The only thing I love is the music. The rest of it is pure shit. The kind of shit that fame attracts is very dark. It’s very dark. I like the music. But that’s it. That’s it.
-Van Morrison, in a 2009 interview for The Telegraph
Will you meet me in the country
In the summertime in England
Will you meet me?
-Van Morrison, “Summertime in England”
When I was a youthful romantic I took the invitation from Van Morrison’s 1980 album Common One quite seriously and purchased a ticket to see him in concert, in the middle of a forest in England. Only then did I consider, “Fuck me. How am I going to afford this?” Consequently, I signed up for a study abroad program through the university, strategically applied for as many scholarships and grants as possible, got another part time job, and staved off drinking away my money the rest of the semester—all so I could see Van Morrison in concert.
I don’t know what I expected—some sort of divine intervention—that the heavens would part and the music I had spent my youth poring over would reveal itself as some greater power, that by seeing the man in person, in the setting of his arguably greatest song (“Summertime in England,” which comes in at twenty minutes depending on the version), would enable me to reach transcendence.
The concert was at Westonbirt Arboretum, about 45 minutes north of Bath—the stupidly gorgeous English city the Romans built, with all their sexy spas. Bath is so fucking quaint it still makes me sick to think about it. If you want to slowly die in peace by the bubbling gorgeousness of its warm waters, and the beautiful blistering sunlight that appears at the end of every goddamned British day—sunsets that actually smell good—then by all means go to Bath. It is miserably perfect and uninhabitable.
I hitchhiked for the first, and possibly, last time in my life, thumbing my way out to the countryside. Both ways I happened to catch a ride with thirty-something, sexually repressed Britons, as if they were trying to fulfill the stereotype on my behalf. The couple I hitched from after the concert was bold enough to ask if I’d “fancy a go at them both.”
“Um. Well. No. But if he wants to watch,” I offered.
Immediately they refuted, in their proper British way, “No. That’s quite alright! Well, cheerio! God save the Queen!”
Van Morrison will be 67 on August 31 (which is today;) he’s a postmodern artist without realizing it, whose reading list ends at James Joyce and Muddy Waters. Most people don’t actually know Van Morrison. They’ve heard “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” Which is fine. There’s a lot of really good shit I’ll never hear either. But to understand Van Morrison you must understand the artist as a dissatisfied masochist. Van’s performance is all work. He is attempting, against all odds, to heal himself through performance. And it is not an effortless event. The infamous and immensely gravitating performance of “Caravan” on Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Band’s Last Waltz came after years of crippling stage fright. That night he was literally pushed on stage in a sparkling leotard, a last minute costume change that came from the anxiety of having to perform. Ever since, Van has closed his eyes or worn sunglasses.
Van has always been reaching—reaching back—reaching for something that may happen, for the ultimate performance. Few artists are actually capable of this. Not because they lack talent—it has nothing to do with that. It’s some otherness. It is the animalism of cultism. It is the performer capable of having the audience drink the kool-aid and willingly confirm their empty cup —“See! I’ve finished!” It is the performer who disables the audience with their magnetism and undeserved authority. Because art is not a democracy, it is the heart of fascism.
His performances can still reach levels of electrification, but it doesn’t just happen. It takes work. And when the moment does happen, it’s so brief and beyond him, the effort is so felt, that you are always aware of the performance. You are buoyed briefly, as if by a roller coaster drop, but it has nothing to do with whether you got it or not—it happened and you felt it.
In this way, like most good theatre it’s ultimately bad.
In performance Van is in constant revision, like the best jazz musicians he’ll break in the midst of a song and yell something like, “Right. Right THERE! Yeah yeah. THERE. Keep it going!” Or, “No, no no. Right, right, right – slow, slow, slow.” He will direct the band, the lighting designer. He is aware of his process, there’s no tongue and cheek in his breaking—this awareness is an integral part of his performance.
Like the religious fanatic who repeats a prayer over and over again, in vain, Van constantly turns over phrases, mining them for their mysticism until they are licked clean. He will repeat a line, grabbing breathlessly, exhaustively at the prosaic for its substance. He will repeat “It ain’t why, why, why, why,” or “by the Pylon, by the pylon, by the pylon,” or “Caledonia, Caledonia, Caledonia,” until it has been turned over, gutted out for every scrap of meaning. What Van arrives at from this excavation is that words are empty vessels that ultimately carry us nowhere. In doing this he is unlike any other performer I’ve seen and on good nights the result is visceral.
Now, for years I have told folks that I went deep into the arboretum after the concert to roll a joint—some post-coital deep breathing—and that Van Morrison appeared in the mist, growling, with a glass of whiskey, perspiring from the mid-summer heat. In the story I tell folks that Van asks me what I’m doing, why am I here, and what I’m looking for. Without letting me respond (a trademark of his, I imagine) he tells me to go home, that what I am looking for is not here, and it will never be.
There are those who counter me and say, “That’s a bunch of bullshit. That didn’t happen!”
I tell them, “Either way, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
In the 2012 performances I’ve seen of Van Morrison on Youtube, he stands before the crowd, clad in a black suit and fedora, like a mob boss, a straight block of wood, hidden behind his shades. This is similar to when I saw him six years ago, but he’s surprisingly gotten better, he’s not as soft as he was in 2006. You can tell he’s pretty pissed and that he continues to struggle with the act of performing. Which is a good sign
In October Van’s new album will be released with the comically banal title Born to Sing: No Plan B, because Van really doesn’t give a shit in this regard. Throw a title on it. Get the thing done. Let’s continue. He’ll be performing throughout the UK this fall. If the price fits you, and as long as you don’t have to try too hard, I’d go see him. I obviously can’t promise it will be very good, but you have to know: that’s not what it’s about.