In defense of Van Morrison

Attempts to destroy the legendary rocker say more about the people engaging in them than the man himself

Particularly for a writer, I’m oddly dispassionate about most art. I’m a hard stone to move. I rarely finish a novel and have virtually no tolerance for the garbage that comprises the vast majority of movies and T.V. The only areas where I’m truly open-minded are visual (non-movie) arts and music, and within those admittedly narrow confines one of the very few artists for whom I would die on pretty much any hill is Van Morrison.

The first time I heard “Brown Eyed Girl” was in 1991 or 1992. I was in the passenger seat of a VW Rabbit convertible, top down crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a glorious blue sky summer afternoon with a beautiful girl named Daisy, upon whom I had a life-threatening crush, at the wheel. Given all the time in the world a roomful of Hollywood pros couldn’t come up with a better moment for a 16-year-old kid, particularly in the context of my life in those years. Later, Astral Weeks and Moondance were essential to the soundtracks of the two greatest road trips of my life, a week long epic from Boston to New Orleans and back with four best friends and a 12-day cross-country odyssey with another. Van Morrison’s music is as integral to my soul as the coyote cries in the sagebrush canyon where I grew up. I’ve seen him live three times, at the ages of 21, 33, and 40. He positively blew away Bob Dylan at double billing at the Boston Garden in ’97. His longevity and energy are rightly the stuff of legend, and at the age of 75 his voice has lost nary a note. In 2016, at the age of 69, he put out a single with legendary Dire Straits guitarist/singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler called “Irish Heartbeat.” If you can find a sweeter song I’m all ears. As recently as 2019 he put out a small jazz masterpiece called You’re Driving Me Crazy.

All of which is why, seeing him fall under attack for a late career addition to his repertoire – well, I can’t help but take it personally.

So overwhelming has been the pile-on, so utterly relentless, so completely out of proportion to the remarkable act of a man pushing 80 composing, performing, recording, and releasing nearly 30 brand-new songs, that even I approached his most recent work with trepidation. Cancel culture – which more properly ought to be called Memoryhole culture – has taken such hold of our nation’s collective consciousness that despite that three decade artistic relationship even I was rattled by the reviews of his most recent work, a 28-song double album simply called Latest Record Project. To hear the old hands at establishment outlets like Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times you’d think Van has completely gone of the rails, lost forever to some sort of Q-anon alternate reality (I really still don’t know what Q-anon is, by the way, nor do I particularly care to find out). The under-30 woke battalions have tossed him in the dumpster fire with no less than the likes of David Duke. I won’t link to any of the stories because I refuse to sully even a simple blog with bad prose, suffice it to say an internet search reveals several pages of roughly identical screeds against Morrison.

It is, in a word, insane.

Out of control vitriol

A mere sampling of the online rage being directed at the artist who gave the world Moondance: This morning the Los Angeles Times ran a particularly – if unintentionally – revealing polemic by someone called Ryan Walsh, who really ought to find something more productive to do with his time. He opened his fusillade with examples of songs that he called “eyebrow raising,” including “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” “Why Are You on Facebook?” and “Stop Bitching, Do Something.”

Pause right out of the gate: At what bizarre crossroads in American cultural history did a rock and roller penning a song called “Where Have All the Rebels Gone” become so much as worthy of remark much less condemnation? On the contrary, it’s remarkable to find a rock artist who hasn’t sung a rebel song. A web search for “rock songs about rebels” yields work by, among many others, David Bowie, They Might Be Giants, Ashlee Simpson, U2, even Billie Holiday, and entire Ranker-style lists of such songs. Yet in the perverse alternate reality echo chamber of the modern woke, such lyrics are downright transgressive. Which raises yet another issue: The vitriol being smeared on Morrison boils down to a single bleat: He’s not conforming. The ultimate, essential role of a rock and roller is to do just that, and in our modern parallel reality for that he must be destroyed for his Wrongthink. It’s chilling, when you think about it.

Van Morrison’s sin is questioning the UK government’s COVID-19 policies. He believes the government’s emergency actions went too far and that the government impinged on civil rights. That’s pretty much it. He dares point out that certain millionaires and billionaires – himself, as he made clear in an interview with GQ Magazine (linked below), have done quite well while millions of average people have suffered. This is what transgressive artists do, challenge authority. Questioning authority was the hallmark of the counterculture. That Van Morrison is doing it at his age, when he could phone it in, is doubly remarkable. The fact that Rolling Stone magazine, once the vanguard of progressive alternative viewpoints, has unabashedly jumped on the corportist bandwagon, is triply remarkable. It’s also pretty much all you need to know.

I needn’t have worried – Van’s doing just fine

All of which I breathed a massive sigh of relief within the first thirty seconds of the intro title track. Not that I was worried about Van the Conspiracy Nut but because I was concerned Latest Record Project might just be bad. To be sure, it’s no Astral Weeks or Tupelo Honey, or even a minor masterpiece like Sorcerer’s Stone (currently playing in my office), but that’s like complaining that Picasso didn’t paint 500 versions of Guernica or The Old Guitarist. A couple tracks are duds. The title track is not terrible but it is forgettable, and songs like “Stop Bitching, Do Something” and “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” would have been better left on the proverbial cutting room floor or reserved for a deep-cut collection of oddities along the lines of Tom Waits’s three album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, of interest only to the most committed fans. A few songs are little more than spleen venting against various real and perceived adversaries.

But these are hardly mortal sins, much less severe enough transgressions to, as one particularly batty column claimed, sully his entire career and reputation as an artist. If we memoryholed every rocker who ever released a dud or engaged in self-indulgent self-pity the only bands we’d have left would be the likes of the Spin Doctors and 3 Doors Down, and no one wants to live in that world. The tracks on Latest Record Project are just not the great songs we have come (rather entitledly) to expect from Van Morrison. They’re not “embarrassments” or “depressing rants” that reveal him as a “male Karen,” to rattle off just a few of the more unhinged reactions. Even the normally staid Wall Street Journal got in on the throw-down, calling Latest Record Project (with a straight face) “songs in the key of conspiracy.” Whichever editor allowed the tired “songs in the key of” cliche past their desk ought to be fired.

What’s more, quite a few tracks, including “Only a Song,” “Upcountry Down,” “The Big Lie,” “A Few Bars Early,” “Diabolic Pressure,” “Deadbeat Saturday Night,” “Blue Funk,” “Double Agent,” and, yes, “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” swing. “Duper’s Delight” is a sweet heartbreaker. I defy you to find a better track about the pandemic lockdowns than “Deadbeat Saturday Night” (The Rolling Stones’s effort, Livin’ in a Ghost Town, is a very close second and loses only because “Deadbeat” is less self-serious). The biggest beef with the album is that a lot of the lyrics are mundane. Some are downright lazy: “Stop bitching, do something” is hardly “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream.” Artistically speaking many of the lyrics are too on the nose. There’s not much poetry in lines like “Why are you on Facebook? / Why do you need second-hand friends? / Why do you really care who’s trending? / Or is there something you’re defending?” And the track “Western Man” does appear to flirt with some dicey territory with lyrics like “Western Man has no plan / ‘Cause he became complacent / Stopped believing in himself / Let others steal his rewards / While he was dreaming.”

Van can do better, much, much better. But at 75 who cares? He’s more than earned the right to vent his spleen at the state of the world, even if he’s wrong, and there’s plenty to vent about these days. He’s earned the right to phone in a few lyrics. And if he seems to dance with some dangerous ideas in “Western Man,” he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yes, yes, the concept of “Western Man” is a dog whistle in some alt-right circles. But in a well-worth-five-minutes-of-your-time interview with GQ he explains his views on among other things the UK government’s coronavirus policies. In context even his more out there lyrics and statements assume a sort of logic:

The thing is, there are people much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back. I mean, who decides what’s essential? Apparently TV actors are essential, but theatre actors aren’t, musicians aren’t, but television luvvies, they are essential. Are you trying to tell me that they’re essential and I’m not? Why is John Cooper Clarke not essential? It doesn’t fly with me. It’s absurd.

I’ve definitely been anti-lockdown. I think if you don’t know the government’s lying by now, then where have you been? When they announced this lockdown, it said on their website – the government website – that Covid-19 was not a threat. It was still on their website a week later, because I told people to look it up. It may even still be up there. You can research this stuff, it’s dead easy. There is so much stuff concerning Sage [Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies] that has been redacted; it’s all about politics. Anybody can look this stuff up, but I simply put it into song. There’s a song on my new album called “Where Have All The Rebels Gone?”, which is all about this.

You can disagree with his perspective, but you cannot deny that it is clearly couched in terms of impacts on real people, people “much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back.” He’s speaking from a place of empathy for the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives have been permanently altered and in all too many cases destroyed by policies that in retrospect even some political figures concede were unnecessary. On top of it all he shows the sort of self-awareness of his own privilege that is so glaringly absent in so many of the woke lunatics attacking him. When I hear his perspective I think of things like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s announcement less than 48 hours before Easter Sunday that all city parks would be closed, a move that directly targeted the city’s Mexican Catholic people. As Van said, that doesn’t fly. In that context, if he tosses in a conspiracy-ish reference to redacted government documents or sings about a song about “others” he gets the benefit of the doubt seven days a week and twice on Sundays.

It’s only if you’re a blind political sycophant to the modern lunatic Left that you see some dark conspiracy in Latest Record Project. I’m sorry, but if you believe Van Morrison has secretly been a Q-anon (again, don’t know don’t care) racist conspiracy nut who for more than half a century consciously cultivated the persona of an eccentric, prickly, at times downright unpleasantly mercurial artist to obscure his inner white nationalist, you are the conspiracy nut. Ditto if you hear something malevolent lurking in a line like “It’s only a song, nothing set in stone, it’s only a song.”

We’ve been down this road many times before

So a guy who spent his artistic life challenging authority has done it again. Who cares? Oh, but the woke hordes howl how he’s influential, he’s famous. Which is where I draw people’s attention to another insane spate of political attacks on the arts: Remember in the 1980s when millions of Boomer parents allowed a few nuts to convince them that heavy metal bands whose members sported mascara, eye liner, and permanented hair were hiding pro-suicide and other messages in their music, driving thousands of teens to kill themselves? That one got the attention of none other than the United States Congress, who decided at the height of the late Cold War and in the midst of a growing national crime wave to spend months subpoenaing rock stars to answer questions like, “Did you ever bite the head off a bat during a live performance?”

The woke war on Van Morrison is precisely the same thing. Nothing more, nothing less. If a kid offed himself in 1986 it wasn’t because Ozzy Osborne told him to. And if you base your opinions about the science behind a global pandemic on a rock star’s songs and tweets, that’s entirely on you. Rock stars are crazy, it’s practically in their job description. Are you going to live your life according to the Book of Courtney Love? Again, that’s on you.

Hey, woke brigade: Come cancel this out of my record collection.

One, necessary, substantive argument

There is one place Morrison’s legions of antagonistes – the vast majority of whom I’ll guarantee you had never heard anything other than “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” before they decided they hated him and knew enough about his work and life to act as judge, jury, and executioner – could have had even the scintilla of a point. Some (like the execrable piece at the L.A. Times) have gone so far as to claim that Latest Record Project reveals Van Morrison as anti-Semitic. Of course if that were remotely true it would be one of the few facts that could actually change my opinion of the man, for the same reasons I cannot watch some of the few movies I do truly love anymore because they were made by the likes of Roman Polanski or Kevin Spacey. Suffice it to say, rape is on that list of things that fundamentally changes one’s opinion of another person. So is anti-Semitism.

The claim, however, is ludicrous to the point of slander. It’s based primarily on one song in the man’s fifty-plus year career, on Latest Record Project, called “They Control the Media.” In the context of Morrison’s lifelong, open distrust of anything resembling authority figures and his well-publicized feuds with reporters over the years, this song is utterly unremarkable. It’s only if you buy into the Evil Van Morrison mania that it takes on a darker – and let’s call it what it is – conspiratorial hue. The notion of Jews “controlling” global media is an old anti-Semitic trope. Given that nothing in Morrison’s career so much as suggests racism or anti-Semitism it stretches credulity to absurdity to suggest he suddenly discovered his inner Joseph Goebbles at the age of 75. The fact that it even has to be argued reflects just how bonkers wokeness has gone.

That doesn’t stop the L.A. Times and others from engaging in guilt-by-association to bolster the case against him, such pointing out that there are 4Chan boards (a final time, don’t know don’t care) celebrating Morrison. The only reasonable reaction is a giant yawn.

The arguments are so nutty that the only thing they reveal is the mindset of the people making them. Van Morrison deserves the last word, and he nails it:

You thought you knew me
But you were wrong
There’s more to me than my song
I don’t blame you
You’re not the first
There’s more than one way to call your bluff.

Amen. Rock on, Van.