When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)
“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.” Wilfred Mellers
“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.” Van Morrison
Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives. Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion. On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him. He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.
Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience. As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling. He yelled out, “Just shut up. Just shut up! We do the work here on stage, not you.”
And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence. As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”
Van Morrison did not start out great. With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.” But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.” Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)
Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.” The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation. Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation. The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say: “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements. The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed. That’s why it came out the way it did… There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”
Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.” That’s alright, such is the nature of genius. Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings. But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply.”
Thank you, both Van and Greil. Highly recommended.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).