When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus’ most recent book is exactly what you’d expect—and want—from the dean of rock criticism, a sprawling essay full of fascinating and sometimes questionable claims about art, politics and history, this time focused on soul stirrer and lyric poet Van Morrison. Framed by Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009) and flashing back to the Man performing the original Astral Weeks when it first came out in 1968 (Marcus saw both shows), the 183-page book suggests not only that the album is a seminal contribution to 20th-century art (he made the same case about a single song in 2005’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads), but also that it is inextricably linked to the Vietnam War, civil rights, the Free Speech Movement and John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s raised fists at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City. Along the way, Marcus dissects other albums and songs, including “St. Dominic’s Preview” and “Listen to the Lion,” while dismissing as inconsequential and tedious everything between 1980 and 1996, including Enlightenment and A Night in San Francisco, ultimately admitting that “whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Astral Weeks, what I value most is how inexplicable any great work really is.”