If you care at all about music, then we don't need to tell you who Greil Marcus is. The pioneering combiner of pop music criticism and academic depth (read Lipstick Traces or his very smart, influentital books on Dylan and Elvis if you haven't yet) will be appearing live and in person at Skylight Books in Los Feliz tonight at 7:30 pm.
Marcus will be presenting his latest book, entitled When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison. We talked to him on the phone about the genesis of his new journey into music appreciation and the pleasures (and occasional pains) associated with being a Van the Man fan:
Why did you chose Van Morrison as a subject, after your celebrated studies of Dylan, Elvis, and the roots of punk?
Well, it's a short book about listening to Van Morrison. It's not a biography, it's not a career-long survey. It's kind of a search for moments in his music all across his career where he achieves a kind of breakthrough, a kind of communication that goes beyond words, makes a kind of rip in the expectations of what music or even sound should be like, and I think his whole career is a search for those moments, an attempt to find them or create them.
It moves from song to song, or album to album, or maybe just moments in a song. It's not chronological. It's a kind of attempt to create a simultaneous presence out of all the different periods of his performing life.
Have you always been interested in Van Morrison?
Oh sure. I've been a fan of his since his first band Them in 1965, when they had big hits in California.
Even when you were writing Lipstick Traces and paying attention to the evolution of punk, you were still listening to what Van Morrison was up to?
Sure. I've been a fan of his since I was 20 years old and I've never not been interested in what he's done.
Would it be fair to say that for a lot of average fans there was an early phase with Them, “Brown Eyed Girl,” Astral Weeks, Moondance and then as those fans aged they sort of rediscovered him in the late '80s or early '90s, but in the middle there was a certain period where only the hardcore fans were interested in the more obscure directions he was choosing?
That's certainly true for me. From really 1980 to about the mid-1990s he was making album after album that I tried to like, I tried to connect to but I just wasn't able to. You know, they were kind of a vast desert of New Age mysticism pursued with an absolute doggedness and then records of standards and tributes. A period where the kind of music I was interested in and wrote about in this book, he wasn't interested in that.
And then there comes a time in the mid-1990s when he breaks away and makes a tremendous, strong, dark and perverse album called The Healing Game and begins to act in the world again.
Is there a connection between you interest in Van Morrison and your previous work?
Well, I never planned to write this book. It came about when my wife heard something I said on a radio program about Astral Weeks. And I was just on that program for a second but she liked what I said and said “That's what you should be writing a book about,” and I thought about it for like five minutes and figured out I could.