Van Morrison has garnered a tricky reputation. On the one hand, he’s considered a musical genius. On the other, he’s considered to be petty and just plain rude. Look, it’s not the first time a talented musician has rubbed people the wrong way (just think of Nick Cave, for instance). But when it comes to Van, the artist from Belfast, Ireland, there’s something different, special… peculiar.
To give you an idea of what he was (and still is) like, take this story, recalled by The Doors’ drummer John Densmore. He has a story or two to tell about Van Morrison. In 1966, on the night that Them, the Irish band fronted by Van Morrison (aka the “boys from Belfast”), debuted at the Whiskey a Go-Go, The Doors opened for them. They were admittedly nervous, as they were still just coming up….
During intermission, Densmore situated himself at his “usual spot” on the stairway by the upper balcony. He watched as Them took the stage rather brazenly. “They slammed through several songs one right after another, making them indistinguishable,” Densmore recalled. He also remembered Van seeming drunk and very uptight, “crashing the mike stand down on the stage.”
Van then dropped his lower jaw and tongue and let a yell of rage, which Densmore admitted made him uncomfortable. After the show, they all went to an after-party. “Most of us made small talk while Van glowered in the corner,” Densmore recalled. Van then grabbed a guitar and began singing about being a stranger in this world – about wanting to be reincarnated into another time with another face.
Those lyrics ultimately ended up on Van’s most famous album, Astral Weeks. As Densmore put it, it was as if Van couldn’t “communicate on a small-talk party level,” so he would just burst into his songs. Densmore and the others in the room were “mesmerized.” Showering the introverted musician with praise didn’t seem appropriate since his music came from such a deep place.
When he finished his impromptu music/revelatory session, the room was silent. “A sacred silence,” Densmore stated. The guys in The Doors started getting to know the “Irish lads” during that “magical week.” The band even put Van’s song Gloria into their setlist.
Then, on the last night before Van and his band went back home, they all played Gloria together. There were two drummers, two keyboards, and even two Morrisons. Van, of course, went on to create many important songs. Brown Eyed Girl, Crazy Love, and Moondance are just a few of his gems.
1968’s Astral Weeks used jazz musicians, and they didn’t even rehearse before recording, which only makes the album even more impressive. It was like a stream of consciousness – one that is a cult favorite to this day. And that’s despite the fact that it never achieved real mainstream sales success for decades.
It took over three decades for it to finally achieve gold in 2001. Fast forward seven years and Densmore got a call, on November 6, 2008, from “Van’s people.” They wanted to know if Densmore could play Gloria with Van Morrison and his band at the Hollywood Bowl.
The plan was for Van to perform some of his oldies but goodies up to intermission, and then Astral Weeks would play in the second half. Densmore’s response was “Hell yes!” After all, he had already played that song with him all those years ago at the Whiskey a Go-Go. The drummer then went to the rehearsal at the Bowl.
There were about 15 musicians onstage – “an unusually large group.” Densmore just figured that for the second half, they needed extra players to replicate the sound of Astral Weeks. As he tested out the drums in the empty auditorium, he was excited for the night to come.
Strangely, Van was nowhere to be seen. As they rehearsed, Densmore threw in some of his own signature licks, and the musicians turned around,” acknowledging me with big smiles.” When he asked where Van was, the musicians told him he was in his dressing room. He then felt “tension mounting among the players.”
No one was asking Van about the arrangement or anything. “It was awkward,” Densmore recalled. He didn’t want to “f*** it up” – that would be embarrassing for everyone. Densmore had heard it all – the “horror stories about Van,” like the time he screamed at a roadie of his for bringing him the wrong bottle of wine.
Densmore, however, had “a long history with the guy,” so while he felt awkward, he wasn’t scared. He then got up from his drum stool and headed toward the dressing rooms as the musicians looked at him in amazement. They seemed to be really afraid of their lead vocalist.
Densmore put his ear up to Van’s dressing room door and could hear him on the phone. He knocked multiple times, banging hard, until Van finally yelled out, “Yeah, what?” Densmore then asked, “Van, it’s John Densmore. Are you going to do the Bo Diddley section in the middle of Gloria?”
Van’s response: “Whatever you want.” The plan was for Gloria to be the encore before intermission. Densmore was supposed to walk out with Van, he would introduce him, and then they would play the song. Easy enough, right? Wrong.
The two walked out on stage together, but he could tell that Van wasn’t accepting the applause he was getting. “Something was torturing him,” Densmore recalled. “Then he began to torture me, though not on purpose, I think.”
Van wasn’t relaxed, like he was on “pins and needles.” Then, Van the Man left the stage. In his preoccupied state of mind, Van forgot to introduce Densmore. The band was waiting for their cue, but it didn’t come. “The awkward silence needed to be broken.” That’s when the guitar player began strumming the opening chords to Gloria.
Densmore described how he was left standing there in front of 10,000 people, wondering what to do. He picked up a tambourine and started playing it as if it was a part of the plan. It “was humiliating.” He and the drummer were trying to figure out how to switch without missing a beat.
“It couldn’t be done.” So, he just continued playing the tambourine with a fake smile. Van has never been one to worry about what others are feeling. I think it’s safe to say that he never was a people pleaser. Van once stated, “I don’t need to explain what I do or how I do it; I don’t need to. Other people might, but I don’t.”
That was a quote from an interview with The Guardian, in which he was particularly off-putting in his discussion (if you call it that) with the journalist. After the interviewer Laura Barton told him how much she appreciated his music – that he was her favorite musician – he told her…
“I sing and I write songs and I do gigs. So, to me that’s not interesting. You’re trying to make it very, very interesting and something it’s not. Playing gigs is very practical. It’s very repetitive. And it’s no big deal. I’ve been doing it all my life.”
She then looked him in the eye and told him that she wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze him – that his music simply meant more to her than any other throughout her life. He then ungraciously responded with a breath, “Aehhh.” The interview, unsurprisingly, ended there.
This kind of interaction isn’t unusual as he’s notorious for not being a delight to interview. “The Man” just seems to dislike people. Who knows, maybe it’s because he was raised as an only child (no offense to any only children)? Or perhaps it’s what he had to go through in that golden era of rock music….
George Ivan Morrison was born on August 31, 1945, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was the only child of a shipyard electrician and singer/tap dancer. The young kid, who started going by Van in his youth, would listen to his father’s record collection – the largest in Northern Ireland, actually.
He listened to Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Solomon Burke. Van said once, “If it weren’t for guys like Ray and Solomon, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn’t for that kind of music, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now.”
Van’s father bought him his first acoustic guitar in 1956, when he was 11. He learned how to play simple chords from the songbook The Carter Family Style. A year later, he formed his first band, a skiffle group called The Sputniks (named after the satellite, Sputnik 1, launched that year).
In 1958, the band played at local cinemas, with Van contributing most of the singing and arranging. He fronted other short-lived groups, like Midnight Special which he formed at 14. When he heard Jimmy Giuffre playing saxophone on the song The Train and The River, he convinced his father to buy him a saxophone and started taking lessons.
Now a saxophone player, Van joined local bands, including Deanie Sands and the Javelins (in which he played guitar). After graduating high school, and considering that he came from a working-class family, he was expected to get a job and earn a living.
He settled into a window cleaning job, which was later alluded to in his song (aptly titled) Cleaning Windows as well as in Saint Dominic’s Preview. By day, he worked that job, but by night, he kept playing music with another local band, The Monarchs. He also played with The Great Eight with his older co-worker Geordie Sproule, whom he later named as one of his biggest influences.
Van was 17 when he toured Europe for the first time (with the Monarchs), but by then they were calling themselves the International Monarchs. Van played saxophone, guitar and harmonica at their gigs, which included nightclubs and U.S. Army bases in Scotland, England and Germany.
When they returned to Ireland in 1963, the group disbanded. Eventually, he joined Brian Rossi and the Golden Eagles (later known as the Wheels), and became a blues singer. In 1964, Van joined Them and thus broke into the international scene. And the way he did was by responding to an ad calling for musicians to play at a new R&B club called the Maritime Hotel.
Them (named after the horror film Them!) performed without a set routine and Van would ad-lib, creating his songs as he performed them live. Van’s debut of Gloria took place on stage at the Maritime, which was a dance hall once frequented by sailors.
Depending on his mood, Van would do renditions of Gloria that would last up to 20 minutes. Decca Records signed Them to a standard two-year contract, in which they released two albums and 10 singles. But it was their live performances that captured audiences. Van himself said, “They lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel.”
They had three chart hits between 1964 and ’65: Baby, Please Don’t Go, Here Comes the Night, and Mystic Eyes. The classic Gloria was the B-side of Baby, Please Don’t Go, and became a rock standard covered by Patti Smith, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and many others.
With that, They saw success in the U.S. as they rode the British Invasion wave. During their two-month tour in the U.S., they had a residency at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles – the period in which he ran a $2,600 bar tab with Jim Morrison and smashed someone else’s guitar on stage.
Speaking of The Doors, it wasn’t just Densmore who was greatly impacted by Van Morrison (for better or for worse).
Jim Morrison was influenced by him, too. Musicologist Brian Hinton noted how Jim learned quickly from Van’s “stagecraft, his apparent recklessness, his air of subdued menace, the way he would improvise poetry to a rock beat.”
Hinton also noted that Jim would even copy Van’s habit of crouching down by the bass drum during instrumental breaks. By the end of the tour, the band clashed with their manager Phil Solomon over revenues. That and the fact that their work visas expired meant the band left America discouraged and disheartened. After a couple of concerts in Ireland, They split up.
By 1967, he was enjoying the success of his debut solo album Blowin’ Your Mind!, which kicks off with the pop classic Brown Eyed Girl. It turns out that the original title for the song was “Brown-Skinned Girl.” However, Van changed it to “Brown Eyed Girl” while recording it. It wasn’t on purpose, though.
He explained: “That was just a mistake. It was a kind of Jamaican song. Calypso. It just slipped my mind that I changed the title.” After they had recorded the track, he looked at the tape box and didn’t even notice that he had changed the title.
“I looked at the box where I’d lain it down with my guitar and it said Brown Eyed Girl on the tape box. It’s just one of those things that happen.” After spending 16 weeks on the Billboard 100, peaking at No. 1, Brown-Eyed Girl became a bona fide hit. This was a period when Van seemed like he could do anything.
He was quickly becoming the next world-famous singer/songwriter in rock’s golden era. That said, things never really went according to plan for the Irishman. Two terrible years led him to take a curveball and create a jazz-rock mash-up album that shocked everyone: Astral Weeks.
The road to his mystical album was not a pleasant one. The story of Van Morrison is about a man who was/is constantly at war with the recording industry, whether it’s the labels, other musicians, or his fans. At the same time, he’s always seeking its approval.
There was a time when he performed his 1970 classic Moondance to a live audience whom he harshly scolded for not listening closely enough. He also reportedly stalked Bob Dylan in hopes of befriending the musician. Van would even bicker with his new backing band (The Band), whom he said “treated the Irish singer like a drunken court-jester with some peculiar musical ideas.”
Van met true hardship once he went solo in late 1967, when producer Bert Berns suddenly died of a heart attack. Berns had signed Van to his own label, BANG Records, and produced Brown Eyed Girl. When Berns passed, relations with the label became strained. The producer had pushed Van to create more pop hits, whereas the musician wanted to explore new (musical) territory.
Things only got worse when Berns led Van to flee New York City (where he was living at the time) for Massachusetts. What happened is a little murky, but one legend has it that Berns’ widow, Ilene, took over the contracts and banned Van from the studio and NYC’s clubs. Apparently, she also tried to have him deported.
Then there’s a darker tale, in which Berns was notoriously tied to the mob. The New Yorker recounted how mobster Carmine (Wassel) DeNoia began supervising the recording contracts. It came to a point where Carmine and Van got into a drunken fight that ended with the singer smashing a guitar over the gangster’s head.
Van was then fearful that DeNoia would retaliate by getting him deported. The one thing that both stories have in common is Van’s anxiety over getting deported. “The move to Boston was completely fear-based,” is what The Washington Post reported.
While in Boston, Van played at small clubs and coffee shops and even in high school gyms. Not too long before, he was blacking out with Jim Morrison at sweaty rock clubs. Van also married his longtime sweetheart Janet Rigsbee (also known as Janet Planet), which cemented his status in the United States.
Janet, who had a son from a previous relationship, agreed to marry Van. The couple had one daughter, Shana, in 1970. Janet even appeared on the cover of the album Tupelo Honey. They ended up getting divorced in 1973.
Van found – and refined – a new sound, which would eventually become Astral Weeks. His new songs were longer, more circular, and less melodic. Although it was wildly different from his earlier music, people were still impressed. Warner Bros. exec Joe Smith decided to buy his contract from BANG.
While Van’s new music could be described as a bit more loving, he was by no means any less raging. “He was a hateful little guy,” Joe Smith said before mentioning that he still thinks he’s “the best rock ’n’ roll voice out there.”
Astral Weeks’ producer Lewis Merenstein insisted that Van take the unusual step of hiring jazz musicians (including Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet and bassist Richard Davis). Van was begrudging but relented and only met his band on the first day of recording.
According to rock critic Brian H. Walsh, “Van barely even said hello to these guys.” They were reportedly confused by him, wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’ Van just showed them the compositions, and then they all just spat out those beautiful songs.” Walsh called it a “beautiful train wreck” of different people working on the album with no rehearsals whatsoever.
Astral Weeks was something of a happy accident. Walsh believes that if they had set up to the album – one, we would still be talking about 50 years later – they likely would have practiced for weeks, and two, “it probably would have failed.”
After all these decades, Van still claims that he didn’t feel like those were particularly special sessions. While it may seem like his spontaneity in creating the album was purposeful, in reality, it wasn’t. “I was totally broke. So, I didn’t have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic, pure survival level. I did what I had to do.”
Although Van has been in a constant battle with music critics and fellow musicians throughout his career, he has still been praised for his work. Bruce Springsteen, for one, had this to say about Astral Weeks: “It made me trust in beauty. It gave me a sense of the divine.”
Van was in his 20s when he made the album, but there is still a sense that there were “lifetimes behind it,” as rock critic Lester Bangs wrote. Director Martin Scorsese once said the album inspired the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver. Musician Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.”
Still, all that praise didn’t mean anything to Warner Bros., who were displeased with the number of records sold. Astral Weeks wasn’t a commercial success as there just weren’t enough sales, believe it or not. When Van recorded his next album, Moondance, he searched for another pop hit like Brown Eyed Girl.
His piano player Jef Labes remembered Warner Bros. telling Van that he had one more chance. And he succeeded. Moondance became a commercial hit as well as critically acclaimed. It was Astral Weeks, though, that many consider to be his masterpiece.
Considering that 1967’s Brown Eyed Girl is one of his most famous songs, it wouldn’t hurt to do a deep dive into the track. As I mentioned earlier, it was initially titled Brown Skinned Girl. While Van himself said he didn’t notice that he had changed the words, others say it was BANG Records that insisted the title be changed.
As it turns out, Van signed with the label without any legal advice (he was young, after all) and, thus, he never received any royalties for writing or recording the money-maker of a hit.
The contract stipulated that he was liable for all recording expenses before any royalties would be paid. By 2011, the song had received over 10 million hours of radio airplay. Ironically, Van referred to it as a “throwaway song,” saying that he wrote “300 songs that are better.”
Van stated once that “this fellow” (Bert Burns, the producer) made it the way he wanted it, and Van had to accept the fact that he was producing it. “I just let him do it…It just put me in some awkward positions, like lip-syncing on a television show. I can’t lip-sync.”
“Hey, where did we go?
Days when the rains came
Down in the hollow
Playin’ a new game.”
The song is a nostalgic one and for several reasons. It starts by mentioning “the hollow,” which is actually located in East Belfast, Ireland, just off Beersbridge Road. It was a once-shabby and run-down grove behind a place called Abetta Parade.
It was where the young Van Morrison and his buddies used to play. The “hollow” has been refurbished as part of the Connswater Community Greenway project. It’s also on the self-guided Van Morrison Trail.
“Laughing and a running, hey, hey
Skipping and a jumping
In the misty morning fog with
Our hearts a thumpin’ and you.”
The song came out in June of 1967, during the notorious “Summer of Love.”. Brown Eyed Girl became a hippy anthem thanks to its themes of young love and sexual freedom, despite the fact that Van Morrison wasn’t a hippie (and never would be).
The song has nostalgic lyrics about a former lover, which is why it was considered too suggestive at the time to be on the radio. A radio-edit was released, which removed the lyrics “making love in the green grass,” with “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey.”
To Tuesday and so slow?
Going down the old mine
With a transistor radio
Standing in the sunlight laughing
Hiding behind a rainbow’s wall.”
The transistor itself was invented in 1947, which led to the popular transistor radio in 1954. It completely dominated the consumption of popular music in the 1960s and ‘70s before being replaced by CD players and other devices.
Most transistor radios were portable, so the young Van and his lover would take one down to “the old mine.” The transistor radio fits in with the nostalgia of the song.
“Slipping and sliding
All along the waterfall, with you
My brown-eyed girl
You, my brown-eyed girl.”
Some think that because heroin is brown, it could be inferred that this lyric has to do with someone’s “slipping and sliding” relationship with drugs.
Of course, these lyrics are up for debate. Some say that “slipping and sliding” are terms that refer to techniques in guitar playing. For instance, “lefting and righting” means switching between hands while playing. There is also the chance that “slippin and slidin” is just a general term for having a good time.
“So hard to find my way
Now that I’m all on my own
I saw you just the other day
My, how you have grown
Cast my memory back there, Lord
Sometimes I’m overcome thinking ’bout
Making love in the green grass
Behind the stadium with you.”
According to The Belfast Telegraph, the song may be about a Belfast girl. Stuart Bailie (of the Oh Yeah Centre) thinks Van may have been using poetic license, though. “I’d like to think it’s about Belfast and that the stadium he refers to may have been The Oval in East Belfast,” he said. He added: “Although it could have been the Shankill Stadium as well.”
Van is now 75 years old and is still making music. In March 2021, he announced his new album, Latest Record Project, Vol 1. The-28 track album includes songs like Why Are You on Facebook? (Yes, that’s the actual song name).
His new song Born to Be Free is what he describes as “protest songs against lockdown.” His other recent songs include Why Must I Always Explain, Too Long in Exile, and How Can a Poor Boy? (which is about outsiders preventing him from making music the way he wants to — in this case, in non–socially distanced, full-capacity venues).
17 years ago, Van sang the following words on 2003’s What’s Wrong With This Picture?:
“You can’t believe what you read in the papers
Or half the news that’s on TV
Or the gossip of the neighbors
Or anyone who doesn’t want you to be free.”
Since the early ‘90s, it seems as though grievance has been a reliable and comfortable mode of his. Reminiscent of his battles with the industry, he sang the lyrics, “They sold me out for a few shekels,” on his 2005 cranky ballad titled They Sold Me Out.
Three years later, he sang, “They’ve brainwashed the suckers again and perpetrated the myth,” on 2008’s School of Hard Knocks. Van has always avoided politics in music and interviews, but he has recently expressed his dissatisfaction with the U.K. government on 2019’s Nobody in Charge.
He announced that he will be donating any profits he earns from his three “anti-lockdown” songs to musicians who have suffered financial hardship during the pandemic (through his Van Morrison Official Belfast Rhythm and Blues Foundation).