Erik Hage peels away the myth from Van Morrison’s music
Today is Van Morrison’s 64th birthday.
Erik Hage – perhaps best known around Nippertown for his music writings in Metroland, including his monthly column, “The Major Lift” – describes Morrison as “one of the greatest, most idiosyncratic and unique performers and songwriters in the history of popular music.”
And Hage knows what he’s talking about. He wrote the book on Morrison. Literally.
Hage’s first book, “The Words and Music of Van Morrison,” was published earlier this year as part of the ongoing Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection.
So in honor of Van Morrison’s birthday, here’s the Nippertown.com interview with Erik Hage – professor, music journalist and author:
Q: In the opening statement of the introduction to the book, you write, “If you’re looking for me to sum up or define the work of Van Morrison in this introduction, I simply can’t do that – for more than anything Van Morrison seems to constitute an entire universe unto himself.” Was this book a daunting task for you?
A: It was very daunting, but the flipside of that is that only an artist of Van Morrison’s breadth and scope really warrants a book like this. There aren’t too many artists whose music I would give over a year of my life to. But he has such an expansive and diverse canon that it was a truly worthwhile and illuminating experience for me.
The only other “pop” artist I would be interested in exploring in such depth would be Bob Dylan, for the very same reason. There are countless other artists I like to listen to—perhaps even more than Van Morrison—but few who really warrant this type of work. Dylan and Morrison are still making compelling records and still searching out new ways of expressing themselves. Others, like Paul McCartney or Neil Young aren’t still doing stuff that’s compelling to me.
Q: Was it difficult to separate the myth – or at least, the mystery – from the music when writing about Morrison?
A: Yes, definitely. There’s so much writing out there about the “mystical” side of Van Morrison, and it really misses the point. When you get down to it, a lot of his success comes from an incredible work ethic. He really does not have too much of an existence outside of music. He’s also extremely intellectually curious and a lot of that ends up in song. That’s why numerous philosophy, religion and literary references crop up in his work; he’s always been a voracious reader and tends to put whatever fascinations are at the front of his mind into lyrics.
I also tried to get past the myth of Morrison by really trying to get at what makes him tick as a songwriter and performer. The most interesting part of that for me was studying his childhood and the culture he grew up in over in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Memories from that time have cropped up in so many songs of his over the years.
I also tried to really be skeptical about the “conventional wisdom” surrounding his career—for example, this idea of Morrison being victim to the predatory side of the business during his early years, particularly during his brief association with producer Bert Berns.
The fact of the matter is that Berns saved the career of Morrison’s band Them and then subsequently plucked Morrison out of obscurity and made him into a viable solo artist. If you listen to “Brown Eyed Girl,” that is the vintage Berns sound. Morrison wrote it as a more mellow acoustic number. And Berns was also giving Morrison reign to explore—the extraordinary and dark “T.B. Sheets” came out of those same sessions.
Q: Did you make any attempt to interview Morrison himself?
A: Van Morrison has a song called “New Biography,” which pretty much encapsulates his feelings about writers interested in him and his life. He has never submitted to an interview for a book about himself, and has had some hostile reactions to past books. So, no. And it’s not really necessary for a critical study such as this. I think in this case you get a lot more out of studying the art than talking to the man himself.
Q: The book focuses on his recorded work rather than his personal life or even his live performances. Have you seen him in concert?
A: Yes, but not recently; I’m not sure I’d pay 300 dollars to see anyone. The ticket prices for his recent “Astral Weeks” shows have been astronomical. Also, there is a certain biographical thread that does run through this book, though, yes, it focuses primarily on his recorded output.
Q: What is your personal favorite Van Morrison album?
A: This is difficult, because he works in so many styles. The obvious answer would be “Astral Weeks,” because it really stands on its own as one of the most unique and beautiful albums ever made by a popular musician. But I am also really fond of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” and a great defender of his much-maligned, experimental work “Common One.”
And there aren’t too many better live albums than “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.” What an incredible soul album. His version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” on that record is unbelievable. I also love “Hymns to the Silence,” from the early 1990s. That album has an almost palliative effect on me.
Q: Is Morrison’s ongoing resistance to fame a primary reason for his continued iconic status, despite a string of recent, less-than-stellar albums?
A: I do think that his iconic status stems directly from the quality of the songs. He has written definitive music that is part of the fabric of our lives. “Gloria,” “Madame George,” “Into the Mystic,” “Have I Told You Lately”—all of these songs and more are classics and so different from each other.
And while I agree that he has released some albums that have been lacking throughout his career, I think that he still turns out quality music. 2005’s “Magic Time” is a great effort, and songs like “Stranded,” from that album, or “Little Village” from 2003 stand with some of his better work.
He does operate at a much lower profile now, though, and to understand him I think you’ve got to look at the careers of Ray Charles or Frank Sinatra and not at other rock or pop musicians. But he’s got such a non-celebrity persona that I truly think his iconic status comes from the fact that he has written so many songs over such a long period that have become standards.
Q: I was quite surprised when I read in the book that Morrison had never even broken into the Top 10 on the American Billboard Album charts until last year with “Keep It Simple.” Can you pinpoint any particular reason why his music never achieved mainstream commercial success?
A: The nature of his great albums, “Moondance” for example, is that they continue to sell steadily over the decades but don’t rocket to the top of the charts. That’s a testament to the enduring appeal of his songcraft. “Keep It Simple” did jump into the Top 10 soon after its release, but it won’t have the enduring appeal of his albums from his golden era.
Q: In your introduction, you write, “He never relied on past successes,” and then, of course, almost as if to completely contradict you, he resurrects “Astral Weeks” as a tour and a live album. How did you feel about that? Did you take it personally?
A: Ha! No, I didn’t take it personally and I think his 40-plus years of restless, nomadic roving through styles and genres supports the point I was trying to make. As to the “Astral Weeks” concerts and live album, I think it was high time for him to show that work the respect it deserves. He had a strange tendency to scoff at that album and the adulation heaped on it over the years, perhaps because a great producer, Lew Merenstein, and some incredible jazz musicians are partly responsible for the greatness of that album.
At that early stage of his career, he wasn’t as much of a svengali in the studio, and others deserve a great deal of the credit. That having been said, it’s great that for the concerts he is using the musicians from that album, the ones that are still alive, at least. There’s also a fiscal reason for the shows: Because of his contract with Merenstein’s production company, he didn’t make as much money off of the “Astral Weeks” songs as he could have. Morrison has admitted that the new live record and the concerts are a way to capitalize on that material.
I think it’s also important to note that the original “Astral Weeks” was a commercial failure when it was released and no single went to radio from it. “Moondance” was a clear attempt to make a radio-friendly album—but one that didn’t compromise great artistry.
Q: Do you listen to Morrison’s music differently now that you’ve written this book? Or do you listen to his albums at all anymore?
A: Yeah, I really do. I have a much broader context for appreciating what he was trying to do at different stages of his career. And, yes, I still listen to his music a lot.
Truth be told, I was on the fence with Van Morrison in a lot of ways when I started writing the book. My appreciation for him really grew as I explored even the less appreciated corners of his career. I love, for example, his takes on classic country songs, such as Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (another example of Van Morrison taking a cue from his hero, Ray Charles). Morrison is not only a top-notch songwriter but a marvelous interpreter of others’ material.
He also has this ongoing fascination with the “healing” capacity of music, and I like to listen to his music because so much of it is uplifting. I have this perfect memory of sitting next to a swimming pool years ago and listening to a vinyl copy of “Poetic Champions Compose” over and over—such a soothing experience.
Right now, I’m listening to this incredible bootleg of a late 1970s concert from Dublin. I love how he recreates the songs in concert. The version of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” on this album is, well, monumental—it starts real mellow and laid back and then just erupts.
Joe Nash, from the Colonie Public Library, has a great local cable show, “Meet the Author.” I met him through that, and he is a huge Van fan; subsequently, he turned me on to a lot of these amazing high quality recordings of Van Morrison concerts. I’ve been steadily listening to those in recent months.
Q: What’s next on the book front for you? I understand that you’re writing about the books of novelist Cormac McCarthy, a seemingly broad leap from Van Morrison. In your mind, is there a connection?
A: I recently finished the Cormac McCarthy study, and it’s at the publisher. I was talking to an interviewer from a radio station in Colorado, and he pointed out that there is a similarity between Van and Cormac McCarthy. And the more I think about it, he’s right, and I think I was drawn to both for similar reasons. They both really work in their own artistic universe, far outside of what’s in vogue at any given moment.
McCarthy rarely grants interviews, and is really all about the day-after-day rhythm of the work. He doesn’t hang out in literary circles, doesn’t have writer friends (he prefers to hang with world-renowned scientists), and doesn’t lecture at colleges. He sits out there in the high desert and just takes things in and writes. (Compare him to someone like William Kennedy, who seems to have had friendships with just about everyone, from Hunter S. Thompson to Frank McCourt.)
Morrison has a similar orientation to his craft. Both are highly individualistic and idiosyncratic—and somewhat cantankerous. Though McCarthy was surprisingly gracious when Oprah interviewed him. (I wanted him to stand up and walk out of the room when she asked him if he was “passionate” about writing. Then she started dramatically reading his own passages to him; it made me want to jump out of my skin.) I truly believe that McCarthy is the greatest living novelist, but he has descended straight from people like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, not from more recent writers.
Van Morrison is like that; his heroes are people like Hank Williams and Leadbelly, and he has no use for artists like the Beatles. He draws straight from the old source. Right now, I’m working on a book about the early 1960s—a sort of cultural history about a narrow window of time. The period has gotten short shrift when compared to the late 1960s.
I think it’s fascinating, for example, that Bob Dylan arrived on the Greenwich Village folk scene roughly around the time of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. I am interested in all of these parallel and groundbreaking developments. I mean, Dylan is reinventing American song at the same time that the first humans are being shot into space—cool!