Van Morrison and Rough Gods
PopMatters: There’s something less overtly literary about Morrison’s work, compared to Dylan, for instance, so I’m wondering how your approach to this book might have been different as a result of your focus on his voice.
Greil Marcus: I think the words in his songs, as with Dylan when he’s at his best, are occasions or opportunities for performance, for singing. Dylan, I think, is fairly self-conscious as a wordsmith; he values that; maybe he values it too much. He used to say in interviews, “People aren’t listening to the words!” You have to write a song so that people will listen to the words. If not, then why write a song? Write an editorial in the paper.
Van Morrison speaks very clearly. He says, “The only time I pay attention to words is when I’m writing a song, and after that, I let the words loose.” And he’ll say, “I’m not singing words, I’m singing syllables.” He’s trying to find the moment in a song when words and rhythm and melody and orchestration come together and you can set yourself free from the words.
And he says something that really dovetails with the way I’ve heard music for many, many years when he says, “The question is, is the song singing you?” When that happens—when the song is singing the performer—that’s when the most extraordinary discoveries and a sense of revelation can be passed on to the listener. That’s what I was looking for.
PM: There are moments in Van Morrison’s performances when his self recedes, or gives way to the song, which you describe as a struggle with the yarragh [a term coined by the Irish tenor John McCormack]: to take it over or be taken over by it. Is that a fair description?
GM: Yeah, or the self dissolves. Or ceases to matter. People often try to discuss any artist or performer’s work in terms of that person’s actual life, and say, “See, here’s a song about a mother, and he had a mother!” (laughs)
With Van Morrison, the way that he sings and what he does with words and phrases makes that kind of thing moot, because the real action is taking place beyond words, beyond any explicit story.
At one point I’m arguing against this and presenting all these different people who have particular interpretations of who or what Madame George is, or was, whether it’s a kind of a person or a very specific individual who actually lived and died, and then I say that this is not a useful way to listen, it only puts the song at a distance. It doesn’t allow you to dive into it.
I say, let your imagination drift. Who does the song suggest to you? And I say it makes me think of Michael Jackson. Now, obviously Van Morrison wasn’t thinking of Michael Jackson when he wrote the song… but so what? Music—any art—is there to give us more freedom, not to take it away.
PM: It works in an associative manner.
GM: It can. It works, to me, when music is suggestive, and sends you into your own reverie, or begins to make sense of your own life: that’s wonderful.
People who listen to Bob Dylan’s songs and want to know if this song is about Joan Baez and exactly what incident in his relationship with her is it about—this is just a way of keeping the song away from your own life.
PM: You make the point in the essay “Madame George”, that on the part of many listeners there’s a surprising fear of imagination, of being seduced or tricked by the song. Is that because we’re afraid to let it turn back on our own lives?
GM: I don’t know if this is a particularly recent phenomenon or if it’s much older, but over the last twenty years I’ve noticed more critics and commentators of all sorts saying, essentially, “You can’t fool me. I won’t be fooled. I know what this is about. I see the man behind the curtain.” A willingness to be fooled, to be taken into someone else’s imaginary world, to believe in something that didn’t happen when you’re reading a book or listening to a song—that’s how you connect with art, by being willing to be fooled.
It’s that old phrase about the suspension of disbelief; that’s what the arts are supposed to enact. And it just shocks me to see so many people saying, “I won’t suspend my disbelief. You can’t make me.” That’s not a good approach.
PM: I blame the deconstructionists.
GM: Yeah. Deconstruction, you know, it started out as fun. How does this thing work, what makes this tick? And that’s fascinating and can be illuminating and instructive.
But let’s say you have a clock. And you love this clock, it’s handed down in your family many generations, it’s beautiful, it always works, the alarm always goes off when it’s supposed to… and then one day you take it apart.
You can have two reactions when all the pieces are lying on the floor. You can say, “Isn’t it incredible that all these little pieces—each of which is nothing by itself—can combine into this marvelous artifact?” Or you can say, “Look! It’s just a bunch of stuff!”
PM: If as listeners we’re afraid of the artist’s imagination, can we also be afraid of a critic’s imagination?
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison
(PublicAffairs; US: Apr 2010)
GM: Sure. Because people say, “Well, you’re just making that up.” And the proper response is, “Of course I am. I’m trying to bring one dimension of listening to bear on another. That’s all criticism is. It’s the bringing to bear of one perspective onto another that is going to resist it.
Your sensibility is both embracing or resisting the thing that you’re considering and writing about. And you create that tension between the person who’s creating the thing and the person who’s responding.
Some people like to say, “Well, can’t you just like it without thinking about it?” Well, no, some people can’t do anything without thinking about it. Thinking about things is what makes life interesting.
PM: Reading this book reveals some pretty strong parallels between Dylan and Van Morrison. Both went through this long period of mediocrity but stayed restless, kept trying to find themselves.
GM: There’s this very instructive thing that Van Morrison said to Dave Marsh that’s included in the book, where he’s talking about the albums he made with Linda Gail Lewis and some other people, and he says, “Well, sometimes you make mistakes. Or sometimes you’re bored.” I think it was in the early or mid-‘70s that word went out that Van Morrison’s new album was going to be a whole album of songs by other people called I’m Dry. As in, “I’m all used up, I have nothing left to say.”
When you have nothing to sing about, but you have a career, you have bills to pay, you need to maintain your own self as someone who matters to other people, you’re going to keep doing it. If you’re lucky, you’re going to break through. You could easily say Dylan and Van Morrison were trying to lose themselves, and really succeeded.
PM: Dylan went to his folk background in Good As I Been To You, but for Van Morrison finding his way seemed a little less singular. He went through so many genres, and you note how those albums seem like nothing but exercises in genre.
GM: When Dylan, at least as I hear it, climbed out of this pit of Under the Red Sky, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded and all those other strange records—maybe strange is too affirmative a word for them—with Good As I Been to You, it’s a most modest album, it’s quiet, it’s just him, it’s not produced, it’s not his own songs, and yet it’s also a dynamo. But it presents itself as extremely modest work.
On the other hand, Van Morrison comes out with The Healing Game, and it’s this tremendously strong piece of work, all of it his own songs, with a different kind of orchestration, a confidence, a kind of high-stepping. And he’s not saying “I’m back,” because I don’t think he ever thought he was away. And I’m sure he doesn’t think as horribly of those many albums of his from 1980 to 1996 as I do, but to me, The Healing Game is a transformation.
PM: Do you think part of the way he found his way out—or lost himself—was by reconnecting with that preverbal yarragh and being less overtly literary, as he was on so many of those albums in the ‘80s?
GM: In some ways, it is very literary. One thing I don’t really talk about in the book, because I don’t know too much about it, or have that frame of reference, is that a lot of his style and the way he can seize on a word, or part of a word, and make it either upend or transform or take over a whole song, comes from Irish poetry and the way that poetry is performed in pubs, at poetry festivals—you know, out in public. Where the whole point is to get back beyond Gaelic. In other words, forget English, forget even Gaelic; go back to a point where we have to communicate only through sound.
Think about the end of the Cranberries’ “Dreams”, their first big hit. At the end, the singer is slipping away from words into pure sound, and then there’s this guy in the background who’s just, you know…he is yarraghing, that’s what he’s doing. Just going up and down. And that’s an extraordinary thing for a hit record in that time, to just go somewhere else.
But that’s commonplace in Ireland. That’s not strange. That kind of performance is something everybody would’ve experienced. You’re standing up in a crowded room, and you have to get their attention, have to make them stop drinking and shut up and listen, and you have to do that with intensity, by doing odd things with words so somebody says “What’d he say?” and leans forward to it.
PM: Freedom is a persistent theme in the book: the search for it, dealing with it, losing it, finding it again. To me it’s a very contemporary brand of individualism, isolating himself from the community, but wanting the community to still be there.
GM: Well, we’re all contradictory. With him, there are at least two kinds of freedom. One is freedom from: from the demands of managers, record companies, fans and banks and stalkers and God knows what. “Just leave me alone”: that kind of freedom.
And there’s another kind of freedom, where either through art or physical exertion or meditation or drugs or losing yourself in a book, you become free from the prison of your own self, your own sense of your limits and your weaknesses and fears. You break free from that, and in a way that’s so dramatic it’s as if from the prison of your self, you can watch your free self and see what that self does. And you can hear that happen in his music. That’s the kind of freedom I’m talking about.
PM: Is it fair to say that the transcendent freedom happens when he stretches words out, takes them apart?
GM: Yeah, but it’s not at will. He can’t make that happen just by saying his version of abracadabra, which might be repeating the same word fifteen times. You need the right melody to make that fly, you need a certain rhythm to give it strength and body, you need a moment when you want it so badly and you understand what you want and you know how to get it, or sometimes when you don’t even see it coming, like that moment in “Sweet Thing” when he says “Hoyyy!”
Was that rehearsed, or was it lifted from another song, or was it something that just blew up and hit him in the face? I don’t know.