Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus | Book review

Greil Marcus offers a new perspective on a star, says Rosie Swash

Any reader hoping for a comprehensive history of the half a century of Van Morrison's career so far will be sorely disappointed by Listening to Van Morrison. "It becomes plain that any summing up of Morrison's work would be a fraud," writes Greil Marcus in the introduction, as firm an expression of what not to expect from his book as if he had given it the subtitle: "This is not a biography". Nor will you learn too much about Morrison himself, a performer whose temperament is infamous enough to be described as "stubborn" and "idiosyncratic" in the opening line of his Wikipedia page. This book is not, Marcus makes clear, in pursuit of what makes Morrison the musician he is, but a grateful and deeply passionate celebration of what it means to hear his music.

The format is unusual: each chapter is constructed around either a song or album from Morrison's back catalogue, often illuminated by the social and political context of the times. The book is is prefaced by a brief mention of Morrison's appearance at Berkeley's Greek Theatre in California last year, where he played his definitive album, Astral Weeks, in full. Not only does Astral Weeks get the book's lengthiest chapter, but Marcus reveals that he has played it "more times than any other record I own; I wouldn't tell you why even if I knew". He also gives a detailed analysis of the frankly unremarkable Irish film Breakfast on Pluto, on the basis of the film's relationship with Astral Weeks's sixth song, "Madame George". (And this is before we get to the actual chapter about "Madame George".)

Marcus gives the finest account of this much-discussed album that I have ever read. The year in which Astral Weeks came out, 1968, scarcely needs introducing as one in which revolution – "faith, fervour and despair" – spread from Parisian streets to Olympic podiums, but Marcus makes a case for ranking the release of the album among the most notable events of that remarkable year. Somehow you are convinced that this intoxicating, mystical work was, if not quite as politically important as the black-gloved fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the Olympics, at least on a par in terms of achievement with the record-breaking long jump by Bob Beamon.

Marcus continually returns to the subject of the "yarragh", that inimitable, guttural vocal style unique to Morrison. "The feeling is that whoever it is that is singing has not simply abandoned language, but has returned himself to a time before language, and is now groping towards it." The yarragh, in Marcus's mind, comes from the stomach. It is the "long, happy hoyyyyy the singer shot out of the cannon of his own breath" in "Sweet Thing" – another song from Astral Weeks. Marcus also suggests, in discussing the 1972 album Saint Dominic's Preview, that the yarragh is an apolitical tool, a sound without words (but loaded with meaning) at a time when a Northern Irish singer could have his words misconstrued with lethal consequences.

Marcus might play fast and loose with structure (one distracting footnote spans two pages and takes us from little-known Blues singer Mattie Mae Thomas to modern-day Greek techno), but he never rambles. To his credit, he circles his subject in eloquent detail without ever attempting to define with any finality what lies at the heart of Morrison's songwriting. In doing so, he has succeeded in creating a compelling appreciation of one of history's most remarkable, undefinable musicians.


Rosie Swash

The GuardianTramp

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