Profile: Van Morrison

IF ONE was to seek a Rosebud moment in the life of Van Morrison, a key to unlock his infamously crusty and cantankerous character, it could be found in the song Brown Eyed Girl.

Recorded in 1967, it was originally titled Brown Skinned Girl to go with its Jamaican, calypso vibe, but "Van the Man" or "Van the young Man" as he was then, wisely decided to change the focus from skin to eye and so created a critical and commercial classic. It has been played eight million times on American radio alone and is described by the composer as "the money song".

Yet while the soubriquet might conjure an image of a powerful sluice of cash barrelling into his bank account, this would be to ignore the Northern Irishman's love of irony. At a time when black singers were routinely "paid" for their song rights with the keys to a Cadillac that later turned out to be rented, George Ivan Morrison was not the last musician to be cheated out of royalty rights.

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"I call that 'the money song' – because they got all the money and I got none. What happened after that is I ended up with zero money," said Morrison in a rare interview. "I was broke and depressed and remained that way for many years after that, and I just decided to make a stand for myself and do things my way, not theirs."

This is why Morrison regularly takes a digital stopwatch on stage and times his curtain closer with the final chords ending at 90 minutes, the exact time he is contractually obliged to play. This is why, in 1993, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he became the first artist not to bother showing up.

When Harvey Goldsmith agreed to manage the artist in 1976, he said: "Every single person that had been involved with him, be it record company, publishing, promoting, agency or whatever, had a tremendous respect for him. But everyone also said that he was the most difficult person in the world to deal with."

Yet there are times when his behaviour is entirely understandable. Last week he was the victim of an internet prank when a message appeared on his website announcing the birth of a new son, George Ivan Morrison III. The widely reported post, which has since been removed from the site, claimed producer Gigi Lee had given birth to the tot – "the spitting image of his daddy". However, on Friday the singer released a statement which said: "Claims were made relating to my personal life in a 'statement' purporting to come from me. The comments which appeared on my website did not come from me. They are completely and utterly without foundation. For the avoidance of all doubt and in the interests of clarity, I am very happily married to Michelle Morrison with whom I have two wonderful children."

The web hoax had claimed he had had the child with Lee, whom he claims never to have met. On Friday his friend, John Saunders, a public relations executive, said the singer had been dismayed by the claims after enjoying a quiet family Christmas. "Clearly it is upsetting for all their family and for all their friends," he told RTE radio in Ireland. "I spoke to Van a short while ago and I said, 'Do you even know this person (Gigi Lee]'? He's never heard the name at any stage in the past – he doesn't know who this person is."

Morrison once said: "The only thing I love is the music. The rest of it is pure shit. The kind of shit that fame attracts is very dark. It's very dark. I like the music, but that's it."

Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1945. His father introduced him to jazz, blues and folk music at a young age, while his mother was a jazz singer. As a boy he listened to country musicians such as Hank Williams and, by 15, he played guitar, harmonica and saxophone, quitting school to pursue music full time.

In 1963, Morrison formed a band called Them with some members from the Monarchs and some of his school buddies. Gloria was an early hit. But in 1966, during an American tour, the record company labelled the group as rough young rebels, so Morrison quit. Picked up as a solo artist by a record company in New York, Morrison recorded some singles, including Brown Eyed Girl, but was outraged when they were released as a solo album, Blowin' Your Mind, without his knowledge.

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Morrison eventually signed with Warner Brothers in 1968 while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and recorded Astral Weeks in two days. Recorded at a time when Morrison was so poor he was literally starving, it was laid down like a jazz session and is widely considered to be one of the finest albums of all time. Lester Bangs, the legendary rock critic, cited it as his favourite album.Two years later he released his first commercially successful album, Moondance. The record sold over a million copies that year before eventually going platinum and Morrison's path was set. He has produced an album a year ever since.

Intensely private, Morrison first married Janet Rigsbee, an American, in 1968. Although she was his girlfriend at the time, the union was principally to allow him to stay in the country. They had a daughter, Shana, now 37, but were divorced in 1973. In the Nineties, the singer surprised friends when he started a relationship with Michelle Rocca, a former Miss Ireland, with whom he began attending social events and appearing in the diary columns of newspapers. The couple later married and now have two children.

Yet the most powerful and important relationship in the singer's life appears to be with a higher power. Over the past 40 years he has been a spiritual nomad, wandering from philosophy to theology in an endless search for meaning. His 1978 album Wavelength included the song Kingdom Hall about his experience of the Jehovah's Witnesses. He has called himself a Christian mystic and spent 18 months exploring the tenets of Scientology – there were even reports that he was working as a counsellor at their British headquarters in London. Yet whatever his preference, after he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Ivor Novello awards, he pointed to the heavens and said he couldn't have done it "without you know who".

Today Morrison continues to play by his own rules. At a time when record sales are collapsing in the face of free downloads, he is buoyed by fans who prefer to step into a record shop to get their music. "I am lucky I have an audience that is not into the fad of the download. I am very grateful for that. My fans must intrinsically understand the value of having a record in their hand." Each year he continues to sell roughly two million albums worldwide.

His love of an argument remains undiminished. Salman Rushdie once wrote of meeting Morrison late one night in Bono's living room, after which he was "treated to the rough edge of the great man's tongue". With admirable understatement, he further observed that Morrison "has been known to get a little grumpy towards the end of a long evening".

Yet one tale indicates his contrary nature. It has him in a long, late-night, post-gig bar-room exchange of views with a member of his band, who stood his ground on a particular point until weariness got the better of him and he told his employer at last that he agreed with him. Momentarily taken aback, Morrison is said to have paused for a second before snapping: "Well, in that case… you're wrong!"

And so, this week, was the internet.

• When Rolling Stone Magazine called him "simply one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever", "Propaganda!" was Morrison's response.

• Miles Davis, right, is the one artist he wished had played on one of his records. He said: "Actually, he said he would, but I didn't get to him in time."

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• His first group was The Sputniks, a skiffle outfit, formed with neighbourhood friends when Morrison was 12.

• Jim Morrison of The Doors modelled his stage-craft on Van Morrison's "air of subdued menace".

• Q magazine ranked Morrison 22nd in their list of the 100 Greatest Singers Of All Time.