Van Morrison, Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics with a foreword by Ian Rankin, Faber & Faber

The first collection of lyrics selected by Van Morrison, and edited by Queen’s University senior lecturer Eamonn Hughes, the collection represents one-third of the singer/songwriter’s 50-year career. There’s a foreword by novelist Ian Rankin who takes us back to 1989 and a Scarborough beach, the place he began to listen to Morrison and where he’d gone to escape London and panic attacks, in his luggage a dozen Morrison cassettes. Rankin found “stories in the music, and characters, and commentary. There was a search for the spiritual in the commonplace, the personal straining towards the universal.”

It’s odd reading words you know from songs. You hear the music. You hear the rhythms. You imagine the voice. And that’s very special. It can be too much at times to fully take in, that’s the quality and the quantity at play here. In Dr Hughes’ introduction the academic draws on playwright Stewart Parker's observation that Van Morrison like any significant writer has created his own world, in Morrison’s case, Hughes writes, “a world of back streets and mystic avenues; memories of childhood wonder and of adult work suffuse it”, Belfast a “site of the imagination.” Hughes says the collection aims to be representative bookended by visions of Belfast in different guises beginning with ‘The Story of Them’ and Morrison’s early days in a city Hughes says was “mapped by music.” Morrison transplants visions of America into view into his home city so the “blues can then roll down Royal Avenue just as readily as along the Mississippi and into Chicago.” Hughes dwells on the “aching ambiguity in many of Morrison’s lyrics”, in a resonant phrase, as they straddle both the “secular” and “the sacred.”

But getting to the lyrics themselves, do they work as poetry? Absolutely yes. Morrison is in the company of only a very select number of singer/songwriters (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell for instance) whose work can be considered sufficiently poetic enough not just to be published by a leading poetry house but to enter the imagination of the listener as poetry, the word whether sung, spoken or read. 

Most songs let’s face it, and it’s not necessarily an issue, don’t work on paper as poetry. However, many of the songs here obviously do. It would be a huge disappointment if they hadn’t. ‘The Story of Them’ also works as autobiography in a sense but there’s also a beyond-the-literal vividness for instance in a line that recalls one Kit “Boppin’ people on the head and knockin’ them out”. A song like ‘Gloria’ is different, the letters of that name isolated screaming out enough to send shivers down the spine. Morrison’s writing has that power: whether he’s conjuring a kiss thrown across a crowded room (‘Lonely Sad Eyes’) or simply repeating the same word over and over again like a mantra (‘Mystic Eyes’). A song like ‘Philosophy’ might be a setting out of a home truth or Morrison might instead be expressing the joy of a youthful love affair (‘Brown Eyed Girl’) with “hearts a thumping” and words simply not ever enough.

There’s a deep melancholy somewhere here that lurks too, perhaps ‘T.B.Sheets’ captures this sense best, the desperation for fresh air in the fetid room; and then there are the small details trumping so much, the smile described so vividly in ‘Spanish Rose’ or the sense of mystery in ‘Who Drove The Red Sports Car’. The wind and the rain are never far away, the sounds of the streets, the look on a person’s face, the sense of an encounter in ‘The Back Room’, a story unfolding on the page here, or in another manifestation in song on the records.

On ‘Joe Harper Saturday Morning’ there’s almost a balladic sense, and then the ambiguity that Hughes mentioned in the introduction in one of Morrison’s most extraordinary lyrics ‘Madame George’ crops up in the sense of place, Belfast street names, unknowable sexuality, and more all mixed together to somehow gel. The sounds of “kids collecting bottle tops” as potent an image as a line in a Michael Longley poem or when Derek Mahon writes about the ever-changing river. Morrison’s way in which he loses himself in words so evident when you listen to Astral Weeks is really strong on the page as well. But there’s a simplicity too that’s so telling in some of his best work: ‘Slim Slow Slider’ for instance and the romance of ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. When Morrison writes “we sat on our own star” there’s something so intense here that only a songwriter who can be said to be a poet can achieve, a directness in the words, a pithiness that is sometimes allowed to run riot, sometimes not.

Yet you can’t read some of these lyrics without hearing the music such is the hold Morrison has on popular culture within some of his best work. Just think of ‘Moondance’. The power of the words extraordinary even without a single sung note. On ‘Into the Mystic’ it’s different, the second line easily sung but yet with ‘Also’ beginning the line a little dissonant on the page somehow. However most of this glorious collection, a treasure trove, makes the transfer miraculously whether it’s evoking the dark clouds rolling away on ‘Brand New Day’ reading about Crazy Face dressed in black satin, or rolling with that repetition Morrison does so well. There’s such an impact in Morrison’s stories and characters in terms of imagery. Look no further than ‘Tupelo Honey’ as we’re told in no uncertain terms to take all the tea in China the lyric soaring as it invokes the road to freedom at its arc the simplicity sometimes of the rhyme or the repetition matched only by the complexity of the emotion at play.

Morrison manages to harness the prosaic and the profound, the former in ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ with its supermarket in the rain; the complex presence of ‘warm love’ on the song of the same name in the latter sense. Cultural references abound on so many songs too which give many of the lyrics a place in time, a reference to Frank Sinatra say on ‘Hard Nose the Highway’, and even historical moments like the end of the second world war on the sublime ‘Wild Children’. You can feel the emotion too as tears run wild, and practically taste the salt in the rhymes of ‘Cul-de-Sac’. There could have been even more and ‘Streets of Arklow’ and ‘You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River’ deserve a place. Not quite sure why ‘Cyprus Avenue’ isn't there (Van’s greatest lyrical achievement, possibly), and ‘Fast Train’, ‘Vanlose Stairway’, Celtic New Year’, ‘Gypsy in my Soul’, ‘Real, Real Gone’, will also have to wait for a further volume. There is so much still out there it’s staggering. But maybe it’s the power of the songs calling out once more. A remarkable achievement every Van Morrison fan, and student of the song, will cherish. SG

Out now