Rock singer-songwriter Van Morrison sparked a controversy unlikely to be rivaled this year in the music industry — and possibly the healthcare industry, as well.
Morrison’s dogged anti-establishment views surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are literally front and center in his new album, “What’s It Gonna Take?” his 43rd. The artwork depicts a Cold War-era couple manipulated on a hidden puppet-master’s strings, suggesting we are sheeple led by politicians and healthcare leaders whose restrictive policies lack proof of concept.
The basis for Morrison’s unabashed conspiracy spouting and bad-faith COVID denial are unpredictable lockdowns that have prohibited him from touring the past several years. In “What’s It Gonna Take,” he subjects us to a “Full Force Gale” of extremist ideology, conveniently ignoring the more than 1 million deaths from COVID in the United States — many of them preventable.
With song titles such as “Fighting Back is the New Normal,” “Fodder for the Masses,” and “Fear and Self-Loathing in Las Vegas” — the latter written when Morrison was forced to reschedule a series of concerts in the desert due to the lockdown — we are served a twisted account of one man’s hateful and paranoid rants, as he attempts to deny science and truth. Morrison’s version of the truth would have us believe that self-governing institutions are intent on shutting down anyone who expresses an opinion that deviates from one that is informed by scientific data.
In trying to make his case, Morrison undermines his own agency as early as the opening song. He cynically boasts he was labeled “Dangerous” because he “said something bad [and] was getting close to the truth.” He’s been asking and looking for the “evidence” for over a year and hasn’t been shown “proof.” (Where has he been?)
Morrison affirms “I Ain’t No Celebrity,” knowing full well he is one of the most iconic (if not feared) rock stars on the planet. Morrison claims he is “Not Seeking Approval,” but he eternally craves an audience. The “Damage and Recovery” he describes applies equally to his own misdoings as it does to the medical sequelae of COVID-19
Understanding Morrison’s message is not the problem; it’s obvious where he stands. Rather, it is the content of his message and the purpose behind it. Morrison neglects proven facts and helps to spread fake news. I can understand his frustration with rules and regulations making it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to perform. But Morrison brushes aside COVID fatalities as if he couldn’t care or it’s a plain shame. COVID disinformation spread by media figures — rock and pop stars in particular — may well be the most egregious of all because celebrities have very close bonds with their fans, just like physicians, except their fans number in the millions.
Thus, although the music and musicianship on “What’s It Gonna Take” are first rate, it’s all for the wrong reasons. Only a few tunes are penned without prosaic rage, or are at least soft around the edges. We have to wait over 70 minutes to reach the final song, “Pretending,” to glimpse the Morrison of old. He deals with demons and depression — nothing new in his repertoire — but he also speaks to a life “in ruins” — a life in which he pretends to be in the “present tense” when, in fact, he is “really miles away in a trance.” I wish Morrison’s devotees would treat the album as the song suggests — a hoax propagated by a con man whose reality testing is slipping away.
Any sympathy for Morrison is nullified by the realization that — and even if you side with him — this album is too self-absorbed. Morrison could have widened the aperture of his world view to address the various ways inequities manifest in medicine and society. Instead, he chose to pin everything on COVID, portraying himself as a victim, as if he were the only one affected by lockdowns. Certainly, many musicians have had to put their tours on hold, yet they do not feel singled out or persecuted.
Bruce Springsteen, for example, postponed touring until 2023, remarking, “After 6 years, I’m looking forward to seeing our great and loyal fans next year. And I’m looking forward to once again sharing the stage with the legendary E Street Band. See you out there, next year — and beyond.” Neil Young, who, like Morrison, seems to record everything he writes with no edit button, has abided by COVID restrictions, commenting on “The Howard Stern Show” that he wouldn’t be touring until we “beat” COVID-19.
However, listening to the song “Sometimes It’s Just Blah Blah Blah” gives me the impression that Morrison is ready to move on from the pandemic. It’s an insult to frontline healthcare workers who have witnessed their patients and colleagues burn out and die from COVID-19 — not to mention the grief of hard-hit families and communities — and then watch cases surge again. Healthcare providers don’t have the option of moving on, as COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Perhaps “What’s It Gonna Take” should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Morrison’s career and is familiar with his body of work. He has always been grumpy and ill-tempered — the first time I saw him in concert, around 1970, he walked off the stage after 45 minutes without explanation — except now his contempt for authority figures permeates his lyrics ad nauseam. Ironically, the album is listenable only when the lyrics are ignored. One protest song would have been fine, but 15 are insufferable.
The once-great Morrison has turned into a reactionary anti-lockdown advocate, and I’m not sure how history will remember him. Many of us mark time by his music; it is and always will be very important to us. But “Van the Man,” the poetic champion who composed indelible hits such as “Moondance” and “Have I Told You Lately,” has descended into lunacy. His new music is at best hyperbole focused purely on his selfish grievances. Apparently, a handful of people love his new direction. Good for them, sad for the rest of us.
Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA, is a member of the Physician Leadership Journal editorial board, a 2021-2022 Doximity Luminary Fellow, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.