In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke advised the aspiring versifier to mine their childhood as a source of poetry: ‘that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories’. Probably no songwriter has taken that injunction to heart more than Van Morrison, who literally returned to his roots on his 70th birthday at the end of August by performing a concert on Cyprus Avenue, a location of mythic significance in the world of back streets and mystic avenues that he created in song.

In the past week or so I have steeped myself in that world again – thanks to the BBC iPlayer which has allowed me to experience the Van-fest laid on by Radio Ulster in the days leading up to that extraordinary concert on Cyprus Avenue on 31 August. The BBC over there did him proud: broadcasting the concert in its entirety live, plus a documentary about Them, and a countdown over three nights of the top 70 Van Morrison songs, as voted for by listeners to Radio Ulster.

Van's home: 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast (as seen on Google Street View)
Van’s birthplace: 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast (on the left, next one along from the red door, as seen on Google Street View)

George Ivan Morrison was born in a small two-up two-down terraced house at 125 Hyndford Street. He was brought up there by his mother Violet and his father George, who worked as an electrician at the nearby Harland
& Wolff shipyard. According to Eamonn Hughes, who recently edited a collection of Morrison’s lyrics, Lit Up Inside, Morrison has done for this part of east Belfast what Seamus Heaney did for Bellaghy, in County Derry: turned it into his imaginative terrain.

As fans know well, Van name-checks local place names frequently in his songs. But it’s not simply a matter of localism: as Anthony Toner, director of Eastside Arts Festival that organised the Cyprus Avenue concert says, it’s Van’s his ability to transcend the local that has given his lyrics universal meaning:

He’s very specific about east Belfast. Any artist can be specific about their own geography, but you run the risk of being parochial. Van manages to turn it into something universal. A street corner becomes a universe. It’s dazzling, and not many people achieve it.

The spell that Morrison’s songs cast over listeners from far and wide was made apparent over the three nightly two-hour programmes on Radio Ulster presented by Ralph McLean that counted down 70 of Van’s songs picked by listeners. So many had added heartfelt comments to their choice. Some spoke of how a particular song had helped them through difficult times, like the woman who had lost her daughter when she was only 15, and had lost interest in everything except his music, or Belfast people who had endured terrible things during the Troubles. Others chose tracks that conjured memories of good times – moments of happiness shared with others, or of individual spiritual significance.

One such individual was former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, who, like Van, was brought up in the same part of Belfast and went to the same school, Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School. During the concert, Morrison dedicated ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ to Keenan, who was there in the front row. There was a reason for that, as Keenan had explained in a short birthday greeting to Van, also broadcast on Radio Ulster.

Keenan was five years a hostage in Beirut, blindfolded and chained for most of the time. In his book, An Evil Cradling, Keenan wrote how, during the years he spent in spent in captivity, he would often ‘play’ his favourite Morrison songs from memory. In his radio appreciation he spoke of the experience taking him ‘down into this deep, empty aloneness like a child’. It was, he said, ‘as if your entire personality, your intellect, goes into an enforced meltdown – as if all these reserves of mind and spirit just start melting off you like candle wax’:

I went to that place where you are a child with no-one there to look after or care for you and all your adult-ness gone.

However, Keenan found solace in recalling Van’s unique delivery of ‘Motherless Child’:

Sometimes I wish, I could fly
Like a bird up in the sky
Oh, sometimes I wish, I could fly
Fly like a bird up in the sky

Sometimes I wish, I could fly
Like a bird up in the sky
A little closer to home

Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is here
Sometimes I feel like freedom is so near
But we’re so far from home

It’s significant that several of Morrison’s best-loved songs refer to the process of healing. Like many of those who added personal comments to their chosen favourite on Radio Ulster, I have my own experience of this. I remember attending the first funeral of someone of my generation, a work colleague snatched from life at an unfairly young age. It was also the first time I heard the music of our generation played in a religious ceremony. Shelagh’s partner had chosen from Into The Music, an album they had loved to listen to together, Van’s ‘The healing has begun’:

And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when
And we’ll walk down the avenue again and the healing has begun

And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile when the healing has begun

In his Radio Ulster appreciation, Brian Keenan also spoke of the way in which Morrison had utilised the urban landscape of his childhood in his songs:

What he’s talking about is not simply East Belfast’s physical geography but a time in his spiritual experience. It’s about what happened in his own conciousness and his own personal psychology to affirm himself.

In sixties Belfast, said Keenan, there was ‘a sense of liberation floating invisibly in the air’. The records shops were full of young people leafing through the latest releases from the States. At the Maritime Hotel, where Keenan saw Morrison’s possessed performances as lead singer and saxophonist with Them, there was ‘the heat of the room and the excited energy of everybody there’.

Van Morrison performing on Cyprus Avenue on his 70th birthday.
Van Morrison performing on Cyprus Avenue on his 70th birthday.

Also in the front row at the Cyprus Street concert was Ian Rankin who wrote the foreword to that collection of Morrison’s lyrics, Lit Up Inside. Rankin’s wife grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, so he was familiar with some of the street names when he listened to Van’s albums. He found ‘stories in the music, and characters’; but above all:

There was a search for the spiritual in the commonplace, the personal straining towards the universal.

Though Morrison has evoked many locales in his lyrics – some a world away from the back streets of Belfast – it is the Belfast of his childhood and teenage years that is transmuted into the precious metal of a deeply imagined terrain as his writing moves from the everyday to the extraordinary, the mythical – from the streets of his east Belfast childhood – Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield – and the voices echoing across the Beechie River. Van’s parents were married in St Donard’s on Christmas Day in 1941, and the sound of the church’s ‘Sunday six-bells chime’ echoes through ‘On Hyndford Street’ and ‘Beside You’:

Take me back, take me way, way, way back
On Hyndford Street
Where you could feel the silence at half past eleven
On long summer nights
As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg
And the voices whispered across Beechie River

Watching the moth catcher working the floodlights in the evenings
And meeting down by the pylons
Playing round Mrs. Kelly’s lamp
Going out to Holywood on the bus
And walking from the end of the lines to the seaside
Stopping at Fusco’s for ice cream

In the days before rock ‘n’ roll
Hyndford Street, Abetta Parade
Orangefield, St. Donard’s Church, Sunday six bells
And in between the silence there was conversation
And laughter, and music and singing
And shivers up the back of the neck

Over and over again
And voices echoing late at night over Beechie River
And it’s always being now, and it’s always being now
It’s always now
– ‘On Hyndford Street

Morrison attended Orangefield Boys’ School, as it was then known, until 1960:

When I was a young boy
Back in Orangefield
I used to look out
My classroom and dream
– ‘Got to Go Back’

There was quite a contrast between the spacious, detached homes of Cyprus Avenue and the little terrace on Hyndford Street where, as he sang in ‘Astral Weeks’, his mother would be:

Takin’ care of your boy
Seein’ that he’s got clean clothes
Puttin’ on his leatherette shoes.

Van once described Cyprus Avenue as, ‘a street in Belfast, a place where there’s a lot of wealth. It wasn’t far from where I was brought up and it was a very different scene.’ For the teen-aged Morrison, Cyprus Avenue was ‘a very mystical place. It was a whole avenue lined with trees and I found it a place where I could think.’

And I’m caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue
And I’m conquered in a car seat
Not a thing that I can do
I may go crazy
Before that mansion on the hill
I may go crazy
Before that mansion on the hill
But my heart keeps beating faster
And my feet can’t keep still …

And the leaves fall one by one by one by one
Call the autumn time a fool.

Cyprus Avenue: 'Way up on .... the avenue of trees'
Cyprus Avenue: ‘Way up on …. the avenue of trees’

There were wild, abandoned places for a child to explore in fifties Belfast, wandering the edgelands where ‘immobile steel rims crack/and the ditch in the back roads stop’ he would find himself alongside the Belfast & County Down Railway railway line, which once ran through east Belfast. With  verses from his father’s great collection of blues music coursing through his brain, he would transmute his home terrain into the landscape of a mythical America:

I think I’ll go on by the river
With my cherry, cherry wine
I believe I’ll go walking by the railroad
With my cherry, cherry wine

Van Morrison down in the Hollow
Van Morrison down in the Hollow

Around the corner from Morrison’s home on Hyndford Street was the Hollow, made famous in ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, as a place of early teenage seduction. It’s where the Connswater river – known locally as the Beechie – forms:

Hey, where did we go, days when the rains came
Down in the hollow, playing a new game
Laughing and a-running

Van's East Belfast
Van’s East Belfast: there’s a tourist trail now

What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows
Take my time
I’ll see you when my love grows
Baby don’t let it slide
I’m a working man in my prime
Cleaning windows

After leaving school and trying several things, Van began to dedicate himself to music. For a time a window cleaning round by day gave him the time and
the money needed to play at night. From childhood he had been steeped in the sounds of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers and just about every shade of the blues, thanks to his music-loving father who had spent time in America and possessed an impressive record collection. By his teens, Van was playing harmonica, saxophone and guitar in a succession of showbands, skiffle groups and R’n’B bands.  In 1964 he formed Them, whose music remains among the freshest-sounding of the sixties R&B-influenced bands.

Even then, Van was writing songs which mythologised the Belfast he knew. In one of his earliest lyrics, ‘The Story of Them’, he turns Belfast into a city of  music – sound carried on the wavelengths of Radio Luxembourg and AFN and absorbed from his father’s collection of jazz and blues:

Now just around about this time with
The help of the three Js
Started playin at the Maritime.
Thats Jerry, Jerry and Jimmy

Now people say, who are
Or what are them
That little one sings and that big
One plays the guitar with
A thimble on his finger
Runs it up and down the strings
The bass player don’t shave much
I think they’re all a little bit
Touched
But the people came
And that’s how we made our name
Too much it was
Yeah, good times
Wild, sweaty, crude, ugly
And mad.

After a brief series of classic hit singles – ‘Here Comes The Night’, ‘Gloria’ and a shimmering account of Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ – Van ended up in New York, where he eventually recorded Astral Weeks, the album that is widely considered to be one of the best in popular music. It certainly is for me: I still can’t hear it without getting the shivers. That was followed by a sequence of staggeringly brilliant albums – Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St Dominic’s Preview, Veedon Fleece and Into The Music, as well as one of the best  live albums ever recorded, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. This remarkable burst of creativity may have been followed by a fallow period in the 1980s, but every album Van has made has always included at least one song to treasure in the soul.

Take, for example, the decidedly uneven 1989 album, Avalon Sunset, which still contained two absolute Morrison classics – ‘These Are the Days’ and ‘Coney Island’.  In the latter, Morrison recalls childhood trips with his mother to the seaside at Coney Island, in County Down. The verses name check localities on the route, including Downpatrick, St. John’s Point, Strangford Lough, and Ardglass. Van’s narrative paints a vivid picture of a bright autumn day spent birdwatching, stopping for Sunday papers, and for ‘a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner.’ The lines I love best, though, are these (I especially love the way he says ‘your face’):

I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ We’ve all experienced such moments. For us, one such moment was last weekend, as we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. We drove out of Liverpool and up onto the moors above Denbigh – to the lake at Lyn Brenig, a reservoir created in the 1970s and a place of human occupation for close on 8000 years. With Bronze Age cairns, barrows and burial mounds dotted along the trails, it’s the kind of place that might appeal to Van’s mystic imagination.

Striding out on her 90th
Striding out on her 90th

Gallery: Lyn Brenig

Driving there and back we listened to Ralph McLean counting down Radio Ulster listeners’ best seventy Morrison songs. ‘These Are the Days’ caught the moment perfectly:

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now

These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.

Like those listeners to Radio Ulster who offered their personal stories, like those who travelled from as far afield as New Zealand to see him play on Cyprus Avenue, Van Morrison’s songs, in their many moods and their spiritual yearning, their sense of wonder in nature, in gardens wet with rain, have formed an accompaniment to my life through the decades. No guru, no method, no teacher, just Van, the listener and nature. That’s why it was so good to see the man back on his old corner again:

Here I am again
Back on the corner again
Back where I belong
Where I’ve always been
Everything the same
It don’t ever change
I’m back on the corner again
In the healing game

Down those ancient streets
Down those ancient roads
Where nobody knows
Where nobody goes
I’m back on the corner again
Where I’ve always been
Never been away
From the healing game

See also

The 70 songs that were the favourites of Radio Ulster listeners are listed here, here and here. The number one favourite? ‘Into the Mystic’. Sheer perfection.

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2 thoughts on “Van Morrison at 70: back on the corner again

  1. Excellent article, I really enjoyed reading this. I would however have to disagree that the 1980s was a fallow one for Van. In my opinion the run of albums dealing with Van’s then spiritual ,and poetic, preoccupations that encompasses: A Sense of Wonder, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Poetic Champions Compose are among the strongest of his career. Then there’s 1980’s Common One; basically a role call of the Romantic poets set to an almost John Martynesque like mood music, and 1988’s excursion into traditional Irish folk music with The Chieftans. Admittedly, as you note, from 1989 onwards things get decidedly patchy. Nevertheless there’s almost always songs of real worth to be found, although I find 2009’s Astral Weeks; Live at the Hollywood Bowl awful beyond belief! ‘You can’t repeat the past…’.

    1. Thanks, Tony. You are absolutely right about those 1980s albums. That’s what comes of writing fast and relying on unreliable memory! There are some brilliant albums there – Common One is a personal favourite, particularly the long opening track, Haunts of Ancient Peace. The lovely album with the Chieftains is also often overlooked. I agree totally about the Astral Weeks Live album – unbearable and a big disappointment. The Radio Ulster 70 countdown had Listen to the Lion in the top 5 (rightly) but they chose to play the AWL version – flat and uninspiring, totally lacking the energy and power of the original.

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