Van Morrison is famously grumpy. The singing, sax-playing, rock/soul/folk/jazz master has gone off on many interviewers over the years for asking questions he didn’t like, been sued by (and settled with) one former collaborator, called out (and written a song about) several other legendary artists for supposedly ripping him off, and is not above walking offstage in the middle of a performance if he doesn’t feel like the crowd is with him. And at age 74, on the eve of the release of his 41st (41st!) studio album, he hasn’t gotten any less prickly.
Exhibit A: a new interview with Van the Man by Laura Barton at the Guardian. The occasion is the release this week of Three Chords and the Truth, the aforementioned 41st album, the latest in an extremely prolific late-career run, which included two full-lengths each in 2018 and 2017. Barton is clearly a fan of the new album—she calls it his best in two decades—and has an encyclopedic knowledge of both Morrison’s work and the music, literature, and art that informs it. Morrison, however, is unmoved by her expertise as a listener and sensitivity as an interviewer, leading to a lot of exchanges like this one about his taste in jazz musicians:
He tells me he prefers to listen to jazz or classical music, but, asked why he favours those genres, responds with a shirty: “Cos that’s what I like.” Has he been excited by any of the players on the new jazz scene? “No,” he says. “I don’t know who they are. If you gave me a list I could probably read [some names] off, but I don’t have it at the click of a switch.” He looks at me with a kind of irritable expectancy. “You’d need to give me a list,” he repeats. Moses Boyd, I begin. “Who?” Morrison says. “Never heard of him.” He’s a drummer. “Does he sing?” No. “Well, I only listen to mainly singers.”
And this one about a recent set list:
The previous evening in Bournemouth, Morrison and his band had tried out a couple of the new songs–the album’s title track and the rock’n’roll number “Early Days.” “Cos those are the ones the band learned,” he says, when asked why he chose to unveil those two. “I don’t know, is this a psychiatric examination?” It is not. “It sounds like one,” he says.
Barton does a remarkable job of wringing insights from what sounds like an excruciating interview, pointing out the way that Van’s insistence that very little conscious thought goes into his music contrasts with the richness of his work’s references to other artists and its “questing” literary quality; but also the way that his reticence dovetails with his music’s fixation on moments of sublimity that go beyond words. The whole thing is worth reading.
For me, even knowing Morrison’s reputation as a crank, it was mildly shocking to read him describe live performance as “very practical,” and “very repetitive,” like another day at the office. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform during this recent late period, and the experience was anything but practical and repetitive; it was joyful, spontaneous, overflowing with real feeling and improvisatory elan. He’s still an artist like no other, no matter how hard he may work to convince you otherwise. Hear “Days Gone By,” a song from the new album, below.