Listening to Van Morrison

Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (Faber)

August 2010

Forgive me if I start by quoting some of my favourite lines of poetry. They come from T. S. Eliot’s great religious sequence, Four Quartets: ‘Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness.’ Eliot is talking about the way art gestures towards a sacred meaning beyond itself. In the case of music, the sound makes sense only because of the silence – the healing emptiness of the divine – which surrounds and sustains it.

It may seem a far cry from one of the greatest religious poets of the last century to one of the most famous rock musicians, especially if our theme is silence. Popular music has become the inescapable soundtrack to all of our lives – leaking from headphones in railway carriages, blaring from speakers in restaurants, thumping out of passing cars, echoing from next door’s sound system. It is as if the general assumption is that life without noise is unbearable; for many of us, it’s the other way round, of course! But Van Morrison has, throughout his forty-odd year career, been obsessed with what lies on the other side of sound. In ‘Summertime in England’ he sings: ‘And you listen to the silence. Can you feel the silence?’ We know that he is talking about mystical communion, which relies on a willingness to sit quietly without being, in Eliot’s phrase, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. In case we don’t get the point, he even has a song called ‘Hymns to the Silence’, in which he implies that all his music is written in honour of the sacred soundlessness which lies all around us, but which we seldom hear because we’re addicted to noise.

All this may sound pretentious, but there are a lot of people who take Morrison very seriously. Greil Marcus is one of them. The author of probably the best book ever written about American popular music, Mystery Train, and of one of the most interesting on Bob Dylan, Invisible Republic, he has taken his time to get round to the world’s most famous Irish singer-songwriter. Is Listening to Van Morrison worth the wait? Yes, if you’re of the opinion that the early albums are the best. Marcus is very good at conveying the atmosphere and significance of Astral Weeks, of Tupelo Honey, of St Dominic’s Preview, and of Into the Music. His approach is to use one or two particular songs as keys to the whole albums: eg, ‘Madame George’ for Astral Weeks.  His thesis is that Morrison’s greatest gift is a voice which has what the Irish tenor John McCormack once claimed is a sure sign of genius: the ‘yarragh’. The question to ask of any singer, explained McCormack, is this: ‘is the song singing you?’ Marcus believes that with Morrison this is the case: his voice ‘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.’

Putting it in the terms we’ve used above, Marcus could be interpreted as saying that the sacred silence is being made manifest in the sound which Morrison makes. Why, then, does he ignore, or even dismiss, most of the explicitly religious music of the past three decades? He doesn’t really explain, but I suspect that he considers that in the later work Morrison is singing about ‘the eternal’ rather than conveying it directly through his voice; in other words, he has lost the yarragh. If so, then I think Marcus is being unfair: true, there is something self-conscious about some of those later albums. But it’s quite an achievement to incorporate into one’s music the traditional wisdom of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism, or the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti, while still producing music that can inspire, console and, to use a favourite Morrison word, heal. I certainly wouldn’t want to jettison Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, or No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, or Avalon Sunset.

Nor should one forget that that last album afforded Morrison one of his very few ‘hits’, namely ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ – for which he deserves special praise for proving himself indifferent to the whims of his trendier admirers by (a) releasing an explicitly religious, almost evangelical  ‘single’, and (b) asking Cliff Richard to sing it with him. If the task is to produce ‘hymns to the silence’, that born-again stalwart of British rock’n’roll has as much right as anyone to sing from the same hymn sheet. I think that Morrison’s manifest lack of concern about image and reputation, about who’s in or who’s out, is a good sign that he is concentrating on what really matters.

Though I’ve written about Morrison elsewhere, I’ve often found it difficult to put my finger on what is distinctive about his art. I’m grateful to the author of Listening to Van Morrison for bringing into play that word ‘yarragh’ – suitably indefinable, but having the advantage of actually sounding like the way Morrison sings. My only difference from Marcus is that I think I can hear the yarragh in more work of Morrison’s than Marcus can. Perhaps you can too?

Laurence Coupe