VAN THE VERSATILE MAN ON BOWIE, PRINCE, SYNTHESISERS, RETIREMENT AND MORE...
December 30, 2017
Two weeks from my 56th birthday (14/12/17, you didn’t forget a card AGAIN, did ya??) and Van Morrison is talking to me on the phone.
I should be meeting Van face to face, as I have many times before, maybe getting a selfie to update the shot my pal Jayne took of us when we were flying high together iat The Albert Hall, backstage there in 1989.
Back then I’d been up all night with Van the week before in the bar of the Europa Hotel, Belfast. Waking up in the morning at the table where we were still gathered. Van was still awake barking behind his shades, “c’mon Martin, ya wimp…”
Me, Van, Mark and Carol and a pal of Van’s from back in school days at Orangefield had seen the night in.
Quite a night. A wild night. From pillar to post and back. And then some.
The school days pal guy’s name escapes me now but he had given up drinking and, along with the many, many empty bottles of red wine we consumed, the preponderance of Kaliber (low alcohol beer) bottles (I counted 20) on the table before us told his own little tale. To my lasting astonishment I then upped to my room and electric typewriter to tap out a fulsomely ecstatic review of the previous evening’s gig. Pretty good review too, I still have the unedited manuscript. Joke was that, even by then, I could write a Van review in my sleep. That morning - I nearly did.
There’s been a lot of asphalt under the tyres of life since then and two weeks before my 56th birthday I’m getting over a bad cold after a year of medical reckoning, to be honest.
There would always be so many questions unasked, shyness, forgetfulness, not needing to for anything other than...this, as it turns out.
I didnt get to the space where I could apologise to Van for something I did after we first met, a tempestuous young NME gunslinger riding fast and loose on the ethical o meter . And he piece I was commissioned to write the interview for would require only 350 words, ysee.
I’d been trying to schedule this interview with Van for a while but getting to Belfast on the appointed day - my schedule and health didn’t allow that. So here I am, back on the corner of the room again and, like I say, talking to Van on the phone. Lucky to be here, lucky to be anywhere.
Hi Van, how are you doing?
Yeah I'm fine, are you still in hospital?
No, no, no, I’m out of hospital now, it's been a bit of a medical year. How’s your health?
I’m okay, a bit tired.
This new album it's a quick turnaround for an album, you’ve released one a few months back. But I guess you’ve been working at this rate right through your career only this time we are getting to sample the evidence.
Yeah. I’m happy with Caroline Records and they understand this kind of thing whereas major record companies don’t get this kind of stuff.
Its a jazz record of a sort , something you wanted to make for a long time?
It was done a while ago, not this year, maybe 3 years ago. So it was just there and I thought I want to get this stuff out, so I talked to Caroline about this you know, so I can turn things around quicker and get more stuff out because I’ve got loads of unreleased stuff also that’s just hanging about that I need to get out.
“So I need to develop some other kind of programme. Like I have some stuff, some success with Sony bbut Sony is not really interested in this kind of stuff. There's a catalogue, you know - the Status Quo.
“So this is like outside the box. But people used to do this on a regular basis, back in the 60s and 70s. Then it kinda went out of fashion. I’m just trying to bring it back, you know?
I know. It’s recorded in hotels places where you’ve been playing in Ireland - is that a good way for you to record? Is it straight onto the tape?
Well there’s pro-tools. So basically you can record anywhere because people like to use pro-tools, all the engineers do anyway. So basically you can do it anywhere.
“The other album I just put out, Roll With The Punches, that was done more in a conventional studio type thing with even reel-to-reel.
“We started working reel-to-reel, recording it in the old fashioned way, and then it ended up on Protool invariably because that's the way people work now, you know. You can record anywhere once you get the room right and luckily I’ve got a good engineer who can do that.”
Ive been seeing Van play live since the early 80s, 9 nights at The Dominion first off then onto the Ulster Hall shows in June 82 that that sourced the Summertime In England Live B side of the Cry For Home, a total transformation of the the track that was the centrepiece of the Common One album two years previously. And then on and on and on down through the days, across continents, in magical far fetched fantastic places with never to be repeated performances.
In terms of sheer volume of art created, working hours clocked, recording might be incidental to Van’s lifetime calling as a performing artist, The Song and Dance Man handle preferred by Bob Dylan could easily be his.
Song, aye I get that bit but ...dancing, you say? Well Reverend Jim Dunne, a childhood associate and member of early Van band, remembers him as an OUTRAGEOUS physical presence way back then and... you’ve all seen the Last Waltz, right?
And dealing with the business and stuff of life that requires dancing along with the keep me singing, right?
Right. So recordings are often mere blueprints for the rearranging, soul flying, heart storming improvisations my man does out in front of a crowd.
But so long, incidental or otherwise, he’s been recording. Getting on for as long as i have been on this earth. He has seen so much change in the recording process, in the mediums used, in the hardware, from The Voice Of America coming in on his wavelength through down at the wireless knobs searching for hilversum Boo Da Pest...Athlone... to a situation I witnessed in Holland at the North Sea Jazz fest 2012 where he and his band played an entire number without realising that the crowd could hear exactly nothing.
Such mind melts aside - is the new technology and the freedom it offers when it comes to recording, a liberation?
“Sometimes it is and sometimes it can work against too, sometimes people get too comfortable. And if you get too comfortable you need to move it back into a more conventional studio setup so that people will get more uptight.”
Once at the BBC studios filming Jools Holland Later I was sat right with others behind Van as he and the band, including guitar maestro Mick Green, went through paces. I’ve rolled in the floor to primordial ecstasy, been blissed out beyond belief by Van’s music. To be that close to the creative maestro in the midst of his magic making was heart in throat time. Graham Cox and Blur, arranged in opposite in The Later configuration had come to watch. Van and the band started up but they only played a few bars. Van stopped em short it was like being at the feet of the maestro, the alchemist at the exact moment of creation. Tension, momentarily, you could cut with a knife. Van was saying to Mick “do the thing, do the thing” this abstract way he has of communicating to musician but a circle was rounded, communication was made. Mick was in the round and off the leash, unbounded and beautiful. Later, after the cameras stopped rolling, the entire studio was up and rocking as Van gave Mick the all clear to rip it up on Gloria. Priceless devastation. The memory of that is suggesting an answer to my next question but I need to hear it from the man, himself.
What’s the problem with getting too comfortable?
Van “If they get too comfortable they don’t perform that well if they think it's just a doddle, you know.
“I mean if they fall out of bed in the hotel and walk down to the room where we’re recording, its a bit of a doddle you know.
“You don’t have the pressure of a big studio like that. You know for instance the Mark Knopfler Studio which I use sometimes in London, British Grove, it's a whole different setup.
“People maybe sometimes need to be put uptight for a performance because live performance is that way. Live performance frinstance is a lot of pressure, you sometimes need that pressure to get a good performance, even in the studio.
“So I don’t want people to get too comfortable because then I might not get them to come up with the goods.
And does that apply to you as well?
Absolutely, absolutely, course, of course I do, yeah that’s part of it, I mean it's part of the performance thing. I guess like its kinda similar to sports in a way.
The new album is titled Versatile - is that a statement, it that what you are, is that what you’ve always had to be, Versatile, as a performer /musician?
I don’t really know Gavin, it's something that if just feel like (pause) it is, you know it is what it is kind of thing. But it's based on the concept of well people have said to me, well you know you do it all, I say, yeah I do, I do the whole spectrum and so its based on that. It's basically what people used to say about say Bobby Darin.
“Bobby Darin was one of these guys who did it all, he did all kinds of stuff, and he did it, you know, really well.
You know he was doing folk songs, he wrote country songs, he was doing everything, kind of Sinatra stuff, so you know that's the idea, that's the idea.”
Van’s career has certainly been hallmarked by his versatility.
From folk, through skiffle, blues and jazz, classical music on the 3rd station feeding into the roaring take no prisoners out of my mind r&b blast off of Them. Rapacious and unstoppable through the Latinate R&B of Bert Berns era solo, the dark night of T B SHeet’d soul into the dreamweaver visionary of Astral Weeks, the show stopping ,horn and string arranging Vocal genius astride the mighty chariot of Caledonia soul, slicing up the funk with Doctor John and the jazz past in lavishness upon lavishness. These astonishing rebirths merging his poetic insight with interpretive might on the end of 70s scene stealing - down by the pylons! - glory of Into The Music. Composing by default instinct or cosmic design an Irish exile tone poem for the (mind me politicin’) Thatcher era England in Common One. And on and on eternal mystic vagrant working man chanting down the leaves the seasons in Sense of Wonder. And on and and on and on. So many stunning reincarnations, the song as life, music as a higher calling a common calling - I’ll tell my ma? I’ll tell your ma. And your da.
Ah Van I dunno what there is to say about my love for it all, teeming, abundance. Veedon Fleece! Hymns To The Silence! oh lordy. You can have my career, my glory, your entire career, anyone of you reading this, for the sainted wonder of Take Me Back, Ancient Highway or stopping off at St John’s Point on the way to Coney Island. Shiver me silly back, way back, back to a factory in East Belfast called Bread. And what of Van does he have a personal favourite album in his career?
Ha , no in terms of favourites but ones I zone in on, that would be No Guru and I think it's called Common One, those two, and em, I can’t remember, but I kinda zone in on those two. “Different time periods you see, you know like, the Astral Weeks thing, you know what I mean, which I was explaining this to someone just yesterday, it was about a certain time period, you know and I couldn’t possibly go back to that because it was, well I was just a kid, so the songs were the tunes from say like 1964 when I recorded it in 1968, so, you talk about that period of time, you know, but obviously I can’t sort of go back to that.
But I can relate more to the later stuff.”
When you recreated that time period in your imagination, what was it like for you?
Well yeah I think you have to think of it like method acting, you know what I mean it's a bit like Brando.
“You know you have to get into the character. So I had to get into the character of these songs. I hadn’t done them much live as a matter of fact, at all.
“ So I have to go back in time and assume that, well you know, what was it like in 1967 or whatever.”
I saw the last ever full performance Van did of Astral Weeks at London’s Albert Hall April 2009. Oh my what a show. Lots of things stuck with me about the night which I attended alone, kind of how I wanted it so I could have unhindered COMPLETE ABSORPTION, a heady trip.
It was worthwhile being there too because the Astral Weeks tale got another narrative strand that evening, added in the intro to Madame George,the final song in the reconfigured AS order of service .
“The next song takes place in several locations, one of them near here. The protagonist…” Van began to speak and the well heeled, £100 a ticket, audience began to emit an appreciative hubbub. But Van wasn't talking for the sake of it - he was telling a story with a point and so , against well heeled hubbub, his voice got louder.
“THE PROTAGONIST,” he continued, “is given something to smoke that contains opium. That explains what happens later.”
Thus Madame George, pulled back from the gentrified setting, and murmuring chatter, back to its transcendent, opiated, vernacular home. Because Van comes from the back streets and, in a far beyond the the realm of the mundane millionaire getting back to roots stylee, he has poetically/ artistically kept faith with the streets and the high place in the mind that he found there.
Much in the same way as Elvis did, no matter how high the walls around him got, or how remote from the backwoods life he became, he could access that homeplace in the heart. It seemed pointed to me that, like Elvis did in 68 ( the year of Astral Weeks coming to life) Van was that night, unusually, dressed in a black leather suit.
Had he watched the Elvis 68 TV Special that at the time? Was Elvis a thing in your life at that time? Was there a connection?
Well I saw it when it came out but I didn’t know there was a connection there. I didn’t know that. I didn’t make that connection. I had no idea why I was wearing a leather. Probably somebody said it was a good idea that was selling me, you know, making the clothes. No you know I didn’t really connect that up.
Funny to think of Van having someone styling him up but, y'know, even Praisers of the Pagan Streams and Celtic Poets gotta get through the world that they find themselves in however its requirements manifest. But through it all - all the shit , the hassle, the Johnny come lately press bods and stitch up merchants and the glad handers who just want one more selfie, one more little bit of your time -, there's the enjoyment of making music, is it the same now as when he started out?
Oh yeah, I think it can be even better now, even better now, because you know I know more about it, and I know more, you know, I mean, I’ve sort of worked it out now, I’ve sort of worked it out, you know where I can take in, you know, I think it's better now, more enjoyable.
Keep Me Singing that was the title of the last nearly all original how does he look after that voice, the greatest of a generation, a one in a million voice, a choice voice, a rolls royce voice.
Do you sing everyday?
No, no, that's not my, thats not my MO. My MO is like to not to sing every time, to rest it when I’m not actually singing, when I’m not actually singing then I just rest it as much as possible. If you sing all the time then you’re going to burn it out. So I’m the opposite MO to that.
When I saw Van at first he was kinda making a comeback to live in Ireland, via West London. Scientology played a part that's why he was playing Dominion Theatre West End with the first of many great bands I’d see him assemble in the years ahead. Coffee and cigarettes were then his poison, he even had a percolator going side of stage. You can still view footage of him 1980 Montreux singing and smoking between verses. It seems unthinkable now.
Yeah, terrible, yeah.
Are you surprised you’ve been able to sustain such quality?
Well because I stopped smoking a while back, I probably stopped smoking in the early 90s. So that helped. Though really, I think if I’d continued smoking we wouldn’t be having this conversation now about it, you know what I mean.
Was it a hard thing to do - stop smoking?
No because, I was, you know, I had a bad cough, I had a really bad cough so I just had to stop.
My favourite bit of interview ever with the late Lou Reed was at the start of a phoner to promote the film of his re configured Berlin album. Lou’s mum had been welcomed to the show at the start of the doc. So it seemed apt to start a phone interview asking about Lou’s mum, one of the parents who’d sent him for ECT as a child, how'd they get on now? Lou started off all aww shucks and “oh yeah my mother and I get along just fine…” and then, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND, do you think I'm going to sit here and talk about MY MOTHER?”
I saw Van with his mum once, he’d come out front of stage after an early 90s show at The Kings Hall (now flattened, I hear). The body lingo was a picture and of course Violet, who died last year, was a singer herself. What I really wanted to ask was if it was true that Van’s high kicks on The Last Waltz performance of Caravan were a tribute to his mother’s own live routine. But, that never happened. Instead..
There’s a lot written about your father and his musical collection. Your mother was a singer, how did her singing influence you?
My mother didn’t really influence me because we were listening to the same stuff. I mean she was influenced by the blues stuff too, like Bessie Smith and the gospel stuff like Mahalia Jackson and that, so, you know, which I would have been influenced by as well. So we sort of both had the same influences which came from my father’s playing the records all the time.
“You know he just played them non stop. I just heard music all the time. You know, as soon as he came home from work he put music on and on the weekends you know he’d be playing music all the time.
“So it's just something that was around me. And also his clique of friends, and you know, he used to take me to Atlantic Records on High Street Belfast which was like em sold jazz and blues records. So there was a whole clique of people. As a kid I thought that was normal, it was only later on that I found out this wasn’t normal, you know, hah.
“It has become normal, like now, because I think so much of this music is available now. But then it wasn’t really available much then, that's why you had to go to a shop like that’s selling those sorts of sounds, because you could only get this stuff, you know it was like before people were interested in that, it was a small kind of clique of people. Now of course you can get this music anywhere now with the internet, you know it's all available. Then it wasn’t so easily available.
Is that a good thing that widespread availability - do you think people have become blasé?
Yeah well I think it all depends on the individual, but I think that some people do get blase about it because its so easily available, and then you get the other side of the coin, it's like the self appointed authorities that suddenly know everything about it and saying they were playing it when they didn’t, you know?
Yeah. And did that musical relationship continue right through your life with your mother, was music always part of your connection?
Yeah well with both my parents and also my uncle was very much into music, it was part of that thing that people do and he was into it all his life, he was playing blues constantly making tapes and you know.
There was just a certain group of people that were into that. And then, course by the time when the sort of 60s hit then it became a bit fashionable then to go through it again. You know it comes back in different forms now.
Is that something you pass on to your own children that sort playing of music, that passing on of songs and tradition?
Yeah well hopefully, hopefully. My daughter Shana is doing, she’s doing it. Yeah, she’s on some tracks I’m doing. On the next project which is coming out in April, yeah she’s on a few tracks on that.
Is that a source of pride for you, that your daughter is following in your footsteps?
No not really, no. I heard that he liked my music, I know someone who worked with him, and she told me that Prince was really into my stuff so basically it was just a tribute to him. I didn’t, I don’t know much about his music actually. I mean I know he was very good and he was really great at what he did.
And why Kingdom Hall?
Because I knew he was a Jehovah’s Witness that’s why, that I mentioned Kingdom Hall, but that is kind of like a symbolic reference, it wasn’t really, you know, Kingdom Hall could mean anything in terms of like somewhere to go that was sort of spiritual bliss, not necessarily that specific thing.
But somebody said I should do it as a tribute to him, you know I mentioned the song to him, yeah I mentioned that in the song so, lets put that up, that kind of thing.
You’ve previously mentioned David Bowie was in contact with you during the 90s re a project or doing some of your songs.
No, no, no, there was no project. That was sort of, no that was picked up wrong. No he said he was doing Into The Mystic he told me. I don’t know whether he was, I think he was doing it live or something, when he told me, I mean it might have been Dublin, when he was in Dublin, and he told me that he was rehearsing it or something, so, that’s really it.
Also he did a version of ‘Here Comes The Night’ which he was when he did this Pin Ups album . When he did that it was obviously, you know I had a hit with that. That was the connection really.
Was it a surprise to you Bowie contacting you like that?
Not at all, no I wasn’t at all, no. I got on the phone, and somebody said, hi there’s a call for you, and he said, hi this is Dave, you know, just like we’ve always known each other.
You know he was a bit like that. I mean I met him a few times, but I think he always had something interesting to say, so I remember.
And he covered Madame George as well, quite early on.
Yeah 1971 I think, live a few times.
Yeah? I had no idea.
You got the knighthood, what was that like for you? Getting the news and then actually getting it?
You know it's very different, its a very different experience. So, it more about the experience than you know the actual, you know having it on a letterhead or something. For me it was more about the experience of going through that.
What, the pageantry?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And the way it was done, and the people that were helping out with taking you through how its done and all that.
“So it was more like a kind of a, sorry there’s something ringing in the background (and that was the lovely Katie, my girlfriend, ringing at a very bad time).
“I don’t actually know what it means in itself. What I know is that I enjoyed the experience of it, it was good, it was very different.
So what was the actual experience like? How would you describe it?
V - Well it's hard to describe because its some kind of ancient thing you know. I don’t really, I can’t really put it in words, maybe I’ll try sometime, but, y’know.
You were with Prince Charles, did he say anything to you?
Yeah, he said something about are you still working, or something like that, I can’t remember the words, but are you still doing it, and I said yeah, I’m still performing, I’m still recording now, you know that kind of thing and he was very kind of agh, supportive, yeah supportive, that’s what I remember.
And has it changed things for you?
V - Absolutely not. No it hasn’t changed one thing, no, no, no.
And what were your thoughts when Dylan got the Nobel Prize? Did you think that was a great thing and have you spoken to him since that?
Yeah, I thought it was great. No I haven’t spoken to him, but I thought that it was absolutely great. He sort of deserves it, you know.
Tell me about your relationship with some of the songs on Versatile. I guess some these songs go back to childhood. That instrumental, The Skye Boat Song, is that something you’ve heard since childhood?
“Yeah yeah, of course I’ve heard it when I was into folk music when I started folk music I heard of it. But the thing about that is that a lot of the stuff is the stuff that we were doing live, we were doing that live, The Skye Boat Song so that's how they ended up on there.
“A lot of the standards too, we were doing them live occasionally, we were putting them in the live set so they didn’t just appear out of the blue, it was stuff that you know we were doing.
“ And it's not the first time I’ve done standards, you know what I mean, I did a couple on Magic Time album and I did a few on the album I did with Georgie Fame, so it's not something this week or this month, you know what I mean, its stuff that’s been around always.”
Is there a special thing to do a song that's been done so many times, are you looking for your own angle, do you have to up your game?
Well of course you have to put your own angle on it, you have to put your own stamp on it, no matter what it is. You know what I mean?
Yeah, of course.
In your music you’ve referenced your birthplace, and the places that you knew growing up and that informed those songs, and now that area has become a tourist trail connected to you. Is that sort of inevitable, does it feel strange that that has become a focus point or is it a source of pride that that's happened.
No no, it doesn’t feel strange at all, it doesn’t feel strange at all because its all part of the overall thing, it's all part of the overall picture. It's not strange at all. And it's not you, its not you. I mean cause like is at Orange Field, Davie Hammond, David Hammond, who later made documentaries, he made a series of documentaries called A Sense of Place, and Heaney also talked about this, a lot of poets make reference to this, its not a new thing, again its ancient, but its my roots and eh, it great.
You choose to live in Ireland, near to where you were born. How do you feel about the country and how it has changed? What keeps you connected to it?
Well the connection is the land and a sense of place, like what I just said. A sense of place. Everybody belongs somewhere. Some people don’t, you know.
Is that sort of elemental draw?
Well no, I don’t really know, it just is what it is. I mean for instance, talking to the other people, we were talking about, you know, blues singers going back to where they were originally from kind of thing, so I don’t really know, it just is what it is, I don’t, a lot of the stuff I don’t have any intellectual take on, you know, I like analysing other things.
“But this kind of stuff, it just is what it is, it's what it feels like and how does it feel rather than how I’m thinking about this kind of thing.
What sort of things do you like analysing?
Em, situations and people, not me but other people, other people’s situations. Philosophy.
Do you ever hear new music that strikes you as records in the past have struck you.
I remember when I was a kid they used to say to me there’s nothing new under the sun, right. And in a way that's right but there's always new stuff. And yeah, I’ve some like em, I can’t remember the names, its something like European Jazz sound quite interesting.
And as far as new singers coming out, well Gregory Porter I think he’s phenomenal. So you know, I try and like, I try and keep up, but you know I only connect with certain things.You know what I mean?
I don’t connect because—just because it’s new I'm going to connect with it, because, like, you know… A lot of this stuff is now covered over, you know, stuff that I was involved in the early days.
“R&B doesn’t mean R&B now, it means something else. I don’t want to—I don’t get into something just because it’s new, I have to dig it, I have to be into it. I like some hip hop, I don’t know all the names, but I like some of it, you know what I mean?
You have used synthesisers in the past but you stopped at a certain point, was that a conscious decision?
“Yeah, they do seem to sound the way they record and the way they’re mixed. It always like too much high end. Well, I started—when I first used it, they called it something else then, it wasn’t called a synthesiser, it was a… Moog synthesiser, and this guy, Bernie Krause, who played on one of my albums a long time ago – early ‘70s – and he played on quite a few sessions for me.
“And he was one of the pioneers of this Moog synthesiser. But he was using it in a totally different way to what they did later on, you know?
“Later on it just seemed to synthesise into—like, everybody had one sound. So I stopped using it. I would rather use a Hammond organ or an electric keyboard.
You’re 72, more prolific than ever, do you think you’ll ever retire?
Well, of course, I mean [laughs]… Of course, I mean, who knows? But, I'll keep going as long as I can do it. Yeah, I'm sure at some point I'll have to retire. I mean, I'll have to retire from touring.
Yeah, I think so, because it’s quite exhausting, touring, I find. So would anybody—I've been doing it now on and off for 53 years, so it becomes very exhausting.
So why do you still do it?
Oh, it’s a total mess, because recently I have had to do it for financial reasons alone, you know, like in the past several years. I don’t right now, but I did for a while, because I had big overheads. I won’t go into details, but I had a bad accountant before that, you know, money was going into a black hole. So I had to basically start again and I had to go out and—one of the reasons why I was on the road so much the past several years. So it’s a kind of mess that I have all this money, they say, and these rich lists, I have so much money, it’s a total fabrication. I don’t have that kind of money. So I'm kind of still working for a living.
Do you have any regrets in your career/things you would’ve done differently?
Yeah, but… Probably… Yeah, but I don't know if I would’ve done then differently, just… A question to ponder, I don’t think I can answer that in five minutes. I'll ponder that one.
You’ve said you’ve regretted not recording with Rory Gallagher, can you talk about your relationship with him?
His music didn’t impact on me, but he was a friend, we hung out a lot. I tried to when he was going through a phase where he wasn’t doing much at all, I was trying to get him back into doing a project.
“We talked about several ways to get back into doing something, we were going to do something together, but it never came to fruition because Rory was going through a phase then of sort of hibernating – sort of going through a hibernation phase. But we used to hang out quite a bit in London, West London.
Because in Belfast he kind of took over from Them at The Maritime…
He basically stole my gig. He didn’t do it himself, but a guy called—his manager stole my gig, because Them signed with the Solomon brothers and they sent us to London. And they gave the gig to Rory’s manager. So Rory just had a ready-made gig he just walked right into. That’s what happened.
Was that a problem between you?
No, not at all, because I'd left by then anyway. Nah, you just couldn’t come back and play the odd gig there, you know? Shit happens, doesn’t it? No, no notat all, we were friends. None of that kind of stuff happening.
I took Suggs from Madness over to Bangor last year to interview him on stage, and he’s a massive Van Morrison fan, particularly songs that, I guess, someone like him could only understand from a point of view of where they were written. Songs like Show Business and Professional Jealousy it takes a certain sort of life experience, which he’s had, to chime with them. So it was a great experience lovely summer night in Bangor after midnight, playing your songs on his mobile phone. It was very striking to me – he’s got an angle on these songs. Songs like Show Business, stuff like that, I suppose it comes from Mose Allison, that tradition, it’s quite unusual. Because fame wasn’t something William Blake experienced as such, it’s a new era thing that you…
It’s interesting that Suggs was listening to those, because that’s—that’s good because I never get any feedback about those songs. It’s great. It’s exhilarating.
Do you think that’s something you’ve tried to put out there in your writing, that experience of fame?
Well, the thing is, it’s not just me. Some people in the media are pretending that they don’t know what I'm talking about. It’s not just me saying this, there’s been books and books and books written about this over the last several decades – about this fame business. It’s not just me saying this, I'm not sort of a voice in the wilderness. That’s out there. It’s already out there, but a lot of journalists pretend that they don’t know what I'm talking about. Why are you pretending you don’t know what I'm talking about here, you know very well what I'm talking about.
It’s like a conspiracy. It’s not in a journalist’s interest to acknowledge it.
I think you’re onto something there. I think there’s mileage in keeping it going. I think you’re onto something – keeping the mythology going.
Does the potential audience reaction come into the writing of songs? Is it validating that people use your songs for personal occasions?
Yeah, absolutely, because it’s—definitely, because when I was, like, struggling and sleeping on somebody’s couches, that kind of—you know,] this is great, because then when I didn’t get arrested, you know,, ‘Oh yeah, they forget about that, they don’t remember the time when I couldn’t get arrested and I was sleeping on somebody’s couch’, you know? And now, it’s like - oh yeah, it means a lot.
You don’t strike me as an outgoing person so it hard to put yourself out there, to perform it, bring it to life? Do you have to create a persona to put stuff out?
Absolutely, yeah, we all do. That’s just the name of the game. How else could you do it? You have to separate the person from the gig, you know, the gig is one thing. When your gig’s over, it’s over, you know? You’re not living this part every minute of the day, at least I'm not, and I know most people aren’t. Just because they might think something or be a certain way, that’s what performance is, you know? When they go home they’re probably a completely different person.
If you did retire, what would you do?
I think I'd still like to continue writing songs without the travelling. But I would still like to be writing songs, and recording, and putting them out – having an outlet.
Do you get nervous before performing?
No, it’s not nervous, it’s just [you] have to change up the energy. It’s a bit like—I can compare it to the adrenaline of sports, you know what I mean? Where you have to—you know, like a football match or boxing match, they have to get geared up. To me it’s a bit like that – you have to switch your kind of energy kind of thing.
Do you play sports?
I did when I was younger, I played football when I was a kid – I was quite good at it.
What’s your relationship with people that made blues in the ‘60s in Britain – like Mick Jagger? Do you have a relationship with him? What do you think of where he’s taken that seemed like a completely different world. Do you know him?
No, I don’t know him. I've met him a few times, but I don’t know him. I wouldn’t know. Don’t have any idea. The people that I mean, before there was people like Alex Harvey in Glasgow. He’s the first person I heard of that was doing that kind of thing in Glasgow. Because there was a couple of guys that came over here from Glasgow to play in our band – this is early 60s]. So they were telling us about, like, Alex Harvey and that, and he was doing this well before the kind of British blues explosion.
Were you aware of him then?
I mean, quite a few times. I knew him too, used to meet him [in the road ph?]. I'd hang out with, like… There’s not many—people don’t really hang out nowadays. In the old days, you know, people went to certain clubs like [18:20-4] where you’d see, like, I mean, Chris Farlowe would be there, Brian Auger… So, you know, that was—but people don’t hang out now, so it’s very difficult to keep in touch with people socially. I feel a strong connection with, like, Jeff Beck… It was really enjoyable working with him. And also Paul Jones.
Are you going to work with Jimmy Page?
I'd love to work with Jimmy. I don't know what his—I think he—I don't know if he’s doing music at the minute, but we] talk about it.
Have you spoken to him about working together?
Yeah, I have, yeah.
Was Led Zeppelin a thing for you, did you like Led Zeppelin?
Not really, I was more a pre-that, like, pre… Pre all of it, really, I was always hearing the stuff from when I was very young. Go back to, like, skiffle, you know? No, I mean, I met Jimmy first when he was a session man on Them producing us, when I first met him. And I think he was with—I think he was doing all kinds of stuff then. I mean, he was doing folk music, he was doing Yardbirds shortly after that… I'm really from a different era.
Did you know George Best in Belfast, before…
No, I didn’t know George Best before Belfast, but I knew him later on. See, my cousin went to Manchester with George Best – he was picked to go… Eric McMordie?
He’s your cousin?
No, no, he’s not my cousin. My cousin Sonny Stitt he was picked to go, him and George Best and Eric went to Manchester at the same time. My cousin, he didn’t like it and he came back. They were all homesick, and they came back, and then George bit the bullet, you know?
Obviously George is gone, do you ever think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’?
No, I don’t, because I don’t like to wallow morbidity [laughs], do you?
I just prefer the memories I have, the good memories
Did you get my album?
I sent it to the I don't know if you ever got it, it was months ago
How long ago was it?
Let me check, hold on… Listen, we’ll check it out, it might be here somewhere. A lot of the time it gets delivered to the hotel…You did your own songs and stuff?
It’s spoken word, really, I like music too much to sing, don’t want to spoil it. It’s been fantastic to speak to you