Music Makers: Van Morrison

Those familiar with our Winter 2008 Nature issue know that Michael Oberman is an accomplished nature photographer. His “Truce…Great Blue Heron and Red-Winged Blackbird” appears on the cover, and other images are reproduced inside. At the end of the profile by Linda Joy Burke, he compares the magical moments he experienced in nature with those encountered through his connections to the music industry. Since music is the theme of our Summer 2013 issue, we decided to delve into the latter.

Michael Oberman, James Brown

Michael Oberman interviews James Brown in 1968 at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.

During the time that Michael was a journalism student at the University of Maryland and, subsequently, the writer of the “Music Makers” column for The Washington Star, he interviewed over 300 top recording artists, including Otis ReddingJim Morrison, Janis Joplin, David Bowie and James Browna veritable Who’s Who of popular music. Currently, Michael is revisiting those interviews for an upcoming book and has graciously agreed to give us a series of sneak peaks at his work in progress.

So, here’s Michael in his own words.

The Interview

The interview that I conducted with Van Morrison appeared in the “Music Makers” column of The Washington Star on October 23, 1971 and read as follows:

Since his childhood in Belfast, Ireland, Van Morrison has been a fan of American rhythm-and-blues and blues.

Although when speaking he has a heavy Irish accent, Van’s singing voice sounds American–probably because he practiced imitating Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.

When he was 16, Van formed his first group, The Monarchs. “In those days you had to be crazy to be a musician,” Van said. “Anybody who thought about being a musician was thought to be a maniac, a nut or something.

“It was hard work. We did seven sets a night, seven days a week, with matinees on weekends—and if you didn’t do twenty encores of ‘What I Say,’ you were lucky to get out of there alive.

“One time,” he said, “we went for a job to this place in London. We had been sleeping in the park ’cause we didn’t get much money in those days, and after two weeks of sleeping in the park, we finally got an audition at this place.

“So, when we showed up, everybody in the band was wearing something different. One had long hair, one had a brown sweater, one had sneakers.

“We played about six numbers and the cat said, ‘You’re really fantastic, one of the best things I’ve ever heard, but you’re a scruffy pack and if you get some suits, you can get the job.’ So we got some suits and played there. There was nothing else we could do.”

In 1964, Van became lead singer for an English group Them. An American producer, Bert Berns, heard some of their tapes and went to England to produce the group.

Them had hit singles with “Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Gloria” (penned by Morrison). Them’s records were especially well received in America. In 1966, the group toured this country and shortly after broke up.

Van went back to England to write poetry and get into other kinds of music besides rhythm-and-blues. In 1967, Bert Berns formed his own record company, Bang Records, and asked Van to record for him. Van accepted and moved to America.

His first single for Bang, “Brown Eyed Girl,” was a hit. In 1968, Berns died and Van signed with Warner Brothers. His first LP was Astral Weeks.

The eight songs on the album “are thematically related through the same characters and places,” Van said. With the release of Astral Weeks, he picked up what was almost a cult following. The lyrics from the record have been studied and debated.

“One time a guy came up to me and said that Astral Weeks had kept his family together,” Van said. “Most of the things have seven meanings anyway, so I’m not surprised that people are always finding new things in it.”

In 1969, Van released Moondance, his first LP to be accepted by a mass audience. One of the songs on the album, “Come Running,” was a Top 40 hit. Soon after, Van moved to Woodstock, where he became friends with some of that town’s best musicians, including The Band. Van co-authored one of the songs on The Band’s latest album (Cahoots) and sings on the cut.

Van’s third album, His Band and the Street Choir, released in 1970, contained a Top 40 hit “Domino.” His fourth effort for Warner Brothers, Tupelo Honey, was released this week.

Van no longer thinks he can work with just one group of musicians as he did with Them. “For me the concept of a group doesn’t work because you’re limited to those four or five guys,” he said. “Somebody’s gonna say something you don’t like. With Them, I’d see a lot of stuff they wouldn’t pick up on. They’d want to go and hang out in a club or something.

“I was conscientious. I can’t rely on four or five guys to make decisions for me.”

The Postscript

In 1974,  I was working for WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) in their branch office in Maryland. I had left The Washington Star in 1973 to take the WEA job. While we were not in New York or LA, we were often invited by the individual labels to attend conferences or events around the country and beyond. Paris for a week for Atlantic Records’ 25th anniversary, a dude ranch in Arizona for an Elektra Records’ conference and a Carnegie Hall concert headlined by Van Morrison.

I had attended hundreds of great concerts as a writer and was really looking forward to the party that would be thrown for Van after this concert. It was to be held at the home of a legendary music executive, Mary Martin. Mary had encouraged Bob Dylan to work with The Band, signed Leonard Cohen to his first management deal, signed Emmylou Harris to her first record deal at Warner Bros., negotiated and secured Vince Gill’s first solo recording contract and managed Morrison and Rodney Crowell.

I had taken an early morning train from DC to New York. By the time the party began, I had been awake for over 20 hours. Mary’s house in Chelsea was packed with music business types, celebrities and others. After a couple of drinks, I wandered upstairs and found a vacant bedroom. Hoping to chill out for a bit, I went into the bedroom, closed the door and sat down on the bed, where I nodded off.

I was awakened by the door opening and two men walking toward the bed. I soon realized that they were Kurt Vonnegut and Roman Polanski. I had read every Vonnegut book and was a big fan of Polanski’s films. I was speechless. They both looked at me, acknowledged my presence with polite nods and proceeded to sit down on the bed beside me. Polanski reached for the television’s remote control and turned on the last minutes of The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson was interviewing a friend of theirs, author Jerzy Kosinski.

When the show was over, the three of us walked back downstairs. Van had been at the party while we were watching television and had already left. That was OK since my magical moment of the day was watching Carson with Vonnegut and Polanski.

There were times when no photographer was available to accompany him on his assignments, so Michael brought along his own Nikon. We’d love to share some of the photographs that he took, but he’s still working out copyright issues. Since we don’t have one of Van Morrison, here’s the next best thing (it is about the music, after all):

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2 thoughts on “Music Makers: Van Morrison

  1. Reading this was pure magic. It magicked me right back to my earliest days of my crush on Van Morrison– except that it wasn’t really a crush; it had staying power and has lasted 45 years at latest count. I am so happy to hear that he has a heavy Irish accent; having made 3 fairly extended visits to Ireland, I still sometimes wish for subtitles when watching movies with Irish or Scottish actors, and all this may explain why Van Morrison may be the only singer able to sing a certain line so that it sounds as if the words are either “Spill the wine, dig that girl,” or “Do I dig that girl”? As for the story of watching Carson (interviewing Jerzy K) with Vonnegut and Polanski–it’s an incident I’ll never forget either. Thanks!

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  2. Thank you Clarinda. Putting these great memories down on paper has been happy/sad. Happy that I lived and wrote about a great era in music. Sad that I feel that music has become so homogenized.

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