This is my Van Morrison story, one that I’ve repeated to friends numerous times over the years but is still worth a retelling. It comes now as Van the Man nears an appearance at Northern Virginia’s Wolf Trap on September 7 and after he was nominated this year for an Oscar for the best song, and moreover for the central role of his music, in the Oscar-nominated film, “Belfast.”
I met Van to interview him when I was a stringer for the Berkeley Barb in 1972, during the year he spent in the San Francisco Bay Area that resulted in his great album, “St. Dominic’s Preview.” On that album, his lengthy song, “Almost Independence Day,” comes about as close as one could to emoting a real summer night in that period in the Bay Area. Like most of his stuff, and maybe including himself as he officially is pushing 80, it just doesn’t grow old.
But this story is about 50 years ago. I could write so much about this, my favorite living musician, composer and performer, whom I became enthralled with the first time I heard his one-of-a-kind voice (described by critic Greil Marcus, who said, “No white man sings like Van Morrison,” and wrote in his book that, “As a physical fact, Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley and musical style in 1972.”
I’ve seen him perform literally dozens of times over the years, including multiple times at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1971 and 1972. Facts, dates and places of his over 40 studio albums and much more can be had from Wikipedia.
Meeting and interviewing him in 1972 was something quite special, as well as what led into it and what then happened after. For now, I will just say that despite his reputation for being grumpy, at best, on the stage, my late friend Jim and I found him very affable and pleasant when we sat down with him in a break amid a rehearsal at a small club in San Anselmo, a Marin County suburb of San Francisco. When we walked in it was to a rehearsal of the opening bars of his classic, “‘Caravan,” that closes with two pronounced downbeats. I have always since associated those opening bars with the musty smell I first encountered of that little club.
The wider context was the fact that, as I told Van that day, a friend and I happened upon a concert he was giving in Buffalo, New York, six months before.
My friend Bobby and I were cross-country hitchhiking west from Springfield, Massachusetts on a snowy November day. The guy who stopped to pick us up turned out to be a modestly well-known musician himself, the lead singer of Georgie Porgie of Georgie Porgie and the Cry Babies (I learned much later that his name was George Leonard. He and the group, composed of his sisters, became inducted into the Rhode Island Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. See Wikipedia!).
Riding in the back seat of Georgie’s classic 1954 Ford, and he in a huge fur coat, we traveled across Upper State New York in a constant snowstorm, sharing a little weed along the way. Coming into Buffalo, New York, despite the fact he would be late to his own concert downtown, in a wonderfully generous gesture, he offered to drop us at the University of Buffalo where we hoped to find a place to crash (sleep) that night. Georgie insisted, saying the Cry Babies would cover for him until he got to his show. It was around 9:30 p.m.
We looked on the bulletin board in the student union, and lo, we saw that Van Morrison was giving a concert that very night in the school gym. We asked directions and I can still see and hear the crunching of the snow as we hurried across the way to the gym, where I could hear Van’s music playing.
Alas, we got into the gym just as the concert was ending, but lucky for us, he did an encore.
Fast forward now to my interview with Van. I told him this story and he was very interested. I did my story about the interview and called his agent who said Van saw it in the Barb and loved it.
Well, it was a year after that when Van’s new album, “St. Dominic’s Preview,” was released. In his song, a wonderfully characteristic stream of consciousness piece named for the title of the album, Van inexplicably includes the following line: “It’s a long way to Buffalo and a long way to Belfast city, too!”
Buffalo? No explanation for why that reference was there, but I like the idea that it was a form of “shout out.” Van would not remember after all this time, I’m sure, so I will go on thinking that. Besides, there is another line late in that same song where he makes reference to having “a pen and notebook ready.” which could be another reference to the interview where I had, in fact, those things.