Greil Marcus has been a leading American music and culture scholar and critic for nearly four decades. His work mixes an incisive critical gaze with an ability to perceive compelling confluences of history, popular song, film and collective memory. Last year he edited "A New Literary History of America" (Harvard University Press, 2009), a sprawling and irreverent book about the "myriad, multiform, endlessly changing expressions of the American experience". His latest project, "When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison" (PublicAffairs), marks a radical shift in gears. Not only does it concentrate on a single artist, but also this book is about listening, not criticism; an emotional response rather than cultural analysis.
The result is a deeply personal book and a unique product of Marcus’s idiosyncratic fandom. Such affectionate attention is far from hagiographic (in one chapter Marcus tenderly but firmly dismisses 16 albums Morrison released between 1980 and 1996 as a total loss, a gap in which the artist simply had nothing to say). Yet Marcus takes care in examining what distinguishes Morrison's singular talent, including his “quest to evade and escape the expectations of his audience.” More Intelligent Life spoke with Marcus about the puzzle of Van Morrison and what it means to listen.
More Intelligent Life: You write that the book's genesis can be traced to a 1969 Avalon Ballroom show. You have written on Morrison with great emotion before, notably in the "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll", but how long has the real book idea been gestating?
He has always been someone I’ve followed, sometimes with great joy and sometimes with great frustration. But I’ve never not paid attention to anything that he’s done because I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen when he applies himself to a song. But this book really came about when I was interviewed for an NPR show on the "Astral Weeks" tour
that Josh Gleason did. I was just one of several voices, but when my wife heard me on the air, she said "that’s what you should write a book about". I said something about how trying to catch the elusive nature of Van Morrison is like reaching your hand out in air and closing a fist on it and you open your fist and there’s a butterfly inside.
MIL: You call Morrison “bad tempered” and “self contradictory,” and you go on to prove it, whether it’s him telling audiences to shut up or, playing shows with the lights off, or your own suffering through around 15 years of poor releases. So why is he a worthy subject for a book-length work?
GM: Well, first I went back and listened to all of those 16 or 17 albums from 1980 to 1996, which in the book I essentially dismiss, to see what I had missed. And I was kind of unhappy to find that I hadn’t really missed anything. Like I say in the book, I think there’s a comparable period in Bob Dylan’s career when he just had nothing to sing about and it came across as contrived, and you can hear that. Oddly there were things Morrison recorded in a pretty similar period, say from 1975 to 1992, and didn’t release, and they were so much more powerful, and naked, than the things that he did release. Clearly he didn’t want that part of him out there in public. But then in 1997 he releases "The Healing Game", which to me was just a shock—it was so rich and held nothing back. When he’s not holding back emotionally he really takes flight, he begins to soar and burrow into it at the same time. So for a listener, it was all worth it to have this enormous pause and almost give up and then have him come back with something that was as good as anything he had ever done and maybe ever will do.
MIL: Most of your work tends toward the far-ranging, bringing together disparate threads to form new stories of American music and culture, but in this one, you focus on one songwriter, his practice and his recordings. Was this a challenging or liberating transition to make?
GM: Well it was a real relief, because I wasn’t really writing about him as a person. I was writing about incidents in his music, and I wanted to focus strictly on that and stay away from interpretation and stay away from social and artistic contextualising. I just wanted to get to the music on its own terms. As opposed to books that have taken me two, three or even nine years, I did this very quickly, just immersing myself. It was a great relief and a great pleasure.
MIL: Perhaps the main connective tissue of this book is the concept of the "yarragh", this kind of guttural, soul-stirring vocalising that Morrison, at his best moments, displays. Can you explain what you mean with this term?
GM: Yes, the idea of the yarragh is kind of the guiding notion of this book. It starts out with this great Irish tenor John McCormack, who said that the really good voice has a yarragh in it, a kind of guttural spirit. I took that as a kind of aesthetic principle and not just a sound, where we break through ordinary communication by making a sound people aren’t going to expect and aren’t going to understand immediately, but they’re going to respond to. That idea has been in my head even since I read a column Ralph Gleason had written about Van Morrison in 1969 or '70. But really it was just a matter of listening again to the songs and teasing out how they’re made, what happens in them, what is extraordinary, what’s flat. I didn’t go in with ideas beyond that, with a point or a case or an argument to make.
MIL: Your subjects skip around, from individual songs to live performances to entire albums and even a few films. Some chapters are quite weighty while one of them is just two lines long. How did you decide which songs, albums and performances to write about? How deep to delve, and how to order it all?
GM: It was a matter of what I thought I had to say about a given song. With “Moonshine Whiskey” I just had that one little thing I wanted to say, whereas with "Astral Weeks", which I go back to three or four times, I keep trying to get back inside that work in so many different ways, because it’s whole, it’s of a piece, but the different songs are events, they’re things that are happening right now, that will never happen again, or be remade, and so I responded to that contingency in the music, and that chance. The book is pretty much there in the order in which I wrote it. I never wanted it to be chronological. I think that would have been deadly dull for the reader. It also would have made a false case that there was some sort of progress or development or growth, which I don’t think is true. I think Van Morrison is one of these unusual people like Neil Young, Richard Thompson maybe, whose music exists in a kind of continual present, regardless of when it was made. You don’t see a developing personality, you see a personality that was fully formed and then again and again and again is finding things in the world to address itself to.
MIL: The book returns over and again to the notion of songs that refuse to settle or cease, which I think relates to that idea of continual present. It certainly seems to be what compels and confounds you about "Astral Weeks". Is that what keeps you returning to his music?
GM: I had listened to his last album, "Keep it Simple", before I started this book and I hadn’t really heard anything. But I went back and listened to it several times and this song, “Behind the Ritual”, emerged. Every time I listened to it, it got richer. Nostalgic songs by anybody tend to be self-pitying and false, constructing a paradise somewhere in the past that never existed, and this song does all that, but with such an intensity and such a sense of constantly returning to the same point of repetition emotionally as well as in the rhythms and the words that are repeated, that it escaped cliché. It became full of pathos and sorrow and loss that I was really touched by, and I was so happy to find that on his last work there was no diminution, or inability to, at least once, hit the true note. As to "Astral Weeks", there are moments of musical sympathy, of people hearing and understanding and listening to each other, the musicians, on that album, particularly on the song “Sweet Thing”, that just strike me as miraculous and I just think ‘How could that happen? How could anybody anticipate what the next person is going to do? How could anybody leap off from what the person has just done into something so abstract and yet emotionally concrete?’ I suppose you could say I just don’t understand the music, and you could say it’s that inability to understand the music combined with an ability to understand it emotionally, that brings me back to it. That whole album is made with a delicacy of feeling, there’s a sense of fragility, that one wrong note could blow the whole thing up, and that they never do hit a wrong note, at least to my ears.
MIL: You don’t discuss Morrison’s bandmates much during the book. Didn’t they make a big contribution?
GM: I don’t think there have been that many extraordinary people he’s worked with. There’s Pee Wee Ellis on "The Healing Game", there’s Toni Marcus on "Into the Music" (the violin player), there’s Richard Davis and others on "Astral Weeks". But I think what is really extraordinary about Morrison as a bandleader—and he’s a great bandleader—is his ability to open up areas of emotional and musical freedom for other people who may not be remarkable musicians, who may be pretty ordinary, where they are doing work that they will never find working with a more conventional performer. And it’s not just a matter of sparking them to live up to his example, it’s a matter of opening up space in an arrangement or a song and saying ‘Anything can happen. What happens in this song is as much up to you as to me.’ And that challenge has brought out wonderful things from people who are themselves maybe not remarkable.
MIL: Over the years Morrison has never been vocal about the politics of his native Northern Ireland, but in the book you do point to one moment where it seems his anger boils over.
GM: I don’t know what he thought, what side he felt himself on, if he felt himself on any side, during the time when Belfast was blowing up again and again and again. But there is this striking moment in “St. Dominic’s Preview”, one of the moments when the song returns to Belfast and he says, “This time they bit off more than they can chew.” And this was written at the time of Bloody Sunday, when things in northern Ireland were absolutely horrendous. And you know, you listen and wonder who are ‘they?’ Does it refer to the IRA, the UDA, the British occupation? We don’t know, but it seems very specific and it’s sung with anger, disgust and hopelessness. And that’s a powerful notion that people are in over their heads, and you go back and forth between being very specific, but he’s not going to tell you who it is. And it’s the situation of absolute desperation and murderousness that sticks, and that’s I think all he meant to let go of.
MIL: In addition to politics, Morrison has a history of being cagey about his song’s meanings when speaking publicly. Did that influence your move away from tying his songs to a social or political context, as you do in the chapter on “Madame George”?
GM: I didn’t try to resist it because it’s just not my bent to do that. I don’t read novels and wonder if this really happened to the writer and I don’t listen to these songs and wonder what in his life suggested or inspired it. With “Madame George” I present all kinds of interpretations that other people have made, really to say what a complete waste of time this is. It’s a form of protecting yourself from your own imagination to say ‘Well this has to be real. What really happened?’ instead of letting the song provoke you to imagine yourself into it. I think to tie any piece of work or art to the artist’s own life is utterly reductive and is a way of evading the power that work has had on you, trying to deny it in a way. Do you really care if Van Morrison had a girlfriend named Gloria? What does that add to anything? Someone says ‘I want to write a great song. I know. She’s going to come up and knock on my door. How do I get her there? I should call her name over and over again.’
MIL: Well it’s a terrific quote where an interviewer asks him who is singing “Madame George” and Morrison responds slyly “the question might really be is the song singing you?”
GM: Yeah. And of course on the other hand for years people talked about how “Like a Rolling Stone” was about Edie Sedgwick, and made all these cases. And to me it was always like ‘Who cares?’ That’s just a way of taking the song away from yourself. But then I heard a lecture by Thomas Crow, an art historian, about “Like a Rolling Stone” being about Edie Sedgwick within Andy Warhol’s circle, as something that Dylan saw from the outside, not being personally involved with either of them, but as something he saw and was scared by and saw disaster looming and wrote a song as a warning, and it was compelling. But as you write a song, or a poem, or a novel, whatever your proximate inspiration was, the form itself wants what it wants. A song demands a certain image, an increasing pressure, no matter what sparked it. So to look for the source of anything that moves you in whatever actually happened is going to take you away from being moved, to put it in a box and control it. I don’t understand why people would want to do that.
MIL: The book’s subtitle says it’s about listening, and while you certainly have written plenty on the act of listening it seems very forceful here, from your admission that you’ve listened to "Astral Weeks" more than any other album to the comprehensive listings of recordings mentioned in the text so people can easily go out and find them.
GM: Well that’s what it’s really about, listening to the music. And if any piece of writing leads people to listen to the music, and listen more openly, that’s great. All writing is an imaginary conversation with an imaginary reader, and if I’m writing about a song and I’m playing it over and over again all afternoon and then somebody reads that and goes and does the same thing, then we’re having that imaginary conversation, and that’s very fulfilling.
"When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison" (PublicAffairs), by Greil Marcus, out now
~ J. GABRIEL BOYLAN
Picture credit: Thierry Arditti