Listening to Van Morrison

There’s a great piece in today’s Guardian Books section, Greil Marcus on his new book Listening to Van Morrison.  Here’s an extract from the article

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.

Read the whole thing.  [Added photo.  Image credit: Art Siegel]

And I really recommend taking the time to watch this online video of Greil Marcus talking about, and reading from, his book – as well as answering questions from the audience.  He’s got some great quotes from John Irving on fiction and non-fiction.  Trust me, it’s worth it.  There’s even the correct spelling of yarrrgh.

In the meantime, here’s The Philosopher’s Stone version of Wonderful Remark I mentioned previously.  Enjoy! [Adds – recorded 1973]

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  • I’ll be getting my hands on that book shortly I hope. I wonder if it’ll do anything to undo the injustice done to ‘St Dominic’s Preview’ – IMHO Van’s finest hour, and one that seems to be largely overlooked. I think it’s only had one pressing on CD – a terrible irreverence

  • Pete Baker

    You should watch the video, Paul.

    I think Greil Marcus would agree with you.

  • er……..goos advice…….if you can’t say anything positive then don’t say anything. um………
    OK, so “Exile on Main Street” by The Stones is the best album ever made and is run a close second by “Wolfking of LA” by John Phillips.

  • anne warren

    Nothing beats Astral Weeks

  • OK – obeying orders Pete. It’s a really worthwhile interview, isn’t it? And he is warm about St Dominic’s Preview (and he seems to subconsciously quote lines from the album in reference to other parts of Van’s career.

    I love the bit in chapters 8-10 of the video where he talks about why people get pissed off with Van’s live shows. How audiences want to experience what they experienced hearing the songs the first time, while Van wants something different from the performance – wants to show some different aspect of the music or try something different.

    It seems true to me that – more than most recording artists – everybody hears his music differently. A lot of rock bands have their ‘classic’ period and most the fans don’t argue *that* much about what the better stuff is (I couldn’t imagine many Who fans rate ‘Who By Numbers’ or ‘Face Dances’) – even Dylan fans generally coalesce around ‘classics’.

    I’d normally be reaching for a revolver when I hear people talking about music being ‘channelled’ or ‘transcendent’ but I have doubts about my own Skepticism when I think about Van (and, admittedly, Nick Drake as well).

  • Argosjohn

    |AstralWeeks is sosomething else.

  • Henry94

    Thanks for that Pete. Great stuff.

  • Pete Baker

    “It’s a really worthwhile interview, isn’t it?”

    Indeed. As I said, “Trust me, it’s worth it.” 😉

    The 1 hour 10 minutes was a bit daunting at first, but once I started watching I had to listen to the whole thing.

    Granted, a chunk of it is a reading from the book.

    But that in itself contains a compelling argument about trying to read too much into what is a fiction, and Madame George – the John Irving quotes come in there.

    And I totally agree with his argument about why people get pissed off at some of the performances – and why that doesn’t matter. Loved the anecdote of Morrison heckling the audience, “Shut up. We’re here to work, not you.” [That’s more or less the quote, I think.]

    I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    Even if he doesn’t totally buy the true origin of the blues.

  • Pete Baker

    Cheers, Henry.

  • The Raven

    A music thread! Let’s have some more of these please…

    “I couldn’t imagine many Who fans rate ‘Who By Numbers’ or ‘Face Dances’”

    No…but “Dreaming from the Waist” live is a sight to behold. 🙂

  • wild turkey


    thanks for the link to the marcus vid

    over the years i have seen morrison about 10 times. sometimes he was charming (really), sometimes indifferent, sometimes gruff. So what.

    Buy the ticket. take the ride

    played Domino for my 10 year old son this morning.

    Son “Dad, is that Sam and Dave?
    Dad “no, in fact he’s a guy from East Belfast”
    Son “Are there many soul singers in East Belfast?”


  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    good link, and interesting stuff, big fan myself. Most white guys, doing rocky blues, of a certain age start to look ridiculous probably because they try to look ‘cool’ but as Van never bothered with that malarkey in the first place he gets away with it.

    Only half way through but am enjoying yer man philosophizing, it is however a little trickey for him to seemingly back Morrison’s arguement that Madame George doesnt necessarily have a fixed meaning and then go on later and tell us what it means.

  • brendan

    Paul – St Dominic’s Preview, for my money, is in the top 2 or 3 Van albums. The title track is, apologies in advance, transcendant. Was unaware of the relative rarity of it on CD until I read an article recently on ‘great lost albums’ and there it was. I love it. And Van’s performamce of Caravan at The last Waltz,

    is an all time great moment in the history of rock n roll.

    I am going to listen to St Dominics Preview and The Last Waltz tonight while reading papers and drinking wine.

  • I thought the Guardian piece was unintentionally funny. But maybe it’s just a brilliant piss-take. “The yarragh”, lol!

  • Pete Baker

    Take the time to watch the linked video, Gonzo.

    It may enlighten.

    Or John Irving’s quotes may hit close to home…

  • madraj55

    BG I read the Sunday Times review of Morrison and the critic reviewing it made the point that VM never matched Astral Weeks with anything he put out since. All his other albums are a bit samey, and not string based as AW was.
    Astral Weeks was the closest point that Rock music got to classical because it’s really like a symphony in eight movements or one of Schubert’s song cycles.[except not as depressing as Schubert..

  • Dec

    Astral Weeks was the late critic Lester Bangs’ favourite album

    Here he is on it:

  • Madraj55

    “…VM never matched Astral Weeks with anything he put out since”

    I really don’t buy this line at all. If someone said to me that they’d never heard Van before and would I lend them a CD to try out, I really don’t know which one I’d choose – the choice would change almost day-to-day.

    I can’t really think of another band I’d think about like this – I mean sometimes you’d chose a ‘period’ (say Bowie) or ask a few questions about taste before making your recommendation, but there are days I’d pick Common One, No Guru… or Beautiful Vision. It’s like they (i.e. people who have actually read it) say about Madame Bovary: That every time you read it you notice something that you hadn’t seen before.

  • I’m not so sure he does. I’d firmly be in the ‘Astral weeks was the best he has done camp’ that said i saw a live performance recently on bbc4 (i think) which did make me think there’s more to the old curmudgeon that i first thought and his yaarrgh
    For an authentic white man playing the blues look no further than SeaSick Steve who is the real deal having travelled the trains and lived the hobo life for 14 years or more.

  • madraj55

    There was one song of Van’s on the ‘Into the Mystic’ album which came out in 1979 [the year I discovered the Velvets].
    It was ‘and the healing has begun’ This was a very memorable song which is rarely played for some reason.

  • brendan

    That’s Into the Music. And the Healing Has Begun is a great song, The Waterboys recorded a wonderful version on a love CD from Glastonbury 1986 – segued into their The Thrill Has Gone. A perfect musical match.

    Robert Sandall’ review of the Greil Marcus book was lazy and inaccurate, He says the 2006 (it was actually 2008) Keep it Simple got negative reviews by everyone when released. It was quite the opposite.

  • There was something that occurred to me thinking back on this thread – something that I wanted to add and never got around to it.

    It turned out to be too long a point for a comment thread so I’ve added it as a post to my own blog – here: