Greil Marcus recalls the first time he heard Van Morrison's 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, with staggering clarity. "It was after midnight and my wife and I had the radio on when they started playing Astral Weeks. It had just been released, but Van Morrison's career had kind of disappeared at that point," Marcus remembers. "No one was thinking about him, but then there were these songs on the radio that didn't sound like anything we had heard before. After a while my wife said, 'I think we're going to be listening to this for a long time.' It was an odd thing to say about something on the radio, so I remember it distinctly. I bought the album the next day, and that's the copy that I still play."
Thus began a decades-long fascination with Van Morrison for Marcus, the author and rock critic whose name is synonymous with music journalism via such books as Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) and The Old, Weird America: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (2001). For Marcus, Astral Weeks revealed a deeper listening experience than the "Brown Eyed Girl" radio rock that had previously put Morrison on the map. What he heard in the album was magical, metaphysical, transcendent. With his latest book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, Marcus embarks on a deeply personal exploration of Morrison's music. It's not a biography or a career survey, but a book about actively engaging the music.
For Marcus, Astral Weeks captures Morrison at his grim best, while embracing the "yarragh" – a notion coined by Irish singer John McCormack that distinguished a good voice from a great voice, and a notion that Marcus calls a rip in the fabric of normal communication. By sifting through the scant highs and voluminous lows of Morrison' career, Marcus unleashes his own yarragh.
The seeds for the book were planted in 2009 when Van Morrison embarked on a historic tour, playing the songs from Astral Weeks. NPR's Josh Gleason interviewed Marcus for a segment about the record, during which Marcus said, "You can hear these moments of invention and gasping for air, and you reach your hand and you close your fist, and when you open your fist there's a butterfly in it. There really was something there, but you couldn't have seen it."
When his wife Jenny heard that, she prompted him to keep going with it. "She said, 'If you can come up with something like that, you should write a book about it,'" Marcus says. "I had never written a book that focused solely on music, and trying to take each musical event within itself that created its own context, and was its own frame of reference. It was a great challenge and it wasn't something that I could just barrel through."
Marcus admits that he has listened to Astral Weeks more than any other record in his life, but it is only one of dozens of albums Van Morrison has released since 1965. Most of those records – 16 years worth, to be exact – haven't left an impression on him. Beginning with the release of Common One in 1980 and ending with Tell Me Something in 1996, Marcus scanned Morrison's records for a sign of the elusive yarragh, but it just wasn't there.
"In Van Morrison's music you hear a quest to break through ordinary limits of communication," Marcus says. "It may be in the words that he uses, or in pauses, hesitations, or in the way a phrase is turned. That quest is behind the greatest moments of his music. But there was a period in his life when I don't think he was interested in that; when he wanted music that signified a world that was ordinary and predictable, and that had limits. That seems to be what those records are about."
Over the years, Marcus had delved into each and every one of them. Other writers would tout their genius, but all he heard was Morrison going through the motions. "It's almost bizarre to say: Here is a great artist, but here is an enormous swathe of his work that isn't interesting or compelling. That's a strange and cruel thing to say. But it happens."
Everything changed when Morrison released The Healing Game in 1997. "It's so realized, ambitious, tough, mean, nasty and cool," Marcus says. "You can't imagine the Van Morrison of the previous 16 albums saying 'I am the devil,' like he does with "Burning Ground." He's saying, 'I'm trouble,' and he's going to have to live up to that through the rest of the album."
Through it all there has been no feedback from Van Morrison whatsoever. "I don't even know if he's aware of the book," says Marcus, who borrowed the book's title from a song on The Healing Game called "Rough God Goes Riding." The phrase originally comes from the W.B. Yeats poem "The Second Coming." But when meshed with the notion of the yarragh, it embodies everything that Marcus wanted to convey with the book. "It wasn't my title. I was worried that people would think that I was saying Van Morrison was a god," Marcus laughs. "But the rough god is like a pagan spirit in every sense. It can't be controlled and it can't be summoned at will and it will act on you as much as you might act on it."
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