Book Review by Hugh Vaughan
Gerald Dawe. In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast. Merrion Press, Dublin Nov 2017. h/b 134 pp
And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says, Lord, have mercy I think it’s the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow.
A Belfast poet, and retired Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, Gerald Dawe tries to decipher some of Van Morrison’s lyrics in his book In Another World, Van Morrison and Belfast. The extract above is from Madame George where he writes
For me, Madame George, it is ‘a child-like vision’ which portrays a world of lost love, of ceremonies and evasions, past and present, shifting like a carousel between real and imagined people and places.
I see the song as stream of consciousness – about a leaving, so nostalgic; and am intrigued by the interesting juxtaposition of Dublin and the protestant Sandy Row, but Morrison says of his work,
There are times, I don’t know what my work is about; I haven’t a clue.
Gerald Dawe explores the Belfast of the ’50s and ’60s that led to the musician breaking out of his working-class roots, yet he returns to them frequently. Five or six of his albums are about East Belfast: its people, its places, its streets. The early musical influences: his father’s record collection, his mother’s singing, the Orange bands, and the local music scene. His entree into professional playing with the showband, the Monarchs. Then, there’s, Them – an influential R&B band based at the famed Maritime Club, Belfast. With a few hit records, ‘Gloria’ – an iconic Van Morrison song and according to Dawe was an anti-establishment anthem of the 1960s – the first punk record! One of 400 songs written by Van Morrison in his 55 plus years performing. Them were playing the same venues as other great bands of the time – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. The Doors, acknowledged the influence of Them and opened for the Belfast group in the States. Morrison’s breakout was happening – influenced initially by the blues of his father’s collection, then Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie Mc Ghee to John Lee Hooker. Van Morrison describes how Nina Simone had ‘the mystique’ to turn ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ into something rich with meaning. George Jones, a well-known Northern Irish showband performer, played with Van Morrison in the Monarchs. Jones remarked in Dawe’s book that Morrison ‘wrote poetry. It was deep … most of us didn’t know what he was talking about’.
Sir George Ivan ‘Van’ Morrison was born in 1945, to liberal working-class Protestants, living in ‘a Belfast where everybody had to be in his or her own place; everything was correct; things were in their spot.’ Morrison describes his own East Belfast roots, ‘we didn’t go to church all the time, but it was a very churchy atmosphere in the sense that that’s the way it is in Northern Ireland.’ Dawe, went to the same secondary school as Morrison. ‘A dull, dead town’, was how Belfast writer Brian Moore described it. He’s a writer Van Morrison admires.
Dawe paints a vibrant vision of Belfast, pre-Troubles. It was a city of cross-community girlfriends, music clubs, and normality – just getting on with it. Belfast had its own type of music scene, everything went – rock, folk, blues, trad. With a Skiffle and Jazz revival in Britain, English poet Philip Larkin worked as a librarian at Queen’s University, Belfast and reflects in his diary of 1954, All What Jazz – a Record Diary, recollecting a scene in the Plaza Ballroom – ‘a thousand people squashed ….. the more enterprising getting in through a small square window in the men’s lavatory … Lonnie Donegan would come forward with his impersonation of Lead Belly.’
I remember Christmas shopping trips to Belfast in the ’60s, its ‘city centre, with the light spilling out from the plate-glass shop-front windows and the perpetual flow of buses, was actually like a stage set for drama’. Dawe’s Belfast of the ’60s changed with the onslaught of the Troubles – ‘All changed, changed utterly’. Yeats’ famous quote is apt as Morrison acknowledges the poet’s influence in a discussion with Dawe. This Northern Irish industrial town was once a world-leader in linen mills, rope works, tobacco, shipbuilding and engineering works. Politics was dominated by Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish government from 1932 until it was suspended in 1972, and tried to maintain the status quo of a sectarian society.
New York called to Van Morrison in 1967. Brian Moore lived there, American soldiers had brought music to Belfast during the war years; and his father brought a large collection of delta-blues records from America, one of the largest in Belfast at the time. The call was for an ‘imagined’ America.
Morrison’s form of expression tapped into the imagination of the Beat poets, especially Jack Kerouac, and he acknowledges William Blake and Walt Whitman. According to Dawe,
Van Morrison’s voice is distinct and unique. It’s like having a presence that is unmovable. The music is not constrained. You can move backwards and forwards through all these different artistic forms: an important lesson for future generations. Morrison’s music will always ‘be there’ for one basic reason – that he sets out on a journey and he makes a bold statement.
And continuing, Morrison
hones all the proverbial wit, the aphoristic questioning, the emotional and physical directness, the taunting mockery and self-reliance into an accurate and vivid recreation of spoken English.
The musician is steeped in music and writing, and reading of course. The songs come in a flow like the automatic writing of Yeats. Dawe compares that lyrical flow to Patrick Kavanagh. Morrison quips,
I don’t intellectualise music. For me that spoils it, if I’m trying to analyse it and break it all down. It takes away whatever you connect with.
Trying to understand the person who is Van Morrison is more difficult: he wants to communicate as a performer, he sees it as ‘earning my living’. He is not interested in the celebrity business – the conflict of trying to protect the private from the public. Dawe maintains that the music aspires to some form of genuine spiritual experience while simultaneously contending with the rigours of the real world of marketing. Van the Man tries to keep it ‘real’. There is in Morrison’s work the feeling that the lyrical sound is more important than the written song – the voice dominates what is sung because language turns into music at certain points; it was always about ’rapture not radicalism’.
Dawe, while not fully explaining the enigma of Van Morrison, has penned a fitting tribute to the performer and their city of birth – Belfast.
Hugh McMahon Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems. He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles.