Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Born in Belfast, Ireland, Van Morrison’s musical career has bridged such a wide variety of genres that he is difficult to label. He has written and performed some of rock music’s most enduring standards, including “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” and “Moondance,” and is a member of both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993, Robbie Robertson, former member of The Band, said of Morrison, “In the tradition of the great Irish poets and the great soul singers, he is the Caruso of rock and roll.”
Morrison’s career began as a teenager, covering popular hits at shows and in clubs in Northern Ireland. His first hit came as a member of the band Them when he wrote and recorded “Gloria” in 1964, which was the B-side of the single “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” Three years later as a solo artist, working for Bang Records executive Bert Berns, he released “Brown Eyed Girl” and while many consider it to be his signature song, he said in an interview with Time that he has “about 300 songs” that are better. Morrison certainly does not have good feelings about the song, which may also impact his lack of desire to perform it live. He has reported in more than one interview that he was never paid for the song. He told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “I call that ‘The Money Song’ – because they got all the money and I got none. What happened after that is I ended up with zero money. I was broke and depressed and remained that way for many years after that, and I just decided to make a stand for myself and do things my way, not theirs.”
Shortly after “Brown Eyed Girl” became a hit, Berns died and Warner Brothers bought out Morrison’s contract. He was given three sessions to records the album Astral Weeks. Morrison said at this point, he was literally a starving artist. He had little time for reflection about his work. He needed money to survive. Rolling Stonemagazine later named Astral Weeks #19 on its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, saying that it defies easy description and Morrison was “never this open, and naked, again.”
True to Morrison’s form, he veered away from the almost sorrowful tone of Astral Weeks to the more uplifting Moondance in 1970, which became his first album to sell a million copies and also made the Rolling Stone greatest albums list, at #65. The title track and “Into The Mystic” received radio play for decades after their release. After continuing to make hit records, such as “Wild Night” from the Tupelo Honey album, along with its country-tinged title track, Morrison took a step back from recording and performing in 1974. He said in a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone that he had needed to get his “energy together, doing things I like to do, and just living as if I were nobody instead of somebody.”
In interviews, he’s a notorious scold, often stonewalling and berating reporters. “You’re very naive. You shouldn’t be in the business you’re in,” he said when David Fricke of Rolling Stone asked why he was once blacklisted.
Morrison continued to record and perform into the 21st century, including a live performance of the entire Astral Weeks album at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in November 2008. He continues to maintain some bitterness for the industry – he did not attend the ceremony when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – although not for the music itself. He regularly collaborates with other artists, such as his recording of “Have I Told You Lately” with the Chieftans in 1995, which won a Grammy Award. Still, as he said in a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times, when the reporter questioned him about his music, “It’s a funny feeling that you actually have the courtesy of asking me about my songs. Did you know there have been numerous books written about my music where none of the authors were interested in my take on my music? I guess they all want to make it into something it’s not or was not intended to be by me.”
Morrison married Janet Rigsbee in 1968. Known as “Janet Planet,” she inspired songs like “Crazy Love” and “The Way Young Lovers Do.” She became known as Morrison’s Earth-goddess muse, but their relationship was rocky, and they split in 1973. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Shana.
He and his family moved to a ranch house in Woodstock, New York in 1969, largely because Bob Dylan lived there.
Morrison said that his song “Wonderful Remark” was “the only song that was really what Woodstock was about.” The song “Brand New Day,” meanwhile, was “kind of what it had been about, but it wasn’t a brand new day anymore.”
These statements echo the sour relationship that Van Morrison had with the town of Woodstock and, to an extent, with the hippie counterculture in general. Morrison went to Woodstock hoping for a peaceful, honest escape from the big lights, but ended up being turned off by the backstabbing and fakery that he perceived to fill the place.
Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett was a huge fan of Van Morrison. When the actress was dying of cancer and too sick to attend one of his concerts, the Irish singer taped it especially for her. It was one of the last things she ever watched.