One foggy afternoon long ago, I was taking a solo hike on the Marin ocean cliffs. The fog was so thick one could only see a few feet ahead. Sound was muffled too, yet I kept thinking that a voice was wafting thru the air. And it was a voice I thought I recognized.
After what felt like an hour of so of this, I nearly bumped into another figure, in cape and cap and with cane, walking slowly in the same direction. He was a short man, and I almost ran him over. “Christ, ya fookin' startled me!” he exclaimed in a heavy Irish brogue. And then I recognized not just the voice, but who it belonged to: Van Morrison. “I'm sorry, man!” I apologized. And then, without thinking, I launched into a little heartfelt speech about “how much I have loved your music for many years…loved your concerts…drove all over the place with your tapes playing… some of best memories in life…” etc, etc. Through all this, he just stood there, looking at the ground where the tip of his cane was grinding into the soggy soil. I finally ran out of words at about the same time embarrassment hit, and shut up. After a moment of silence, Van “The Man” Morrison looked up, slowly shook his head, and said: “I sure don't know why people feel the need to tell me this kind of shite.”
When later I came upon Morrison singing in a pub on the West coast of Ireland — a landscape which reminded me of nowhere so much as West Marin or Sonoma — I just held my tongue. But for many years, the famously brilliant/cantankerous/mystical/bluesy/inebriated Irish musical legend lived in Marin county, and would pop up at local musical gigs, wander the streets, support his parents' little record store in Fairfax (where the only clue was the whole wall of VM LP covers), and confound his almost cultish fans.
Around that time, budding musicologist and “cultural critic” Greil Marcus lived in Berkeley — he still does — and interviewed VM for Rolling Stone magazine on Marcus' way to becoming one of the most respected — and prolific — living authors on modern music and much else. Among his many works, Marcus has written a whole book on a single album, Dylan/The Band's “The Basement Tapes,” titled “The Old, Weird America,” exploring the confluence of sources — African, European, and much more — that produced American folk, blues, country, and unlabeled mixtures thereof.
Now Marcus delves into what might be called The Old Weird Ireland in a new book on Van Morrison. “When That Rough God Goes Riding” — the title of one of Morrison’s songs — is, true to Marcus form, a very personal meditation, so idiosyncratic that some of it likely makes sense only to the author. The guy is all over the place, which is what his readers expect. Some of the diversions and analogies and efforts to discern and extract near-cosmic meaning from a single song or even a grunt or note had me snorting in bafflement or disbelief, although I certainly kept on reading and most other VM fans likely will, too.
“Van always looked to me like a half-homicidal leprechaun who lived under the bridge,” Marcus quotes a fellow critic. At a recent bookshop reading for this work, Marcus disdained media coverage in more recent years by writers who seem gleeful to report that VM appears older, fatter, and balder then in his early years. But beyond his 45 years of music VM is most renowned for being “difficult,” unpredictable, reclusive, and most importantly, gifted unto genius.
He's been called the Greta Garbo of rock, and he rarely suffers journalists and most likely was not about to cooperate with this book, although I don't know if Marcus even asked; probably not — Marcus is too smart for that, and like me has been dissed in person by his idol even after authoring a laudatory cover story on him. Sometimes one just can’t win.
So why suffer the scary leprechaun? Because from time to time during those decades of musical searching, he has produced some of the most stunning, lifting, and timeless “popular” music of anyone, anytime. His performances on record and stage can be full of exaltation, religious yearning, desire, celebration, pain, you name it. But like his few peers — Dylan, Lennon/MCartney, and, er, maybe a couple others — it’s undeniably been hit and miss. But he’s produced a few of the most beautiful love songs of all time — try “Tupelo Honey” for starters — and a few extended, unplanned séances that are indescribably deep. Check “Listen to the Lion,” for example, wherein Morrison lets loose what Marcus calls his inner “yarragh,” with “a voice that sounds so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it..” Or as Morrison has said, when pressed, “The question might really be, is the song singing you?”
From the start, Marcus notes, Morrison “lacked the flair for pop stardom possessed by clearly inferior singers;” further, “what he lacked in glamour he made up in strangeness.” After knocking around Belfast with a blues-based bar band called Them in the mid-60s, even scoring a few semi-hits like “Gloria,” he lurched out on his own just in time for the fabled 1967 Summer of Love. But Morrison was never no hippie. He eventually moved back to England when California seemed too laid-back and New-agey, and his first solo LP’s centerpiece was “TB Sheets” — “an endless cynical number about a woman dying of tuberculosis.”
When that shockingly missed the Top 40 (although “Brown-Eyed Girl” — his “least convincing recording” — did) he retreated, and “wrote a set of songs about childhood, initiation, sex and death, which finally took form as Astral Weeks.” Throw in a drag queen and some superb jazz musicians just making it up behind him, and over 40 years later, that 1968 LP remains an unsurpassed pinnacle of modern music, a touchstone for not only aging boomers but many other people of much younger vintage. It is indescribable but of course Marcus tries, and some of his passages read as if he is attempting to ape Morrison himself. But he is spot-on in noting that it is imbued with “the kind of hermetic glow that transcends fame.”
Astral Weeks is almost enough to make one believe in the goofy concept of “channeling.” Morrison was all of 23 years old at the time. That may be the single most astonishing factoid in rock and roll; at a minimum, it proves my suspicions that Van Morrison was born some sort of an Old Soul.
The next few years and albums were almost as amazing, up through 1974’s Veedon Fleece. Since that early peak, Marcus sees Morrison’s music as “a story made of fragments” which follows “a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps, and snares down the middle.” His assessment of Morrison’s recorded output is of course subjective and questionable — he dismisses a decade and half of output after 1979, but some of those LPs feature some of his best moments. But there’s little arguing that his catalog has been a spotty one. Morrison purportedly flirted with cults like Scientology and yes, made some real stinkers in the 90s. “Sometimes you make mistakes, and sometimes you’re bored” is all he has said about that.
Fame can be a curse in many ways, from the much-lamented loss of privacy onward to death of the soul. Maybe most common is when a “star” starts to believe he/she is super; art then dies. Morrison has never fully fallen for that, despite all the Grammys, election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and young idiots like me gushing at him. But Marcus perceptively points that at some point Morrison started sounding self-conscious, even like he was faking it, and for me, the real problems were when Morrison continuously complained, about the music industry, mostly. Marcus holds that this is due to the unavoidable alienation that comes with aging in a modern culture that “becomes an affront to one’s entire existence.” However justifiable, who wants to hear a wealthy musician who has largely been able to follow his muse wherever he wants bitch and moan about agents and record labels? Not me.
But then Van Morrison will show up at a club like San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, or at a big arena like UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, and enrapture a crowd into deep reverence, playing all of Astral Weeks as he did last year, or playing whatever he wants. Sometimes he even smiles. And — not that he’d care — all is forgiven, and we are left grateful for his muse and his music. Again.
Long may he yarragh. ¥¥
(‘When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison,’ by Greil Marcus (Public Affairs; 195 pages; $22.95. Steve Heilig, a longtime music critic, was banished to the Principal’s office for shouting the chorus to Van Morrison’s hit “Gloria” in a semi-Tourette’s moment while in the third grade.)