Q: ‘How would you define transcendence?’
A: ‘Well, how would you define it?’
I interviewed Van Morrison last year. (I’m fine now, thanks.) While the exercise wasn’t quite the near-death experience of industry legend — he was polite and accommodating, if not always exactly forthcoming — it got sticky at times, as the above exchange illustrates. Let’s call it a solid 6.5 on the Lou Reed Scale.
Morrison, who turns 75 on the last day of this month, was formed in an age when a people-pleasing public persona wasn’t essential for musical success. In rare interviews, he engages with informed questions about music but refuses to indulge in the game most journalists insist on playing, which is to map the lyrical concerns to the lived life. Sniff around his personal motivations and he balls up like a hedgehog being poked with a garden rake.
In song, Morrison has interrogated Rosicrucianism, spiritual rebirth, the ache of place, the struggle to write, loss of innocence, as well as the joys of potted herring, window cleaning, Max Wall and Lester Piggott. He has adapted the work of Yeats, Blake, Paul Durcan and Peter Handke, been inspired by writers as diverse as Alice Bailey, Lord Byron and Alan Watts, and thanked L. Ron Hubbard on an album sleeve. In 1983, he wrote a song called ‘Rave On, John Donne’. There is ample evidence of a hefty and esoteric hinterland. Yet in interviews he repeatedly insists that these subjects are merely randomly selected aids, impersonal writing prompts.
It’s a disingenuous tactic designed to discourage private inquisition. And fair enough. Arguably no other artist has better expressed through music what Morrison once called the inarticulate speech of the heart.