MICHAEL WOLSEY: A musical lesson from Arlene for Van the Mad Man
In 1964, Ivan Morrison formed a band with four other lads from around Belfast. I knew a couple of them. We weren’t mates, for they were a few years older and, in your teens, three or four years is a huge gap. But I knew them to see, was friends with somebody’s brother, and I was excited when I heard they had made a record and had gone to England to promote it.
Baby Please Don’t Go was not an immediate success and Them, with Van on sax and vocals, returned to Ireland and were playing around small venues. That’s when I saw the band play the most exciting gig I have ever been at.
It was in the unlikely setting of a crown green bowling clubhouse in the seaside town of Bangor. The tiny hall was packed to an extent that would horrify any modern health and safety officer. The stage, a temporary arrangement made partly of packing cases, was in constant danger of being trampled.
The band hardly had room to move but that didn’t stop them playing. And god, they were great! In an era when Irish music was dominated by showbands and schmaltz, these lads were hammering out rock and blues.
Van was a mesmerizing little figure on the rickety stage. I particularly remember his Gloria (consigned to B-side obscurity by the record producers), a version that seemed to go on forever.
In the middle of this small-club tour Baby Please Don’t Go shot up the British charts and Van and the lads went back to England and on to greater things.
His music has remained one of the loves of my life and he has given the world some wonderful work. So I am sorry to see him morph into an ageing eccentric, the sort of nutty old uncle you try to avoid at family gatherings.
He was always prickly, but the pressures of Covid lockdown appear to have pushed him beyond the edge of reason, as demonstrated in a track he released last year, called No More Lockdown, which talks of “scientists making up crooked facts”.
Covid-19 has killed close to four million people around the world. And that’s a plain fact, nothing crooked about it.
“No more lockdown,” sings Van, in lines that could be taken from the handbook of the conspiracy theorists who believe reptilians are trying to take over the world. “No more government overreach. No more fascist bullies, disturbing our peace, pretending it’s for our safety, when it’s really to enslave.”
It was these words – not Van himself – which Stormont’s health minister Robin Swann called ‘very dangerous’, provoking an extraordinary and rather nasty rant from the singer, who was joined by Ian Paisley Jnr on a stage at Belfast’s Europa hotel.
Side by side with Mr Paisley, Van the Man raged into Van the Mad Man.
Just a few hours earlier, another northerner had surprised us with a musical contribution. Arlene Foster bowed out as DUP leader with a verse from Sinatra. “That’s life,” she sang at a press conference. “That’s what all the people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.”
That little musical moment revealed a nicer side to Ms Foster than she had previously shown to the public. She has an ability to laugh at herself – a quality Van Morrison has never displayed – and she hasn’t a bad singing voice either.
Van Morrison has suggested that Ms Foster should be arrested for singing at a public event. She had “banned singing in any shape or form in this country”, he declared on his YouTube channel, warning that “I personally am not just going to take this lying down.”
You know Van, I think a wee lie-down wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. Lie down and calm down and then, maybe, come back and join the rest of us in the real world.
And while you’re recovering, Van, you might reflect on Arlene Foster’s behaviour. She can’t teach you anything about singing, but she could give you a lesson in grace and good manners.