The first five minutes are torture.
Van Morrison enters the Europa Hotel with a face as sullen as the Belfast sky. He takes a chair by the window. Out on Great Victoria Street, the February clouds over the capital of Northern Ireland look like they’re going to burst. You can only pray that Van the Man doesn’t do the same.
It’s happened before. He’s been known to shoot down an interview with a fusillade of grunts and mumbles. The last time he spoke to the mainstream American press, seven years ago, the stocky bard actually bolted from a Boston restaurant and fled down the street with a Rolling Stone journalist in hot pursuit.
This time he stays put, but it’s touch and go for a while. He coughs, peers out from the brim of a Calvin Klein cap, greets the first few gentle inquiries with conversation killers like ”Fine,” and ”I don’t know,” and ”I can’t remember.” The journalist, in turn, shrinks into a ball of shredded nerves.
But in fits and starts, Morrison begins to loosen up. The first topic he warms to is ”Rough God Goes Riding,” an apocalyptic R&B workout that opens his new album, The Healing Game. It contains the following lyrics: ”There’ll be no more heroes/They’ll be reduced to zeroes.” What, you ask, was he getting at?
”I don’t know, it just seemed to fit at the time,” he says, then stops. Unlike the hickory-smoked tenor you hear on record, his speaking voice carries a trace of a brogue, making a word like down sound like dine. At 51, Morrison — who grew up here in Belfast, and who’s flown in from his London home for two homecoming gigs — is physically imposing. No longer the picture of a dashing Celtic troubadour, he’s got the belly of a baker and skin the color of boiled cabbage.
”I don’t think there’s any heroes, anyway,” he suddenly decrees. ”There’s just people. I mean, you can be the world champion one day, and nobody the next day. So there’s no heroes. That’s just a myth.”
Now this, it turns out, is a subject close to Morrison’s spleen. The music world considers him a legend — the man responsible for sacred texts like Astral Weeks and Moondance, the visionary behind soul-stirring pearls like ”Brown Eyed Girl” and ”Have I Told You Lately” — but the legend himself has no time for worship.
And while we’re on the subject, he’s got no patience for people who think he’s some Celtic mystic chasing moonbeams and tilling the soil — an image that stuck in the early ’70s, back when PR snapshots featured Morrison and his wife Janet Planet frolicking in ancient forests. ”I had this album cover years ago, Tupelo Honey, where there was a horse in it,” recalls Morrison, who split with Planet in 1973. ”So the myth then was that I was living on a ranch and had horses on that ranch. I didn’t have a ranch; I didn’t have a horse. I don’t have a farm, and I never will. I mean, this is all part of the f—kin’ mythology. Let’s get on with it, you know?”
In the spirit of getting on with it, Morrison offers a self-portrait: He’s a singer and songwriter. Period. It’s a job. ”People talk about mystery,” he says. ”There’s no mystery about what I do. It’s straightforward.” Just because a guy’s written hymns like ”Into the Mystic” and ”Whenever God Shines His Light” and, um, ”The Mystery” doesn’t mean he’s a saint. ”Some of the songs might be mystic, but some of them are very nonmystical. Some of them are very brutal.”