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Confessional Angle Hinders ‘Listening to Van Morrison’

Music critic Greil Marcus not in top form

Oct. 11, 2010
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For all of its unforgivable flaws, Greil Marcus’ When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (PublicAffairs) does have an innovative and evocative manner about it. The most significant success is its form. Twenty-three chapters, excluding an introduction, are divided into four parts totaling 185 pages, including acknowledgements and index. The prodigious footnotes, often as important as the narrative, appear on the page on which they are cited and so we have a perfectly crafted, dramatically flowing book that may seem short in length but is long in complexity and deep in critical aesthetics. But Rough God is, finally, a confessional work that, like all confessions parading as criticism, remains pretentious and desperately grasping at something that will not provide salvation for artist and critic.

Were it not for Marcus’ penchant for making up words that do not exist to explain matters that are intriguing and his incessant quotes, not necessarily from lyrics but as attempts to phonetically report the way the lyrics are delivered, this book would have been much different.

“Yarragh” is one of those words. It is often referred to as “the yarragh.” Marcus takes it from a Ralph J. Gleason quote, but moves it quite beyond the original usage, which was, “You have to have the yarragh in your voice.” That’s that. Marcus’ “yarragh,” however, turns into something as important as Yeats’ “A Vision,” in which the entire animamundi is explicated. “The yarragh is his [Morrison’s] version of the art that has touched him: of blues and jazz, for that matter 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,” Marcus writes. This phonetic “word” is used so many times to describe Morrison that it becomes morose, even unintentionally satiric.

Marcus can do better than this. Nearing the end of the text where there should be an intense dramatic rise and categorically inventive conclusion, we run into the word “blah” repeated 30 times in italics to signify Morrison’s self-proclaimed art of being able to “release the words.”

Marcus explains: “Getting hiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh, behind the ritual, so high—behind the ritual.” This is Marcus’ “translation” of what Morrison is singing, proclaiming that this critically describes the fact that “by now the words themselves are rituals. The words are already free, and immediately as they retain their form they cast their spell again: Getting hiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh, behind the ritual, so high—behind the ritual.” This is no explanation, not even a para-critical one. It is moronic. There is no more embarrassing moment in 21st-century rock criticism than this point in the narrative, and therefore it is worthy to repeat the Marcusean phrase twice, carefully counting the use of “i” to ensure accuracy. One more of those vowels would have made absolutely no difference in the textual presence of the phrase.

And this is the point: Marcus has become more and more arbitrary as of late, after producing Mystery Train and Invisible Republic, some of the finest critical works on American vernacular music, especially rock ’n’ roll. There are magically insightful moments in this book, typical of Marcus’ genius as a critic and writer, but citing that Morrison’s art “belongs to him as much as it ever belonged to Lead Belly or Dock Boggs” is pure subjectivity, wish-fulfillment and idiomatic ignorance all too typical of aging, white, male rock critics who needed to shut up while they were ahead.

This book does not serve as a measuring tool for Van Morrison’s importance. It’s just a yarraghstick.


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