Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Greil Marcus tackles Van Morrison’s Yarragh

Posted By on Tue, May 4, 2010 at 2:00 PM

"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

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.

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(Photo Courtesy PublicAffairs)

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