Get our free newsletter

Greil Marcus’ latest effort sets out to map what makes Van Morrison’s “failures interesting and his successes incomplete.” The book is itself both interesting and incomplete—a close-listening, achronological survey tracing Morrison’s early discovery of “the blues singer’s marriage of emotional extremism and nihilistic reserve” to Van’s later genre exercises (boring) and New Age projects (“dull and tired albums through the 1980s and ’90s, carrying titles like warning labels—Beautiful Vision, Poetic Champions Compose,” etc.). Written in prose as free-associative as the music it concerns, When That Rough God Goes Riding derives energy from the fact that Marcus was present at many of the landmark moments he’s exegizing—though the advance press copy boasts an invaluable reference CD that civilian readers may wish they had. If you’ve got the basic discography, though, and a certain degree of patience (those 208 pages seem heftier when Marcus spends too much time on obscure mid-’60s cuts), you’d do well to create a rough playlist, the better to appreciate the tidiness of Marcus’ observations, like the one about Richard Davis’ bass line at the end of “Madame George”: “every note he plays after that last one is sweeping up, closing the windows, locking the door.” There’s some dubious, speculative ethnography in the tying together of Morrison’s Appalachian/African/Caledonian musical roots, all the more jarring because of the quasiacademic format of the book, which includes too many footnotes. The whole thinking-out-loud thing leaves Marcus prey to overallusive conspiracy-theorizing peculiar to established music critics of a certain age, or perhaps Berkeleyites who’ve assumed the task of connecting seemingly unrelated events. For example: You may ask what the track-and-field performances of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexican Olympics have to do with the three-day recording session for Astral Weeks. The answer is: very little, except that Marcus has a deeply personal relationship with both “events.” Which, when you’re putting yourself in the subjective thrall of a critic this engaging, is sometimes enough. In fact, Marcus’ curiously impassioned defense of Morrison’s debt to “race records” serves as testimony to this book itself: “If one’s own response to that culture…is as strong as Van Morrison’s plainly was, how can that culture not be in the deepest sense one’s own?” Marcus’ own response to Van Morrison’s records—even the terrible ones—is strong enough to offset the copious liberties he allows himself.