Van Morrison is an exemplary talking musical revolutionary.
Contrary to the tired characterisation often pedalled by journalists over the years (guilty as charged, your honour) in his work and in his interviews Van’s always paid endless homage to artists, writers, poets, people, places, myths and legends that have fed his muse.
“Sonny Terry, Brown McGhee Muddy waters singing I’m A Rolling Stone”, “Gene Chandler said there’s a rainbow, a rainbow in my soul..” and the early talking blues that is The Story Of Them don’t even tell half the tale.
The ongoing conversation of musical and literary revolution in Van’s work took a new turn at this exceptional evening hosted by Faber publishing house to launch Lit Up Inside the first ever volume of Van’s collected lyrics, edited by Eamon Hughes, with a foreword by Ian Rebus Rankin.
The choice of publisher was pointed - his early 80s call and response/ adlib to Summertime In England - “Faber and Faber - we lost a few” Van had referred to a previously abandoned project with the firm.
Tonight its a done deal, though the books dont arrive until after the show, leaving the incongruous foyer display for Thriller, the musical currently showing at The Lyric, where they should be.
Unfamiliar with west end theatreland I had initially gone to the theatre next door.
There the audience were piling in for Urinetown.
“Urinetown? I thought. Is Van taking the piss or what?”
Anyway once I was redirected and a seat was located (actually those reserved for Michael and wife Edna Longley after the latters unimpressive first half reading) and, following the introductions, Van came onto a stage where, following their introductions, Rankin and Hughes were sat.
Rankin instigated an excellent conversation and Van was wry, funny, revealing and, even, touching.
He spoke of Solly Lipsitz Belfast jazz emperor, his (musically privileged) working class background, the key songwriting influence of Rory (NOT Rod) McKeun, a topical songwriter on daytime TV and the revelation that it was a bread van delivery boy for Stewarts Bakery, Belfast (we used to get our bread from there) that he first encountered the hallowed foreshore of Coney Island.
The latter was one of the songs given a rare outing in the second half of the set. It wasnt the elongated version I heard him do down in Southampton with Geordie Fame in 1992, starting off in London driving up through England and Scotland before rounding on Coney Island heartland (The Coney Island in County Down, not America - as Van made clear) but when he performed it tonight, he made a great swerve for an unscripted punchline.
Van’s quality as showman and performance artist was thus asserted so too the theme of the evening - “returning to the source”, a point Van emphasised in his chat with Rankin and which was duly rounded off with the second half set closer On Hyndford Street.
If his in person interview had been gratifying, the live performance was out of this world.
The myth of the Moondance era was that everything was happy and contented, he said, but this song, written at the time but left off the finished album, showed that wasn’t so, he expalined, before playing Wonderful Remark.
There was also Madame George, its strange swirling mysteries and haunted visions as strong and spellbinding now as ever.
Remarkably Van was almost upstaged at his own gig. Not by the amiable but hapless Michael Longley, the poet who read Coney Island prior to his set but by the magisterial, indiscreet and wholly captivating Edna O’Brien.
At 83 the great Irish novelist’s command of the stage made HER a Talking Musical Revolutionary par excellence.
She talked perceptively about Van’s work and the man himself “I saw Van earlier today unfortunately...for me,” she joked. “Is his editor here? Suffering?” But O’Brien’s reading of Tore Down A La Rimbaud and Madame George well... Blimey ORiley and Christ himself on (Shurrely shome relation) Flann O’Brien’s bike! FLOODS of tears eventuated.
O’Brien’s understanding of the power of repetition and the inquiry into self and character contained in these lyrics suggested a life time of listening, investigating the contours of the songs to get to the heart of the feeling they contain.
EDNA READS VAN?
Lets have an album, the ever voracious talking musical revoution demands it!