I still remember the headline as if it were yesterday, rather than close to 40 years ago: “Portrait of the Artist as a Moody Bugger”. It was a rare Melody Maker interview with Van Morrison, a man who was less than expansive in his replies to an assortment of well-meaning queries from his hapless interviewer. Rock stars made a living those days from appearing moody, not least because to appear complicit in the making of money was deeply uncool, but Morrison’s surly reticence seemed different, less calculated.
To put him on a stage, though, was to see this introverted man transformed into a brilliant live performer. His live album of the 1970s, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, remains one of the greatest live renditions of any series of rock concerts. I saw him give an intense turn at the first of the great Knebworth concerts in 1974 (“The Bucolic Frolic”) and he lived up to his press stereotype, as frolicsome as anthrax.
So I was intrigued to be invited to see him perform live at that well-known haven for ageing R&B acts, St James’s Palace, one of the Queen’s favourite central London hangouts. Now I know 40 years is a long time in cultural assimilation, but this was an irresistible piece of surrealism. It turned out that the moody bugger was being pressed into service to help promote what was being described as “an incredible year” for Northern Ireland.
The most headline-worthy highlight of the incredible year is the opening in the spring of the Titanic Belfast visitor experience, six floors and nine galleries of commemoration of the centenary of the liner’s fateful voyage. But that is only a small part of the story. Northern Ireland wants to put its past behind it. And it wants to use cultural vibrancy and tourist numbers – the well-worn Guggenheim Bilbao formula – to achieve a kind of overdue catharsis.
The Belfast-born Morrison was far from the only guest of honour. This was an important diplomatic occasion. Peter Robinson, the province’s first minister, and Martin McGuinness, his deputy, were both there. They gave warm and funny speeches. Robinson said the venue had been McGuinness’s second choice. “His first choice was Buckingham Palace but it wasn’t free.” The humour was used to deflect a certain momentousness: this was the first time a member of Sinn Féin had set foot in a royal palace.
There were slogans everywhere attesting to “changing perceptions” and “turning the tide”. A choir of young people sang tunes from West Side Story underneath the stern portrait of a Danish king. Celebrations are culturally promiscuous these days. Leonard Bernstein’s ravishing melodies are acquiring universality and timelessness, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics – “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living” – are as inspiring to battle-scarred cities as star-cross’d lovers.
We were led into a gallery of portraits – more stern royals looking on – where the stage had been set up for the evening’s star attraction. There were feel-good video presentations, more choral singing, and a rather ham-fisted version of (what else) “Danny Boy”. And then Morrison came on, dressed in black, wearing shades and a hat, and tearing straight into one of his oldest hits, “Brown-Eyed Girl”.
Not the least strange thing about the middle-ageing of rock is how used we have become to listening to sexagenarians rasping about their sexual longing for young girls. It does not always conjure up a great picture. The official lyrics to “Brown-Eyed Girl” go like this: “Laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey, Skippin’ and a-jumpin’, In the misty mornin’ fog, With our, our hearts a-thumpin’.”
Morrison zipped through the words in short staccato bursts as if he did not really want us to hear them, which was an astute judgment call. He never, truth be told, seemed like the skippin’ and a-jumpin’ type, and as his 70th birthday looms, there are mobility issues. But his voice was in great form.
His set was taut and bluesy, which was probably about right, although I personally longed for just a taste of the Celtic mysticism that marked his finest work back in the day. But this was not an occasion for equivocation. He drove on, punching the air with his right arm, fiddling pedantically with a variety of harmonicas, tissues and throat sprays in between tracks. Moody? Not really. He cared. About his voice, and about his native city.
Culture doesn’t bring peace, because it is too weak in the face of intransigent political enmity. But once bridges are built, it can provide an irresistible momentum. You could feel it on Wednesday night. Van Morrison is no Bruce Springsteen. He has no taste for theatrics. But the music pulses within him as insistently as it ever did. And sometimes that is all it takes.
He finished his set with the great Sonny Boy Williamson standard “Help Me”, and then growled his trademark sign-off into the swaying microphone: “It’s too late to stop now!” There was no encore, of course. I guess he wanted us all to think about those words, now more than ever.
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