Sunday, June 12, 2011

"When That Rough God Goes Riding", Greil Marcus listens to Van Morrison

When I was a sophomore in college sometime in the B.C.D. era (before compact discs), a friend of mine said she was taking six months off to follow Van Morrison, who was on tour. I can't remember what my initial thought was but I remember letting out a short laugh. It was a way of saying "What? Van Morrison?" without actually confronting my friend's decision to sidetrack the winter months in Syracuse (which now I consider a wise move) as much as ditching school to follow Morrison around the country -- which, now, of course, seems like the very wisdom of the ages, or of the early Seventies, at any rate.

Even after his brilliant string of albums (you can look them up) by 1972, I was not a Van man, simply for his music being off my radar more than anything. I just wasn't paying attention, busy on other things I suppose, and not much into Van's high-Irish pastoral vision of whatever he was getting at. Gimme rock'n'roll, baby: The Stooges, honkin' and squawkin'.

Now, in these decades A.D. (after disc), I have found that Morrison's music, like awaiting the return of a prodigal son, was worth waiting for, no matter how long it took. His was the first art that made me glad "to leave something for my old age" -- at 40, or 45, whenever it was that I first really listened to Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, and explore the vast pastures beyond.

Now I realize the world would be a somber, unbearable place without them, much less my own sense of place. Van may be singing about Eire's green hills but the aching and longing and sheer mystery of life-where-one-is-at-right-now or what-life-would-like-to-be-tomorrow is palpable. Not always (genius is unreliable, that's its spark) -- but there is enough continuity in the thread of his work and the meaning of Morrison's music that most of his albums have moments of clear and heartbreaking beauty.

Even when he's bitching about the music biz, which is like a splinter he can't quite dig out. By the point he recorded Magic Time (2005) he was at least aware of this last-nerve ranting: he doesn't end the album with the artist-as-persected-Jesus of "They Sold Me Out" ("...and divided up my robe") but ends the album with the resigned benediction of "Carry On Regardless."

Greil Marcus is no stranger to the arcane and the inexplicable in pop and rock culture, but also, in Lipstick Traces (1989), the canvas of the entire history of the twentieth century. (The effect of that book is like looking at history as if it were a Dali painting from five feet away, instead of fifty. History as art's extreme close-up.)

His book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison is his foray into the Morrison mysteries and, if you're up for it, a cross-cultural romp of influences, judgments, and fractured emotional responses to Van's work. Is it too much? Yes, and not enough, too. Its thick, wild and wooly theorizing is more a product of Marcus's love of Van's music than any rational trip through Morrison's catalogue. Fans will understand.

Abandoning a linear narrative opens the book to complaints of Marcus's personal obsession, messy and strained connections, and sheer confusion. But his approach-of-tangents gets to the core of why Morrison's music has an appeal more to individuals than a mass audience: at its best it's a vision. (One can Imagine the mystical, yearning Yeats attempting to fill stadium seats, decades of touring behind his work.) Whether Morrison himself intends it so, it's a wonder his music still makes it to the marketplace at all.

Here's Marcus making the case for Morrison's restlessness:

No performer, or no person who does creative work whether it’s a novelist or a singer or film director, actor, wants to be the prisoner of his or her past work. Otherwise you can’t go to anything new with a sense that is new, that you’re going to do something you haven’t done before, [that] you’re going to break through into an area you’ve never been able to reach before. I would think that would be both incredibly tiresome for Van Morrison to always have people tell him, “I love Astral Weeks so much,” or whatever it might be. And then he might say or he might imagine, “Well, did you hear The Healing Game or did you listen to Keep It Simple?” “Oh no, man, I stopped buying records back in 1981.” That’s awful. ...

I did find something he said in an interview very revelatory where he said something like, "The only time I'm really concentrating on the words is when I am writing them. But after that, when it comes time to sing the song, I release the words. And the words go out and they do what they want. Sometimes it's me chasing them or it's not up to me how they are going to arrange themselves."

Is this the book to start with an understanding of Van Morrison? No way. But it hits at something central in Morrison's music, the reaching for something else that may not even be there -- the phantom in the music that conjures more than the words and music and endless humming ever can. The best of Morrison's music, like Irish tales, wait on some force or form to appear and create some other meaning, to conjure some other reality.

One of these days, now, I gotta see Van the Man live in concert. But I'm not holding my breath it'll happen anytime soon.

No comments: