Daily Visual 31.08.15: Van Morrison Down On Cyprus Avenue

Van Morrison Cyprus Avenue 3

Today was Van Morrison’s 70th birthday, and he celebrated the occasion by performing two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the leafy street in east Belfast made famous by his 1968 album Astral Weeks. The street provides the title for ‘Cyprus Avenue’, in whose anxiously surging seven minutes a man waits desperately for a glimpse of his ‘lady’, a fourteen-year-old girl with rainbow ribbons in her hair. And it is mentioned again in the first line of ‘Madame George’, an invocation which at once sends us whirling into Belfast’s hazy evening streets, and the strange corner of a laughter-filled room in which the titular figure mysteriously sits.

Van Morrison was born close to Cyprus Avenue, on Hyndford Street on 31 August 1945. In Ritchie Yorke’s biography Van Morrison: Into the Music, published in 1975, Van described Cyprus Avenue as follows:

‘”Cyprus Avenue” is a street in Belfast, a place where there’s a lot of wealth. There are a lot of areas in Belfast where there was a lot of wealth and “Cyprus Avenue” is one of them. It wasn’t far from where I was brought up and it was a very different scene, financially or whatever you might want to call it. To me it was a very mystical place. It was a whole avenue lined with trees and I found it a place where I could think. Instead of walking down a road and being hassled by forty million people, you could walk down Cyprus Avenue and there was nobody there. It wasn’t a thoroughfare. It was quiet and I used to think about things there.’

His childhood friend Roy Kane later recalled that Cyprus Avenue:

‘was the street that we would all aspire to — the other side of the tracks. And the other side of the tracks, because the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other…and going back to this Sunday thing, there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday. Whenever we had finished playing, we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream, or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar […] We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue, cause that’s where all the expensive houses and all the good-looking totty came from.’

Discussing the writing of both ‘Madame George’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’ with Yorke, Van said:

‘The original title was Madame Joy but the way I wrote it down was ‘Madame George’. Don’t ask me why I do this because I just don’t know. The song is just a stream-of-consciousness thing, as is ‘Cyprus Avenue’. Both those songs just came right out.’

And commemorating the album ten years after its release, the writer Lester Bangs offered a bold evocation of Cyprus Avenue around ‘Madame George’:

‘The setting is the same as that of the previous song – Cyprus Avenue, apparently a place where people drift, impelled by desire, into moments of flesh-wracking, sight-curdling confrontation with their destinies. It’s an elemental place of pitiless judgement – wind and rain figure in both songs – and, interestingly enough, it’s a place of the even crueler judgement of adults by children, in both cases love objects absolutely indifferent to their would-be adult lovers.’

 * * *

Van Morrison announced back in February that he would perform a special concert on Cyprus Avenue, at the close of Belfast’s twelve-day EastSide Arts Festival, to mark his turning seventy years old. And owing to the scale and the passion of the response – tickets sold out within minutes, to fans intending to travel from across the globe – at the end of March he added a second performance on the same day, with the shows to start at 3 pm then 6 pm.

Approximately 3,000 people today attended the two shows. Van opened his set with a sequence of some of his biggest hits, including ‘Moondance’, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, and ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. The first Cyprus Avenue concert can be listened to in full online via BBC Radio Ulster. And BBC One Northern Ireland will screen the concert this coming Friday, 4 September, from 10:35 pm.

Van’s latest album, Duets: Re-working the Catalogue – which has Van reinterpreting his songs alongside selected collaborators including Michael Bublé, Steve Winwood, Bobby Womack, Mark Knopfler, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Natalie Cole, George Benson, Gregory Porter, Clare Teale, PJ Proby, Joss Stone, Georgie Fame, Mick Hucknall, Chris Farlowe, and his daughter Shana Morrison – came out on 24 March this year.

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