This is the story of a burly monk in shades, of flesh chasing the divine, of a voice ecstatic in southern blues and gospel and Celtic mysticism.
The situations in which we listen to music change what we hear. The very key of a tune may sound different two, ten, 20 years down the road; what sounded like a hopeful song in our youth may turn naïve and embarrassing, and turn again to something poignant, political. This process, over the course of decades following the same person’s music, might yield some interesting results, because, as Van Morrison would hasten to point out—he’s said as much in interviews—the artist doesn’t always have many choices, and sometimes he makes the wrong choices. That artist’s career and what we find in it are volatile, shifting, contingent.
At some point, though, we have the urge to step back and review, to add it all up. What then? What do these artifacts and events created in the past but existing in the present moment look like?
From this perspective, Greil Marcus’ slim new book about Van Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, explores moments of contradiction, sublime beauty, audacity, failure and grace in the singer-songwriter’s career with a keen ear and precision even as it maintains the ruminative tone and rich thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from one of America’s best cultural critics and historians. The context Marcus considers is rarely personal, save for the occasional anecdote from a friend or a sentence or two about his days at UC Berkeley, and even more rarely informed by the biography of the artist. If there’s a context to be explored, it’s the historical and cultural, a terrain of connections which surprise even when—sometimes especially when—they feel inevitable, as if the story has been there all along and Marcus is just the first one to notice it.
However, even that methodology, familiar to fans and critics of books like Lipstick Traces, The Old, Weird America and his most recent book, The Shape of Things to Come, is largely set aside. This new work is a collection of short ‘close listenings’—some as brief as a page or two—concerning performances and recordings from Morrison’s 45-year career. The essays are organized by theme rather than chronology, organized as such because Marcus sees Van Morrison’s music as “a story made of fragments”, the story of a “quest”, a damned messy epic with ever-changing monsters to slay and enough digressive journeys to rival Don Quixote.
This story has no ending, and Marcus’ satisfyingly realistic viewpoint is not, despite its organization, grandly and thematically synoptic. In other words, this is no final verdict on Van Morrison’s work, or on the man himself. (And haven’t we had enough of those books? And don’t they always seem to come up short?) Instead, it’s the story of a burly monk in shades, of flesh chasing the divine, of a voice ecstatic in southern blues and gospel and Celtic mysticism—a brilliant artist, yes, but one with a track record of setbacks which remind us of his boundaries and his humanity, and of our own.
The mission of When That Rough God Goes Riding is rather esoterically hinted at by its subtitle, “Listening to Van Morrison”. On the one hand, the phrase makes the book sound like notes scribbled down on a lazy Sunday afternoon. When the essays here disappoint, it’s usually because they indeed feel like notes. (To tell a fragmented story, must one speak in fragments?) At their best, however, the essays are bursts of insight, succeeding because Marcus is doing what he does best: listening. Finding new but familiar ground in something of a formalist approach, Marcus dwells on songs like “Madame George” and “Listen to the Lion”, tugging at their roots and their guts. He has always listened closely, but here those listenings center, balance, and energize the book.
With Van the Man, of course, there is much to listen for, beginning with better-known moments like his stunning performance at the Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, the Band’s farewell show captured on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Marcus plumbs both the bright and murky depths of Morrison’s career, considering two performances from a 1971 Pacific High Studios show broadcast live on KSAN out of San Francisco, “Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights” from 1974, and a few of Morrison’s recent records like 1997’s The Healing Game (one of the book’s best essays) and “Behind the Ritual” from 2008’s Keep It Simple. Out of these fragments emerges a complicated story, one of continual rebirth, constant seeking, revised identities and a surprising poignancy as the book pushes toward graver, more spiritual ideas, the stakes rising with each entry, until Marcus can write this about “Behind the Ritual”:
The words are slurred, or maybe it’s that the old man singing them is singing them as clearly as he can, testing his tongue against his pursed lips, like someone whose fingers are so webbed with arthritis he has to draw words instead of writing them. Morrison lifts his saxophone, and gets the lucidity he can’t find on his own.
Time and again Marcus wields his considerable skill at painting such moments, using visual scenes to metaphorically clarify the abstractions of sound—singing and instrumental music—that are difficult to put into words. Van Morrison may be a thief planning a heist, or, as Marcus says of the unreleased “Caledonia Soul Music”, “a pathfinder, issuing directions under his breath, his mission to lead everyone out of the forest…”; the uniqueness of Marcus’ rock criticism is in that phrase “under his breath”, a Chekhovian detail of realist contradiction that gains the reader’s trust, for indeed, some of Van Morrison’s most rousing moments are his quietest. In one of the book’s sharpest extended metaphors, the 23-year-old Van Morrison, who made Astral Weeks (pause on that a minute, won’t you?) and the album itself are compared to Olympic long-jumper Bob Beamon, who in 1968 shattered his own limits and the world record in an event of singular and perhaps lonely achievement.
Except for the essays “Astral Weeks” and “Almost Independence Day…Caledonia Soul Music”, the book’s first half is its weakest; here the concerns are less intriguing and lack the sense of profound and disturbed wonder at the heart of Marcus’ best writing. Not coincidentally, these entries are the shortest in the book, including this two-sentence flyer about “Moonshine Whiskey” from Tupelo Honey:
It’s the way he affirms “I’m gonna put on my hot pants” as if he’s trying to twist himself into them. But were they pink?
Since there’s no obligation to touch on every ‘major’ work, or to be historically comprehensive—to roll off one of those lists with short descriptions of each song you often find in straight biographies—this dashed-off reaction feels a bit showy. Yes, something in its curtness matches that song’s giddy bounce and rushed ending, but is that enough to warrant its inclusion? If you have allowed yourself to choose any performance you find compelling, why limit yourself to such a slight response?