On the very first page of his new book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (Public Affairs, 195 pages, $22.95), rock critic Greil Marcus (Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces) compares the importance of Van Morrison’s 2009 live rehash of seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks to that of Sarah Bernhardt’s post-earthquake appearance in San Francisco, of 1960s student riots, of President Theodore Roosevelt in the days of Rough Riders and Robert F. Kennedy just before his assassination.
This is the world Marcus is still living in, in which rock music is the place where “everything is transformed,” where a Bob Dylan or Van Morrison track changes not merely lives but entire decades under their surface, where with a single wrong turn on a dial “love turns to ashes.” It is a monolithic history steeped deep into the brains of pop-culture boomerdom, a life in which everyone knows exactly what matters because it matters to everyone at the same time (if only after the fact).
It is now difficult to imagine such a world, if it ever actually existed; the Internet not only flattens but personalizes history so that the whole of cultural memory is available all at once and known always alone: Joey Ramone and Lady Gaga and Yaz could all hold hands on YouTube if they really wanted to, but only for one viewer at a time. Meaningful mass-cultural “moments” in music seem beside the point in this view—leaving aside the sorry, engineered spectacles of cable video-music awards—and yet it is with just such moments that Marcus structures his book: Tupelo Honey, 1971; “Just Like a Woman,” 1971; “Sweet Thing,” 1968.
Marcus’ Van Morrison is not the pleasant jangler casual fans know from “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Wild Night.” His Morrison is epic, stubborn, brutal, mythology-as-human. He is “magic as everyday life: what you do to preserve the emotional current that drives everyday life,” a series of accidents and events that became inevitable the second they happened, songs that knew more than their singer. It is a compelling mythology, especially if you already share it. It allows visceral access to the large narratives, so that each song is both death and the open road, the whole linked chain of humanity. “There you go again,” Van Morrison says to himself at one point in the book, “talking to Huddie Ledbetter.”
Marcus’ prose is a powerful enough machine that this sentiment is often convincing (or at least, it leaves the reader wanting to be convinced) even as Marcus himself is conscious of the cold grip of nostalgia on both Van Morrison and himself, wherein “some things you did, some things you saw, and some things you heard about replace any sense of life as it is.” All of it is true only because the song makes it true. It is a powerful urge, this need to shore up these fragments with our ruins.
READ: Greil Marcus reads from When That Rough God Goes Riding at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, April 21. Free.