Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"What difference does it make where you were born?"

Van Morrison was recently presented the Freedom of Belfast Award (only the second person in 10 years to receive the accolade). He spoke glowingly of his native city. On Friday, he will play a free concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. When considered separately, these events range from momentous to relatively unremarkable. Taken as a whole, they are evidence that it's possible to reconcile a troubled past with a promising future. (This relates to Morrison's relationship with Belfast, but could also reference the relationship between the city's religiously divided communities.)

Strong are Morrison's current ties to Belfast—ties forged by: a decade-long creative burst in which he churned out some of the most intensely autobiographical compositions of his career (two of the better numbers from that time: "Cleaning Windows" from 1982's Beautiful Vision and "Coney Island" from 1989's Avalon Sunset); a willingness to highlight live performances from Northern Ireland (1984 release Live at the Grand Opera House); a request to assume a small role in the peace process (the title track from Morrison's 1995 album Days Like This was used by the Northern Ireland Office in an advertising campaign promoting the Good Friday Agreement). So strong are these ties that it's virtually impossible to recall the extended period when Morrison was estranged from his home.

Soon after the release of "Brown Eyed Girl" in July of 1967, the singer-songwriter left Hyndford Street for the U.S. He took an extended tour of the Republic of Ireland in 1973 and embarked on trips to Dublin in the following months, but Belfast was never on the itinerary (much to the dismay of fans and the irritation of music journalists). For 12 years Morrison shunned Northern Ireland; his self-imposed exile didn't end until February of 1979, when he played a pair of shows at Belfast's Whitla Hall. During his time away, Morrison's public comments about his home were typically tinged with apathy and displeasure. One oft-repeated quote: "What I'm not part of is the hatred thing. What difference does it make where you were born? It's just a piece of land. All I can say is that I'm neutral."

How Morrison was able to speak negatively about his birthplace in sit-downs with newspapermen while venerating Northern Irish places in his art is several hundred words for another day. (In short, Morrison firmly believes that the seemingly innocent Belfast of his adolescence and the violence-ridden Belfast of The Troubles are two wholly and distinctly different places. One has zero to do with the other. And thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, which has delivered a period of relative peace and prosperity, Morrison can draw parallels between present-day Belfast and the Belfast of his bygone years. That's my theory at least.) What can be stated is that Morrison's reverence for his home has never been so profound and undeniable. For a long time, it felt like the nickname "the Belfast Cowboy" was waiting to be taken up and dressed in, that Morrison's long absence from the city meant the moniker wasn't quite his to wear. Today, that's all changed. Today, the name fits snugly.

For the Belfast Cowboy, the word place is no longer something physical that is perceived by the senses. It's become something constructed through experience, something shaped by memory and emotions, something to be carried around internally, now and until the end of his days. It took leaving Belfast for him to realize that Belfast will never leave him.

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