Books: Listening to Van Morrison…

Great little review of Listening to Van Morrison by Griel Marcus…

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.

And not least for this sweet and unexpected sign off…

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!'”

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  • Pete Baker

    “Great little review…”


    I thought so at the time. ;op

  • Mick Fealty

    Bugger… ah well… Yarragh is all I can say to that…

  • William Markfelt

    ‘In this book those moments are called “the yarragh,” a term that comes from the traditional Irish tenor John McCormack.’

    This entire concept is nicked wholesale from Johnny Rogan’s book on Morrison. Hardly original from Marcus. But then, when was he ever?

  • CW

    Saw Van the Man live in Botanic gardens back in ’98. A great performer and showman, but a bit of a grumpy b**tard!

  • William Markfelt

    Support act wasn’t bad either.

  • CW

    PS – Some of the London-based Sluggerites may be interested in attending this lecture at the museum of London on 27 September:

    Hope to see some of you there!

  • CW

    William, yeah Dylan wasn’t bad – pity he didn’t play more of his better known songs – or engage with the audience more! Wearing those sunglases the whole time – I mean it’s not as if he had anything to hide!

  • wee buns

    Botanic gig was unreal, as was Lisdoonvarna in ’82 (ish). Here’s hoping they don’t go naming any roundabouts after him, or airports, he might not be cool about it. And it doesn’t help to ‘forge’ a joint identity anyway, just seems artifical. Rather have the back street Jelly Roll. Dylan was a laugh that gig & the shades didn’t stop him knocking out a memorable rendition of Tangled Up in Blue. Seem to recall Van jammed along on harmonica but I might be mishtaken.


    I attended the Graduation Ceremony when he received his Honorary Degree from UU – he received a lot of criticism for not making a grand sycophantic speech – blah, blah. I think he’s just a very private person. And wasn’t / isn’t that so refreshing?

    I also know someone who worked very closely with him for years – his grumpiness seems to mostly be reserved for people who just want to interfere in his life. I wish there were more like him in that respect. Well, I suppose we always have Morrisey. Thankfully.

  • USA

    Saw him perform somewhere in England about 15 or 20 years ago. Been a fan for quite some time.

  • William Markfelt

    I remember Van rolling on to sing ‘Tupelo Honey’ when Dylan played the Ice Bowl.

    Full marks to both of them for avoiding the old ‘Belfast you are the centre of the rock and roll universe’ bollocks.

  • dmcoop

    I’m a big Van fan, but really didn’t enjoy this book, I got about half way through before giving up.
    In some parts it states the bleedin obvious, in others I think it over analyses the songs.
    The author didn’t like Keep It Simple, I really enjoyed the album.
    I think with Van you need to sit back and let the music take you away.

  • Mick Fealty

    And I think he’s better live than on record. The Night in San Francisco is top of my own listening (when I take the time to listen any music these days).

    With that in mind, have we any top YouTube recommendations for Van?

  • snowstorm

    The author did like Keep It Simple, a least thats what I took out of his writign about it. A lot of the book is interesting, some of it self analysing wankology. Marcus is quite fond of his own writing style.

  • snowstorm

    Van’s ‘people’ tened to remove You Tube links as soon as they appear. His own website was putting up official clips fro a while but its gone now too.

  • Orchard County

    You can’t beat his performance of Caravan in The Last Waltz for pure showmanship. Don’t know if it’s on youtube but he pretty much stole the show – and that’s saying something given The Band were at their pomp and Dylan, Young, Clapton, Mitchell and others also performed on that great night.

    Great purple jumpsuit too 🙂

  • Pete Baker

    The Philosopher’s Stone version of Wonderful Remark is still available at my earlier post.

    Still my top YouTube recommendation. He’s definitely reaching for the ‘yarrrgh’ there.

  • snowstorm

    Here you go, a sublime performance. This concert movie can be snapped up for about a fiver these days, which technically speaking is theft.

  • snowstorm

    As for Griel Marcus, well I can wax lyrical as good as anyone when it comes to music but I have never heard myself utter a sentence quite like this one, (Greil on Astral Weeks)

    “the repititions in Morrison’s music always signify freedom, a love of words and a lack of fear for what they might say that to be born again might be understood as magic, magic as everyday life; what you to preserve the current that is everyday life. And that current may be the sight of death – a sight that, when one is attuned to contingency as the singer on Astral Weeks is, you see everywhere.”

    Eh, what??

  • William Markfelt

    High kicking like he Roly Polys, though. Embarrassing.

    But I must dig out the DVD, RIP Richard Manuel and Rick Danko (although Levon seems chipper following a few rounds with throat cancer)

  • William Markfelt

    Should add: just came back from holiday with the complete (well, Rock of Ages was missing) remastered Band CDs . Stunning body of work.