Greil Marcus — When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison

Funnily enough, considering the subject and theme of his latest book, reading über-critic Greil Marcus is a lot like listening to Van Morrison. The experience can be illuminating, frustrating, transcendent, and solipsistic—often in the same paragraph or song. Like Morrison, Marcus has been following his own path for quite some time, and anyone who has a passing familiarity with either of them will always be able to find the gold hidden down a backstreet or way up top a flight of fancy.

My problem with Marcus is that his exhortations can be the definition of pedantic, referencing far-flung obscure artists and works in order to make a point that no one can truly argue with, having no idea who or what he’s is talking about. On the other hand, like listening to Morrison himself, if you’re willing to put in the work, you can be turned on to artists, books, movies, etc. that may later become indispensable to your life.

What Marcus does here is doubly off-putting, as he spends a great deal of time extolling the virtues of tracks and performances of Morrison’s that are unavailable anywhere but bootlegs, a stream that Morrison spends a great deal of energy to dam, enlisting the services of Web Sheriff to scour the internet of any traces of illicit music. I was lucky enough to have a copy of the 1971 KSAN Pacific High Studios show which is referenced pretty heavily, but as far as Caledonia Soul Music, which according to Marcus is the key to the whole thing, I’ll just have to take his word for it.

In this book, Marcus eschews most biographical information, much, I can imagine to Morrison’s relief, only pointing out pertinent signposts along the way. The whole focus is on those moments of un-forced transcendence that Marcus believes paint a secret map through the jungle of Morrison’s oeuvre. As with any great artist—and to put my cards on the table, I believe Morrison to be one of the greatest singers of the last 40 years—what pieces resonate with your soul at any given time is completely subjective. I think Marcus is either trying to be cute, or is just being lazy to discount in one fell swoop everything Morrison put out between Common One in 1980, and Tell Me Something in 1996.

Marcus talks about looking for the “yarragh” in Morrison’s performances, that moment that transcends language and artifice to, as Morrison once sang, “get down to the real soul, I mean the real soul, people.” To take a page from Marcus’ book if I may refer to a performance now out-of-print and unavailable, as a child of the ’70s I knew Morrison primarily as an AM radio hit maker and it wasn’t until PBS ran Van Morrison The Concert, recorded at New York’s Beacon Theater in 1989, that I was exposed to Morrison the mystic. I don’t recall which number he used to launch himself into the “yarragh,” but all of a sudden, he was growling and barking, not like a madman, but like a genius. I remember standing in front of the TV just slack-jawed; this was someone who warranted further investigation. All of a sudden I understood why someone like Morrison would rankle against cheap stardom. It wasn’t the fucking point. This, this is the point. And although Marcus’ examples are personal to his own experience, as far as catching the desperately vital point of it all, we really do see eye-to-eye.

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