When That Rough God Goes Riding

Listening to Van Morrison


By Greil Marcus

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“Van Morrison,” says Greil Marcus, “remains a singer who can be compared to no other in the history of modern popular music.” When Astral Weeks was released in 1968, it was largely ignored. When it was rereleased as a live album in 2009 it reached the top of the Billboard charts, a first for any Van Morrison recording. The wild swings in the music, mirroring the swings in Morrison’s success and in people’s appreciation (or lack of it) of his music, make Van Morrison one of the most perplexing and mysterious figures in popular modern music, and a perfect subject for the wise and insightful scrutiny of Greil Marcus, one of America’s most dedicated cultural critics.

This book is Marcus’s quest to understand Van Morrison’s particular genius through the extraordinary and unclassifiable moments in his long career, beginning in 1965 and continuing in full force to this day. In these dislocations Marcus finds the singer on his own artistic quest precisely to reach some extreme musical threshold, the moments that are not enclosed by the will or the intention of the performer but which somehow emerge at the limits of the musician and his song.


For Dave Marsh

The fourteen-piece band assembled for a concert in which Van Morrison was to perform the whole of his forty-one-year-old album Astral Weeks so dominated the stage you might not have even noticed the figure seated at the piano; the sound Morrison made when he opened his mouth seemed to come out of nowhere. It was huge; it silenced everything around it, pulled every other sound around it into itself—Morrison's own fingers on the keys, the chatter in the crowd that was still going on because there was no announcement that anything was about to start, cars on the street, the ambient noise of the century-old open-air stone amphitheatre, where in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt spoke, where in 1906 Sarah Bernhardt appeared to cheer on San Francisco as it dug out of its ruins, where in 1964 the student leader Mario Savio rose to speak to the whole of the university gathered in one place and was seized by police the instant he stood behind the podium as the crowd before him erupted in screams, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke in 1968, days before he was shot. The first word out of Morrison's mouth that night, if it was a word, not just a sound, something between a shout and a moan, was, you could believe, as big as anything that ever happened on that stage.

In 1956, the stiff and tired world of British pop music was turned upside down by Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line," a skiffle version of a Lead Belly song, played on guitar, banjo, washboard, and homemade bass. Like thousands of other teenagers, John Lennon put together his own skiffle band in Liverpool that same year; Van Morrison, born George Ivan Morrison in 1945 in East Belfast, in Northern Ireland, formed the Sputniks in 1957, the year the Soviet Union put the first satellite into orbit and John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Morrison would never find such a comrade, and, unlike the Beatles, he would never find his identity in a group. Whether in Ireland, England, or the United States, he would always see himself as a castaway.
East Belfast was militantly Protestant, but Morrison's parents were freethinkers; even after his mother became a Jehovah's Witness for a time in the 1950s, his father remained a committed atheist. The real church in the Morrison household was musical. There was always the radio ("My father was listening to John McCormack"); more obsessively, there was "my father's vast record collection," 78s and LPs by the all-American Lead Belly, and within the kingdom of his vast repertoire of blues, ballads, folk songs, protest songs, work songs, and party tunes that dissolved all traditions of race or place, the minstrel and bluesman Jimmie Rodgers, cowboy singers of the likes of Eddy Arnold and Gene Autry, the balladeer Woody Guthrie, the hillbilly poet Hank Williams, the songsters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the gospel blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe—and later Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams, all of them magical names. Thus when the thirteen-year-old singer, guitar banger, and harmonica player Van Morrison went from the Sputniks to Midnight Special, named for one of Lead Belly's signature numbers—and after that from Midnight Special to the Thunderbolts, a would-be rock 'n' roll outfit that tried to catch the thrills of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and from the Thunderbolts to the Monarchs Showband, a nine-man outfit with a horn section, choreographed shuffles, and stage suits that would play your company dinner, your Christmas party, your wedding, and which in the early '60s toured Germany offering Ray Charles imitations to homesick GIs, only a patch of the map Morrison carried inside himself had been scratched.
In 1964, in Belfast, with the band Them, Morrison began to find his style: the blues singer's marriage of emotional extremism and nihilistic reserve, the delicacy of a soul singer's presentation of a bleeding heart, a folk singer's sense of the uncanny in the commonplace, the rhythm and blues bandleader's commitment to drive, force, speed, and excitement above all. The group's name, calling up the 1957 horror movie about giant radioactive ants loose in the sewers of Los Angeles, was full of teenage menace:
ran ads in the Belfast Telegraph. With Morrison pushing the combo through twenty minutes of his own "Gloria," night after night in the ballroom of a seamen's mission called the Maritime Hotel, Them began to live up to its name.
Cut to three minutes or less on 45s, the band's songs would soon bring Morrison a taste of fame. In 1965, in London—"Where," the liner notes to Them's second album quoted Morrison, "it all happens! ..."—the group crumbled, but Morrison recorded under their name with a few members of the band and a clutch of studio musicians. Though Morrison would disavow them as the most paltry reductions of what had happened at the Maritime—"It wasn't even Them after Belfast," Morrison told me one afternoon in 1970, as he told others before and since—Them made two unforgettable albums, harsh in one moment, lyrical in the next. In 1965 and 1966 Them scored modest hits on both sides of the Atlantic: "Gloria" (covered by the Chicago band the Shadows of Knight, who had the bigger hit in the U.S.A., except on the West Coast), "Here Comes the Night," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Mystic Eyes."
To those who were listening, it was clear that Van Morrison was as intense and imaginative a performer as any to have emerged in the wake of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—who, he claimed of the latter band in angry, drunken moments, stole it all from him, from him! Yet it was equally clear, to those who saw Them's shows in California in 1966—at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and at the Whisky A-Go-Go in Los Angeles in 1966, where the group headlined over Captain Beefheart one week and the Doors the next—that Morrison lacked the flair for pop stardom possessed by clearly inferior singers, Keith Relf of the Yardbirds, Eric Burdon of the Animals, never mind Mick Jagger, who in those days were seizing America's airwaves like pirates, if not, as with Freddie and the Dreamers or Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, conning the nation's youth like the King and the Duke bamboozling Huck and Jim. Morrison communicated distance, not immediacy; bitterness, not celebration. His music had power, but too much subtlety for its power not to double back into fear, loss, fury, doubt.
What he lacked in glamour he made up in strangeness—or rather his strangeness made glamour impossible, and at the same time captivated some who felt strange themselves. Morrison never covered Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby?"—"I'll talk to strangers, if I want to / 'Cause I'm a stranger, too"—he didn't have to. He was small and gloomy, a burly man with more black energy than he knew what to do with, the wrong guy to meet in a dark alley, or backstage on the wrong night. He didn't fit the maracas-shaking mode of the day. Instead, in 1965, he recorded a ghostly version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" that outran Bob Dylan's original, and then turned the fey Paul Simon rewrite of Edward Arlington Robinson's 1897 poem "Richard Cory" into a bone-chilling fable of self-loathing and vengefulness.
In 1966 Morrison abandoned the last remnant of Them—its name—and put himself altogether under the wing of the legendary New York record man Bert Berns, renowned for writing or producing Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me," Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Garnett Mimms's "Cry Baby," and the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," not to mention "Here Comes the Night." In 1967 they made the single "Brown-Eyed Girl," after which Berns, working from sometimes unfinished recordings, rushed out a dark, cracked-blues album called Blowin' Your Mind! (the phrase was already as out-of-date as the soupy psychedelic jacket); the signature number was the nearly ten-minute "T. B. Sheets," which was exactly what it was about. Who wanted to listen to an endless cynical number about a woman dying of tuberculosis, closer to a bilious stand-up routine than a song, when the air was filled with "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)"?
The bright, bouncy "Brown-Eyed Girl" was Morrison's least convincing recording and his first top-ten hit single—and, except for "Domino" in 1970, so far his last. Though "Brown-Eyed Girl" has stayed on the radio ever since, at the time Morrison himself was quickly forgotten; he had both trivialized himself and blown himself up. His career was all but destroyed. When Nik Cohn's Pop from the Beginning, the first good rock 'n' roll history, appeared in 1969, even when a revised edition came out in 1973, neither Them nor Morrison were even mentioned.
Consumed by resentment over the swindle of stardom, fame, records, money, debt, and oblivion, caught in a trap of performing and publishing contracts after Berns's death at the end of 1967, Morrison found himself in Boston, where late-night DJs soon got used to a character with an incomprehensible Irish accent drunkenly pestering them for John Lee Hooker music. One night Morrison was booed off the stage when Peter Wolf, then the leader of a local band called the Hallucinations, brought him out of the audience to front their version of "Gloria." "Don't you know who this is?" Wolf shouted at the hissing crowd. "This man wrote the song!" But they didn't know. In 1967, when you said Morrison you meant the Doors, who, one could have read at the time, were at work on "their new masterpiece": their version of "Gloria."
Morrison returned to Belfast, apparently a burnt-out victim of the pop wars. There he wrote a set of songs about childhood, initiation, sex, and death, which finally took form as Astral Weeks. It was as serious an album as could be imagined, but it soared like an old Drifters 45, "When My Little Girl Is Smiling" or "I Count the Tears." From there Morrison's music opened onto the road it has followed since: 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. With his wife, he moved to the musicians' pastoral bohemia of Woodstock, then to the San Francisco Bay Area, celebrated a domestic paradise, and pledged to walk down Broadway in his hot pants. Then his paradise fell to pieces, and his music shot back and forth between false promises and affirmations too hard-won to deny, from upstate New York to Marin County under a Belfast cloud, idyll and civil war, inspiration and boredom, the platitudes of a New Age seeker and the bad news of someone convinced that no one is listening, down ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, by now almost half a century, to find a man now brooding in his present-day redoubt in Bath, dreamy site of Roman spas, John Wood's eighteenth-century Druidic power spot Bath Circus, and Morrison's own Exile Productions. "The only thing that matters is whether you've got it or not," he once said. "The only thing that counts is whether you're still around. I'm still around." Yes, and so what? As a physical fact, Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. But what is that voice for?
Van Morrison's music as I hear it holds a story—a story made of fragments. There is in his music from the very first a kind of quest: for the moment when the magic word, riff, note, or chord is found and everything is transformed. At any time a listener might think that he or she has felt it, even glimpsed it, a realm beyond ordinary expression, reaching out as if to close your hand around such a moment, to grab for its air, then opening your fist to find a butterfly in it—but Morrison's sense of what that magic moment is must be more contingent. For him this quest is about the deepening of a style, the continuing task of constructing musical situations in which his voice can rise to its own form.
"When I was very young," the late Ralph J. Gleason wrote in 1970 in a review of Morrison's album Moondance, "I saw a film version of the life of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, playing himself. In it he explained to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice off from the other good ones was very specific. 'You have to have,' he said, 'the yarragh in your voice'"—and to get the yarragh, for Morrison, you may need a sense of the song as a thing in itself, with its own brain, heart, lungs, tongue, and ears. Its own desires, fears, will, and even ideas: "The question might really be," as he once said, "is the song singing you?" His music can be heard as an attempt to surrender to the yarragh, or to make it surrender to him; to find the music it wants; to bury it; to dig it out of the ground. The yarragh is his version of the art that has touched him: of blues and jazz, for that matter of Yeats and Lead Belly, the voice that strikes a note so exalted you can't believe a mere human being is responsible for it, a note so unfinished and unsatisfied you can understand why the eternal seems to be riding on its back.
Morrison will take hold of the yarragh, or get close to it, raise its specter even as he falls back before it, for the moment defeated, with horns, volume, quiet, melody and rhythm and the abandonment of both, in the twist of a phrase or the dissolution of words into syllables and syllables into preverbal grunts and moans. He will pursue it perhaps most of all in repetition, railing or sailing the same sound ten, twenty, thirty times until it has taken his song where he wants it to go or failed to crack the wall around it. The yarragh is not, it seems, something Morrison can get at will, or that in any given year or even decade he is even looking for; the endless stream of dull and tired albums through the 1980s and '90s, carrying titles like warning labels—Beautiful Vision; Poetic Champions Compose; Avalon Sunset; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; Inarticulate Speech of the Heart; A Sense of Wonder; Enlightenment—attest to that. So do a string of records where Morrison seems to attempt to reduce whatever might be elusive, undefinable, and sui generis in his music to parts that can never recombine into a whole, as he recorded jazz and jump blues with his sometime accompanist Georgie Fame, country with Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee's sister, traditional Irish songs with the Chieftains, and, most touchingly, even skiffle with Lonnie Donegan himself, back in Belfast, two old men standing up to the crowd to sing "Midnight Special," not so far from where, once, one of them named a band after it. Those are episodes in a career. It's the fragments of music as broken and then remade by the yarragh that this book is looking for. "The only time I actually work with words," Morrison said in 1978, "is when I'm writing a song. After it's written, I release the words; and every time I'm singing, I'm singing syllables. I'm singing signs and phrases."
The quest for the yarragh—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—is also a performer's quest to evade and escape the expectations of his audience. It's a struggle to avoid being made irrelevant and redundant, a creature tied as if by chains to his hits of forty, thirty, twenty years earlier, even to the song that hit last month—forbidden, by the laws of the pop mind and the pop market, from ever saying anything he hasn't said before. The result is a distrust of the audience, coming out, on any given night, in anger, insult, drunkenness, disdain directed at the singer's own songs as much as toward whatever crowd might be present. From the time of his first hits Morrison has, in a way, set himself against any possible audience: he does his work in public, but with his back turned, sometimes literally so—and it might go back to those nights in the Maritime Hotel in 1964. "Out of nowhere, these kids began showing up," Morrison said in 1970, and I remember the way his eyes sparkled in a set, stolid face as he talked: "Sometimes, when it all worked, something would happen, and the audience and musicians would be as one." That was because no one knew what might happen—and no one knew what was supposed to happen. Before a song is recorded, there is no right way; afterward, especially in the pop glare, audiences know what to expect and expect what they know.
Van Morrison, then, is a bad-tempered, self-contradictory individual whose work is about freedom. How do you get it? What do you do with it? How do you find it when it disappears—and what is it? Is the yarragh the means to freedom, or is it, when you can find it, the thing itself? When Morrison reaches the moments of upheaval, reversal, revelation, and mirror-breaking that are this book's subject—in his music and, sometimes, in what other people have done with his music, finding, as Neil Jordan would do with Morrison's music in his film Breakfast on Pluto, a yarragh behind the yarragh, or dramatizing it as Morrison might not—all of those questions are thrown into relief.
It becomes plain that any summing up of Morrison's work would be a fraud. That is what makes his failures interesting and his successes incomplete; it's what allows the most valuable instances of his music to exist less in relation to other instances in his career in any historical sense than in a kind of continual present. It's that territory I will try to map.
Ralph J. Gleason, "Rhythm: A Young Irishman Haunted by Dreams," San Francisco Chronicle, 1 March 1970.
"My father was listening": interview with Dave Marsh, "Kick Out the Jams" (Sirius XM Radio, 8 March 2009).
"The only time": Jonathan Cott, "Van Morrison: The Rolling Stone Interview," Rolling Stone, 30 November 1978, 52.
Mario Savio's oratory can be heard on Is Freedom Academic? A Documentary of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley (KPFA-Pacifica Radio, LP, 1965). See also Robert Cohen, Freedom's Orator (New York: Oxford, 2009).
The Heart and Soul of Bert Berns (UMVD, 2002). Includes Berns's productions of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" and "Cry to Me" by Solomon Burke, "Cry Baby" by Garnett Mimms, "Piece of My Heart" by Erma Franklin, and "Twist and Shout" and "I Don't Want to Go On Without You" by the Isley Brothers. The Bert Berns Story Volume 1: Twist and Shout 1960-1964 (Ace, 2008) features an end-of-the-journey-to-the-end-of the-night composite photo of Solomon Burke and Berns facing the abyss in the studio while Little Esther Phillips, in a gleaming white dress, looks on; it includes "A Little Bit of Soap" by the Jarmels, the obscure "If I Didn't Have a Dime (to Pay the Jukebox)" by Gene Pitney, "Gypsy" by Ben E. King, "Look Away" by Garnett Mimms, "Mojo Hannah" by Little Esther Phillips, "Killer Joe" by the Rocky Fellas, and "Here Comes the Night" by Lulu. Sloopy II Music Presents the Songs of Bert Russell Berns (BOO, no date, but going for $399 on eBay) collects forty-four tracks on two CDs, including "Here Comes the Night" by both Them and (in his unhinged PinUps version) David Bowie, "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" by both Freddie Scott and Otis Redding & Carla Thomas, "Baby Come On Home" by Solomon Burke and Led Zeppelin, "Cry Baby" by Garnett Mimms and Janis Joplin, "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)" by Solomon Burke and Janis Joplin, "I Want Candy" by the Strangeloves and Bow Wow Wow, "Piece of My Heart" by Erma Franklin and Janis Joplin, and "Tell Him" and "Run Mascara Run" by the Exciters.
Van Morrison, Blowin' Your Mind! (Bang, 1967).
—Astral Weeks (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1968).


It came barreling out of car radio speakers like a flood on a black night. Surrounded by some of the best and most tuneful pop music ever made—the Beach Boys' "I Get Around," Petula Clark's "Downtown," the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love," Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week," the Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears," Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You too Long (to Stop Now)," the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!"—even up against Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' "Wooly Bully"; even up against Them's own "Gloria" or "Here Comes the Night"—this made no sense. You couldn't see through it, you couldn't see into it. What was happening?
It starts in the middle, as if you've switched stations halfway through some other song without realizing it. It's moving so fast you feel as if you'll never catch up. The band—guitar, drums, bass, an organ hovering in the background—can't catch up with the harmonica that's leading the charge, Little Walter as a nightrider; suddenly they do, and then they take a step ahead. You realize that the last thing you want is for the harmonica—high, implacable, uncaring, a body without a mind, it seems to be its own force, not some mere instrument played by some particular person who has to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night—to lose this race. It doesn't; it cuts in front of the stampeding combo, playing a swirling pattern that focuses the band. There's a call and response, a joining of forces, no longer one against the others, but a whole against a part, and the part is whoever's listening. You're the target. You're about to be left behind, to the wasteland this flood will leave in its wake.
When lyrics appear in the song—as the Them guitarist Billy Harrison once put it so perfectly, when Morrison begins to "throw words at it"—you notice for the first time that there haven't been any. Suddenly what was chaos, unformed, threatening, thrilling, a giant, gaping mouth—is now a story. There's a singer and he's going to tell you about something, something about walking down by the old graveyard and looking into the eyes of the dead. But then that breaks up, too. "Eyes," he says again and again, the word fraying with each repetition, slipping the "mystic" that stands at its head, except when it doesn't. Morrison seems to turn away from the word, from words altogether, as if only fools actually believe that phonemes can signify, that a word is what it names, that there's any chance of understanding anything at all. The moment doesn't have the force, the desire—the termite instinct, as the critic Manny Farber unearthed
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On Sale
Apr 5, 2011
Page Count
208 pages

Greil Marcus

About the Author

Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, When that Rough God Goes Riding, The Shape of Things to Come, Mystery Train, Dead Elvis, In the Fascist Bathroom, Double Trouble, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a twentieth anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009.

With Werner Sollors he is the editor of A New Literary History of America, published last year by Harvard University Press. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column “Real Life Rock Top 10” appears regularly in the Believer. He has lectured at U Cal, Berkeley, The Whitney Museum of Art, and Princeton University. He lives in Berkeley.

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