Around this time last year, I wrote a piece for The Guardian about words and music. In the article, I gave the cultural commentator Greil Marcus a bit of a pasting over his lumpy prose and pretentious views. Undaunted, the good professor is back with a new book ‘Listening to Van Morrsion’.
It’s not half-bad. Granted, if you come looking for a listing of who played what, when, and how often, you’ll go away disappointed. The book gives an impressionistic account of the effect Morrison’s music has on the author and why this matters. It probably helps that I agree with Marcus on the strange sepulchral beauty of Astral Weeks – though there are people who take a very different view.
Significantly, the most enjoyable parts of the book are the least conjectural. There’s a fantastic description of Morrison’s appearance at ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in 1976, looking “like a grimy Cinderella in a purple stage suit: a spangled bolero jacket, sausage pants with contrasting lace up the crotch, a green top with a scoop neck that produced what could only be called cleavage. God, you thought – where did he get this thing?”
Elsewhere Marcus’s penchant for verbiage is given full throttle and the result is anesthetising: “The tyranny of tying anything an artist might do or say to his or her own life, to give it the weight of the real, and switch off the lights on the weightlessness of the imagination – a philistine fear of art that found its most spectacular form in the JT Leary hoax, which only seemed to convince people that while taking fiction for autobiography remained the highest form of understanding, it was worth making sure that the person whose autobiography one was plumbing actually existed – was summed up all too well by John Irvine in 1979.” Is there an editor in the house?
The best quote in ‘Listening to Van Morrison’ – and the one which truly captures the experience – comes from Dr John: “To me Van Morrison got the most house, of anything. I was checkin’ the gig… and it was, like, the whole gig, it got the house. ‘Cause mostly, you know, it’s like famous people… But nuttin’ was like that. Nuttin’ got that much house. That was way above everything else. That was a hard act to follow.”
That’s all there is.
Five great books about music
1 Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: pop from the beginning by Nik Cohn.
Published in 1970, this one of the first, and still the best, books about the origins of rock n roll. Cohn chronicles the visionaries and crazies whose assault on the ghastly good taste of the 1950s and 60s changed the world.
2 Tricksta: life and death and New Orleans rap by Nik Cohn.
Thirty-five years later, our hero, poorer and none-the-wiser, pitches up in Louisiana and decides to launch a career in the New Orleans ‘bounce’ scene. Published before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, the book is an unsettling account of lives that have always been lived on the edge of oblivion.
3 The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.
The seemingly intractable course of 20th-century ‘classical music’, from Mahler to minimalism, is charted in crystal-clear prose. The associated web site is also a treat.
4 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.
Hijuelos’s novel explores the lives of two Cuban brothers (both musicians) in search of sex and success in 1950s New York.
5. Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, by Whitney Balliett.
The incomparable jazz critic for The New Yorker wrote in a style as elegant and thrilling as the sound of his heroes.