here were two branches of rock 'n' roll when I was brought up -- a straight commercial thing that included Presley, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison. The other branch was Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, people who were a little less commercial than Elvis. Jerry Lee seemed to have a lot more going on. He covered a lot of territory, so I used to listen to him.
Then you had R&B people like Slim Harpo and Harmonica Fats. And then also Ray Charles at Newport. There seemed to be something happening between the horns and the way Ray was singing and the harmonies. So I keyed on that. And I also listened to Gerry Mulligan, and people like that who really like to blow. I remember getting a saxophone and going to a teacher to get lessons. I also played some folk guitar, and that turned into working with rock 'n' roll bands.
I started out playing parties and local dances where people would jive a lot, jump around and sweat. I liked it.
Then there were the obscure blues things I liked. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. I was listening to that stuff since I was two or three. To me, blues seemed better than rock 'n' roll. I remember, I was in London playing in a show band, and I went to this club and a band came on, and all they played was Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. I said, "Well, if they're getting away with it, I can, too."
So I went back to Belfast and started an R&B club at the Maritime Hotel, which had been a dance hall for sailors. But we turned it into an R&B club, and somebody showed up from Decca and we made a couple of singles. That was with the group Them. The song "Gloria" came from listening to those old blues records.
I got to the States by complete accident. This guy called Bert Berns came over. Phil Solomon was managing us at the time, and he brought Bert over to produce Them. He produced a few tracks, and then he had to go back, so we finished it on our own. But before Bert left he said, "I would really like to work with you guys again," and that's how we left it.
A couple of years later, somebody say Bert and he said, "Oh, yeah, if you see Van, tell him I have my own record company, and I'd like to do something with him."
At the same time I was trying to get a solo thing together, and basically the interest from Bert was the first thing that had come through. I was waiting on someone else from another company to make up his mind when Bert said, "Why don't you come over and we'll cut a few things," and that was it. Six months later, Bert said, "Let's do some more," so I ended up somehow in New York working with Bert.
I was in Ireland when "Brown Eyed Girl" started to happen. I never wanted to be commercial, and suddenly "Brown Eyed Girl" was making me even more commercial. The people I was listening to never sold a lot of records. John Lee Hooker was never on the charts, so I was never in it from a commercial point of view. Other people expected things from my records, but I never did.
Like with Astral Weeks. I had been working on some songs just prior to that record, thinking that I wanted something different this time. I actually recorded some of the songs that eventually wound up on Astral Weeks for Bert. I did one album for Bert, and then for a second he said, "You know we have to get you back into the studio," that sort of thing. So I played him a tape, me on guitar, and he said, "Great, this is what we should do." Just like that. He said, "We'll fill out a little here, put that there." Well, I showed up for the session, and forty people are there -- four guitar players, four keyboard players, five singers, four entire rhythm sections. It was bizarre.
We struggled through that one, but the songs just didn't work out. Astral Weeks became what it was because everything was stripped away. Just me and guitar, and we went from there.
There is one thing I don't understand about Astral Weeks. Of all the records I have ever made that one is definitely not rock. You could throw that record at the wall, take it to music colleges, analyze it to death. Nobody is going to tell me that it is a rock album. Why they keep calling it one I have no idea.
People think I'm eccentric, cranky. If I'm eccentric because I've never been into mainstream things, then I am eccentric. I've never been comfortable working live, and I'm still not. I was never able to adjust to it because when I started and we played dances, you would finish a couple of songs and just walk through the audience and say, "Hi, how you doing?" No stuff about being a star.
When I played clubs, same thing -- you walk through the audience, have a drink with some people from the audience. Nothing about you're up here, and they're down there. So this is the environment I came from, where everyone was the same. I was always more music-oriented and less star-oriented, which is why I've never been comfortable on big stages in big halls.
I always related more to what the jazz people were doing. Louis Armstrong said, "You never play a thing the same way twice." That's me, but people expect you to play it the way they know it, and I can't do that. I'm not the same way twice. If I just had a hassle with somebody, there is no way I'm going to paint a smile on my face and say, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. And now for my latest record." That is not where I'm at. If I had a hassle, I'm not going to be feeling good. The next night I may be happy. I just take it as it comes. I can't turn it on.
It is like how people perceive me. It's all an illusion, all about how others project an image on you. John Lennon said it in his last couple of interviews. He said, "This is a load of shit. This is not how it really is. I will tell you the way it was, but nobody wants to hear it."
I don't think I will ever mellow out. I think if you mellow out, you get eaten up. You become like a commodity. So I don't think I will mellow out. It is not in my blood.
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