From a conversation between the psychologist R.D. Laing and Van Morrison in 1973:
LAING: All the times that I’ve listened to your voice, you seem to sing somewhere between your throat and your heart. Sometimes it’s right in your heart, sometimes it’s more up in your throat. When you do that now, is that the zone that you want to both come from and resonate in other people, the heart…
MORRISON: Eventually it’ll get into the heart. That’s what the eventual goal is—Exactly.
Van Morrison’s voice interests me because it seems inexplicable, misaligned somehow from his body and even his experience. The gift of the golden throat may have been given to the recipient most constitutionally unsuited for it. Biographies of Morrison are rough going if you’re a fan: very few people have anything nice to say about him. Recurrent adjectives used to describe him include distant, uncommunicative, arrogant, sullen, angry, grumpy, drunken, unpredictable, cutting, brusque, dismissive, moody, bitter.
In his voice there’s pain and comfort, a squealing anger. Resentment, and a squall, a snuffle. The meandering arrow of a fitful quest for transcendence. Or perhaps something more like a ley line—an invisible force of magnetism that compels you whether or not you’re aware of the secret nature of its influence. A Protestant Northern Irish mysticism, rough-and-tumble and pragmatic. B.B. King said about Morrison: “His voice is pure, yet bitter.”
The first time I saw Van Morrison was at the 2007 Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. Still visible on the fronts of many of the houses around the Fairgrounds where the festival was held was the brutal graffiti (numbers, X’s, markings like tic-tac-toe) left by rescuers checking the houses for the living and the dead after Katrina. In April it was already so hot it verged on the unbearable. It was the weekend I learned that what I thought were small horses leading tourists on carriage tours through the French Quarter were in fact mules—horses couldn’t survive the New Orleans humidity, at least according to my friend.
Morrison was horrible—turgid, sedate, and indifferent. We listened to him from what seemed like a quarter of a mile away, unable to penetrate further into the sea of lawn chairs, beach umbrellas and sunburned frat boys eating crawfish Monica and yelling for “Brown-Eyed Girl.” There were a lot of jazz and blues covers, a lot of mid-tempo numbers. Dr. John may or may not have made a guest appearance on piano. Nothing caught fire. He seemed sleepy; his voice never really got out of his chest. I was incredibly disappointed.
The second time I saw Van Morrison was less than a year later, at the South by Southwest festival in early March 2008 in Austin, Texas. A few nights before his headlining gig at the Austin Music Hall, Morrison played a set at a small club called La Zona Rosa. Both shows were ostensibly to promote his new album Keep It Simple, which was about to be released. I had a press pass and, after a long meandering wait in line, was able to get into the club. I knew no one else there.
There was a sign at the bar saying that it would be closing five minutes before the set started, “by request of the performer,” and would remain closed for the duration of the performance. Coming from a musician who was notorious for enjoying a drink or two over the years, this move struck me as deeply perverse, and therefore admirable. I drank bourbon while I still could and checked out the assembled crowd of mostly English and American journalists. One English guy next to me was audibly dictating the first two paragraphs of his review of the show into a hand-held recorder a good half-hour before it actually began.
The eight- or nine-piece band, serious professionals, came onstage a few minutes before he did. He kind of lurched in front of the microphone from stage right suddenly and violently, even though I remember some sort of typical showbiz introduction by a member of the band: “Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome the one, the only, Van the Man… VAN MORRISON!” From 15 feet away, and from a vantage point several feet below him, he still looked short. He wore sunglasses and a fedora and sang into a gold-plated microphone and a gold mic stand accessorized with the letters VM.
Few concessions were made to the crowd, or to his back catalog of beloved, popular songs. Almost every number was drawn from the new album, with the exception of a cover of Webb Pierce’s classic alcoholic country lament “There Stands the Glass” that was especially ironic to listen to with the bar standing in darkness behind us. One review I read later said that Morrison told someone in the crowd to fuck off, but I don’t remember it happening.
After maybe half an hour, something started to shift. Morrison began to attack the syllables of the songs, biting them off, snarling and growling, repeating them in unpredictable flurries and bursts. He reminded me of a bulldog, a prizefighter with a broken face, an old heater warming up. His pale cheeks flaked away from the sides of his sunglasses like fresh-baked biscuit.
The last song he played was the best song on the new album, but I didn’t know that at the time. It started with a gentle rhythm on guitar and ukulele, and quietly he began singing about drinking wine and making time in the alley. It felt fluid and precise. Even the most blasé and exhausted-looking journalists glanced up from their electronic devices and began paying attention. He chanted “Behind the ritual/you find the spiritual” in a low growl again and again, until the words seemed to unmoor themselves from their network of associations and meanings and float free into a zone of spontaneously generated syllables and sounds. His teeth drew back as he sang, and he seemed for a few moments to be transported into a trance, an elongated pause of drawn-out time that manifested in the form of evanescent vocalized phonemes that disappeared the instant they were produced.
At first I wasn’t sure if he was singing what I thought he was singing, but after a moment it was clear that he was: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah,” the syllable most associated with meaninglessness, nonsense, blather, sung with such inexplicable fervor and charged with such momentarily perverse passion that it was as if all previous language had been boiled down to that single (plosive, sibilant) unit, where it could either end or begin again.
He reached a point of fine frenzy, put the microphone back in its gold-plated stand, said “Let’s hear it for the BAND!” and abruptly walked off stage. The band kept playing for three or four minutes. Morrison did not reappear to play an encore or take a bow. It was unclear how much time had elapsed during the last song, what exactly had happened onstage.
The third time I saw Van Morrison was in the summer of 2013 in what was essentially a cornfield deep in the heart of Oxfordshire, England. Morrison was headlining the final night of the Cornbury Festival, a typical, if smallish, British summer music festival that nevertheless proved extremely difficult for my date and me to make our way to, even though it was ostensibly only 30 or 40 miles away from Oxford, where we were staying. Getting there without an automobile proved baffling and difficult, especially on a Sunday, when in the British hinterlands, the availability of public transportation grows thin on the ground or nonexistent altogether. Our journey to the festival site involved a late-running train, a missed shuttle bus and a long, awkward cab ride with a driver who seemed befuddled and slightly miffed by our request to go to Cornbury, even though it was the only event of note taking place within any significant distance of the taxi stand that afternoon.
We walked for half a mile from where the cabbie dropped us off and asked directions from about four volunteers before we finally were directed to the proper location. We seemed to be the only Americans there, as well as the only people who didn’t know exactly where we were going and what we were doing. It was about 10 minutes past 6 p.m.; we assumed we had arrived early enough, with time to spare and wander around in. Van Morrison, festival headliner, would surely go on around 8 or 9 p.m., with the sun slowly setting picturesquely behind him in the background. The very nice women who took our tickets and affixed complicated, multicolored cloth bracelets to our wrists informed us that Mr. Morrison was currently onstage and had started his performance at 6 p.m. sharp, per his personal request. I expressed surprise that the headliner was playing so early in the evening, and she murmured something less than complimentary about Mr. Morrison’s behavior in and about the Cornbury complex that afternoon. “I think he does whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, frankly…regardless of how it affects others!” She pointed us in the right direction, and we followed a vague, Morrisonesque sound down a gently sloping hill before finally arriving at a large stage in front of which were sprawled several thousand nice-looking British people, many of whom were in the process of conducting extensive picnics and apparently had been for quite some time. The man himself was a small blot a quarter of a mile away, a backdrop of rolling cornfields behind him in the distance.
We darted to the far right, skirting most of the main mass of the crowd, angling our way as close to the stage as possible without causing disturbance to any picnics, until we were probably a few hundred feet away. Somewhere in the course of our journey from the back (not front) gate to the stage, I told my date, “If he starts scatting, or doing any sort of vocal improvisations, really, we’re in luck. He’s into it. It’ll be a decent show.”
We found a spot to stand behind a group of neo-hippieish women in their 40s who had by all appearances been drinking white wine for several days straight. A Big Joe Williams cover dating from Morrison’s Them days, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” rendered straightforwardly but passionately. No scatting yet, but nothing to complain about, either. His voice was there, shockingly well-preserved and rich, which surprised me somehow, and he seemed less detached, more relaxed and engaged than the last time I’d seen him, five years earlier. There is a soupiness, an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road quality, a leaden, dozing sound to much of Van Morrison’s work in the ‘80s and ‘90s that bothers me, makes being a fan of his occasionally embarrassing, and for a few moments early on in the set I’m worried the show could slide in that direction. The setlist is much more greatest-hits-oriented than the earlier shows I’d seen, and somewhere about five or six songs in, in the middle of a real crowd-pleaser—“Jackie Wilson Said” or “Real Real Gone”?—he wanders off script for the first time, with a joyous burst and volley of bop-bop-bop-dit-dit-dits. I nudge my companion, raise my eyebrows to her affirmatively. The Belfast cowboy might take flight after all.
Somewhere in a three-song sequence near the end of the set that includes a barn-burning cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson blues classic “Help Me” followed by one of the only new songs in the set, “Pagan Heart,” and a wild, blues-drenched, Ray-Charles-inflected version of the Don Gibson country number “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the rough magic shakes forth, and the angry angel in Morrison’s phlegm and windpipe presses a bruise onto the afternoon. Evidence of the intrusion is traced on my ganglia and nerves. The lion is in full roar, whole invented choruses, refrains, plots and subplots of growls, slurs, pops, blue notes, proclamations and exclamations in strange Irish and American tongues. At one point, he stands stock-still in the center of the stage with his head tilted all the way back, microphone held above him like a raised scepter, barely moving for a full two or three minutes, again suspended in some sort of temporary trance.
In a 2009 interview on the CBS show Sunday Morning, Morrison says that if he can find a way to get into such a “place” on stage, where he can receive (from where, he does not indicate), he considers the performance successful, but he’s often prevented from doing so, for whatever reason. Perhaps that’s what I had seen and heard—seen and not heard, actually—for so much of the first two hours I’d spent in the same space with him: that thwarted effort. Few find themselves in that space ever, or do so completely by accident. The sunglasses must help shield him, make such a public entrance into such a private space more possible, likely, bearable. Greil Marcus says that Morrison’s best work takes place in “a continuous present.” This place he seeks, on stage and in the studio, exists in that continuous present somehow, and when he enters into it, it does something extraordinary to the quality of the sound and texture of his voice—changes its relationship to language—makes it an enterprise both transcendent and absolutely simple.
Later on, he plays both harmonica and saxophone, conducts his small horn section and walks off stage while still singing the chorus to “Gloria,” a song he wrote in 1964 when he was 19 years old. No encore. Mystery intact. Corn swaying everywhere behind him.
Throughout his life, Van Morrison has been periodically fascinated by the mystical and the supernatural, the occult and the astral. In the late 1980s, a German Rosicrucian master met with several members of Morrison’s touring band and told one of them, Clive Culbertson, that, in regard to his voice, Morrison was essentially in the karmic grip of what was called “an Angelic Knot.”
“I was told that from a past life through certain occult works he had been involved in, there had been a knot placed in his throat and that had a lot to do with his mood swings. Energy would come in there. That was where he was caught. The German Rosicrucian master told me…all this. He offered, at no cost to himself or no signing to anything, to break this knot of these other beings that were around [Morrison]...The darker parts of him are operating through the throat chakras. That’s where his message was coming from. The energy that’s coming from there could be used for lighter, holier things. He could free himself, but it’s a past life committing him, from a ritual commitment he had made [in a previous existence] that’s karmically still with him.”
Jeff Fallis teaches in the English department at Clemson University and lives in Athens, Georgia. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review.