When that Rough God Goes Riding

By GREIL MARCUS

Culture critic Marcus celebrates in this somewhat eccentric book the enigmatic Irish rocker, Van Morrison, whose voice he considers the “richest and most expressive” in pop music since Elvis. And if you’re familiar with Marcus’s work on The King, you know that’s saying a lot. But Marcus doesn’t offer us an argument on Morrison’s behalf; instead, he assembles a collage of fragments, each meant to enhance our understanding of the Celtic genius behind such top 40 hits as “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” and “Moondance.” As catchy and memorable as these songs are, Marcus prefers Morrison’s expressive masterpiece, Astral Weeks, an album that transcends the limits of rock as it defies simple description. Let it be known that it’s the album Marcus plays more than any other.

Such fanboy gush sneaks into this odd appreciation — a book so unusual that Marcus dismisses out of hand more than fifteen years, and as many albums, from Morrison’s long career. Most of that time “Van the Man” spent navel-gazing, in Marcus’s opinion, and in pretentious poeticizing that doesn’t deserve a second listen. While Marcus dismisses Morrison’s sense of serenity, he revels in the singer’s search for “mystical deliverance” and “religious yearning.” He’s not deaf to the tension and struggle in Morrison’s music — the Irish “yarragh” in his voice that makes the song a thing in itself, with its “own desires, fears, will, and even ideas.” The best bits in Marcus’s meandering book recount a number of Morrison’s live performances, but he’s especially sharp on Morrison’s slam-bang turnout at the concert filmed for The Band’s Last Waltz and the more recent onstage recreation of Astral Weeks in its entirety. A learned music critic, Marcus hears all the amazing sounds and traditions that come together in Morrison’s unique wailing. But Marcus ventures too wide in his peculiar cultural analogies and indulges his own hipness with a silly two-sentence chapter. If you want biographical gossip, or even straight history turn elsewhere — this is Morrison interpreted for your ear and soul, where the real genius plays.

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