Reading Greil Marcus Listening to Van Morrison

When I was a teenager, living on Long Island in the 1970s, I wasn’t a fan of Van Morrison’s music, which I only knew because several of his songs were always on the radio: "Moondance," "Domino," and "Brown-Eyed Girl." I didn’t dislike these songs; they were pleasant enough; I just didn’t find anything in them for me. They were too "mellow," too smooth, too goddamned happy. I liked loud guitars and songs about strife. In 1979, when a good friend of mine told me, with great passion, that he loved Van Morrison’s music, I couldn’t understand why. Of course, we were going in very different directions that year, which was the year we both turned 20. While he and the rest of our friends celebrated New Year’s Eve by staying home and listening to their favorite records, I – inspired by what I’d read in Lester Bangs’ essay Free Jazz/Punk Rock – went into New York City by myself and saw a performance by a new band called the Lounge Lizards, who didn't even have a record out yet. Over the next few months, and always by myself, I would return to "the City" (there was only one) again and again, and, in addition to learning a few essentials – how to order a drink, how to chat up a stranger, and how to dance – I saw several other new bands (Eight-Eyed Spy, the Raybeats, the Contortions, DNA, and Pere Ubu, among others) that my high school friends didn’t know about and didn’t like when I played their records for them. To them it all sounded like noise, not like "real music," not like . . . say . . . Van Morrison. Personally, I only started to like Van Morrison’s music when, thanks to Lester Bangs’ essay about Astral Weeks, I knew what to listen for and what songs to listen for it. (They were not the songs that were, even then, still being played on the radio, nor were they the songs that Morrison had just recently recorded.) Ever since then, I have been a fan, not a fanatical one, it is true, but a fan, nonetheless. My favorites: the albums Van recorded under the name Them in 1965 and 1966; the live concert from 1971; and St. Dominic’s Preview, released in 1972. But do I like Van Morrison’s music as much as I like Lou Reed’s or Bob Dylan’s? No.

Greil Marcus’ newest book is about Van Morrison’s music. As my readers will know, I have long been a fan – indeed, a fairly fanatical fan – of Greil’s articles and books. For the last 30 years, I have been seeking them out, reading them carefully, and then seeking out the songs that he’s mentioned, listening to them, and seeing if what he has said is in fact "true" and "really there." More often than not, he’s been right on the money, and I have been thrilled. Greil isn’t just a great storyteller; he knows what stories to tell. Of course, sometimes he’s been wrong or, rather, sometimes I have found that I'm not convinced that he’s "right" and, of course, I have felt disappointed. My favorite books are the early ones, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (1975), Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1991), and Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (1998). I don’t particularly like some of the later ones, for example Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives (2001), Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice (2006). Though I am a political animal and feel that Greil’s politics have become rather mild over time – he’s more a Social Democrat than an anarchist or a situationist – I always look forward to reading his next book, whatever it might be about.

Entitled When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, Greil’s latest book was published in March 2010 by Public Affairs. It is excellent, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in Van Morrison’s music and/or anyone who is interested in writing about music in general. (If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as is sometimes said by people who don’t believe that good writing about music is possible, then Greil Marcus is a belling-ringing ballerina.) His book’s narrative structure is both unusual and typical of his approach to historical writing. It both begins and ends in the present or, rather, the very recent past (2009 and 2008, respectively), and thus mimics or echoes the "continual present" in which Greil says that "the most valuable instances" of Van Morrison’s music "exist," not a part of history, which is the field of the predictable and repeatable, but outside it, in a virtual geography (an unmapped territory) of unrepeatable events.

Like its subject matter, Greil’s book turns on a slightly crooked axis. The author’s introduction, which is an overview and summation –

To those who were listening, it was clear that Van Morrison was as intense and imaginative a performer as any to have emerged in the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones […] Yet it was equally clear […] that Morrison lacked the flair for pop stardom possessed by clearly inferior singers […] What he lacked in glamour he made up in strangeness – or rather his strangeness made glamour impossible, and at the same time captivated some who felt strange themselves […] [He sought] the deepening of a style, the continuing task of constructing musical situations in which his voice can rise to its own form […] Van Morrison, then, is a bad-tempered, self-contradictory individual whose work is about freedom.

– appears after the brief discussion of the singer’s appearance at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA, on 3 May 2009, and not before it, as one might expect. Or, if you prefer, the brief discussion of the Greek Theater show is placed before the "Introduction," and thus somehow outside of the historical framework it sketches out. As we will see, this sort of displacement or disruption of established conventions and/or expectations will be given an appropriately ugly name: the yarragh.

Like what used to be called a double album, Greil’s book is divided into four sections, each of which bears its own title. These sections are of roughly equal length, and all of the essays within them are short. Each section presents the historical material in a zigzag. For example, the first section, "A Grimy Cinderella in a Purple Suit" (a description of what Morrison looked like at "The Last Waltz" performance, which was filmed by Martin Scorcese), starts out in 1965, jumps to 1971, returns to 1965, jumps to 1975, moves on to 1976, and then ends up in 1966. Quite obviously, such a book can be read and then re-read in any order the reader likes. In fact, the reader can even read the book’s ending "out of order." Speaking of a particular moment in "Behind the Ritual," a song from 2008, Greil writes: "You never get back to the rest of the album, or for that matter to the rest of Morrison’s career. It could stop right here. But over the course of that career one might have said the same thing a dozen times." Especially because the first "end" in Morrison’s career came so early: in 1964 or 1965, when the original incarnation of the band Them broke up, and Morrison had to start all over again.

Expressed as a traditional, linear chronology, Van Morrison’s best music according to Greil was produced in 1965 ("Mystic Eyes" and "Baby Please Don’t Go"), 1966 ("It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue"), 1968 (all of Astral Weeks, but especially "Madame George" and "Sweet Thing"), 1970 ("Caledonia Soul Music"), 1971 (two songs recorded in the studio, "Tupelo Honey" and "Moonshine Whiskey," and two songs performed live, "Just Like a Woman" and "Friday’s Child"), 1972 ("Almost Independence Day" and "Listen to the Lion"), 1974 ("Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights"), 1975 ("John Brown’s Body"), 1976 ("Caravan" performed live at "The Last Waltz") and 1979 (the Into the Music album). After more than a decade’s worth of "colorless" albums, he returned to produce more great music in 1991 ("Take Me Back"), 1996 (a live performance of "Saint Dominic’s Preview"), 1997 ("The Healing Game"), 2000 ("The Last Laugh"), and 2008 ("Behind the Ritual").

Greil’s zigzag mimics or echoes Van Morrison’s music – or at least "Mystic Eyes." The last line of his essay about it ends this way: "You’re caught up in an irresolvable adventure that is taking place as you listen, in the notion that you can drop someone into the middle of a story and then jerk him or her out of it as if it were nothing more than a few minutes on the radio, now a bad dream you’re certain is yours alone." The zigzag also makes it clear that Greil is setting his own pace, preceding as slowly as he needs to, to get the story right. Throughout the book, there are references to musicians who have done the same thing: Bob Dylan on his album John Wesley Harding, Van Morrison on Astral Weeks, and Mattie May Thomas in her song "Workhouse Blues." The ending of Greil’s essay on "The Healing Game" hits the nail on the head: "For both [Van Morrison and Mattie May Thomas], it’s all in the refusal to be rushed. Ordinary life, after all, guarantees only death and oblivion […] In their tone they both say the same thing. Death has waited all these years; it can wait another day."

And yet, within the essays themselves, Greil doesn’t mimic or echo Van’s singing, which is characterized by "unusual repetitions" of certain words or phrases. (To Greil, such repetitions "in Morrison’s music always signify freedom, a love of words, and a lack of fear for what they might say." Significantly, I think, all of these qualities – a preoccupation with freedom, a love of words, intensity and imagination, and no fear of getting carried away – are what make him such a compelling writer.) No: in his essays about Van Morrison, Greil moves fast and doesn’t repeat himself. His essay about "Moonshine Whiskey" is only two sentences long! ("It’s the way he affirms ‘I’m gonna put on my hot pants’ as if he’s trying to twist himself into them. But were they pink?") Several of the other essays end too soon. In the essay about "Baby Please Don’t Go," Greil writes (to begin the last paragraph): "Quickly, there’s nothing between the singer and the song: no reverence, no respect, no hesitation in taking the fruits of someone else’s culture." I know "quickly" refers to the pace of the music’s development, but it also applies to Greil’s discussion, which ends a sentence or two later with the following terse summary: "In 1965, Them’s ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ was loud, on the radio, and its yarragh was its heedlessness." In his essay about Morrison’s version of Bob Dylan’s "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue" – Greil’s own heedlessness brings him to ignore (or at least end the essay without mentioning) everything that happens in the song after the line "Drawing crazy patterns on your sheets," that is to say, the entire second half of the song! In particular, he misses Van’s strangely mournful singing as the song fades out.

Of course, there are other missed opportunities, a few missed connections. The Velvet Underground’s song "I Heard Her Call My Name" is clearly inspired by Them’s "Mystic Eyes." Though he is quoted on the book’s sleeve – "This is someone who can abandon himself. For a Protestant from East Belfast, Van Morrison has a lot of the Holy Ghost in him." – and though he performed a strong version of Morrison’s "Full Force Gale" for the 1994 album No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison, Elvis Costello isn’t mentioned once by Greil. In an essay often published alongside Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs quotes from Gene Austin’s "The Lonesome Road" – "Look down LOOK DOWN along that junk road before you travel there" – a song that Greil says bores everyone who is "over eighty or under twenty." Oh! and it was Jimi Hendrix, not Neil Young, who came up with "the harsher, louder, wilder, even triumphant treatment" of Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" that "the song needed" and that "Dylan himself immediately adopted."

Though regrettable, these missed connections (or lamentations for them) are in some way beside the point. Greil writes at the end of his entry on Astral Weeks: "I no longer altogether trust the sort of explanations that along with other people I used to pursue so passionately – not, of course, philistine, literal explanations, of course not, but imaginative, contextualizing explanations that made both a work [of art] and its setting richer for the introduction of one to the other." Why the change or, rather, why the newfound distrust? Great art is fundamentally or essentially "inexplicable" – it is "something that could not have been predicted and could never be repeated," Greil says – and it so always remains beyond even the most imaginative and contextualizing explanations. Though I have no doubt about the truthfulness of these assertions, I’m not sure how far I’d want to take them. Certainly Greil would not praise or write essays that simply say, "This is a great work of art, it is inexplicable, and so there is nothing more to say about it," because the greatness of great art is not self-evident. It requires some explanation at the very least.

As you read through Greil’s short-and-to-the point entries, as he takes you here, then here and then over there, the book gathers momentum. It is only at the very end of Side Two (which is entitled, "I’m Going to My Grave With This Record," a reference to Greil’s love of Astral Weeks) that we get the first reference to something recent, i.e., Morrison’s guest appearance on Mark Knopfler’s song "The Last Laugh." Until then, we’ve been reveling in the past, in Van’s very best music. At the beginning of Side Three ("A Belief in the Blues as a Kind of Curse One Puts on Oneself"), Greil stops the band and tells us, not only that Morrison produced 15 uninspired and uninspiring albums between 1980 and 1995, but also why. He was overcome by what we might call the anti-yarragh: a defensive, self-satisfied commitment to "music of affection, sensuality, and acceptance," with "everything […] pitched to a middle range: desire and pleasure, never joy or rage." And then Greil lets his readers float for the rest of the section. First they look back to 1974, then forward to 2005, before settling in, in 1997.

It is on Side Four (entitled "There Was No False Face the Song Could Not Erase") that the "heavy" essays appear, the ones tasked with facing "Madame George" head on (she’d already been approached once in the essay on Side Two about Astral Weeks, and then again in the essay on Side Three about her song’s appearance in the film Breakfast on Pluto). By the third-to-last essay, written about Van’s song "Take Me Back" and how it appears in a bad film from 1995 starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, the reader can feel that Greil has put on the brakes, and has begun to end his rough ride. And when he finally does, in the essay on "Behind the Ritual," he leaves you with his most important insight (there have been others, including the idea that fiction is often dismissed or distrusted because many people lack imagination and even fear it). What in the end is it all about? Not just Van Morrison’s music, but Greil Marcus’ book as well? It’s about "life," Greil says, "and what you want from it between the time you wake and the time you sleep." In the words Greil uses to summarize the many achievements of Astral Weeks: "there’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply – with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined." Van Morrison’s music doesn’t make you love life and want to live it as deeply as possible? Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Greil Marcus’ books don’t do it for you either? Well, that’s OK, too, provided that something does it. If not, then the problem doesn’t lie with Van Morrison or Greil Marcus, but with you.

A review for The Washington Post (reprinted as a blurb for When That Rough God) has claimed that Greil "achieves a primary goal of important music criticism: to turn readers back into listeners." But this is an impoverished goal, and one that Greil only passes by on his way towards a much richer one: turning both listeners and readers back into people.

Bill Not Bored
1 August 2010

P.S. What about the yarragh? OK: let’s talk about the yarragh. According to Greil, this bit of onomatopoeia comes from a cinematic biography of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. According to Ralph J. Gleason – it appears Greil himself hasn’t seen the film; otherwise why complicate things by bringing Gleason into it? – there’s a moment in the film in which McCormack says that, to be a truly great singer, "you have to have the yarragh in your voice." I think it is clear that McCormack is referring a certain roughness, a kind of roaring, in the timbre of a singer’s voice, but Greil defines it as an "event" that takes place during a song: "the moment when the magic word, riff, note, or chord is found and everything is transformed"; "a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it, a note so unfinished and unsatisfied you understand why the eternal seems to be riding on its back"; "moments of disruption, when effects can seem to have no cause, when the sense of an unrepeatable event is present, when what is taking place in a song seems to go beyond the limits of respectable speech"; "the moments of upheaval, reversal, revelation, and mirror-breaking." In Van Morrison’s case, the "quest for the yarragh" is pursued through "the twist of a phrase or the dissolution of words into syllables and syllables into preverbal grunts and moans," and "perhaps most of all in repetition, railing or sailing the same sound ten, twenty, thirty times until it has taken his song where he wants it to go or failed to crack the wall around it."

Greil obviously realizes there's a difference between a rough timbre and the "event" that the use of a rough timbre may or may not cause in a particular song when a particular person sings it. He is not trying to produce a "theory of the yarragh," that is, a concept that might be picked up and applied to other singers. The yarragh isn’t "detournement" under another name. The "yarragh" is simply a way of labeling a phenomenon that is unique to Van Morrison and Van Morrison alone. And this is fitting, because no other singer has a style that includes – no other singer has based his or her style on – verbal tics, stutters, and repetitions. Lou Reed or Bob Dylan may sing in ways that include or produce disruptions, and Roger Daltry may have imitated a stutter to sing "My Generation," but none of them are wrestling with the yarragh. That lion has only one tamer.

For Van Morrison, the yarragh is both blessing and curse. It is a blessing to be such a talented singer, but talented singers are not always comfortable with audiences, especially those who have heard recordings of the singer’s songs and demand to hear them reproduced live in concert, just as they are on record. Perceptive as always, Greil sees that in Van Morrison’s case "the quest for the yarragh […] is also a performer’s quest to evade and escape the expectations of his audience. It’s a struggle to avoid being made irrelevant and redundant, a creature tied as if by chains to his hits of forty, thirty, twenty years earlier, even to the song that hit last month – forbidden, by the laws of the pop mind and the pop market, from ever saying anything he hasn’t said before." Lou Reed and Bob Dylan have struggled with this, too, and the result for them, as well as for Van Morrison, "is a distrust of the audience, coming out, on any given night, in anger, insult, drunkenness, disdain directed at the singer’s own songs as much toward whatever crowd might be present." But unlike Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, who have always needed, sought out and thrived on audiences, and have even pandered to them, "from the time of his first hits Morrison has, in a way, set himself against any possible audience: he does his work in public, but with his back turned, sometimes literally so" (emphasis added). He is an exile who will never return to main street.

It a different way, the yarragh is both a blessing and curse for Greil. It is certainly an apt term for Van Morrison and the way he uses his full, expressive, and sometimes rough voice. But it is also an unnecessary term, unworthy of repetition ("the yarragh in this song is," "Here the yarragh is in the," etc.) For example, Lester Bangs writes about Van Morrison’s "whole set of verbal tics," but he doesn’t give a special name to the affect(s) these tics produce on certain occasions; he simply identifies and describes them as needed. Furthermore, Bangs recognizes the events or moments in Van Morrison’s music, but he doesn’t register them as disruptions. For him, "Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture." For Bangs, Morrison may compress or expand the sung word, but he never breaks it or breaks with it. But for Greil – and I suspect it is the temptation of having a concept at his disposal, rather than just an idea, that leads him in this direction – the yarragh has a relationship with and thus affects upon language itself. He writes about "Listen to the Lion": "Morrison cries, moans, pleads, shouts, hollers, whispers, until he finally breaks with language and speaks in tongues, growling and rumbling. The feeling is that whoever it is that is singing has not simply abandoned language, but has returned himself to a time before language, and is now groping toward it." I’m going to have to call bullshit on this. Speaking in tongues is not "breaking with language" but speaking an unknown language. There is no way to "abandon language," because language is the means by which we think and the means by which we communicate. There literally never was "a time before language," because time, a creation of language, didn’t exist before language was invented. Finally, I believe that Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream has already shown the bottomless comic perils that await those who mistake an actor pretending to be a lion for a real one.

The concept/non-concept of the yarragh really becomes a problem when the subject of Belfast comes up or, rather, when the subject of avoiding the subject of Belfast comes up. Greil writes:

If, as more than one person has written, the title of Seamus Heany’s 1975 poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" summed up both the aesthetic and the everyday life of avoidance in Northern Ireland in that time, when the cause writing your name on a bullet could as well be that of your presumed fellows as of your fated enemies, if not chance itself, could Morrison’s work up to this moment have been a version of the poem itself, with "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" boiled down, in the manner of a song to nothing more than its phrase, sung over and over in endless variation? "Is there a link between that attitude, which Morrison seems to embody," a friend wrote, "and the yarragh? Can’t we understand aspects of the yarragh as being at once a safe place beyond language" – when the wrong words could get you killed, or, with you safe at home in Marin County or New York or England, get someone who sang your song in the wrong place at the wrong time killed – "and an attempt to stretch for the sublime when the world, and Belfast is a world whether you’re there in the flesh or not, is crowding you very tightly, and even a gut cry, a howl beyond words, is an embrace of the failure of language, a celebration of the faith that some things not only should not but can’t be spoken of or even named?"

This paragraph is entirely made up of questions; Greil doesn’t answer a single one. I think he implies that the answer to all three is "yes," but I’m afraid the real answer is "no" in each case. No, Morrison’s work up to that moment (or at any point) couldn’t have been a version of the poem, with the phrase "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing" sung over and over in endless variation, precisely because Greil has argued so convincingly (especially in his remarks about Astral Weeks) that Van Morrison never writes or performs his songs in response to "current events." To associate Morrison’s reductions and repetitions to the political situation in Northern Ireland is to attempt to do the impossible. As Greil himself notes, "Astral Weeks refused to speak the language of the time" and consequently it cannot "be translated back into that language," even if what Greil calls the "single rotting cliché of VIETNAM STUDENT POWER RIOTS LBJ LSD SEXUAL REVOLUTION BLACK POWER NIXON" has "IRA" and "UDA" added to it, which is what I think the first question that he’s asked is proposing to do. No, there is no link between "that attitude, which Morrison seems to embody," and the yarragh. Or, rather, if there is a link between them, then that link places Van Morrison squarely on the side of the spectators and other cowards who believe it is possible to be "neutral" on a moving train. No, the yarragh is not "a safe place beyond language" because it is meaningless for human beings to speak, talk or write about what is "beyond language." For human beings, there is nothing beyond language. Lastly, it seems that what is being discussed here as "the failure of language" is actually a failure of courage, and that "the faith that some things not only should not but can’t be spoken of or even named" is a religious cop-out worthy of the Vatican.

To Contact NOT BORED!