Last night, after my first visit to the gym for about a month, I settled down to make my evening ‘TV dinner’ meal and watch my recording of Up On Cyprus Avenue [originally transmitted on BBC Four on the evening of Sunday 6th September], which had been billed as the highlights of two concerts played by Van Morrison on Cyprus Avenue in Belfast to mark his 70th birthday on 31st August.
Morrison has long been regarded as one of the all-time greats and, one hesitates to use the term, a bit of a legend for his uncompromising devotion firstly, to blues, jazz and soul tinged with a certain Irishness; secondly, to his art , influences and muses; and thirdly, for being ‘difficult’ and a bit of a grumpy bastard.
For a large part of my adult life I was a slavish devotee of every note recorded, or played live at concerts in London that I could get tickets for, of ‘Van The Man’ who was born as George Ivan and is now a knight of the realm – though somehow, as I watched last night, an announcer exclaiming “Will you welcome on stage … Sir Van Morrison!” conjured up an immediate image in my mind of a white Ford Transit crawling out in front of the crowd at about 5mph as if it was an exhibit at a trade fair.
To coin a phrase: I’m now over it and feeling much better, thank you. I ‘grew out’ of my Van Morrison fanaticism largely as a result of attending a large number of his concerts over time.
In clichéd terms, never mind the brilliance and familiarity of the songs, out of say every five an average punter attended, he would witness two awful ones (where Morrison barely seemed to be trying, gets short with his band and totally ignores the audience), two average – curate’s egg-type – ones; and, if you were lucky, one absolutely sensational one in which Morrison took you to musical and spiritual places quite beyond the reach of other artistes.
In this regard, to begin with (i.e. the first thirty years), a ‘hit’ rate of one great concert in five seemed a reasonable return and one endured the awful and average concerts with a resigned and veteran fan’s smug attitude “Yeah, last night was one of the crap ones, but at least it was Van Morrison …”
However, gradually, the realisation set in with me personally that perhaps this was no longer enough – especially given the prices of half-decent seats at modern concert halls and stadia in the 21st Century. If the artiste wasn’t going to bother much, why should I?
So I unhitched myself from carriage marked ‘Fanatic Van Morrison Fans’, grew a life for myself and felt better for it.
Last night’s exposure to the highlights of these recent live Belfast concerts simply served to remind me of Van Morrison as he is, both the good and the bad parts.
Van Morrison is an untouchable artiste in terms of reputation – worshipped by all sorts of pop musicians – that he can do exactly what he wants (and usually does), so he won’t be hurt or harmed in any way by criticism, whether it be from me, or someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.
In popular music, you want your heroes to be slim, probably ‘elegantly wasted’ [the description traditionally applied to Keith Richards] and unfathomably ‘cool’.
In contrast, for the past twenty years Van Morrison has presented himself as a faux Mafia hitman – short, as wide as he is tall and wearing a dark suit, a pork pie hat and dark glasses. All he needs is a violin case containing a sub-machine gun beside him on stage and he would look most like a supporting actor in a scene from The Godfather or Some Like It Hot.
The recording of the concerts that I watched last night had its moments. It was well-produced and directed, it was fun to celebrity-spot in the audience, it was nostalgic and informative to see it all happening on the actual Cyprus Avenue that features in more than one Morrison song, and the band supporting him was as tight and skilled as any I’ve witnessed in the past decade.
That said, I cannot pretend that on last night’s evidence Morrison has restored himself to primacy in my affections. He is 70 now, after all, but generally his vocals seem more slurred, flabby and less precise than they were in days of yore. There was even – dare I say it – a suggestion of him just going through the motions from my perspective (sitting as I was in my armchair nursing a double shot of Dalwhinnie whisky), though by the same token the audience at the event were clearly ecstatic and the sound quality was excellent despite the concert taking place in the open air. Perhaps knowing that they were watching their hero playing these songs on the actual street he was singing about had something to do with it.
Out of interest – and I’m sure my readers all have their favourite Van Morrison tunes, like I do – here is a link to the original recorded version of track Cyprus Avenue off the Astral Weeks album, recorded in September and October 1968, courtesy of YouTube – CYPRUS AVENUE