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PROFILE / JANET PLANET: Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed
Girl"

The Clouds Have Lifted

Those Tumultuous Years Behind Her, the Astral Angel Lives a Quiet Life and Still Writes Music

November 17, 1998|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before she first cast eyes on him in the summer of 1966, behind a roller-rink-turned-concert-hall in San Leandro, Calif., she heard something powerful and poetic, inviting and dangerous, in Van Morrison's voice. It seemed to reach out of the radio, and grabbed hold of 19-year-old Janet Rigsbee's heart.

The fresh-faced redhead married the Irish bard and soul singer--and was thrust beyond his music into the publicity machine touting the great matings at the center of the rock revolution. As with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul and Linda McCartney and Bob and Sarah Dylan, the private life of Morrison and "Janet Planet"--as the consummate rhymer had nicknamed her--became a media mystery surrounded by analysis and speculation.

Their seemingly idyllic romance was heralded on album covers, in sepia shots of her head lying dreamily on his shoulder, and of her in a flowered gown astride a white stallion led by him along a sun-dappled country path, through what looked for all the world like a secluded corner of Camelot. Its depths were explored in the moving love songs on some of Morrison's most enduring albums: "Astral Weeks," "Moondance," "His Band & the Street Choir," "Tupelo Honey."

Legend Status

Eventually, the child-woman immortalized in the searing lyrics of such songs as "Ballerina," "Beside You," "Crazy Love," "You're My Woman" and "The Way Young Lovers Do" helped the real woman's eminence grow to the status of legend in pop culture.

Truth is, she says their marriage was an emotional roller coaster, largely cut off from the rest of the world, that collapsed in 1973 when she fled their Marin County home in a desperate gesture of independence. That same autumn day, as she drove off in a Mercedes that was the first harvest of Morrison's success, her storied reign as the era's "Earth goddess" vanished like, in her words, "a castle made of clouds."

"I would have done anything for the man who wrote those songs, who whispered in the night that they were true," she says. "I wanted more than anything to make him happy. But I just couldn't do it.

"When I left, everybody got real mad at me because I had become an important cog in a music industry machine that was starting to make so much money," she added. "On the other hand, I just had to find peace and my own voice."

After all these years, judging from the gossip on the so-called "Vanatics" Web site, the question remains: Whatever happened to Janet Planet?

*

The original "Brown Eyed Girl" is 51 now, going by the name Janet Morrison Minto and living in the flatlands of Sherman Oaks in a modest, off-white 1950s California-style bungalow.

She has been married for 17 years to her third husband, Chris Minto, a recording engineer. The most powerful elements of her life include pursuing her own songwriting career and watching her 27-year-old daughter by Morrison break into the music business. Shana Morrison's booming, bluesy voice has been compared to her father's; she began touring with his band as a backup singer a month after she earned a business degree from Pepperdine University in 1993. Shana's first showcase performance for a Los Angeles audience is scheduled Dec. 2 at the Opium Den.

Today, Janet is slender, pretty and elegant, her hair a bit faded to strawberry blond, her skin still porcelain perfect, with a voice that seems to bubble with laughter and goodwill. As she tells it, the twice-divorced mother of two is happier than ever in her little house in the Valley.

Admiring the petals of a pink rose in her tidy backyard garden, she said, "I want anyone who still cares to know that I actually found what I went off looking for--a happy life."

But that's only one of the reasons she has decided to break the silence she has kept since her marriage to Morrison dissolved. A record company in Germany, MTM Music, is marketing a CD of songs that Janet co-wrote and produced with fellow Southern Californian Pam Barlow, and they're eager to publicize it.

Niche Market

Nevermind that the CD, "Dreaming Ezekiel," by a studio group called Fake I.D., was deliberately fashioned to sound like '80s arena rock (which is about as far from Morrison's Janet Planet songs as can be imagined) or that distribution is limited. It is available on the Internet (http://www.PI.se/mtm) and in Europe, where the style still makes for a profitable niche market.

"It's doing well in Sweden," Janet said. "It's straight-ahead pop--which can be wonderful and powerful when it's good. The cost was $16,000 . . . we mixed it right here in our den."

Humble as the effort may seem, it is a triumph of sorts for Janet, a seasoned songwriter whose discography includes songs she wrote for feature films such as "The Blob" and "Roxanne," for a recent Levi's 501 jeans commercial and for the Swedish rock group Alien, but who struggled for years after "Seattle grunge killed the Los Angeles songwriting scene," she says. "This CD project has been a blessing. I've got the hardest-working angel in show business."

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