Thursday, August 19, 2010

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Greil Marcus on the many mysteries, missteps, and pants of Van Morrison

Perhaps the greatest records—the ones that, to borrow Greil Marcus’ standard, we carry to our graves—are those that seize us upon our first encounter, yield their real treasures only gradually, and somehow retain their mysteries even after we’ve internalized their every strum, tickle, and intake of breath. Marcus claims to have listened to Van Morrison’s 1968 creative breakthrough
Astral Weeks more than any other record, every time worrying he’s exhausted it, every time discovering anew that it still hasn’t given itself up. He submits several reasons why this might be in When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (Public Affairs, $29), though none convince me so much as the one he’s not quite certain of, thus forming it as a question: “Is it because it has no ending?”

Morrison gets down with Janet Planet

First time I heard
Astral Weeks I must have fallen into a trance. I was sure the record consisted of three, maybe four songs. I was later shocked to discover the eight listed on the back cover. It feels like traveling, this record, like following a path in the dark that leads to changes in topography you hadn’t anticipated yet in retrospect seem the natural result of all that came before. Marcus gets at something similar when discussing the yarragh, which William Butler Yeats once described as a sort of Celtic lament, which for our purposes we might loosely align to the Spanish concept of duende—in his 1999 essay ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song,’ Nick Cave memorably declared that duende “pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and, though he tries to, he cannot escape it.” Marcus locates the yarragh in Morrison as “the voice that strikes a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it, a note so unfinished and unsatisfied you can understand why the eternal seems to be riding on its back.”

When That Rough God Goes Riding, which is more a collection of short essays than a sustained consideration of Morrison’s work, is at its best in rapturously articulate passages such as these, as well as in smaller, sometimes quirkier digressions. Marcus considers Morrison’s performance of ‘Caravan’ in The Last Waltz, wearing that amusingly snug outfit and kicking his right leg in the air like a Rockette, and later pays loving homage to Morrison’s donning of hot pants in ‘Moonshine Whiskey.’ Marcus is wonderfully sensitive to the nuances of Richard Davis’ bass work on Astral Weeks. Marcus tells a vivid personal story about a schoolmate’s bohemian mom whose image he recalls while listening to ‘Madame George.’ He’s very good with the strange, hushed aural space Morrison inhabits with ‘Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights’: “the louder you try to make it, the more it recedes, until it reaches as far as it will go toward silence, making you lean into it.”

Morrison getting his kicks in The Last Waltz

Marcus can be less persuasive when making cross-media comparisons, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ to Raymond Chandler’s
Little Sister, a somewhat intriguing case, or ‘Friday’s Child’ to a scene in Anton Corbijn’s Control, which could have just as easily been a million other things. He seems determined to spend an awful lot of ink describing the movie Breakfast on Pluto before analyzing its use of Morrison’s music. I appreciated Marcus’ audacity to write off 16 entire years of Morrison’s work—“The tedium was almost heroic in its refusal to quit,” he quips—yet if you’re familiar with the work in question, as well as with other less reputable records that Marcus champions, you can’t help but yearn for closer readings of Morrison’s whole 45-year oeuvre, rather than the scattering of musings collected here. But I suppose the scattered, associational nature of When That Rough God Goes Riding could be seen as Marcus’ own riff on the yarragh. I closed the book without any doubts as to the sincerity of Marcus’ stray assertions about this artist he so clearly reveres, even those that admit their own inconclusiveness. It takes a certain critical flair to end an essay with the confession that “what I value most is how inexplicable any great work really is.”

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