Monday, 12 July 2010

Marcus on Morrison

Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus

When Greil Marcus talks to audiences about Van Morrison, they are desperate to tell their stories about how his music touches them

Greil Marcus
The Guardian
Saturday 5 June 2010

People take Van Morrison personally. Incidents from his music enter the events of their lives – events in their love lives, their family lives, births and especially deaths – and people feel as if he put those incidents in their lives. As if, in some way, he's there. Not in any magical sense – just in the manner in which art is supposed to work: it touches you. And won't let go. People have always talked about the certainty they had that when Elvis Presley sang – on record, especially in person, but even on television – he was singing directly to them. This is different. It's a feeling people get that Morrison has already lived the events that they're living out or have lived out – or haven't yet lived out, but may – that he's been there first, and put those events into songs, into music, into an emotional form that can be transferred into a thing, a record, an LP or a CD or a download on a computer or an iPod, something you can physically refer to, that produces an apprehension of the real, the tangible. In other words, not he's singing to you; in a certain sense, he has lived your life for you.

This is not something that would have occurred to me before I began visiting various cities in the United States to read from a book on Morrison. It's a short book, not a biography or a career survey, but an attempt to follow those moments in Morrison's music, as he's made it from his first records with Them, from Belfast in 1965 to the present day, when something happens that breaks through the boundaries of ordinary communication, of ordinary art speech. In this book those moments are called "the yarragh," a term that comes from the traditional Irish tenor John McCormack. As a vocal sound, in Morrison's music, it describes itself, onomatopoetically: that's what you hear when, as a singer, he makes a rip in his own song, in his own sound. But in his music the same sense of escape from ordinary limits – a reach for, or the achievement of, a kind of violent transcendence – can come from hesitations, repetitions of words or phrases, pauses, the way a musical change by another musician is turned by Morrison as a bandleader or seized on by him as a singer and changed into a sound that becomes an event in and of itself. In these moments, the self is left behind, and the sound, that "yarragh," becomes the active agent: a musical person, with its own mind, its own body.

That's the sensation, in any case – and I set out to map Morrison's music according to moments when, in one way or in dozens of ways, that happens. When he opens up territory that in most other people's music doesn't even exist. The book is called Listening to Van Morrison; that is what I was listening for. I tried to dive into those moments, to stay there, to feel their weather: the opening rush of "Mystic Eyes"; a moment when Morrison shoots the sound "Hoyyyyyyy" out in front of himself in "Sweet Thing" and then, as a singer, but also, you can imagine, as a boy in a field who's glimpsed a butterfly, chases it; the swirling, drunken dance of an old man in "Behind the Ritual"; the growling vortex in "Rough God Goes Riding."

"The yarragh" is a physical word. To say it, even to read it, can be to feel a shudder pass through the body, that of the person you imagine making such a sound, and then your own body, as you imagine hearing it, feeling it. I hear Van Morrison's whole 45-year professional career as a quest for that shudder, in all the forms that it might possibly take, or an attempt to escape it, to evade it, to pretend that that kind of knowledge, that sort of emotional and artistic danger, never existed at all. But that shudder, I think, is what people respond to: what makes people take Morrison personally.

Usually, when a writer shows up at a bookstore and reads from or talks about a book he or she has written, people ask questions: how do you write? Where do you get your ideas? What made you write this book? But not this time. This time, in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, people weren't necessarily interested in my stories about Morrison. They wanted to tell their own stories.

Many of these stories revolved around what people took to be a fundamental contradiction: that they could be so moved by, so caught up in, something made by someone who seemed to want nothing to do with them. This person lived out part of my life, and he won't acknowledge it. He put a spell on me, but he won't tell me how. I heard it again and again. "I went to see him at the Keystone," a woman said in Oakland – talking about a small club in Palo Alto, south of San Francisco, the opposite of a glamorous venue. "It was horrible. He turned his back on us. I'd waited for weeks, and I could hardly bear to be there. He acted as if we weren't there."

It was typical: people weren't sharing confidences, reader to writer, they were testifying, one fan speaking up in front of everybody else, with sardonic humour, wounded pride, pain. It was almost like an AA meeting, as if some people wanted to cure themselves of their love for Morrison's music: for, say, "Summertime in England," which never touched me, or "Madame George," which after 42 years stands as unfinished, unsatisfied, unresolved a song that will never tell all that it knows. "We went to a show," a man said in Portland, "and it was magnificent. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn't do. He was finding songs inside the songs, songs we'd never heard, it was like they were songs he never heard. When it was over, we went next door to a bar, a lot of people who'd been to the show were there, and of course that's all we were talking about. How great it was, and did you notice this and did you hear that – and then Van Morrison walked in. He came in, walked to the bar, everyone stood up and applauded, and he just sat down at the bar. Finally I got up the nerve. I went over to him, and I said: 'Mr Morrison, your music has meant so much to me. Sometimes it pulled me through, when I didn't think anything would. I couldn't live without it.' He waited for me to finish, and he looked at me, and he said: 'Why do people feel they have to tell me these things?'"

Naturally, the person telling this story was crushed – still, he told the story not in a spirit of shame or abasement, but out of confusion: Despite all that, I'm still moved, I still care! Why? At the same reading, another person tried to turn it around, turning to me, as if the first person's humiliating experience – or humbling experience, a cautionary tale about how it's not a good idea to try to meet the people you think have changed your life – were a disease I was spreading. "How," he said, "can you write about Morrison's music without taking into account what a completely unpleasant person he is?"

I never know how to answer that kind of question, because it represents a whole way of being in the world that's foreign to me. I don't believe that a person's life necessarily has anything to do with what he or she creates, whether the person in question is a musician, a painter, an accountant, an engineer, a designer or a cleaner. A person's work is not reducible to his or her neuroses, and a person's neuroses are not the determinant of a person's work. In the act, the work can take over; it can produce its own momentum, its own imperatives, its own yarragh. It can create its own necessity, its own insistence that, in the act, the world conform to the demands the work is making on it. "I don't know that Van Morrison is a completely unpleasant person," I said. "But I don't really care. I don't see what one thing has to do with the other. Things in life don't always have to connect." Of course the person who'd spoken was not happy with this. One of the themes of the book I wrote has to do with the fear some people have for the imagination, for their resistance to being moved by something that is invented: made up. It's the desire to reduce anything that affects them to the biography of whoever it might have been who made the work. It's the determination, for example, to find the real Madame George in Morrison's life – and thus, it would seem, finally make the song give up its secret, and put it to rest: shut it up. But the person speaking that night seemed to be asking for something different: for permission not to be moved by what he was in fact moved by. Or asking, maybe, if it were morally wrong to be moved by the beautiful emotions in a work of art if, in fact, the person who had made that work was not, himself, beautiful.

But people care. Morrison has, by the twists and turns, the leaps and sudden drops, the roars and shouts and silences of his voice, got under people's skin. He gets inside people, and he festers there, sparking longings too intense and elusive to satisfy, desires too abstract and ethereal to fulfil, a sense of escape, transcendence, revelation, and ecstasy so deep it can seem to trivialise ordinary life, and thus trivialise whoever has to live that life, which is to say anyone.

Not all the stories people tell about Morrison, though, are stories of conflict, confusion, resentment, or regret. "I was talking to my father today," a woman in Portland said. "He asked what I was doing tonight, and I told him to was going to hear someone talk about a book he'd written on Van Morrison. 'Oh, Van Morrison!' he said. 'You know, I used to work with his father on the docks in Belfast. After work he'd take me to his house to listen to his records. I'd never seen anything like it. Hundreds and hundreds of 78s and LPs, jazz, blues, country music, everything. And there'd be the little boy there, dancing around the room, saying play that, Daddy! Play that!'"

Listening to Van Morrison
by Greil Marcus

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