“Van Morrison Has a Lot of
The Holy Ghost in Him”
A Review of
When That Rough God Goes Riding:
Listening To Van Morrison
By Greil Marcus.
Reviewed by Ken Carter.
When That Rough God Goes Riding:
Listening To Van Morrison
Hardback: Public Affairs, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
“This is someone who can abandon himself,” Elvis Costello once observed; “for a Protestant from East Belfast, Van Morrison has a lot of the Holy Ghost in him.” Greil Marcus, one of our more astute and unconventional cultural critics, has written a reflection on Morrison’s abandonment to this art, a journey that has at times been astonishingly successful, and at others, Marcus insists, utterly forgettable. The title When That Rough God Goes Riding is taken from the first selection on Morrison’s The Healing Game (1997, and also based on a line from W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Less a biography than a deeply personal guide to listening, or an extensive set of liner notes, a medium that matched the album but not the mp3, Marcus first succeeds by simply moving the reader to discover again the tapes, albums and compact discs that span thirty plus recorded works over forty years.
At the heart of the author’s argument is his devotion to Astral Weeks; Marcus has listening to this recording more than any other that he owns. Even in the midst of bright and pulsing numbers like Brown Eyed Girl and Domino, Morrison’s only popular singles, one knew that this was an artist who had embarked on a mystical quest. Morrison instinctively fused blues and soul, rock and folk, classical and country, Celtic and spiritual sensibilities. Astral Weeks was an album recorded over a two day period with legendary jazz musicians in the fall of 1968, it would later would achieve Gold Record status in 2001, indicating sustained sales over time, and yet it had always attracted a cult following; for example, the director Martin Scorcese has credited Astral Weeks as the influence for the first half of the film Taxi Driver.
Morrison’s willingness to take artistic risks was matched with the “most expressive voice since Elvis” (7), and this prompts Marcus to pose the question: “what is the voice for?” It turns out that the voice serves to express what the late jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason of Rolling Stone called “the yarragh”, a term defined by the Irish tenor John McCormack that distinguishes an important voice from a very good one. One perceives the presence of the “yarragh” when the singer does not so much sing the song as he finds himself possessed by it. Marcus writes, “the yarragh is not, it seems, something Morrison can get at will; and yet there are moments of “upheaval, reversal, revelation and mirror-breaking”, all of which make Morrison’s “failures interesting and his successes incomplete” and, as with an Astral Weeks, “inexplicable”. One cannot reflect on the term “yarragh” without recalling Elvis Costello’s comments about abandonment and the Holy Ghost. Anyone appreciative of the music of Van Morrison over time will recall moments of transcendence, some explicitly named (“When Will I Ever Learn To Live in God”, “The Healing Game”), and others implicitly suggested (the live versions of “Caravan” and “Cypress Avenue”).
The “interesting failures” in Morrison’s career mark another insight in When That Rough God Goes Riding. The author dismisses a significant period of Morrison’s recording career (1980-1996) as characterless and tedious; his return can be marked by the release of The Healing Game. Marcus has been a seminal interpreter of rock music since the publication of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n Roll Music (Dutton, 1975), a work that interpreted Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan alongside Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. He reads widely and interprets popular and high culture against the canvass of intellectual, social and even personal history. And yet he is not merely deconstructing the music; he admires the achievement of Van Morrison, and is a fan. And so I am inclined to follow Marcus generally in his assessment of Morrison’s glory years, from Astral Weeks through Moondance and His Band and Street Choir to Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview. These works are consistently strong, vocally expressive and musically interesting. Many of his more meditative works can be found in these recordings; among them “Caravan”, “Cypress Avenue”, “Listen To The Lion”, and “Tupelo Honey”, and a number of these selections are captured on his live It’s Too Late To Stop Now.
I would dissent somewhat, however, about the fifteen albums that Marcus writes off so quickly with a broad stroke; there are, among them, profoundly moving successes, especially Hymns to The Silence and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. In the former he takes on Be Thou My Vision and a rambling Just a Closer Walk With Thee, and he aims for, and to a great extent succeeds in a work that is both autobiographical (On Hyndford Street) and spiritual. The live album from this period, A Night in San Francisco, is not as cohesive as It’s Too Late To Stop Now, and yet it allow him to share the stage with mentors John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells, and includes a stunning version of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World.
Marcus is onto something, however, in reflecting on the muse (the “yarragh”) which was there in the beginning, seems to have left for a time, and has resurfaced. Van Morrison’s staying power over almost five decades lies in his marriage of a spiritual quest, one that is frequently engaged with matters of life and death, heaven and earth, memory and hope, body and spirit, with an artistic journey that is at once a recovery of tradition (from Mose Allison to Hank Williams to Bobby Bland) and a movement into the future. Reading When That Rough Goes Riding is somewhat like listening to recorded music: it is more fragmented than coherent, more stream of consciousness than analytical. Marcus succeeds less in persuading the reader about a conviction—the appreciation of music, and especially popular music is after all subjective—than in moving one to take out a piece of music from the collection, and hearing that abandoned, deeply expressive and Irish voice again, singing about a home on high, in another world, so far away.
Ken Carter is a United Methodist pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina. He blogs at Bear Witness to the Love of God in this World (http://kenatprovidence.blogspot.com/).