Some fans call him “the Mystic from the East.” I’m talking Belfast, by the way – not some Himalayan Shangri-La.
Recently turned 70, Van Morrison is wary of such accolades and yet many feel that he is one of the great artists of the last hundred years.
With James Brown and Bob Marley gone to the great soul house in the sky, Bob Dylan would appear to be Morrison’s only living musical peer.
Both handily pass the “great artist qualifying tests” of singularity of vision and a voluminous body of groundbreaking successful work; in fact they share so many traits, obsessions, and dislikes as to make them seem like cosmic twins. But what really unites them is a fierce and unrelenting drive to create.
Cosmically related or not, they have shared tours and stages frequently over the last fifty years and seem at the least to have a grudging admiration for each other.
Both have little use for the press or publicity. While Dylan remains enigmatically aloof, the Belfast mystic has made it clear that he considers explanations about his art entirely superfluous, and that he despises the trappings and business of music.
Some of this antipathy may date back to his teenage years when he was shamelessly ripped off by record and music publishing companies. Rumor has it that Bert Berns, legendary head of Bang Records and producer of much of Morrison’s early work, dropped dead after one of their rancorous phone calls.
Dylan and Morrison share a deep personal connection to their music with little thought to commercial success. They have scant interest in contemporary social media and, indeed, at recent concerts I attended neither seemed to acknowledge the presence of the audience, much less tailor their set-lists to suit its tastes.
Both come from fundamentalist backgrounds. Dylan’s family in Hibbing, Minnesota clung to its immigrant Jewish roots while Van’s mother was a seeker of divine inspiration in evangelical East Belfast.
Infused with spirituality each man’s songs long for truth and ultimate peace. Luckily for us they rarely find either, and thus go on recording and performing. Dylan, in particular, is still out there on his endless tour, crisscrossing the country, delighting in visiting smaller markets where he loves to play minor league baseball parks.
It was while on a visit to East Belfast, however, that I found the deepest link between them: their work is firmly rooted in place and time.
Dylan’s songs range all across the US on an eternal Highway 61 with mentions of Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and New York City among others.
Van is much more firmly rooted in his hometown, in particular, the area around his parents’ house that he celebrated in one of his great tone poems.
“On Hyndford Stree where you could feel the silence…
As the wireless played Radio Luxembourg
And the voices whispered across Beechie River…”
Violet and George Morrison raised their only child in one of the old red-bricked terraced houses built for Belfast’s shipyard workers.
Close by you can still see The Hollow referenced in his pop classic, Brown Eyed Girl, and the towering electric pylon that he mentions in various songs and introductions.
It’s but a short walk from Hyndford Street to Cyprus Avenue – the names of both roads are employed as titles of Morrison classics - and yet there’s a wide sociological gulf in between. Van bridges it with his bluesy, moody treatments of both songs but you’re never less than aware of the class divide between his red-bricked working class street and the leafy avenue he was drawn to.
That’s the genius of the Belfast mystic. In a couple of songs he can summon up his hometown to the outsider – its dour impenetrability as well as its worldly sophistication.
Like James Joyce, Van had to go away to find home. Now that there’s relative peace in Belfast we can all visit the mystical claustrophobic “East” that spawned this great artist. We can also measure the reality against the images that we have constructed from his melodies and lyrics.
Hallelujah that both Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, his American twin, are still out there yearning, learning, and supplying us with songs of innocence, passion, and truth.