This is the biggest paradox of all Van. You’ve spent your life seeking publicity for your business?

Van: No, no I haven’t been seeking publicity at all. That came along with the job.

JB: Yeah, but you had to do it?

Van: Yeah, but I was doing it for survival reasons. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to be famous. I was doing it because that’s what they told me you had to do, “If you want this cheque son you have to do this”. So it was like the carrot and the stick all the time. This was how the business was so until you can work your way through all of that to some other place that’s the way it is and that’s the way it still is for a lot of people who have not worked through that.

JB: A lot of people would willingly swap places. There’s an old song that says, “Whatever you want, whenever you get it, you don’t want it”, or words to that effect. I think the vast majority of the population from that end of things would want to be famous?

Van: No, they don’t know what they want. They’re brainwashed to think that’s what they want. It’s just brainwash because this is another distraction, just like soap operas or X Factor or what Simon Cowell’s doing this week. They are brainwashed into thinking that they want fame. They want to buy that paper that tells them they want fame or they want to watch the TV shows that tells them that they want fame or they want to see the magazine that tells them they want that because they can’t think for themselves. Their thinking mechanism has been short circuited so it’s like what other people think and what other people implant in their heads because they don’t know how to think for themselves. It’s that simple.

JB: You have a quote from Jean Paul Sartre in the song Going Down To Monte Carlo, which says “Hell is other people”.

Van: Yeah.

JB: And he makes the point that we can’t assert ourselves or we can’t give a judgement on ourselves without other people. So we all need other people, but you seem to be saying otherwise?

Van: Well, but why did he say ‘Hell was other people’?

JB: Because we can’t exist without them?

Van: Exactly, but you can’t get away from that hell and you need them, so again it’s another paradox.

JB: Yeah, the basic paradox here is that the harder you have worked, the more successful you’ve been and the more records you’ve sold, the more you crave anonymity, the more you crave the licence to be alone when you feel like it. Do you see this as the paradox it is?

Van: Yeah, it is a paradox, but you see, I didn’t know this then. I didn’t know back then, I didn’t think it was going to last. I didn’t think all this stuff would still be out there with people saying “Oh yeah, I saw you on YouTube last night with such and such” and I don’t even remember doing it. So I didn’t know this stuff was going to be regurgitated later on. I thought it was just then! I thought, this record is coming out then so that’s going to die out in a while, those pictures are going to disappear’. I didn’t know that all this stuff was still going to be around, I had no idea. I thought that at some point you could just stop doing this and you could go back to normal life. That’s how naive I was. That wasn’t happening when I started. They didn’t have the Internet, they didn’t have YouTube, they didn’t have Twitter, they didn’t have any of this stuff. You had a record player. When I started, that was it! That was a different world.

JB: Back to Born To Sing, the title track. You say it comes with a “sting”?

Van: The sting is fame because you’re not told about

that when they tell you “?You were singing in the pram and your granny used to sing these little Scottish melodies to you …. you don’t know about all this other crap.

JB: And it’s in inverse proportion to the success and the fame isn’t it? The more success you get, the more the pain becomes? Is that the way it works?

Van: Well, it all depends on who you are. See, I’ve always done this because I love the music. It’s like what they say about jazz. You don’t do jazz for money, you do it for love. Same kind of thing, I’m doing this for love. Not fame, not money and that’s always been the M.O. [modus operandi] and that’s why I got into it because I heard people and they did something to me. They changed my consciousness, they changed my thinking. Something changed within me when I heard these people. So, I was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do because I love it.”

People used to be into music in my day. They didn’t care if someone was like wearing a shiny jacket or something so people usually got into it, why? Because they loved the music. If you wanted to do it you had to love it. It was all focused on the music if you were doing what I was doing. It wasn’t focused on anything else. So that became manipulated by “Oh yeah, blues! We can sell that!” I came in on that.

People tend to forget that’s where I came in, as a blues singer. I was doing that music because I loved it. Nobody else here was doing it. It was a different world. So I actually came out of a different era, different time, different consciousness, different everything.

JB: That’s surprising because you’re saying, if I get you the way you mean me to get you, you can divorce the fame from the actual artistry and the music, but when you think to the Sixties, there was Beatlemania and that wasn’t …

Van: [Interjects] Yeah, I know but how many people from that era, apart from the Beatles, can you now name? There were hundreds and hundreds of people and a lot of them were really good. You used to see guys in Germany that were amazing. Where are they now? You never hear about them. You only hear about the ones that made it. You don’t hear about the other hundreds of people that were good that didn’t have a manager like Brian Epstein that gave everything away so that he could get airplay.

It’s like horses for courses but you’re talking about the mainstream. I’m not in the mainstream, I never was, I never wanted to be in the mainstream. That’s not what I wanted to do.

JB: In terms of record sales you are?

Van: No, I sell enough for them to name check me. I sell enough and I’ve sold enough and there has been enough for them to bring me in because I’m actually credible. So they bring me in for credibility factor, not because I’m selling millions of records ’cause I don’t. You know, some of them have done that over like, I think, 30 years or something? But, they don’t name check me because of that. They name check me because they want credibility there with all the non-credible people. They need credibility, that’s where I come in.

JB: Bankable is the word they use I think, is it?

Van: I’m bankable to a certain degree but I’m more bankable for gigs than I am for selling CDs.

JB: Are you happy with that arrangement?

Van: Yeah, sure I’m happy. I don’t want to be in the mainstream. I’m not in the mainstream. If people think I am, that’s their problem. That’s not my problem, that’s theirs. I know who I am, I know what I’ve done, I know what I’m doing, so I don’t have to buy into other peoples baggage. I know what’s going on. I know what the game is. I know where I fit. I know where I don’t fit. I know all this.

JB: [The song} End Of The Rainbow … having a pop, maybe, at a false god and anti-materialism? [The song] No pot of gold … it’s not worth the search?

Van: No, well it’s the same old story. I was just talking to somebody the other night who was saying how like Irish Americans still believe in leprechauns, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs]. I think there’s this thing that because I’m famous then money is going to drop out of the trees and people want it because they think it just grows on trees. They don’t understand you have to work for it and it has taken 50 years.

JB: [The song] Disappointed? Is that the message across when you reach the end of this fabulous rainbow?

Van: No, it’s like I’ve been carrying this idea around for a long time, many, many, many years and that’s the first time it has come out in a song. But that idea is still predominant in the music business and show business.

It’s still a sort of mythology. It’s a bit like Dale Evans and Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset.

People have this idea but it’s all wrong. They don’t understand that it’s like … it’s work. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn’t exist. Except for leprechauns. That’s really what it is.

Born to Sing: No Plan B will be released on October 2. Van Morrison dinner and show, Europa Hotel, Belfast, October 20, 6.30pm as part of the Belfast Festival at Queens. Go to

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