Monday, April 12, 2010

Listen to the Lion: Greil Marcus's When That Rough God Goes Riding

When That Rough God Goes Riding, the new book by critic Greil Marcus (Mystery Train, The Shape of Things to Come) opens a lot of doors. It does so by going through the process of randomly dipping into the fascinating and turbulent music of singer/songwriter Van Morrison. Marcus isn't writing a biography here of this perplexing pop figure; nor is he setting out to draw a chronological study of his many albums, from the masterpieces (Astral Weeks), the vastly underrated (Veedon Fleece), the deeply satisfying (Saint Dominic’s Preview, Into the Music), or the failures (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Poetic Champions Compose); this book instead is about articulating how listening to Van Morrison is a rich and complex experience.

Morrison began life in East Belfast forming one of the hardest rock groups in the sixties called Them. Their hit song “Gloria” was a blast of teenage lust that left The Rolling Stones sounding mannered by comparison. His solo career, which began with the conventional 1967 pop hit “Brown Eyed-Girl,” turned mystical in the seventies where within his best music you could hear Morrison speaking in tongues and conjuring the foreboding voices of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and John Lee Hooker, as if he were inviting these ghosts to a poker game where they could all happily collect their winnings.

When That Rough God Goes Riding (named after the kick-off track for his sublimely unsettling 1997 CD The Healing Game) isn't trying to make any one point about Van Morrison’s music, rather Marcus takes us inside the meaning of Morrison's singular voice, a voice that can reveal unspoken truths when he sings. Therefore, there’s no summation of Morrison’s career, a career that’s both satisfying and desultory. Marcus delves instead inside the grooves of songs, albums and lost tracks, in order to map out what he calls a quest for “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.” Marcus’s own writing in When That Rough God Goes Riding also goes beyond the respectable speech of conventional criticism and reveals the hidden impulses and pleasures that great artists call up in a critic who is drawn to their work.

There is also no musical chronology, or road map, offered in the book. Marcus creates in its place the sensation of leafing through your music collection, grabbing randomly at tracks (good and bad), and communing with them. In that spirit of communing, though, come stories, people, and asides that both shape and have been shaped by Morrison’s voice – including Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, film director Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005), an obscure blues singer named Mattie May Thomas, even long-jump athlete Bob Beamon who broke a world record at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, the year Astral Weeks was released. Marcus diverts the reader down numerous paths that Morrison’s songs open up for him like a novelist who has just discovered characters emerging in his story, characters he didn’t anticipate popping up and surprising him.

The other quest for Marcus here (which has also been part of the sojourn of Van Morrison) is for what he calls the “yarragh” in the voice. (When the late critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote of Morrison’s 1970 Moondance album, Gleason was reminded of a film he saw of the life of the Irish tenor John McCormack. McCormack told his accompanist that what marked an important voice from the good ones is to have the "yarragh" in it.) In doing so, as Marcus explains, Morrison’s work also becomes a quest for freedom. “What he wants most is freedom, and what he has to say is that getting hold of freedom is perhaps not as hard as living up to it, standing up to it,” he writes. “When…Morrison’s music [comes] together, the result can be a sort of mystical deliverance. The listener is not spared a single fear, but he or she is somehow insulated from all fears – as is the performer.”

Perhaps that’s why I initially resisted Van Morrison’s voice in the early seventies (which is perplexing given that I’m partly Irish). I recall once sitting in a movie theatre in Montreal with a friend from McGill University in 1973 waiting for the feature to begin when CHOM-FM, a local radio station, began playing Morrison’s epic “Listen to the Lion” from his Saint Dominic’s Preview album. At the song’s drawn-out conclusion, where Morrison wrestles with the lyrics like a hunted man coiled with a snake and desperately struggling to break free of its grip, I squirmed miserably in my seat. This was not the sweet doo-wop melody of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh),” but a man seeking mystical deliverance in an atmosphere where terror and joy could commingle uneasily. And it unnerved me deeply. My own fears demanded distance from the pleasure and tumult in this man’s voice.

Within a few years, though, I finally caught up to the “yarragh” in that song and much more. What I came to love indeed was Van Morrison’s voice especially on Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. When That Rough God Goes Riding is about what makes that voice so unfathomably deep. It's also about what makes it so unfathomable to fully comprehend.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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