21 Apr An Interview Van Morrison
Head the Hollywood wheels westward along Sunset Blvd., out past the “Riot House” hotel, the Rainbow, the Roxy, the record company offices entwined on either side of the Strip, the Beverly Hills hotel where the Eagles shot their “Hotel California” album jacket picture, lawn sprinklers tinkling in the blast of sunshine, serpent-like vines winding around giant palm trees, radio KHJ throbbing in the dashboard, and eventually you arrive in the suburb of Brentwood located halfway between the Pacific Ocean at Malibu and the Hollywood hills. It’s stuck right in the middle, flanked on one side by Beverly Hills, the other Santa Monica. It appears to be a community of those who’ve almost made it to the top of their chosen professions…the ‘look out buddy, here I come’ syndrome, panting up the path to profits unlimited, enacting the grand old Hollywood dream of a potential goldmine just around the next corner.
We’ve come to Brentwood to interview Van Morrison. Van had rented an upper middle-class bungalow here for a few months while he completed his new album, A Period of Transition. Not surprisingly he’s been maintaining a very low profile, whipping around L.A. in a brown Toyota, studiously staying away from the Hollywood rock scene, relaxing in the backyard by the pool, the mini tennis court, romping around with his dog Tupelo. Van and his lady had come back to California from Britain in October, and then returned to the old sod in April. The handiest hostelry to Brentwood is the local Holiday Inn-a huge 18 story tube protruding from a slit of land squeezed between the San Diego Freeway, North Church Lane and the Sunset Blvd. crossover-which must qualify as the worst located Holiday Inn in all of North America. The UCLA campus is within sprinting distance (if you had the foresight to bring along a gas-mask to protect you from the clouds of auto fumes) and the Inn’s postcards claim “214 spacious rooms plus elegant suites, meeting rooms to 75, coffee shop, pool, rooftop restaurant and kennels.” We landed a wedge of cake-shaped kennel. And we were beginning to bark and whine by the time room service had sent up a dozen consecutive incorrect orders with a dumb waiter. Ah well, the hazards of Holiday Inns and rock ‘n’ roll warrant a whole book of their own.
Thus ensconced in a concrete tower which writhed in perpetual shudder from the eight-lane stream of impatient auto enthusiasts poisoning themselves (and us) to the brink, we prepared for the assignment at hand. Van Morrison had not granted any interviews for almost three years, and you will readily appreciate that a fair amount of apprehension and trepidation could be detected among those involved. This was not aided by a succession of suggested interview spots–initially it was going to be in our kennel, then Van’s house, then back to the kennel and finally we moved up to the coffee shop at the top of the tower where we remained until we were driven away by the tuneless braying of a duo of donkeys running down a repertoire of every conservative adult American’s favorite hits.
Looking out into the brown haze of pollutants which domes this area of Southern California, we surveyed the past three years of Van’s life with candor and occasional reckless abandon. It soon became clear inside the tower that Van Morrison is still enduring a period of transition and exploring the likely limitless extent of his unique talents.
Ritchie Yorke: The obvious first question, Van, is what have you been doing since the Fall of ’74 when Veedon Fleece was released, and what prompted you to maintain such a low profile for the 2 1/2 years leading up to the arrival of your latest album A Period of Transition?
Van Morrison: The idea was to get a break from everything for a while because I’ve been doing it for so long. I started doing it when I was 12. I’d been performing in bands since I was 12 which represented, at that point, about 16 years of playing music. I just wanted to stop and try to get some perspective.
RY: And you decided that it was an appropriate time after those 16 years to just stop and take a look back over it all?
VM: Yeah, it was just a matter of wanting to review the whole thing…to try and get some relationship to what I was doing. I’d come to the point where I wasn’t really putting out creatively. I didn’t seem to have anything to say in that period of time after the ’74 tour. There was nothing definite that I wanted to record. Some thoughts went through my head about recording some stuff that had influenced me earlier in my career like blues and early rock. But it didn’t seem to really make sense at that point–it might have been taken the wrong way. A lot of people already had been into that trip.
I just wanted to have a look at my whole musical career, get right back to when I started and why I started doing it in the first place. I wanted to find out why I wasn’t getting off on what I was doing and try and make some sense out of the evolution of it. I felt kind of bored at the prospect of writing some more of my own songs because I really wasn’t saying what I wanted to say. I’d found that what I wrote and put out on records somehow was not fitting into how I perform on stage.
RY: You mean there was a creative gap developing between your recording career and your concert career?
VM: There was a conflict–the actual putting together of the reality of the situation didn’t seem to gel. I’d been doing kind of a slow ballad type of thing on records, but when it came to performing, I felt I was limiting myself. Because when you perform live, it’s a different trip–it’s different energy. I just felt a conflict between both of the trips. I was trying to evaluate what it meant for me to be a singer/songwriter and what that whole thing all meant.
The trip had become boring. It wasn’t exciting anymore to totally be a singer/songwriter because it wasn’t working for me. Then I thought of collaborating with other people which still might happen at this point. It might not. I was just trying to break the cycle because I had gotten to a point where I was definitely sure that I was on the wrong track after about 16 years. What excited me when I first came into it was the performing aspect and doing blues-oriented material, rock/blues oriented stuff, basic stuff, basic what they call rock ‘n’ roll.
Then it evolved into more of a ballad style singer/songwriter thing. And there was a conflict in trying to merge the two styles with the same band behind me. ‘Cause the musicians that I would need to do ballad-oriented tunes would require musicians who were more into jazz. But they couldn’t cut rock. I had to be more limited and specific about what I was doing. So I realized that what I was looking for was doing collaborations with other people–people who can play a ballad, rock, jazz. I was looking for more co-op type things than what I had been doing, which had been completely my own trip.
RY: So you’d reached a point where you weren’t getting off either on record or on stage?
VM: It was the whole thing really. It was like I had evolved to a certain stage where I was stuck in this songwriter bag as an image. But basically at heart, I’m a rocker. And I still am. But I was caught up in the singer/songwriter bag and I wasn’t really enjoying it. It was all caught up with identifying with certain things. They just weren’t very stimulating things. So the fact I wasn’t getting off made me realize that I really had to take a hard look at it and at the type of music that I played, which ranges from ballads to country type stuff to rock and rhythm ‘n’ blues. It takes in a wider spectrum. The music I really like to get off on is the old rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll stuff…that’s what I really dig. And I also dig to sing ballads as well. And I also dig writing my own songs. I was just trying to find a way of integrating the whole thing, taking a look at the total picture.
I was bored with people asking me about what does this song mean and all that shit. I mean, what does Tutti Frutti mean? Nobody to this day can really say what Tutti Frutti means. If you got down on that vibe and it turned you on, nobody bothered to find out what Tutti Frutti was all about.
RY: It’s about a feeling one assumes.
VM: A feeling, right, it’s expressing a feeling.
RY: A case can be made that somewhere along the way in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, the basic feeling was put aside for more heady subjects.
VM: Yeah, but I think that there are quite a few acts which have stayed with the basic feelings and that’s good. And I see something of a swing back to that. For example there are quite a few people copying my early stuff now. Like it’s become a reference point or something. There’s quite a few people getting into that–new acts coming along that are using a lot of stuff that happened in the 50s and 60s. They’re completely ignoring the 70s which is kind of a turn on because to me nothing has really gone down in the 70s.
I like to see people reaching back for the roots and for the reason why. Not intellectually, but just for the gut feeling of what it’s all about. The fucking gut level stuff is what this music is about. That’s why we’re doing it. For the purpose of getting people to an excitement level. They feel something, they feel emotions. They’re going to go home after that concert and remember it. Maybe they got something out of the experience rather than intellectualizing about what songs mean which is the whole head trip.
RY: It does seem rather fruitless to try and intellectualize rock music.
VM: Yeah, it’s all gone in circles. Be Bop a Lula is one of the best songs ever written and I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t care what it’s about. It’s just about basic shit–Be Bop a Lula, she’s my baby. The whole trip that happened in the late 60s and 70s was kind of a throwback to a lot of folk styles. I got into it as well ’cause I started with the folk styles.
RY: You certainly are closely identified with rock’s pursuit of folk and jazz influences in the late 60s, more so than any other artist that immediately comes to mind.
VM: It was the melting of these particular things into one form that interested me.
RY: We’ll return to that topic in due course but firstly, I’d like to go back to the Fall of ’74 and the Veedon Fleece album. Since this was the period when you realized it didn’t feel right anymore, do you have any regrets about that particular album?
VM: No, I don’t have any regrets about the album. But it’s the same old story–an album is basically 35 or 40 minutes of what you do. It’s *part* of what you do. You can put out an album and it could be totally out of the window as far as what you want to do performance-wise. The thing about albums is just coming up with new material. I just got tired of that syndrome of putting out an album and then some reviewer claims that this song or that song has something to do with x y or z. I was tired of that trip. Take Saint Dominic’s Preview as an example–somebody said it was about James Joyce. It didn’t have anything to fucking well do with Joyce. He’s not even in it. People were intellectualizing their own interpretations on top of the trip. Labelling me a song poet and all that. I’m not saying that I can’t do that and that I’m not a song poet. I’ve been as influenced by Jack Kerouac as the next person. But who the fuck hasn’t been? Everybody has been influenced by Kerouac (the author of On the Road). What I don’t like is taking it to extremes and making all these intellectualizations about what basically is simple music. It’s simple stream-of-consciousness stuff in my songs. What I’m trying to get across is misinterpreted.
Sometimes you do know where the ideas are coming from and sometimes you don’t. You might get a song coming through that you just don’t know about. I didn’t know what some of the stuff on Astral Weeks was about until years later. There’s a lot of sub-conscious stuff you may write but you don’t then suddenly sit down and take out your analytical books and say: I’m determined to find out where this came from. You’d probably be wrong anyway.
If the spirit comes through in a Madame George type of song, that’s what the spirit says. You have very little to do with it. You’re like an instrument for what’s coming through. It’s the same thing as a primitive of Africans, Indians, nomads or whatever–when they start getting up and doing their ritual and doing the dance, it’s just what’s coming through. It’s the spirit. Rock ‘n’ roll is still primitive. We might think that we’re really intellectual and we’re going to check out the library to research the meaning every time somebody puts out a new record. It’s still primitive stuff. It’s the same now as it was at the beginning. It’s no different now. Rock ‘n’ roll is spirit music-it’s just coming through people. When you start to analyze it, it’s only because you don’t understand it. You’re just not connecting with it once you have to start analyzing it.
I was just getting tired of the image bullshit…that man of mystery trip and what have you. What’s that all about? For example, I wrote a couple of songs that had gypsy references in them. The only reason it happened was because that’s what was coming through and I liked the idea at that period of time. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a myth or that I’m a gypsy. It’s gotten totally out of context.
RY: Might it have something to do with most people appearing to be desperately searching for a real meaning, something to believe in?
VM: There’s no man alive who has any answers. We all know that. It’s like the guru trip. All a guru can do is direct you to something that you probably already know about yourself, something you might want to followup on. Apply the same thing to music and records. You might get something from a particular record that hits a nerve and something inside you. But that’s your vision of it. And everybody’s got their own particular vision which is a personal thing. In the media, a reviewer has his personal vision but it’s passed along to a million readers or whatever. He might think that this particular song sounds like Jo Blow. Or like a Bo Diddley record that he heard six years ago. But the artist who made the record may never have even heard the Bo Diddley song. We all respond differently.
I have to accept the fact that I was putting out records that reviewers were going to get an image from. The media is going to stick a label on it. And the public is going to pick it up from that. And that’s what I was getting sick of-the whole analyzation thing.
RY: Moving out of the analyst’s chair and getting back to live performances, I’d like to hear your version of the events leading up to your appearance last November in San Francisco with The Band and sundry other characters at the Last Waltz.
VM: Well the guys just decided they were going to do it and before you knew it, it was all over. It was just like that. A week afterwards I spoke to Robbie Robertson and I asked him: ‘Was that it?’ It seemed like he had been talking about it and then it was done. All of a sudden it was an idea and the next thing it was all wrapped up. The film is coming out very soon.
RY: What sort of rehearsals took place up front before the gig?
VM: Rehearsals? You’re joking-there was about five minutes’ worth. I just walked in and we jammed on some Bobby Bland tunes for a while to get the groove. They’re just like me; the way I work. We both came up through the bar thing. The theory is that you don’t play a song the same way twice because it’s jazz. That’s where I’m coming from. So working with them was like…well, it wasn’t even work. It was just natural for me to walk in there and do it. Because we’re both coming from similar backgrounds. We’re jazz musicians. The context may be rock ‘n’ roll but it’s still jazz. It’s jazz and that means improvization…you play a tune the way it feels and you play it differently every time. It can never be the same.
RY: The media reacted in a rather flabbergasted way to your cutting loose on stage with the big kicks and all that. It didn’t seem to be what people expect of Van Morrison.
VM: Well, if you’re with a good band and everybody’s from the old school, it’s different. When you’re in your element, you’re in your element and things just come. You don’t have to drag them out or force them out. They just happen.
RY: It was nice to see The Band bringing Muddy Waters into the gig since he has been a prime influence on both yourself and The Band.
VM: Definitely Muddy Waters has been a prime influence for anybody who’s ever done anything rock ‘n’ roll.
RY: Have you heard any new music of late which has struck your fancy?
VM: Hmm…I haven’t really heard much that’s impressed me the way it was when I first heard Ray Charles or somebody like that. That was really an impression. I’ll tell you what does impress me: the fact that a lot of the cats who were our idols are still out there doing it. That impresses me very much.
RY: You mean, people such as Muddy, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles and so on?
VM: Yeah-they’re still doing it. That really impresses me.
RY: As a young kid, did you ever imagine that Muddy’s music for example would still be current ten or twenty years hence?
VM: You never used to think about what consistency meant in those days. It’s just that you’re involved in doing it. The process I mean, and I think that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re writing a book or a song or whatever, you’ve got to be involved in it. It’s got to come from the heart I think…that’s what it’s all about.
RY: What are your feelings about the contemporary union of rock and jazz?
VM: I don’t like it personally. I just can’t stand jazz/rock. I think it’s the worst thing that’s come down the river yet. I just can’t stand it. It just doesn’t sound right to me. It doesn’t hit me…it doesn’t get me…it just doesn’t grab me. The job of the jazz people is to take it as far as it will go and that’s what they’re doing. But in the process of taking it out there, there has to be some times when they’re not getting it right. It all depends on what you dig. I personally don’t think the fusion of jazz with the heaviness of rock is working.
I’m talking about noise rock. I don’t think that noise rock element belongs in jazz. It’s not for me anyway; it just doesn’t fit. Because jazz was always cool. That was what I liked about jazz–it was always cool. Now I see the cats that were basically cool getting kind of uncool. So that ruins what I feel about jazz…those heavy drum solos and that shit. I’d much prefer to hear somebody like Ed Thigpen (drummer with New York session group Stuff, and featured on innumerable hits) take a solo. I mean, that’s what it is. I’d much rather hear that than the jazz/rock thing because it’s blowing an aspect of jazz that I really like…the level where you can snap your fingers to it and you can groove to it. You can do anything to it.
And it’s got a soothing effect too. That’s the jazz that I like–the stuff that has a soothing effect. But there aren’t any labels–all jazz means is improvization and you can never play a tune the same way twice. So jazz spills over into everything. Jazz goes into folk music, into rock music. Jazz is in practically everything except classical music where they’re reading the same music all the time, the same way, the same tempo every night.
RY: How do you feel about the commercial rock audience success and style of jazz guitarist George Benson?
VM: I like Benson because I just like it. I like that kind of style. I don’t like the broken up kind of style. I don’t like where you play for 16 bars and then break it up into what somebody’s version of what birds twittering sounds like, or what the sound of the city is, or what New York sounds like. Jazz comes from a tradition where it swings. Swing was the main ingredient of jazz. And once it loses the swing…well, that’s it. These new people are breaking convention by breaking up time, breaking up this, breaking up that. I just like any music to swing, no matter what it is.
RY: Van, I’d like to take the conversation away from the music for a spell and get into some related escapist aspects of the so-called counter culture, such as dope, drugs, call them what you will. What are your thoughts on dope? Do you feel that soft drugs (as opposed to heavy drugs like junk) have generally been good for young people at large?
VM: Yeah, definitely. I think they’ve been good for a lot of people.
RY: And yourself personally?
VM: My experiences with dope were not good for me. I had to go another route. Because in my experience, dope didn’t give me those insights. The heaviest dope I ever did was alcohol. I’ve done stuff like hash and grass which isn’t really heavy dope. But alcohol is a different story-it’s a really heavy drug, a real motherfucker.
RY: It’s no secret that you were, some years back, rather fond of the juice.
VM: I was into it heavily. But I was like one of those newspapers, those periodicals. There’s all different kinds of alcoholics. There’s the everyday kind: that’s the consistent one. That’s what people think an alcoholic is-but an alcoholic is basically just someone who’s allergic to alcohol. That’s all it means. It’s just an allergy.
RY: Were you a full-time alcoholic or did you get into periodic spells of blitzing yourself?
VM: Well, you’re either too high or you’re too low. I mean, I was always looking for the bell to ring. I was always waiting for that bell. So you’re either too high and you’re drinking because you’re so fucking high you want to maintain that high. Or you’re drinking because you’re low and you want to get up there and get high…with the result that you’re low and you do down like a bomb. Or you’re too high and you go down like a bomb. So it doesn’t work.
RY: Many people who aren’t into drugs of any kind tend to put others down for getting into it. Yet like religion, it seems to be a highly personal decision.
VM: I don’t like to condemn people because what that means is that you’re only condemning yourself about a part of you that you can’t stand. If you’re putting somebody down, you’re doing it because you’re just seeing a part of yourself that you don’t like. That’s all that is.
(Van pauses to choke behind a slug of a Holiday Inn black liquid disguised as coffee, and coughs profusely.)
When I first started drinking, it was working for me. It was great. Like when you’re doing a gig and you’re in a band and you’re in the truck and there’s nothing to do in the truck and the gigs are all the same and the hotels are all the same…it’s the hotels, the car, the gig. When I first started drinking, everybody was doing it. That was before they discovered marijuana and all that. It was the late 50s, early 60s–it was the beginnings of the rock ‘n’ roll era. The main drink was like wine. And even that was a romantic throwback to something.
RY: With alcohol though, you just suddenly arrived at a point in your life where you wanted to pack it in completely?
VM: Basically I got an insight into what it really was through Alcoholics Anonymous. One day the switchboard lit up and I saw where it was all going. I saw what alcohol could do to people and I saw that it wasn’t a good thing anymore. Plus I wasn’t a teenager anymore myself. It wasn’t 1964 anymore. I realized I was growing up or something like that. You have responsibilities…you’ve got to think about getting your act together. I didn’t even know what it had been doing to me. I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. People talked in terms of drugs and I used to think in terms of…well in Ireland, everybody drinks. Nobody gives it a second thought. You’re Irish number one and you’re a drinker number two. That’s the first two things about us Irish. And that’s cool if you’re not allergic to it. If you are allergic to it, that’s another story altogether. And I happened to be allergic to it.
RY: Your basic motivation, or so I gather, in moving back to Britain was a desire to get back to your roots and explore that further?
VM: Yeah, it’s basically a roots thing. But Britain is not the same anymore of course. It’s never the same. It’s just at this stage of the game, I’ve been in America for almost ten years. I’ve had many parts of the American experience. I’ve been all over this country and seen many different parts of it. It’s just that I’m not an American. I’ve never become an American. I’m talking about the whole thing-psychologically, citizenship, the whole trip. Of course I’ve definitely been influenced by America-I’m definitely influenced by the music and the culture.
RY: You were never a big fan of Top 40-type music, the whole AM radio trip of commerciality unlimited, getting into what’s currently selling?
VM: No, I’ve always listened to jazz or folk or blues. I was always listening to the prophets. I don’t really go for…I don’t know how to say anything about the singles scene without slamming people. ‘Cos it’s an area of music that I don’t listen to…I don’t particularly like it. And if I make any comments about the people in it, it’s going to slam them. And I’d rather not.
I’m still basically the same as I always was. I still listen to the same people. That’s where I’m coming from. It’s like something happened to you that caused you to do what you do…you heard something somewhere, you felt something about this music that was definitely part of your own vision. That’s what the whole thing is like.
RY: You’re implying there is an air of inevitability in the creative pursuit?
VM: That’s right. It’s still the same now as it was then. There’s absolutely no difference. You are who you are. It doesn’t make any point to go out and buy the Top 40 albums to see what those acts are doing. There’s no point in hearing what’s going on. The only thing that’s going on is what’s been going forever. It’s just that some people dig that bag and some people dig the other bag.
What I like is natural music. It’s like I was born with a gift to do something naturally, which I have no choice but to followup on. My responsibility is to fulfil what that natural thing is. The thing that I dislike about pop rock Top 40 music is that it’s not natural. It gets out of being natural. Or else I simply can’t see the naturalness of it. I can see more naturalness in basic blues, basic R & B, basic rock ‘n’ roll.
RY: We were talking earlier about rock music being a very basic, gut-level primitive sort of art form. Could you elaborate on that particular outlook?
VM: Yeah, rock is gut level and it just gets to people. I think there’s far too much emphasis on intellectualization, especially in rock ‘n’ roll which is a primitive form. It’s still a primitive form and there’s no way you can get away from that. It’s one of the primitive art forms and that’s why it’s good and that’s why it’s lasted…you know, it hasn’t become sophisticated and it’s not in the opera house. It’s not like playing the same notes on the sheet every night in the same tempo. The thing about Beethoven and those classical cats is that that was what was coming through them when they wrote it. It was coming through them and they managed to get it down on paper. Now whether they meant the music to be played exactly the same way every night…now that’s another story. The thing is that what came through them was their vision of music. It’s all primitive. It came from the jungle–nomadic tribes, that trip, that’s where music started. Music started out with some cat banging a log with a couple of pieces of stick. He sent a message across a river and although the cat on the other side receiving the message didn’t know the exact words, he did understand basically something about what was being communicated.
RY: Words can be assigned the role of an additional musical instrument. One thinks in particular of your stunningly effective use of vocal repetition of key words and phrases in classics such as Madame George, Listen to the Lion, You Don’t Pull No Punches, Cypress Avenue and so on.
VM: Well that’s my bag. My bag is approaching something and taking it to another place. Like words-you take a word and by the time you’ve finished with it, you milk it and you go through the emotion of what it is, what it means there and then. It’s the emotion…each word has got a connotation and symbolism and the thing is finding what’s behind the word-what meaning it has and what emotion. I’m really into vocal repetition as a definite art form.
RY: There can be no doubt that you utilize an amazingly spontaneous vocal style and it always feels like it’s coming right off the top.
VM: That’s what it is-it’s jazz. It’s just jazz. That’s what the whole thing is about to me. It’s about what’s happening right now in this context. This conversation is jazz to a certain extent. It’s improvisation. What appeals to me about music is the improvization. That’s what I don’t like about the media-they’re not living it.
RY: I gather that you’re none too fond of discussing the origins of your songs, explaining what they mean and why and how and all that trip?
VM: I find it extremely difficult talking about my songs because there’s so many different things that can make a song come together. It could be where you are…ideas that are coming, somebody could say something that sparks it. There’s a million things that come through when you put songs together and it’s kind of difficult to pinpoint exactly what triggers it on every occasion. It’s just like somebody writing a screenplay or something like that. It’s just the same with writing songs–you get ideas, concepts, people say things, it’s a great day and the sun is shining, or it’s not a great day because it’s snowing. A lot of things come together to make up a song. It’s just images.
RY: Outside of music, what sort of activities interest you?
VM: Well I have some intellectual-type pursuits, like studying philosophy and stuff like that. I also like to do physical things. I like swimming a lot. I like traveling. Not touring traveling but just plain traveling. I also read a lot. Reading takes up most of my time.
RY: What sort of authors are you into?
VM: Well there’s novel reading, and then there’s the other kind of reading. Take somebody like Carl Jung, the psychiatrist–now there’s somebody worth getting into. With novels, I’m kind of fly by night. It isn’t something I can be really consistent with. With the exception of J.P. Donleavy–now he’s one writer I am consistent with. He’s written books that I can definitely connect with. He has amazing insights which other people missed out on. Even with his descriptions of Northern Ireland. I haven’t read anybody from Northern Ireland with equivalent insight. And Donleavy’s not even from Ireland–he’s from Brooklyn or somewhere. That’s what interests me about him. I wonder how the fuck did he get in there. But he may not even be aware of it himself–he may not be conscious of how that went, how he got into that, how he got into that space at that time. Maybe the day was right, the time was right, the drink was right, the coffee was right, the sun was right or whatever…it just kind of fell into place and off he went.
RY: One would imagine that since you frequently write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style, it must be difficult to pin down the particular sources of inspiration, especially when a lot of it must be from the subconscious?
VM: I don’t like to wonder about it-I just like to do it. That’s what I mean about the image stuff and all that. There’s far too much emphasis being placed on that kind of stuff…the whole emphasis on what does it mean? Everybody has their own particular vision. Somebody’s going to hear a song that will key in a nerve or something in their experience that represents their own vision. And the next person is going to see it completely different. So even what it means to me is probably irrelevant. It’s totally irrelevant. What matters is what it means to each person listening to it.
RY: Excuse me while I have the temerity to throw in one of the standard cliche what-have-been-the-highlights-of-your-career-thus-far questions. Anything in particular stand out?
VM: I don’t think it’s come up yet. I don’t really remember any highlights. It’s something that I really can’t tune in on.
RY: Not even any particular tunes or albums?
VM: Not really. It’s not going to mean it to me because I’m doing it. I can’t even get a feeling for it. I don’t even have a grasp of what it means to pick this song or that one.
I think I opened up an area with Astral Weeks that hit a lot of peoples’ nerves. But you can’t really say that they’re my favorite songs.
RY: You can’t even listen to one of your past albums and find one track or another working better than some of the others?
VM: I never listen to any of my records.
RY: I’ve noticed you in the past year reading books by Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre and others. You would appear to have an ardent interest in the supposed workings of the creative mind.
VM: Yeah, Sartre was a throwback to the existential period. I’m not really so much into that these days. I went through a period of going over things and looking at them again to see what they were. But I’m into psychiatry type things. I’m into philosophy. I’m into that sort of thing.
RY: You’re interested in investigating how other people look at life, how we relate to the planet and so on?
VM: Yeah, what it means in terms of the things that are thrown up…the types. There are definite types. It’s not that big a mystery about types. It’s not even that big a mystery why so many people are picking up on things now. It’s like we were talking about the primitive thing before and all that. Nothing has really changed much. The things that have changed are like we’re on the noon now. There are more buildings now. But we’re still basically two monkeys sitting here…
RY: Surrounded by buildings?
VM: Right. Like this is the jungle and we’re a couple of monkeys sitting here talking. It’s basically the same.
RY: The evolution of the human mind would appear to have been a rather painful and slow process. In this century there has been massive change, quite likely more than we are able to rationally cope with.
VM: I think we’re going a bit too fast at the minute. The rate we’re going is like we’re going over the edge of the hill. It’s extinction at the rate we’re going. People are becoming more aware-that’s what the dope thing has done. If it did anything, it did that. It kind of slowed people down. There’s a realization that you have to do something but you just can’t do it all the time. I think we’ve basically become more aware that we’re just an animal, just another fucking animal. I think intellectualization is what’s killing most people.
RY: Since you are evidently afloat in this ocean you’ve called “a period of transition”, have you arrived at any solutions to future directions?
VM: It’s not really clear at the moment. Any definite kind of directions. It’s real difficult to pin down directions. I just want to do collaboration-tape stuff.
RY: Evidenced by your recent co-production gig with Mac Rebennack (former alias Dr. John the Night Tripper) on your new album A Period of Transition. How did that come together?
VM: I’d been thinking about doing something with Mac for a couple of years and then the right time just seemed to present itself. Mac wasn’t doing anything in particular at the time I started the album so we just got together and did it. It was basically simple. It just kind of happened. He was ready to do it…I was ready to do it…and we did it.
RY: The new album has more of an upbeat feeling to it, more of an R & B groove.
VM: I think that’s just basically more of what I am. Like I said, basically I’m a rocker. That’s about it. Things that I’ve done away from that-branches that I’ve gotten into off of that–are just other streams, other things that I can do. Like the folk bag or the jazz bag or the whatever bag. What I really like to do is just do the twist! (much wry laughter and another shudder behind the dregs of Holiday Inn black soup).
RY: A Period of Transition appears to be more single-minded in its direction than say Veedon Fleece.
VM: It’s from the Daddy Cool school. If you want to put your rock ‘n’ roll into mythology, it’s from the Daddy Cool school.
RY: But one cannot forget the outstanding ballad, “Cold Wind in August”.
VM: Cold Wind in August is like the end of a period and the beginning of another period. It’s like the end of a period of coming from one trip and then moving into another trip but it’s happening slowly-like a transitory thing.
RY: Did that prompt the choice of title?
VM: No, that just came to me in a flash. We were sitting taking the pictures and it occurred to me that what was going on around me was a period of transition. What was happening with me, with the album, with the people who took the pictures, the record company, everything, getting a new manager (Harvey Goldsmith)-it was all saying a period of transition to me so that was the title choice. It says what it is and obviously nobody is going to analyze that. It’s exactly what it is.
RY: Bearing in mind your dislike for explaining your songs, I wonder if you’d be good enough to simply rap off the top about the tracks on the new album? I’m not looking for explanations as much as any insights you might be able to provide on how the tunes came together. Let’s start with the opening track You Got To Make It Through The World.
VM: That song came from a vibe I picked up from an old blues singer named Bo Carter. My lady was making a film as a thesis for U.C.L.A. and she wanted me to write a song to depict this character. The movie had something to do with bootlegging and stuff like that. I found this Bo Carter record and he was just saying something about making it to the woods or something like that…I just picked up on a larger thing about not making it through the woods but making it through the world. It’s kind of a survival song. Survival is what’s happening and it’s basically a song about that.
RY: How about the next tune, It Fills You Up?
VM: That track is really about the music coming through, the spirit coming through. It’s about the spirit filling you up with music which is what it’s all about really I guess. Any artist is an instrument-and that’s exactly why you can’t do it all the time. You can only do it when it’s happening, when it’s coming through. No matter how much you may want to do it, if it’s not happening then it’s simply not happening.
RY: One of the most immediate surprises on your new album is the tune The Eternal Kansas City. Can you elaborate on that?
VM: That song came from a dream sequence. It was actually kind of weird. I had this dream about a Kansas City type of thing while I was up at Stevie Winwood’s place near Cheltenham, in Britain. I went into this small town and I was walking along and this dream thing was still in my head. They had this little pond in the middle of the town. It was just a place for birds and they called it Birdland. And from that whole thing, I got Charlie Parker and Birdland and the dream and it all just hit something and became a song.
RY: How come Joyous Sound which has been released as the album’s first single?
VM: That evolved from a gospel influence. Actually it evolved out of sitting at a piano and just picking out a riff, a gospel type riff. It just seemed to come joyously-something about the song, about living in another place of joyous sounds. I’m not quite sure-that’s one I’m trying to analyze. It just came out. And once you start to analyze it, you’ve completely lost it. That one just came.
RY: How about Flamingos Fly?
VM: I’m not quite sure about that tune. It’s about three years old, in fact it’s the only old tune on the whole album.
RY: Which leads us to Heavy Connection which I must humbly say sounds to me like a sure-fire hit single.
VM: That one’s just basically about psychic stuff…it’s kind of about connections that you’re not normally making. It’s like a fate number where you’re making psychic connections that you’re not really aware of but they’re there.
RY: Well that covers the new album. To bring things to a neat conclusion, it seems an appropriate time to speculate on your immediate future. Do you plan to get back into a band situation and go out on the road?
VM: I’d like to do a tour. I think that’s what obviously comes next at this point is a tour and it’s just a matter of having the right band. The only thing I want to do–whether it’s the next move or whatever it is, is to do what comes naturally. That’s the only thing I want to do.
RY: But you would consider touring a priority?
VM: It’s not necessarily a priority. It’s just a part of who I am as a performer. That’s obviously why I’m doing it; why I’m in this business is part of me has to perform. There’s no fucking way you can stop it. It’s a natural function. It’s like any function-going to the bathroom, sex, running, jumping, reading…if it’s in you, you just have to do it.
And that’s what I came around to with the searching trip and looking for things and there it was right in front of my nose. When I started out in this business, I was a performer before I was a songwriter, I was a performer before I was recording. Performing is the roots. That’s where it all came from. You didn’t start out doing it because you wanted to make an album.
You didn’t go out there and go through all that shit playing in bars and all that just for the sole purpose of putting out an album of 40 minutes of music. The point was the energy-it was a natural thing. And it wasn’t academic-we didn’t go to school to learn how to sing. So there’s no point in just putting out records and sitting up on the hill or whatever.
RY: Doing the recluse hermit number?
VM: Yeah, and I’ve done a bit of that and it’s just no good for artists. It’s probably great if you just want to write and you’re writing songs for other acts or something like that. Maybe then you can sit up on the hill and do it. But even then it will be difficult because you won’t be moving in any space. The thing is that I just want to do what naturally comes. And performing was the natural thing originally and the rest of it (records and so on) is just like offshoots of that. That’s how I see it anyway.