As a "son of Belfast" (with everything and nothing of what that might imply – and I opt for nothing), one for whom music provides his earliest memories, and many additional memories of gigging in dive bars, newly-swish pubs and clubs, church halls, community halls and leisure centres, Van Morrison was, is, and will always be there. He haunts every musical nook and cranny in Belfast, in Ulster, in Ireland, and far beyond that. For an island as musical as ours, regardless of political beliefs, or self-alignment with one side of the border or the other side of the Irish Sea, comparatively few of our most cherished musicians have made a mark on the world stage. For the longest time, the trinity of Van the Father, Phil the Son, and Bono the Holy Boast seemed unassailable. Some seemed destined to match their achievements, only to falter at some hurdle or other, leaving us to speculate about what had happened, and cast a sideways glance when they returned home. The school report card for the island of Ireland has a very clear remark next to music: "Fails to live up to potential".
Van Morrison managed to be categorized in multiple ways by fans and critics. He was an R'n'B vocalist turned singer-songwriter. He was a troubadour. But the one tag that has been applied extensively, ever since his second solo release, "Astral Weeks", was poet (presumably because of the text on the sleeve … one that I've always found to be slightly incoherent, but no matter). Whether any additional descriptor was applied or not ("singer-" or "musician-") was neither here nor there. It was accepted by many, if not most, that "Van the Man" had – and still has – a way with words, and a special way at that.
That some publisher or other would eventually gather some or all of his lyrics into book form was never going to be a surprise. Many of his albums never featured printed lyrics – for various reasons, depending on the source. Regardless of reasons, it meant that many of those lyrics, cherished as they were and continue to be, were slurred, growled or mumbled enigmas, never really given full or certain definition. Over the years, I've heard multiple versions of the lyrics of Morrison's songs, almost as many as I've encountered singers of them – and there have been many.
A definitive edition of his lyrics has been overdue, when looked at from this angle. The degree of "seriousness" with which they are taken is another matter, and one that has a few critics a tad hot under the collar. Some seem intent on condemning the whole project before entering: "Van Morrison is NOT a poet!" they cry. Others take the opposite view, and are gushing like thirteen-year-olds with their first crush – of course he's a poet!
The fact of the matter is much simpler than all that traditional "Van is a poet" and its binary opposite (I fucking hate "TRADITION" – it's the first port of call for the laziest and most unimaginative bastards that were ever planted in the shit of this earth, and journalism is loaded with them). The title of this volume says it all: "Selected lyrics". Just because the volume is published by Faber & Faber, home to poets like T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and countless others, and has the latest design aesthetic one might associate with the publisher's poetry output does not mean that anyone is actually calling it poetry. And that includes Ian Rankin and Eamon Hughes in their foreword and introduction.
I have to admit it: when I saw that Ian Rankin was supplying the cover-billed foreword, I wasn't exactly filled with hope. Or many other positive emotions. Not because he is classified as a writer of crime fiction (I have no time for genre-based snobbery), but because he is a writer of prose. Prose and poetry – and prose and song lyrics – are different worlds. If they weren't … well, what would be the point? I honestly don't know if Ian Rankin dabbles in poetry, although I know he has a love of music and once entered a crossover world with Jackie Leven, combining prose reading, music, song, and conversational banter ("Jackie Leven Said" – Jackie Leven & Ian Rankin, Cooking Vinyl, 2005).
What I do know is that my defences were up. Therefore, I took them down before any damage was done.
Rankin's introduction is a narrative tale of his most meaningful encounter with Van Morrison's music. It's an enjoyable read, although peppered with allusions to Morrison's songs that sometimes feel a tad cloying. However, I particularly enjoyed his honesty: "Mind, I wasn't sure exactly what hard-nosing the highway actually meant, but I was getting an inkling". I was right there with him on that (so many of Van's lyrics seem to make sense … until you actually spend a moment or two thinking about them. Inevitably, you wind up asking, "What the hell does that actually mean?")
Most importantly with Rankin's foreword, though, is the fact that he focusses on Van Morrison as a song writer. Nowhere does he run off into areas of gushy comparisons with William Blake or Christopher Smart - or Allen Ginsberg, for that matter. Nowhere does he spout about Kahlil Gibran or Omar Khayyam. He keeps his feet on the ground.
By contrast, Eamon Hughes's Introduction is a warm piece, but very much in the tradition of cultural studies. It is generally analytical, and builds its own narrative of Van Morrison the lyricist in broad strokes. For the most part, it dwells on the significance of Belfast within Morrison's lyrics, and how it becomes a universal topos. It highlights how Van Morrison was aware that for the blues musicians that were inspiring a whole generation of British musicians such as The Rolling Stones and The Animals, "Memphis, Tennessee" or "N'Orleans" was not some exotic place imbued with a distant, almost unattainable spirituality or mysticism. The Delta blues musicians sang songs of where they came from. Van Morrison appropriated the conceit. Interestingly, although Hughes doesn't point it out, many of the locales that appeared in Morrison's lyrics now seem almost as remote as Memphis or Alabama or wherever: time has created a distance, and "the Spanish Rooms on the Falls" and "The Maritime Hotel" are now merely part of the mythology of Belfast's musical past. The Spanish Rooms are still a topic for discussion among folks of a certain age who remember the cider that was sold there … few seem to argue with Morrison's summary: "And, man, four pints of that stuff was enough to have you / Out of your mind / Climbing, climbing up the walls / Out of your mind".
Both Rankin and Hughes point out Morrison's inclusion of quotidian subject matter, the kind of stuff most songwriters exclude. Singing about doing a hard day's work was nothing unusual for blues singers, but I find it interesting that Hughes doesn't connect Van Morrison with the likes of Thomas Carnduff or John Campbell, Belfast writers who wrote of their own experience, their own locale, their own working lives. Greater focus is given to Morrison's outward search towards the spiritual, almost as though Belfast becomes a metaphor, which I think devalues the everyday humanity of the lyrics to a degree. However, this isn't actually important. When it comes to any collection of writings, the introductions, forewords and prefaces by third parties are not the main attraction: we don't go to concerts to look at the audience.
What is important about Hughes's introduction is that he doesn't spell out his reasons for the presentation of the lyrics as straight transcriptions. While he does mention the different forms the lyrics take (blues, gospel, soul ballad, country-and-western) and how "these styles are to be seen in the different shapes that the lyrics make on the page", nowhere does he explain or make any declaration about how the lyrics were compiled, or why it was felt that all repetitions should be left intact. Were these transcriptions approved by Morrison before publication? None of this is mentioned.
The first lyric presented is "The Story of Them", an autobiographical piece that offers exactly what the title promises. With this, we encounter the first of many transcription decisions that had me wondering: "Mmmmmm / Good times" … Was that "Mmmmmm" necessary in a printed lyric? Why "Mmmmmm" rather than "Mmm"?
Such issues abound, because this is Van Morrison, after all. Words often become like riffs or single notes to be played, replayed, embellished, stretched, chopped-up, and generally bent to his will during performance, whether live or in the studio.
With "Mystic Eyes", the printed text runs thus:
One Sunday mornin'
We went walkin'
Down by the old graveyard
In the mornin' fog
And looked into
Those mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes
Mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes, mystic eyes
Why not "One Sunday morning" and "We went walking"? Why include the "Yeah" that breaks a simple sentence further - because the whole lyric is a single sentence that could easily be written like this: "One Sunday morning we went walking down by the old graveyard in the morning fog and looked into those mystic eyes." Any certainty you might feel about what exactly is going on when you listen to the track is quickly erased. Who exactly owns these mystic eyes? Who else constitutes the "we" of which the narrator is part? Did they all look into those mystic eyes, or just the narrator? Was the owner of the mystic eyes part of the "we"? Why were they mystic eyes? Why not merely brown eyes? And so on …
The detachment of the words from the music feels like removing a fish from water and placing it on a pedestal. They no longer breathe, despite the best efforts to replicate their delivery.
I can only express a mixture of relief and some delight when I came to "Brown Eyed Girl" and found that although the "Sha la la"s were intact, the "Bip bop"s were excluded (although, why?)
Personally, I can tolerate the repetitions, the apostrophised omissions, the nonsense words and solfege syllables, the sweaty effort to reproduce the original delivery of the lyrics on the printed page. However, I generally wish that this hadn't been the case. It makes reading the lyrics without the musical accompaniment somewhat tiring, if not tiresome. I would have preferred if the lyrics were written out as lyrics, without the attempt to convey the flavour of Van's performance of them. "I've Been Workin'" stands out in this capacity. The lyrics could be reduced to a few lines, but instead the ramble on, with blocks of 16 "alright" and long trails of "woman" … All this does for me is to highlight the lack of lyrical substance. Again, the nonsense words are omitted from "Blue Money", presumably because they haven't been introduced by "we used to sing" or "Jackie Wilson said". So, no "Doot doo-yie-doot". Or however one might spell it.
I could enumerate all these things, but that would be as tedious as reading them. I love Van Morrison's records, and his repetitions carry me along, his various idiosyncrasies are perfectly housed in his music, and questions of meaning rarely leap to mind while you're listening. However, when placed on the printed page, they are too exposed. I eventually had to put an iPod playlist together just to listen to the songs while reading them.
And it dawned on me just how much I had taken Van Morrison's lyrics as being spontaneous, as though created on the fly. Obviously, I knew this wasn't the case, yet this was always the feeling they gave me. When presented with lyrics, that feeling was somehow lost, even if they were transcriptions rather than displays of how Van may or may not have written them before recording them. After all, the man himself has admitted that his lyrics weren't fixed. "Into The Mystic" is a good example of this. Even Van himself couldn't be certain of what he was singing:
Originally I wrote it as 'Into the Misty'. But later I thought that it had something of an ethereal feeling to it so I called it 'Into the Mystic'. That song is kind of funny because when it came time to send the lyrics in WB Music, I couldn't figure out what to send them. Because really the song has two sets of lyrics. For example, there's 'I was born before the wind' and 'I was borne before the wind', and also 'Also younger than the son, Ere the bonny boat was one' and 'All so younger than the son, Ere the bonny boat was won' ... I guess the song is just about being part of the universe.
These lyrics as quoted by Van are not what is in this volume: "And the bonnie boat was one". Hmm …
Why certain songs were omitted from the selection is not made clear in Hughes's introduction, but I know when discussing this with some Van Morrison fans I know, they all had complaints. "Cyprus Avenue", "Astral Weeks", "Haunts of Ancient Peace", "Piper At The Gates of Dawn" and numerous others were cited. I wondered myself at the lack of "Wonderful Remark". But when dealing with Selections rather than Collections, pleasing everybody is never going to be possible.
The question many might ask is "who exactly is this book aimed at?" Well, simply put, Van Morrison fans. For me, this is a reference tool, something that makes up for a lack of lyric sheets on some Van Morrison albums. Does it enhance the albums? For me, it doesn't.
To my mind, Van Morrison has never been a poet, or even a performance poet. In fact, I wouldn't even think of him as a lyricist in the conventional usage of that word. He is, and always has been, something almost unique when it comes to the words that accompany his music. Earlier I mentioned the trinity consisting of Van Morrison, Phil Lynott and Bono, and with reasons other than their dominance within the Irish music scene. All three had similar approaches to the creation of words, it seems. All three were dealing with their own experience to some degree or other, all three had a near conversational, prosaic aspect to what they sang. And just in case you think I'm mad to include Bono in there, witness these:
Life through a window, a discoloured pain
Mrs. Brown's washing is always the same
I walk the sweet rain tragicomedy
I'll walk home again to the street melody.
Bob Geldof also had his moments, although he came from a much more cynical place.
What sets Morrison apart from just about everyone else – including his imitators, or those burdened by his influence (such as Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, whose use of repetition à la Van Morrison shows just how easily the whole thing can fall apart) – is the fact that his performances are natural, raw, charged with emotional honesty, and an artistic integrity that doesn't rely on intellectual rigours or pretences (Duritz, by contrast often sounds whiney and self-pitying). He may namedrop his literary heroes on a regular basis, but not as Sting might throw in references to Vladimir Nabokov. He's not seeking some kind of cultural cachet. He is excited by this stuff, affected by it, touched by it. Reading the lyrics cold removes this aspect of the whole.
However, the book now exists – and it is something that has been longed-for by many fans, and probably a few detractors attempting to make a point. I believe that Van Morrison remains relevant, and has created a world of his own, not only lyrically, as Eamon Hughes points out, but musically. It is a uniquely Northern Irish melange, a mixture of Stax rhythm and blues, Ceilidh Hall, country, soul, miscellaneous Americana, and wisps of things picked up here and there. His vocal style is his own, with elements perhaps only found previously in flamenco and qawwali and similar improvised vocal styles. If this book is to be taken as anything, it should be regarded as a signpost towards an artist capable of producing music that straddles huge distances between happy-go-lucky and melancholy, sacred and profane, intellect and instinct, the menial and the spiritual. For Van Morrison, there are no opposites, only unities.