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When That Rough God Goes Riding / Book Review
Greil Marcus / Public Affairs  2010

review by Will Brennan


In Greil Marcus’ When That Rough God Goes Riding, Van Morrison is a Rorschach test, tea leaves and Tarot Cards by which he gleans insights into culture, music, spirituality and truth. Marcus is one of the best writers in this cultural/musical/political/philosophical genre, and his The Old Weird America, which examined Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, among other things, is a brilliant work. So is When That Rough God Goes Riding, subtitled Listening to Van Morrison. And that’s exactly what this book is about. It jumps all over, like Marcus visited his collection Van’s songs peridocally and now and then decided, “Ah, this is the one I want to write about now,” and did. In his chapter on Astral Weeks, Marcus lets his mind slide all over the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Hendrix at Woodstock, Taxi Driver and a hundred other things. Marcus’ prose can sound like the writing of a novelist.  Describing Travis Bickle in that film, Marcus writes – “he drives under the spray of a broken hydrant and wishes for a rain that would wash all the sin off the streets, as he tries to talk up the ticket seller in a porn theater, as he sees his dream girl, describing her in his diary in words that would have come from ‘Sweet Thing,’ ” which ties it back to Astral Weeks, an album that Martin Scorsese based the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver on. In other words, this is brilliantly free flowing, associative writing about whatever Marcus sees in the work of the brooding, defiant, stubborn, irascible, transcendent and maddening figure that is Van Morrison. Van the Man, who would tell an audience trying to clap along to shut up.

There’s a movie on DVD called Chet Baker: Live at Ronnie Scott's London, made in 1986, two years before Baker’s death. Van Morrison and Elvis Costello are featured guest artists, and Morrison inexplicably performs the Sondheim warhorse, “Send in the Clowns.” Van looks like a lost drifter who wandered onto the stage and nobody has the guts to tell him to get off, singing the song rather mechanically, in a rumpled suit, jerkily snapping his finger mid-song. He closes his eyes and at some point he begins to seem to forget the audience is there, and for a brief moment, near the end, he repeats the line “send them all in, send them all in, send them all in…” and for that instant, the song lifts off the ground and becomes a pure musical moment – it transcends everything that’s come before it. Compared to other such trademark moments by Morrison, it’s relatively minor, but it’s an example of what Greil Marcus cherishes about Morrison – when there is the loss of the self and something purely creational, godlike in a way, happens. It's a condition that accounts for Morrison’s mercurial moods and bad temper, as if the outside world has no right to infringe on his visions, the visions he’s creating right there on stage for the very outside world he keeps away. They want to cheer and clap along but they aren’t where he is, they’re miles off and far behind.

Marcus talks about the “yarragh” in Morrison's voice, the quality Irish tenor John McCormick said was the thing that distinguished a great voice from the other merely good ones. Morrison is the king of the yarragh, the uncontested master - he can make his voice bend and stretch and mutate, approximate a bagpipes' drone or conga drum rim-shot rhythms. He's a superlative scat singer who knows no bounds. This transcendent moment
of music when the song and the singer are one thing not two, neither dependent on the other or separate from the other but melded to the other like one, like breath and life, this is what Marcus craves, needs from Morrison. Greil Marcus has tasted the hard core, he shoots Van straight into his veins, and only wants the purest, the mainline “Chiney” White yarragh.

Because of this, he makes a drastic statement mid-book about Morrison’s mid-period work, from 1980 to 1996. Everything from that period, he dismisses. It sucked, basically, is what he says. This is a startlingly severe and incredibly righteous stance. I know someone who once said that he wished Dylan had died in the motorcycle accident because he would have gone out at his absolute peak, as an icon, trailing clouds of Blonde on Blonde glory. He didn’t say it would have been cooler if Dylan had died, he actually said he wished he had, so that history would have been more perfect. No embarrassing Self Portrait, no struggling attempts to regain himself until redeemed by Blood on the Tracks, which, however great, was still shadowed by the past, the past that nothing could match, the towering accomplishments of his blazing rise from folk song god to wild mercury messiah. It all pales in comparison.

So – should Dylan have died, would it have been better?

This is a more startlingly severe stance than Greil Marcus’ stance on Morrison’s mid-period work, for sure. But it’s walking into the same territory. Who is any critic to put such an unreal demand on any artist, especially one who has been as courageous and as difficult and as serious as Morrison. In a way, Van may karmically deserve the harsh critique, since he recently dissed The Beatles as being not much better than The Dave Clark Five and other British pop groups, accent on “pop.” Another startlingly severe stance. All of these startlingly severe stances are, looked at with a suitable measure of reason, ridiculous.

To dismiss Common One, the first record on Marcus’ dismissed list, as somehow lifeless beside Veedon Fleece is an absurd contention, to my ears. “When Heart is Open”  has been compared to Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way,” a bold experiment for Morrison, a masterful meditation. The other long song on the album, “Summertime in England,” name drops Yeats and Coleridge and William Blake, much to Marcus' s disdain,  since there, he believes, it's
just rote and has lost the mystic magic. “You Don’t Pull No Punch, But You Don’t Push the River,” which Marcus exalts, name drops William Blake and the Eternals, but there it’s hypnotizing somehow... but whatever gap may exist between these songs, it isn't the mile wide gulf that Marcus sees. Regrettably, he briefly casts himself here, by his unbending judgement, as that worst of all possible critics - the elitist afficianado, the narrow snob.

Throughout the 16 years of output, Morrison released a body of work that has a consistancy of quality and contains numerous gems throughout, though it certainly may be weaker in some parts and respects to Morrison’s initial monumental works. But this isn’t comparable to Rod Stewart turning to disco and recording “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” There’s no betrayal of muse or method here – Morrison is constantly searching, constantly serious, though perhaps is reaching at times to capture the illumination and fire, where in the past he embodyed it. But for god’s sake, Marcus becomes like a stern, heartless classroom instructor, demanding only what he likes best, throwing out such work as the marvelous Irish Heartbeat, recorded with the Chieftains, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, with the classic and elegiac “One Irish Rover.” Beautiful Vision has the transcendently buoyant hit “Cleaning Windows,” and “Vanlose Stairway.” Without citing a long list of chapter and verse, any ears that can hear will discover there’s greatness woven all throughout these recordings and to scorn 16 years of work by a master musician is petulant and stubbornly lazy – what seems on the surface to be a bold, principled stance is actually just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So, When That Rough God Goes Riding is otherwise a great book, with one chapter that can be dismissed easily as an example of Greil Marcus’ normally astute critical facilities going, for whatever reason, dead. Sorry to have to say, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.