Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Van and Mock Duck

Krafty has a vantastic post at the Mock Duck site.  It’s a little piece countering some of the stuff Greil Marcus has been saying in his books and magazine articles.  Some of the reader comment is really insightful.  I’ll provide a sample and urge any Vanatics to access the piece themselves. 

If Van Morrison is a Jerk, Does That Make "Brown-Eyed Girl" Any Worse?

I recently came upon this interesting interview with Greil Marcus where he talks about his new book on Van Morrison. I’ve always liked but not loved Van Morrison, so I’m not about to run out to buy the book, but I was very interested in how, in the interview, Marcus espoused a form of musical analysis that seems comparable to New Criticism, the old school (mid-20th century) style of literary criticism that they taught at Dan and my high school. In short, it was all about the close reading of texts as self-contained entities, with no regard whatsoever for the biography of the author or, really, any other context. It turned out to be a great way to be introduced to the study of literature, and I’ve always felt that the rigorous training in such close reading has served me well in various other endeavours, including my eventual career as a lawyer.

So, anyhow, I was intrigued to see Marcus explaining, somewhat passionately, how he didn’t give a damn what was behind Van Morrison’s classic songs, and whether there was a real “Madame George” or not, and how basically irrelevant such context is to “true” appreciation of the music. I found myself drawn to this approach as a way of helping to explain how a song’s “feel” can be so powerful, even if the words are just “Sweet Thing” over and over again or whatever.
 But then a little bit later in the interview Marcus seems to contradict himself 100% without recognising it. He talks about this long “dead period” where Morrison failed to produce any decent music, from about 1980 to 1997. And then he analogises it to a similar dead period for Dylan, which he cites Dylan himself as identifying as stretching from his post-John Wesley Harding recordings (1968) all the way until the early ‘90s:

“Essentially, that entire period — that’s a long time — was worthless, was searching for something that would give him a reason to sing, faking it the whole time. Any Bob Dylan fan would say, ‘Oh, what about Blood on the Tracks or ‘Blind Willie McTell’, that great song he didn’t even release in 1983? I loved Desire, Under the Red Sky. How could you dismiss all that?’ Well, because he knew how he felt singing those songs, making those records.”

Reader Comment
Thomas Stazyk   -  Interesting post. The problem I have with Van Morrison (especially see Tupelo Honey) is that he doesn’t know how or when to end a song. In fact, check out his performance in The Last Waltz. Great but please just stop!
New criticism is an interesting idea but the problem is that you can’t explain away creative gaps by pointing out that the artist was having a ten year lost weekend with the sauce or something.

But I think Marcus is on to something. Have you heard Mark Knopfler lately? Talk about contempt for the audience.

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