“When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison” by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison
PublicAffairs
1 star (out of 5)

Like the book it covers, this review will be short and not comprehensive. I’m just going to pump the shotgun and let a couple of rounds go in the general direction of a profoundly bad book.

First of all, there are lots of instances where Marcus gets a lyric or song title wrong. “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” is rendered as “Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights” several times, even in a chapter title in big bold print. The song “Caravan” starts with the line “And the caravan is on its way,” but Marcus insists on saying it starts with the word “now.”

He says it’s Pee Wee Ellis on the cover of The Healing Game with Van, but it’s actually Haji Ahkba, who also happens to be the voice at the end of A Night in San Francisco asking the crowd if they had been healed. Ahkba was a vital part of that band, but Marcus can’t be bothered to find out who he is.

You may think these are little details, but if, in the title of your book, you are claiming to be “listening to Van Morrison,” you should get little details right. If not, what else are you missing?

Marcus also claims the song “Burning Ground” is about disposing of a body. Any research among Van fans who have parsed that dark song would have told Marcus that that’s emphatically not what’s going on in that song, but, again, he just doesn’t bother to look into things closely. (The song actually seems to be about casting off your old self in favor of a new beginning.)

Marcus also waves off every Morrison album from 1980 to 1996 as pointless navel gazing, even though Van fans find plenty to love about that long period (which is actually two or three periods). It also doesn’t jibe with Marcus’ main thesis to write these off. Marcus says that Van is all about reaching transcendence, which is true, but if Van can’t talk about himself, how can he transcend himself.

I’ve liked Marcus’ Mystery Train and his The Old Weird America: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but now I’m thinking I may have just been dazzled by his cross-genre comparisons. Now that I’ve read a book whose subject I know better than Marcus, I’m thinking he might be always full of crap.

by Aaron Keith Harris

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One thought on ““When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison” by Greil Marcus

  1. Except for the part about Marcus dismissing the 80’s and half of the 90’s, the other errors are not all that important. “Arlen” vs. “Arlen”, for instance. How does that affect his analysis. Mistaking Haji for Pee Wee is a mistake, but it’s just an ID in a picture. etc., etc.

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