What happened to Van Morrison? The fall from eccentric genius to conspiracy theorist
Outside of the circles of his most dedicated fans, the arrival of a Van Morrison album in the 21st century has not been a news event. That trend stopped last week, however, when Morrison, 75, released “Latest Record Project, Vol. 1,” a 28-track double album that includes eyebrow-raising song titles such as “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” “Why Are You on Facebook?” and “Stop Bitching, Do Something.” This album is now very much news: Variety published a list of “The 10 Craziest Lyrics” from the record, while the Jerusalem Post rounded up all of the claims of anti-Semitism implied in his song called “They Own the Media” and other lyrics scattered throughout.
This turn toward the alt-right didn’t come out of nowhere. Broadly speaking, Morrison’s career arc looks something like this: He went from being a brash teenage wunderkind with his band Them, to a promising young solo artist (“Brown Eyed Girl”), to a moody, soulful poet casually creating masterpieces (“Astral Weeks” and “Moondance”), to a middle-aged curmudgeon showcasing occasional moments of brilliance (“Common One”), until he slowly devolved into a boozy-uncle type, cranking out boilerplate blues LPs while leaning on his earlier legacy to fill concert halls.
Morrison’s unpredictability, temper and bitterness have become the stuff of legend, including everything from smashing someone else’s guitar onstage during a show to firing members of his band with little notice or cause and confronting a journalist about their credentials during an interview.
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More recently, the global coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing prohibition of live concerts appear to have shocked and infuriated the singer. In August 2020, Morrison published a screed on his official website explaining that he needed to get his “band up and running and out of the doldrums. … We need to be playing to full capacity audiences going forward.” In a subsequently deleted message, he went further, denouncing the validity of the science behind social distancing and quarantine. “I call on my fellow singers, musicians, writers, producers, promoters and others in the industry to fight with me on this. Come forward, stand up, fight the pseudo-science and speak up.”
Back in the fall of 2020, Morrison announced three topical singles protesting COVID-19 restrictions plus a petition to end the temporary ban on live concerts. In one of these songs, “No More Lockdown,” he crooned about scientists “making up crooked facts,” labeling the perpetrators of these measures “fascist bullies.” In an unprecedented turn of events, the songs became cause for Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, to pen an op-ed for Rolling Stone, calling Morrison’s new lyrics “dangerous” and a great comfort to “the tinfoil hat brigade who crusade against masks and vaccines and think this is all a huge global plot to remove freedoms.”
How could the man who sang so empathetically about a girl dying of tuberculosis in 1967’s “T.B. Sheets” now speak and sing so callously about a disease that has claimed the lives of more than 3 million people worldwide? There is no easy answer to this question, but there are episodes and details from his past that help elucidate how he might have adopted this distasteful and dangerous new point of view.
Morrison has long been deeply distrustful and disdainful of authority figures, which, in his line of work, have most frequently manifested themselves as record executives. From the very beginning of his solo career, Morrison has complained of unknowingly signing bad contracts, having to argue with Bert Berns over “Brown Eyed Girl” royalties and being signed to a label that, for a time, was literally run by the mob. This initial distrust, over time, developed into full-blown paranoia and expanded its scope to include those who covered his career, which he began to broadly refer to as “the media.” In 2015, he called the owners of his first music contract “puppet masters” and described the ongoing coverage of him in the press as misleading “propaganda.” In 2018, he began talking about “fake news” in interviews, informing the BBC that “the media makes things up” and that he had been “talking about fake news from day one.”
Morrison also has had a long-held interest in the occult and various religions. His intense childhood visions led him to seek out places all over the spiritual map, including several Jehovah’s Witness meetings with his mother; the occult writings of the Rosicrucians and Alice Bailey; and even a brief dalliance with Scientology (he thanked L. Ron Hubbard in the liner notes of 1983’s “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart”).
In 1989, Morrison explained his New Age tendencies, remarking, “It’s just another, more open way of looking at things. ... I couldn’t find any answers in the existing framework.” At the heart of this interest is a kind of endless spiritual search, which seems to have positively aided and enriched his creative endeavors again and again; the seeker we meet in songs like “Summertime in England” or “Dweller on the Threshold,” for instance, is pure and beautiful. But that same “open way of looking at things” is also the kind of quality that makes many spiritual seekers ripe for being duped and ensnared by vast, baseless conspiracy theories. As a recent Washington Post investigation discovered, there is “a growing pipeline between New Age male spirituality, new masculinity movements and QAnon” and in this way, it seems not inconsequential that a variation on the QAnon talking point “do your own research” appears in the lyrics of Morrison’s new song “Kingpin.” “Follow the story,” he sings. “Research it further.”
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This all sets the stage for “Latest Record Project, Vol. 1,” where Morrison baldly airs his complaints, both personal and political, for two-plus bewildering hours. Unlike some of his peers, Morrison’s voice has remained startlingly strong, and its depth and richness comprise the sole positive attribute of this release. The music itself is bland, standard blues executed so precisely and unimaginatively that there are times you will wonder if these backing tracks were generated by artificial intelligence. What once came off as an act of beautiful, stream-of-consciousness songwriting now takes on the air of an extended Alex Jones rant. Even during moments when Morrison indulges in nostalgia about his interesting career, it immediately careens into the overarching theme of victimhood. “I was playing at the Whiskey / When The Doors were opening up,” he sings on “Up County Down,” but he quickly sours the memory by adding, “Sometimes I sat there drinking / From a poisoned cup.”
If these were the only missteps on the record, it would just be another entry in Morrison’s milquetoast late-career discography, but the further you go into “Latest Record Project, Vol. 1,” the more troubling it becomes. It’s impossible to hear a song like “They Control the Media” — with lyrics that claim, “They control the narrative, they perpetuate the myth / Keep on telling you lies, tell you ignorance is bliss” — and not seriously confront its references to the well-established anti-Semitic trope. Elsewhere, the title and lyrics of “Western Man” seem to evoke the same fears promoted by white nationalist movements. Here, Morrison sings about how “caretakers have taken over the main building” and how the “Western Man” has “let others steal his rewards,” summarizing the themes of the 2017 book “The Fall of Western Man,” a 324-page rallying cry for white supremacy. This is to say nothing of his duet with singer Chris Farlowe, who once put his musical career on pause to pursue an interest in Nazi memorabilia. Currently on the 4Chan message board, where the QAnon movement originated, there is an active thread celebrating Morrison’s new record where his new songs are described as “inspired” and their subjects referred to using racial slurs and memes.
Morrison repeatedly sings about “mind control” across the expanse of the double disc, and about being a “targeted individual,” a likely reference to a growing community of people who believe they are being harassed and “gang-stalked” by unknown assailants as part of a larger conspiracy.
Even as the lyrics continue to paint an increasingly troubling portrait, Morrison’s self-awareness kicks in at times, and there he offers parachutes for upset listeners — like the breezy “Only a Song,” which attempts to walk back anything expressed elsewhere as just an inconsequential, passing thought — and preemptive defenses of a potential “trial by lyric” in the popular culture. On “Mistaken Identity,” he sings, “You thought you knew me / But you were wrong / There’s more to me than my song.” When lightly pressed on this subject in a recent interview with the BBC, Morrison suggested that his new lyrics were largely “satire” and “not meant to be taken seriously.”
In his final interview in 2016, “Astral Weeks”’ producer Lewis Merenstein lamented Morrison’s reputation for being vitriolic and holding grudges, noting, “He’s a beautiful poet. He should be a kind person with love in his heart.” For the large majority of Morrison’s career, when it was time to write and record new songs, it was the “beautiful poet” who most often showed up at the studio. Now, with “Latest Record Project, Vol. 1,” Morrison’s surly persona has fully merged with his songwriting muse, unveiling some deeply upsetting worldviews that undoubtedly will cause his loyal fans to assess whether they can still stomach his musical blues.
Ryan H. Walsh is the author of “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.”
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