Saturday with Sir Van

SOME people upon elevation are known to insist on their honour always being used. The actor Sir Ben Kingsley was once said to complain if ‘Sir’ wasn’t attached to his name, although instances of such behaviour occur less often nowadays. When we bump into each other in the street he is fine with just plain Ben (well, I made that bit up, and the reports of subsiding levels of sir-ness come from Wikipedia, so who knows, perhaps he does or doesn’t).

I wonder if George Ivan Morrison, born in Hyndford Street, Belfast, on August 31, 1945, will continue the high-handed tradition. For Van Morrison has just been knighted. Was this honour bestowed for sometimes wonderful music or for impressive levels of grumpiness maintained throughout a long career? Not sure, the Queen isn’t telling. But I bet she’s nervous about putting that sword on his shoulder.

Patrick Humphries sums up Van’s character nicely in his fine little CD-sized book The Complete Guide To The Music of Van Morrison, from where I have taken the birth details (why are we still happier to believe books than wiki-this and wiki-that). “He grew up to be a legend: a songwriter of genius and an interviewer’s nightmare, a grumpy old man and a transcendent soul singer.”

At his best, Sir Van can certainly transcend; and at his worst he is music’s great misanthrope. I have seen Van many times, starting with the first Knebworth Festival more than 40 years ago on July 20, 1974 (that’s from the internet, so fingers crossed). Hang on, rewind a minute: more than 40 years ago, how is that possible? Time seems to have done that old accumulation trick again when I wasn’t paying attention.

Anyway, Sir Van has made some of the loveliest music around, and St Dominic’s Preview is ringing in my ears as I write. And with A Night In San Francisco, he produced the best live album ever recorded. Apologies for being tediously definitive, but it just is.

But the grumpy nights, they can sting. Once at the York Barbican he was in such a foul mood, turning to glower at his drummer on every other beat, that the concert was over in less than an hour and we were in the pub by 9pm. That was back in the babysitting days, and we thought we might as well draw some advantage from Van’s sour petulance.

For his ups and downs, for occasional moments of sunshine such as Bright Side Of The Road, Wavelength or Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile), Van remains a musical hero to this writer. And mostly for that wonderful voice, which has not diminished with the years – in fact, it has softened without losing its rim of soul, and is still an instrument of wonder.

My life do date would have been a paler thing without Van and his music. So arise, Sir Van. Just don’t get in a huff about it.

Footnote: Man On Ledge is aware of the irony of doubting the truth of the internet while writing in the same medium. Go on, we all need our inconsistencies, don’t we?

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