The Clouds Have Lifted
Even before she first cast eyes on him in the summer of 1966, behind a roller-rink-turned-concert-hall in San Leandro, Calif., she heard something powerful and poetic, inviting and dangerous, in Van Morrison’s voice. It seemed to reach out of the radio, and grabbed hold of 19-year-old Janet Rigsbee’s heart.
The fresh-faced redhead married the Irish bard and soul singer--and was thrust beyond his music into the publicity machine touting the great matings at the center of the rock revolution. As with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul and Linda McCartney and Bob and Sarah Dylan, the private life of Morrison and “Janet Planet"--as the consummate rhymer had nicknamed her--became a media mystery surrounded by analysis and speculation.
Their seemingly idyllic romance was heralded on album covers, in sepia shots of her head lying dreamily on his shoulder, and of her in a flowered gown astride a white stallion led by him along a sun-dappled country path, through what looked for all the world like a secluded corner of Camelot. Its depths were explored in the moving love songs on some of Morrison’s most enduring albums: “Astral Weeks,” “Moondance,” “His Band & the Street Choir,” “Tupelo Honey.”
Eventually, the child-woman immortalized in the searing lyrics of such songs as “Ballerina,” “Beside You,” “Crazy Love,” “You’re My Woman” and “The Way Young Lovers Do” helped the real woman’s eminence grow to the status of legend in pop culture.
Truth is, she says their marriage was an emotional roller coaster, largely cut off from the rest of the world, that collapsed in 1973 when she fled their Marin County home in a desperate gesture of independence. That same autumn day, as she drove off in a Mercedes that was the first harvest of Morrison’s success, her storied reign as the era’s “Earth goddess” vanished like, in her words, “a castle made of clouds.”
“I would have done anything for the man who wrote those songs, who whispered in the night that they were true,” she says. “I wanted more than anything to make him happy. But I just couldn’t do it.
“When I left, everybody got real mad at me because I had become an important cog in a music industry machine that was starting to make so much money,” she added. “On the other hand, I just had to find peace and my own voice.”
After all these years, judging from the gossip on the so-called “Vanatics” Web site, the question remains: Whatever happened to Janet Planet?
The original “Brown Eyed Girl” is 51 now, going by the name Janet Morrison Minto and living in the flatlands of Sherman Oaks in a modest, off-white 1950s California-style bungalow.
She has been married for 17 years to her third husband, Chris Minto, a recording engineer. The most powerful elements of her life include pursuing her own songwriting career and watching her 27-year-old daughter by Morrison break into the music business. Shana Morrison’s booming, bluesy voice has been compared to her father’s; she began touring with his band as a backup singer a month after she earned a business degree from Pepperdine University in 1993. Shana’s first showcase performance for a Los Angeles audience is scheduled Dec. 2 at the Opium Den.
Today, Janet is slender, pretty and elegant, her hair a bit faded to strawberry blond, her skin still porcelain perfect, with a voice that seems to bubble with laughter and goodwill. As she tells it, the twice-divorced mother of two is happier than ever in her little house in the Valley.
Admiring the petals of a pink rose in her tidy backyard garden, she said, “I want anyone who still cares to know that I actually found what I went off looking for--a happy life.”
But that’s only one of the reasons she has decided to break the silence she has kept since her marriage to Morrison dissolved. A record company in Germany, MTM Music, is marketing a CD of songs that Janet co-wrote and produced with fellow Southern Californian Pam Barlow, and they’re eager to publicize it.
Nevermind that the CD, “Dreaming Ezekiel,” by a studio group called Fake I.D., was deliberately fashioned to sound like ‘80s arena rock (which is about as far from Morrison’s Janet Planet songs as can be imagined) or that distribution is limited. It is available on the Internet (https://www.PI.se/mtm) and in Europe, where the style still makes for a profitable niche market.
“It’s doing well in Sweden,” Janet said. “It’s straight-ahead pop--which can be wonderful and powerful when it’s good. The cost was $16,000 . . . we mixed it right here in our den.”
Humble as the effort may seem, it is a triumph of sorts for Janet, a seasoned songwriter whose discography includes songs she wrote for feature films such as “The Blob” and “Roxanne,” for a recent Levi’s 501 jeans commercial and for the Swedish rock group Alien, but who struggled for years after “Seattle grunge killed the Los Angeles songwriting scene,” she says. “This CD project has been a blessing. I’ve got the hardest-working angel in show business.”
Magnus Soderkvest, creative manager for MTM, says Janet is “a great songwriter in that 1980s-style melodic rock thing, which went underground in Sweden when grunge hit. She actually is well-known by die-hard fans of that type of music in Sweden.”
Three decades ago, Janet Planet was the muse to be reckoned with by everyone trying to coattail Morrison to stardom and riches. Women wanted to look like her, and men thought that with a woman like her, timeless lyrics would flow like mead in a fairy tale.
But she says that by the time Morrison’s critically acclaimed albums began to chart in the top 100, she was starting to feel like a martyr to his utter contempt for other music industry idols of the time, his irascible personality, his reclusive nature and his drinking.
Forget about boosting their mirth quotient by hanging out with rock stars and industry moguls who could open doors. Janet says Morrison was a stay-at-home craftsman, committed to his career and to re-creating a traditional Irish home life.
“I was confusing the music with the man,” she says. “The music was everything you could hope for as a romantic. The man was a prickly pear.”
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Janet was raised outside San Francisco by her mother, whom she describes as a dedicated elementary schoolteacher with a secret drinking problem. Janet had been divorced once, had a son and was working as an actress in commercials when she ventured down a dark alley in San Leandro and was stopped in her tracks by the sight of the 20-year-old man whose gruff voice she secretly adored.
It was moments before one of his first gigs in the United States as front man for the scrappy Irish band Them--and her first concert, ever. “I looked at him, he looked at me and it was alchemical whammo.”
They married --"poor as church mice,” she says--in New York City in 1968, in part, she says, to help Morrison avoid deportation. A year later, the Morrison family--Van, Janet and her son Peter--moved to a sprawling mountaintop ranch house in Woodstock, N.Y. Janet says they moved to Woodstock largely to be in the vicinity of Bob Dylan, who was living there at the time.
“Van fully intended to become Dylan’s best friend, but the whole time we were there they never met.” She winced at the memory. “Every time we’d drive past Dylan’s house--Van didn’t drive, I did--Van would just stare wistfully out the window at the gravel road leading to Dylan’s place. He thought Dylan was the only contemporary worthy of his attention. But back then, Bob just wasn’t interested in him.
“Van would sit in front of a two-track reel-to-reel recorder with a guitar in our living room for hours upon hours upon hours,” Janet continued. “Then I’d go back and meticulously transcribe his roughed-out lyrics. Slowly but surely, those tapes were honed and refined into beautiful songs.”
Shana Morrison was born in Woodstock in April 1970, when there was three feet of snow on the ground. “Given that it took a mile of narrow road to get down our hill, a recurrent nightmare was that Van would have to deliver our baby,” Janet said with a laugh. “Not a good thing.”
Janet said the responsibilities of caring for a new baby led her to beg off an impending concert tour--but that Morrison refused to go without her, and his managers pleaded with her that there was too much at stake to cancel. So, with her week-old daughter in her arms, she reluctantly joined the three-week roadshow.
Eventually, Woodstock became a crowded destination point for fans and fanatics of every stripe who arrived by the busload each day in hopes of catching a glimpse of Dylan, Morrison or other musicians living there, such as members of The Band. Morrison and family pulled up stakes and moved to Marin County in 1971.
“By then, our life together was very traumatic and horrible,” Janet said. “I couldn’t stand any more of his rage as my daily reality. I worried about its impact on the children.”
Through his manager in London, Morrison declined to comment.
Janet admits she was not exactly a model of domesticity herself. Her memories are spiked with what she now calls “silly flower-child stories,” such as the one about the time in 1971 when she ordered the family to pack up and drive from Marin to New Mexico to avoid an earthquake prophesied in a dream.
“I had a baby sitter who went to a fortune teller who had a vision that astronauts had seen a piece of California break off into the ocean,” she recalls with a laugh. “Then I had a dream that the Big One hit and my house slid down a hill. So I loaded up our old four-door Audi and we all drove due east as far as Albuquerque. We stayed there until some astronauts circling the Earth at the time landed.”
While sweating out the astronauts with Morrison and her children, Janet bought an inexpensive green spider-web turquoise ring from a sidewalk vendor. She has worn it ever since.
Looking back, it all seems part of a “fabled love lived,” she said, turning the ring on her finger. “But I couldn’t reconcile the fragile dream with the emotional chaos which kept intruding and crashing everything down.”
Lyrics for Friends
In the years after her divorce, she tried modeling and worked as a back-up singer. At the urging of friends, she also considered a career in Hollywood. But writing lyrics for friends’ tunes seemed to fit her best.
She dropped “that silly name, Janet Planet, which I never did like,” and didn’t speak to Morrison until 1994, she said, “because I used to believe those early years belonged to him, not me.”
Says songwriting partner Barlow, “Very few people we worked with knew that she was Janet Planet. Both of us were surprised when people we told became excited and wanted to know more.”
Leafing through an album of family snapshots--of Morrison posing glumly at the zoo, at one of his daughter’s first birthday parties, and on a snow-covered hilltop in New York’s Catskill Mountains--Janet said she “never wanted to play on my connection to Van. But a lot of water has passed under bridge . . .
“But any doubts as to the heights of that romance, and the power it seems to continue to speak to the secret longings of others, can be answered by going back to the songs. Always, the songs.”