by John Boland

Halfway through this eccentric and irritating book, the author lists the sixteen albums that Van Morrison released between 1980 and 1996 and then, dismissing them all as unworthy of consideration, asks rhetorically: “How do you write off more than fifteen albums and more than fifteen years of the work of a great artist?”

The short answer is that you don’t, not when they include such songs as A Sense of Wonder, Queen of the Slipstream, Someone Like You, In the Garden, Cleaning Windows, Have I Told You Lately That I love You, So Quiet in Here and Days Like This, to name just a few that have endured the test of time. But somehow they don’t meet Marcus’s criteria for greatness.

The problem, however, is that these criteria remain very vaguely defined. Indeed, all he can come up with is a remark made by John McCormack when asked to account for his own inimitable way with a song. “You have to have the yarragh in your voice,” the great Irish tenor unhelpfully said, and Marcus takes this to mean…well, I’m not sure exactly, but apparently “to get the yarragh…you may need a sense of the song as a thing in itself, with its own brain, heart, lungs, tongue and ears, its own desires, fears, will and even ideas.”

I think he means that the singer has to feel the song so deeply that his performance of it takes on a life of its own (“Is the song singing you?” Morrison once asked), but it’s typical of the more earnest rock criticism that clarity is eschewed in favour of high-flown waffle. It’s especially typical of Marcus, who has made his reputation as a pop culture analyst with such books as Mystery Train (1975) and Lipstick Traces (1989), in which ephemeral pop songs are lent spurious significance by  allusions to loftier artistic achievements. 

The tacit admission seems to be that rock and pop aren’t good enough to stand on their own feet, and Marcus admitted as much in his introduction to Mystery Train when he said he wasn’t capable “of mulling over Elvis Presley without thinking of Herman Melville” – thus showing his superiority to the rest of us, who think That’s Alright, Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky are fine and dandy on their own terms.

Most devotees of Van Morrison feel the same about Sweet Thing, Madame George and Tupelo Honey, songs that not only defy analysis but resolutely refuse to invite it. This doesn’t stop Marcus from lengthy meditations on their essential meaning – meditations that take us less far into their mysterious loveliness than we can accomplish through our own ears, which tell us everything we need to know. And if, after that, the songs still preserve their mystery, well, that’s how it should be.

In short, I learned little from this lazily self-indulgent book, which tells you little about the man (or little that’s biographically coherent, anyway), not much by way of insights into the extraordinary music, but quite a lot about how Marcus and his academic ilk can drain the joy out of listening to music  by breaking butterflies on the wheels of the supposedly higher criticism. What is it with these guys?

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