The time has come, the jester said, to talk of many things. Of life and art and 12-man-a-side porridge, of ice cream cones and jazz. Chuckling quietly the grave minstrel nodded assent and together they stepped into the sunlit garden. Later, there would be tea and cucumber sandwiches…
Paul Du Noyer describes the day that Spike Milligan met Van Morrison…
Across and around the sunlit lawn of an English country garden, there romps a spry old gent of 71 years, dressed for the occasion in a floppy black hat. He also sports, we note with some curiosity, a large, pink, penis-shaped false nose, affixed to his face with elastic.
To complete this singular scene, there is another figure, a man of stockier build, who frowns in concentration while talking into a portable telephone. Within a moment, though, he’s spied the spry old gent, loping towards him with a speed that many might think alarming, and abandons his conversation, shaking with mirth.
“He was always just there,” is how the singer recalls the comic’s influence on him down the years. “Sunday mornings, if I remember, was The Goons, then Round The Horne, Jimmy Clitheroe, they all seemed to be on Sunday. The Goons were huge in Ireland: kids I grew up with talked like that all the time.”
To which Milligan responds in that foggy, moronic voice that Goons specialists will recognise as belonging to Eccles: “My brain hurts!”
The meeting had been Van’s idea. A most reluctant customer when it comes to promoting himself and his music through the media, Morrison had made it known he’d find an interview to be a more congenial experience if it was conducted by a fellow artist. He suggested Spike Milligan.
Ever since he tuned into The Goons on the wireless, back in Belfast childhood, Van has revered the other man’s work – an aspect of Morrison’s passions that few might expect, given the brooding, spiritual intensity that seems to inform so much of his singing. Indeed, the two men have met before (backstage at one of Spike’s shows, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin), while Milligan himself has been impressed by Van’s music, especially his collaborations with The Chieftains.
Spike has already featured, unknowingly, in Morrison’s work, being the character named in Boffyflow And Spike, a whimsical short story that Van wrote for the sleeve of his Sense Of Wonder album (“Boffy is covered with leaves completely the buckijit and Spike is in hysterics”); there’s an instrumental track, of the same title, on the record itself. The night after this meeting, at a gig in Newport, Wales, Van will again invoke the Milligan name, during a bizarre boogie work called Max Wall, in honour of another venerable character in British comedy.
That aside, their two careers have followed long but separate paths, the only apparent connections being Milligan’s early flirtations with jazz bands, and his taste for all things Irish (he’s Indian-born, but of Irish Catholic upbringing) typified by his 1963 novel Puckoon, set in a slightly surreal Sligo village (“Many people die of thirst but the Irish are born with one.”)
Nowadays more active as a writer than as a performer, Spike has just completed a new book, a kind of Milligan family history. It follows his much-loved run of war memoirs, now in six volumes, which began with Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.
Morrison, meanwhile, is to be the subject of a BBC Arena film, for broadcast late in ’89, that celebrates his 25 years in the music business (though it’s to be doubted if Morrison himself sees his involvement on the “business” as anything else but a painful by-product of what he does). He marks this year with the release of his latest album Avalon Sunset, another instalment in the musical odyssey that started in local Belfast bands, came to wider prominence with the mid-’60s R&B group Them, and subsequently settled into a stream of albums from Astral Weeks (in 1968) and Moondance through to more recent offerings such as No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and 1988’s teaming with The Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat.
And so the arrangements were arranged, and Morrison has made the two-and-a-half hour car
trip down to Milligan’s home in this secluded corner of Sussex. The veteran japester arises from his sofa to greet his guest, and they settle in for an hour and a half of conversation which Milligan, inevitably, tends to dominate. Indeed, for much of the time, Morrison is unable to speak even if he feels so inclined, as Milligan’s reminiscences have the Belfast man doubled up with laughter.
Spike: Van, I must ask you something. Dutch descent. You must be.
S: No? You’re an Irishman?
V: Ivan is my name.
S: I see. A Russian! I’m baffled now.
V: No, in Ireland they call me Van. It’s East Belfast slang for Ivan, that’s all it is.
S: The last time I saw you, you came in the dressing room, you had an ice cream!
V: I can’t remember.
S: Yes, I’d had a few, too. It was vanilla. I asked if you could get me one, too. I didn’t think there was an ice cream bar for miles. you must have come in with it from another county! Do you find that Irish audiences are more professional? I came on stage with this iron hat on, and straight away from the gallery: “Jaysus, take yer hat off, we can’t hear you!” They said, “Give us Danny Boy.” I said, I can’t, he’s in the loo.
My father was born in Sligo, Van, very Irish working class family, very poor. He used to live in a romantic world. He loved a drink, he was full of stories. He came to me one day and said, I’ve never killed a tiger. I said, Why are you telling me? Well I’ve got to tell somebody! I thought all fathers were like this lunatic. He used to tell the kids all these stories, about shooting elephants, strangling giraffes by hand. I said, What’s all this, Dad? It’s all lies isn’t it? He said, Oh yes, all lies. But what would you rather have: a boring truth, or an exciting lie?
Have you seen Paddy Moloney recently?
V: No, d’you know him?
S: Oh yes, he’s a rugger fan like me. Are you into rugby, Van? No? Porridge?
V: Oh yes, porridge.
S: Porridge. It’s a better game. Twelve-man-a-side porridge! Did you hear about the Tipperary hurling team? They had to leave at half-time to catch their train home. So the other side went on scoring and won the game! Marvellous! Only in Ireland.
V: I played rugby in school, but after I left I forgot all about it.
S: D’you go into pubs at all, in Ireland?
V: Not really, no.
S: I used to go in there just to hear the talking. That’s why they produce such good writers, the conversation is so good. I hope television doesn’t change that. You come from East Belfast, Van? Was it tough?
V: Not really. How long have you lived down here?
S: Only a year. As you get older you earn less money, and I couldn’t afford to keep the house on in London. So I put it up for sale, and they said, We’ve got this Japanese bloke to buy it, you don’t mind him buying the place? I said, It’s OK, I’ll wire it up to explode on the anniversary of Pearl Harbour.
I listened to your record with The Chieftains. Lovely. I tried to analyse you as a singer. You really are a jazz singer, aren’t you?
V: That’s right.
S: You must be one of the most adventurous singers, you move through such a spectrum. I’m not grovelling to you, it’s just the truth. Thank you, that’s a pound! I don’t really know much about your family life and all that.
V: When we do these things I don’t usually talk about anything but the music.
S: Were you ever into jazz? You’re such a blues singer.
V: I listened to jazz since I was two years old or something. Who impressed me? Leadbelly, Mahalia Jackson. That’s my background. They’ve been saying for years I’m rock this, rock that, but that’s all…
S: I listened to the first track on the new record, I thought for a moment, if I hadn’t have known you, this guy might be coloured, the way he sings.
V: I just got into it by accident, started off in skiffle groups when that was happening, went through showbands, whatever was happening. I was just a professional musician. I joined the union, and they’d knock on your door, Can you play in County Mayo on Saturday night for 40 quid? My peer group that I came from, they were into playing, they weren’t into making records. Pop music wasn’t even reality to me. I had this R&B club going, doing in Belfast what Ken Collier was doing here. And then this bloke came over from Decca Records and the whole thing got wound up from there, and we went into the studio, and got involved in the music business. It became like pop. People were telling you, You must do this, or that. All manipulation.
You played trumpet, didn’t you?
S: I played trumpet and jazz guitar and piano. In about 1933 through to about 1947. We did shows in the Army, ENSA saw us and offered us 20 pounds a week when we got demobbed. So we became the rage of Italy, went round for two years. Then we came back here and fuck all happened, so I just dropped it, worked in a bar and became a scriptwriter.
V: How long was that before The Goons?
S: Oh, a long time. The Goons didn’t start until about 1949. I was telling jokes in the bar, and started writing scripts for the BBC, met Peter Sellers, and the chemistry was there.
V: Did you play on any of the singles, like I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas?
S: I played guitar on the Ying Tong Song, in the middle eight. My total record as a musician! With the pop scene as it was, I thought, I bet I can write a hit record, I’ll write the worst song in the world, with three chords and no words. And I did it. I sent it to my mother, and wrote, By the way, that’s me playing guitar in the middle. So she invited all her cronies in. “Listen to this now.” And she’d marked it with a chalk, where the guitar started and where it finished. “Oh he’s a powerful good player!”
Did you follow any jazz guitarists?
V: I heard Django. My father had a lot of jazz records. Rosetta Tharpe played guitar. The Carter Family, the country stuff , that’s what I liked.
S: D’you still enjoy the music, Van, when you’re doing it? You sound like you do.
V: Occasionally. I don’t do many gigs now, that’s why I enjoy it.
S: It’s like people, isn’t it? Meet them once a month, it’s very nice. Meet them every day you start to hate them. Of all the groups I’ve listened to, you are the most experimental. You keep moving. Where will it stop? Will you go into raga? Or Spanish flamenco? They’ve never married that into pop.
V: Well, The Gypsy Kings do.
S: Are you still throbbing about music? Do you lie in bed at night and think, I like that sound in my head?
V: Not really. I think you just have to find different angles if you’ve been doing music for so long. Georgie Fame’s working with me now, and Cliff’s on one track on the new album. When did you see The Chieftains last?
S: They came here to Tunbridge Wells about nine months ago. Moloney’s a delightful man, such a musician. A wonderful feeling of happiness they can convey. Of course they all go to blind tailors, don’t they? Listening to your singing, Van, you have a sense of excitement. Not many singers have this. That’s what you convey.
V: It’s drama, isn’t it? The blues are drama, that’s what I picked up from it. You make things more than they really are, to get it across, I find. It’s fantasy, illusion.
S: This is deep stuff, you see. Pop stars don’t talk like this. “Yeah, we done a gig. My brain hurts.” You have a very strange charisma. I don’t feel quite comfortable in your presence. (Morrison laughs) A sense of menace. There’s a sense of abandonment in your singing, I thought, He doesn’t think, he just does it.
V: I don’t feel comfortable doing interviews. My profession is music, and writing songs. That’s what I do. I like to do it, but I hate to talk about it. You’re more interesting to me than I am talking about my music.
S: Too bloody modest by far! Your name is worldwide. Go to Alaska and somebody will say, Have you heard Van Morrison? Colossal fame. I’m famous to a certain degree, but I haven’t got a showbiz ego. I’m more interested like you are in the actual meaning of things.
V: Why do you think there were so many comedians about in that Goons time, the ’50s?
S: Well just after the war, suddenly they were being loosed out of the forces, Jimmy Edwards, Max Bygraves, Frankie Howerd, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, and they were all dying to break out.
V: Did you know Hancock?
S: Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself. And he did. He phoned me up from Australia the night before he died. He said, It’s wonderful here. I could hear he was smashed out of his mind. He said, I’ve got a great series coming up, you must see it. The next morning he was dead.
V: Do you know Max Wall? He’s doing Beckett isn’t he?
S: That’s right, bloody hard plays to appear in… I’ve listened to music right up to Schoenberg, but I’m baffled by him and this tonal music. I suppose it’s technically very clever but it doesn’t give me any emotion. I like Mahler. Do you listen to any classical music?
S: Marvellous. Sensuous, descriptive music.
(There is a break while Spike’s wife serves coffee and sandwiches.)
V: lt’s not unleaded coffee.
S: Unleaded coffee! Ha ha! (Munching) Thank Christ you came, I’d have starved otherwise… The only other Van I know is Van Driver.
V: Yeah, he’s very popular!
S: Does the touring get you down’?
V: I don’t tour much any more. I used to when I was about 15. Slept on a bus for a couple of years. Are you ever serious?
S: Yes. I’m being semi-serious with you, because I think you’re basically a very serious person, Van, I really do. I’m serious about the environment, about kids, about what goes on, a better world. If you’re ever stuck for lyrics, I won a song lyric contest once. I’m an environmentalist, I’m a romantic. I’m not trying to make money out of you, I’ve got enough money. I like experimenting. If you’ve got a strange song. That nobody can put words to, throw it at me. I don’t want any money for it, I’ll just do it for kicks.
D’you know, I write a joke every day. I make them up, I don’t know how, like you get songs.
Little man owns a jeweller’s shop in London. And he gets a pretty girl to work behind the counter. She’s very attractive, very sexy, he’s about 75. He suddenly starts missing money from the till. And he finally catches her with her hand in the till. And he says, Miss Mollison, I’ll have to call the police! She says, No, don’t do that! I’m from a very good family. I’m sorry Miss Mollison, I caught you, I’ll have to call the police. She says, No, you can take me upstairs and you can screw me. He says, Well, as you put it that way. So he takes her upstairs and he’s banging away for two hours but he couldn’t make anything happen. So he says, It’s no good. I’ll have to call the police.
Are you a Proddy, Van? Don’t come near me, I don’t want to catch it.
V: Basically I’m not really anything.
S: Aren’t you? So when I introduce you to people I say, Here is Not Anything. This is Van Not Anything Morrison. A singer and Not Anything. You must be something.
V: Well theoretically I’m Church Of lreland.
S: Proddy? Oh Jaysus I won’t mention this to my mother. Dear Mother, I spoke to a Protestant today. Oh God forgive you, son. Go and confess it. Father I have sinned. Amazing the power of the Catholic Church. My father went bald very early, and he was so incensed by it that he went to church and prayed for it to come back. I’m certain he went to a priest and confessed, Dear Father, forgive me, I have gone bald. “Go away, my son, buy three wigs and say one Hail Mary.”
V: How many characters were in The Goons?
S: About six.
V: Neddy Seagoon?
S: An idiot! We used to give him a little megaphone to speak into. “Hello the world! It’s Neddy Seagoon calling the world!” Great stuff. The best joke I did with Eccles, though, was he was in class, they were trying to teach the Theory of Relativity to this idiot. “Now look, Eccles, jump up in the air. You see what happened then? You had to come back down to earth again.” “Yeah. I had to come back down to earth.” “Yes, why?” “Well. I live there!”
(There’s another break, while Van goes out to make a phone call, at which point Spike joins him in the garden for some photographs. Returning to the house, Van describes his dislike for promotional duties such as having his picture taken. The cliché about him, he remarks, is that he’s “difficult”. )
V: You’re “difficult” if you know exactly what you want, and what your parameters are, and your own limitations. If you don’t have your act together, then you’re not “difficult”. Then you’re just ordinary Joe Blow. You’ll take anything, there’s no discernment about what you do.
S: But you are different Van, you’re a very strange man.
V: Well I’ve heard it said that Spike Milligan is an eccentric. I don’t know what that means.
S: Well I sleep with my underpants on back to front, because you never know what could happen. I’m not eccentric. I love talking to people, as a writer. You’re leaving an indelible mark on me, because of your personality. I’ve stuck you in my head and one day you’ll come out in a book.
I love it so much here I don’t need to go out doing gigs now, I’ve got enough money. I love writing books. I do odd gigs on television, interviews and chat, and all these shows like Guess My, Arsehole, and Whose Legs Are These? – all that shit. They’re grim, aren’t they? Of course when I go on I clown it up and fuck up the show and they never ask me again. I love breaking clichés. People hang on to clichés. The cliché is the handrail of the crippled mind.
Van, do you relax? Do you go out to restaurants? Got a wife? A girlfriend? Or a bloke? Got a good pad in London?
V: Y’see I’m not used to this just talking about anything. I talk about specific things. I’m not into talking about myself with journalists. I talk about my music. The fact is that I do this for a living, and then I have my own life which is separate from that. So Van Morrison makes records, and I’m separate from that. That’s what I do for a job. That’s the only way I can do it. I can’t mix my personal stuff with the job, so I just talk about my job. I’m not interested in selling myself, I just sell my records, my music. So I have to censor everything I say, ‘cos if I don’t, they just use it against me .
S: Anyhow. When you were very young, Van, I was keeping the pop scene going, I was playing the music of my day. Jazz was looked on as barbaric. My father would say, Why do you play that nigger music? But I kept playing it, and now they have jazz critics in The Times, in The Guardian. I was blowing that music real good, man. One of the greatest feelings in the world is to play music, it’s total freedom. When I was playing that trumpet I couldn’t think about think about the rates, the rent. It was liberation, self-therapy. And you can induce that therapy in other people.
That’s why people sometimes cling on to one kind of music, they love it because it has affected them psychologically, it has transmitted 100 per cent to them… (There follows a long and rather thoughtful pause.) This silence comes to you courtesy of What The Fuck Is He Going To Say Next?
V: No, that was a good piece, that you just said. That would fit in.
Before pop musicians discovered drugs, they made do with Spike Milligan. The anarchic comedy veteran inspired a generation of British rock’n’roll artists, including The Beatles, who spent their formative years tuned into the BBC radio’s hugely influential Goon Show. Here they heard Milligan and co revolutionise mainstream humour: the Goons’ legacy was seen not only in the school of comic surrealism that gave us Monty Python; it was apparent, as well, in a certain absurdist mind-set that prefigured psychedelia.
John Lennon in particular was a disciple of the Goon humour that Milligan perfected with his partners Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. In 1962, in The Beatles’ eyes, the chief appeal of their new producer George Martin was that he had previously worked on comedy records by the gang. Though the Goons’ subversive allure might be lost on later generations, its impact on teenagers raised in post-War cultural conformity was massive “We were the sons of The Goon Show,” said Lennon. “We were the extension of that rebellion.”
Milligan crossed paths with this magazine on two very memorable occasions. The first occurred in July 1989 when Q accompanied Van Morrison to Spike’s home in Sussex – the media-phobic Ulsterman having asked to be interviewed by his childhood hero. An afternoon of rambling conversation ensued; Milligan coaxed his guest into posing for the Q photographer by prancing around the garden wearing a plastic penis strapped to his nose. And in 1997, Spike attended the Q Awards to present the Best Songwriter prize to his Sussex neighbour Paul McCartney. His mood that day was variable: “spectacularly grumpy” was one assessment; he took pleasure, however, in proclaiming his fellow attendee Chris Evans “a cunt”.
After the Goons Milligan channelled his talents into TV work and books such as Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall. Eight years before his death he reflected, “When I look back, the fondest memory I have is not really of the Goons. It is of a girl called Julia with enormous breasts.”