Review: an Morrison by Johnny Rogan

Johnny Rogan supplies everything you wanted to know about Van Morrison - and even more that you didn't. David Sinclair digests an almost comically unflattering profile

Van Morrison: No Surrender
by Johnny Rogan
628pp, Secker & Warburg, £17.99

During an illustrious career as a pop biographer Johnny Rogan has tackled some thorny subjects, in particular the famously fractious partnership at the heart of the Smiths, which he dissected in his book Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance. But for sheer awkwardness none of his previous subjects comes close to that most intractable and contradictory of musicians, Van Morrison. Throughout a career spanning more than 40 years, Morrison's policy has been to let his music do the talking and failing that, his lawyers. Indeed, as Rogan ruefully admits, the fact that many details of this emphatically unauthorised narrative cannot be featured in print for legal reasons, produces a "lopsided effect" in the telling of the tale, such that while the author might feel that the overall impression he has given is too forgiving, the reader may be led to think, at times, that his portrayal of Morrison is needlessly unsympathetic.

Putting such matters of nuance aside, no one could accuse Rogan of stinting in his efforts to uncover the facts surrounding Morrison's background. No Surrender is an epic, which the author began researching 20 years ago. In reporting on Morrison's family history in the heart of the Protestant community of East Belfast, and documenting his early years as a musician struggling to make his mark in local showbands, Rogan leaves no stone unturned. As well as providing mini-biographies and thumbnail sketches of virtually every supporting character in the cast, and interviewing a substantial proportion of them, he also provides a parallel socio-political history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which is further amplified in nearly 100 pages of densely detailed notes appended at the end of the book. While the all-encompassing rigour of the approach is impressive, the narrative in the early stages tends to be swamped by an almost neurotic attention to detail.

It is also at this point that Rogan introduces the notion that Morrison bears an uncanny resemblance in his cultural heritage and social attitudes to the firebrand politician, the Reverend Ian Paisley, a faintly bizarre theme to which the author returns with dogged insistence right through to the very last sentence of the book. Even a picture of Morrison wearing a cossack fur hat is juxtaposed with one of Paisley in a similar hat, as if this had some mysterious significance. While the comparison is of passing interest, and may partly explain Morrison's entrenched approach to his dealings with the world - which Rogan argues are informed by the same "No Surrender" siege mentality that underpins the creed of Ulster Unionism - the device begins to seem contrived and a little banal whenever Morrison's own, strictly apolitical utterances are brought into the equation.

"So what did Morrison really think about the Troubles?" Rogan ponders. "Pressed for a political viewpoint, [Morrison] concluded: 'All I can say is that I'm neutral'."

His undoubted talents as a musician aside, Morrison is not a great communicator, and while Rogan draws on all the resources at his disposal, there is a predictable paucity of quotes from Morrison himself, none of them original. There is however a long queue of people winding through the pages of the book eager to report on their first-hand experiences of Morrison's foibles, and it is their contributions which bring Rogan's story to life. To judge from their stories, it would seem that every relationship Morrison has embarked on has ended - and quite often started - on a note of dour incivility or worse, and a picture gradually emerges of the artist as a cantankerous and socially maladroit buffoon.

Old "friends" and musical associates from the Belfast days provide an entertaining, if sometimes rather cruel commentary on everything from his physical shortcomings to his various peculiar habits. Jackie McAuley, organist in Them, the group with which Morrison first tasted fame in the 1960s, recalled the air of "general weirdness" that surrounded being on the road with Morrison: "There was one time Van didn't say a word for three days. He wouldn't even mumble. That would just drive everybody mad."

The singer's mood was little improved in later years, after he had moved to New York and laid the foundations of his solo career. "There were points when he seemed certifiable," says Joe Smith, an executive at Morrison's record company, Warner Bros. "He was so angry at everybody and everything with no grace or charm." At the end of one particularly stormy meeting, Smith had become so incensed with Morrison's behaviour that he threw his pen set at him as he was heading towards the door.

As the book progresses, so this litany of complaints about Morrison's surly manner continues from a seemingly endless succession of disgruntled musicians, agents, managers, press officers and spiritual guides. The mystery of just how such an unprepossessing individual should nevertheless have been able to make music of such transcendental beauty over so long a period of time remains unsolved.

One element is surely that along with the less desirable elements of his Belfast background he has inherited a thoroughgoing dose of the Protestant work ethic. The man's output, although variable, has been nothing if not prolific and the devotion to his craft as a performer and songwriter has been unwavering. Rogan's scrutiny of Morrison's work is undertaken with no less care than that devoted to the details of the singer's life story, and the analysis and appreciation of Morrison's very real accomplishments as a musician provide some welcome ballast to a personal portrayal that is otherwise almost comically unflattering. Rogan's book certainly sheds new light on the life and times of this puzzling and reclusive performer. But it may be as well to get hold of a copy before Morrison's legal representatives have had a chance to get out their fine-tooth combs.

· David Sinclair's book Wannabe: How The Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame is published by Omnibus.

David Sinclair

The GuardianTramp

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