Sunday 4 July 2010

Getting the "Yarragh"

Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus
An inquiry into the genius of Van Morrison occasionally gets lost in the poetry...

Kevin Mitchell
The Observer
Sunday 13 June 2010

Not for the first time, a writer has turned to the concept of "the yarragh" to understand the music of Van Morrison. Greil Marcus settles on a definition that might have been fashioned by the singer himself: that to "get" the yarragh, "you may need a sense of the song as a thing in itself, with its own brain, heart, lungs, tongue and ears".

Or, as Van put it far more simply, listen to the lion.

Nevertheless, this is a journey worth taking, an exploration of the Irishness central to the most perplexing individual who ever came off that island with suitcase and guitar in hand. Whether you want Marcus as your guide depends very much on how patient you are with someone who darts off the highway at nearly every slip road.

Marcus told an interviewer recently he found writing this book "a great challenge". A couple of chapters in, and you know what he's getting at. Actually, it's pretty good value: you've got to read it twice to understand it once.

Marcus made his name writing brilliantly elliptical pieces for Rolling Stone in the 70s, when slavery to the mode seemed to be compulsory, whole rafts of writers outdoing each other as they strove to stretch the language and our imaginations. It was a desperate battle to match the music they loved or loathed or, in some cases, knew little about, with their own wonderfully opaque word pictures. Some of it was quite stunningly insightful, and Marcus was an emperor of the genre. When he hit, he hit. And the misses could be spectacular.

Marcus is an academic by trade, an inspired dreamer by inclination and the conflict is obvious on nearly every page. He wrestles with the language, the professor beating the poet within him about the head with the numbing weight of his own intelligence.

Curiously for someone steeped in the job of teaching people to understand culture, he has a cavalier relationship with the boring but essential disciplines of communication: grammar, punctuation and plain writing.

That said, there is much that is worthwhile here. You will search for a long time before you read a more enthralling and original interpretation of "Madame George", Morrison's grand lament on Astral Weeks. Over 16 pages he dissects this incredible song with the care of a lover and skill of a surgeon.

It is hard to think of anyone else who could write the following: "As you listen you hear that no one present, not the singer, the producer, the musicians, not even Richard Davis, can actually make the song stop, and so as you listen, and reach the end, and there is a pause before the next song, Madame George seems to be still playing."

There follows a complex elaboration of the point that, essentially, describes the plaintive internal narrative in the lyrics, the unsaid conversation between a boy led to "get on the train" and the mysterious, unknowable Madame George. The power of the achingly frustrating exchange is the hypnotic repetition of the words "goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…"

As Marcus sees it: "… because he cannot say the words out loud, she can't hear them, so he has to keep saying it, and in that way too the song doesn't end." And it doesn't. It lives and loves forever in your head. You can hear it now. But you cannot sing it out loud. You don't have to. Van has done that for you. That might be why he was blessed with the yarragh.

Listening to Van Morrison
by Greil Marcus
208pp,Faber and Faber,£9.99

1 comment:

  1. Much as I like Van, I find a lot of his stuff post-Beautiful Vision difficult to listen to. Too many of the songs are over-produced and over instrumentalised. Compare The Street Only Knew Your Name on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart with the earlier 'unreleased' version that should have appeared on the (unjustly) pilloried A Period of Transition and which was eventually released on The Philosopher's Stone.

    There are too many dodgy collaborations, both live and in the studio, (Lonnie Donegan? Linda Gail Lewis?) and, especially in the last decade, too much perfunctory singing. For every great song like The Healing Game, Days Like This, Enlightenment, Too Long in Exile, Ancient Highway, there are an awful lot of weaker numbers, possibly as a result of the frequency with which he brings out albums.

    Only occasionally is there an album that really comes together during this period - Irish Heartbeat is the obvious one that springs to mind – and when you get a recording that you would think would be a labour of love – the live How Long Has This Been Goin' On - the result is curiously flat, in a way that reminds me of Brian Wilson's anti-septic Pet Sounds Live (the CD, not the DVD; the latter manages to convey some of the atmosphere of the concerts) or Steely Dan's (barely) Alive In America.