“The Greils are an Alabama family from Montgomery,” Marcus says, speaking from his room at the Washington Square Hotel. “My paternal grandmother was Lottie Greil from Montgomery. It’s a Southern tradition to name your second son with your maiden name. The Greils came to Alabama in the 1840s but they’re not there anymore. If you drive around Montgomery, you’ll see the Greil Hospital and other buildings. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where everybody knows how to say my name and spell it.”
But Marcus might be surprised by the number of readers worldwide that would instantly recognize his name. Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Marcus has authored such titles as The Shape Of Things To Come, Like A Rolling Stone, Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces. Marcus has successfully made the transition from mere rock critic—for such publications as Cream and Rolling Stone—to critically acclaimed observer of both popular music and its place in the culture.
When That Rough God Goes Riding was published earlier this month and comes just in time for Morrison’s upcoming Birmingham concert on Monday, May 3, at the BJCC Concert Hall. By all accounts, the concert marks Morrison’s first-ever performance in Alabama.
I ask Marcus if the idea for a book on Morrison had been brewing for some time. “Really not at all,” Marcus says. “It hadn’t occurred to me write this until last spring. There was a show on National Public Radio, a 15-minute segment about [Morrison’s album] Astral Weeks. It was produced by Josh Gleason, and he interviewed Van Morrison and a lot of other people about that album, and I was one of the people he talked to. I was on the show for a few seconds. My wife and I were listening to it, and she heard something I said and liked it. She said, ‘That’s what you should be writing a book about; you should be writing a book about Van Morrison.’ I thought about it and I didn’t want to write a career survey or a biography. There are several already, and I don’t know how to write a biography. But I thought, ‘What if I wrote about moments in his music where something extraordinary and unexpected—even unrepeatable—happened? Just those moments that don’t define a career but define a way of being in the world?’ It was pretty easy to do, and I wrote it quickly. I’d been engaged with his music since I first heard ‘Gloria’ in 1965, and it was at my fingertips and was a joy to do.”
Marcus’ book takes its title from the first track on Morrison’s 1997 album The Healing Game. I ask Marcus how the song’s title inspired him over the many other titles in the singer’s vast catalog. “It wasn’t my idea, it was my editor’s idea,” Marcus says. “I was calling the book Listening To Van Morrison because that’s what it is. My editor thought it was a dull title, which it probably is, and he fixed on that one, a song from The Healing Game. My reaction was, ‘It’s a great phrase, but I hope people don’t think I’m saying Van Morrison is a god.’ But I thought about it, and the phrase spoke to me in that the ‘Rough God’ is a spirit that’s in anybody—it’s a spirit of wildness and unpredictability. ‘When That Rough God Goes Riding’ is when that spirit breaks out and carries you to places you wouldn’t otherwise get to, whether it’s in your imagination, how you conduct yourself or a moment in a song when you give it more than you thought you could give it.”
Infamous for possessing a crotchety disposition and an enigmatic persona, Morrison—whether onstage or off—has long fascinated his fans. I ask Marcus if it was a challenge to distance his perception of Morrison the man from Morrison the artist when writing the book. “No, it’s not difficult because I don’t really care about that,” he says. “I’ve never been interested in the private lives of the people who move me, whether they’re novelists, movie directors, politicians or singers. I don’t know what the connections are and I don’t really care. What I’m interested in is what happens and what’s made. There are countless theories on how one’s background, upbringing, neuroses and traumatic events affect what you do, but everybody has those. We all have those kinds of things in our lives. I don’t think you or I could explain why we do any given thing, so it would be ridiculous to assume that we could make those explanations about someone else. Somebody asked me at a reading, ‘How can you write about Van Morrison’s music without taking into account what a completely unpleasant person he is?’ I said, ‘I don’t know that he’s a completely unpleasant person and I don’t really care and I don’t see what one has to do with the other.’ Things in life don’t always have to connect or have a causal relationship to each other.”
In recent years, Marcus has rekindled a passion for teaching and has taught at Princeton and Berkeley, among other renowned institutions. I ask if he is currently teaching while promoting When That Rough God Goes Riding. “I’m not a faculty member anywhere, but this fall I’m teaching at the New School in New York and I might be at Berkeley next spring,” Marcus says. “I never expected to be a teacher. I gave up on the idea back when I was 25. It was wonderful to find out when I was in my fifties that I had developed enough patience to be a teacher, that I was good enough at listening to students instead of trying to tell them things, which is what teaching means to me. I always learn so much from students and teaching assistants, and I find out what ideas of my own come across and what don’t, which is sometimes great and sometimes disappointing.”
According to Marcus, he met Morrison in 1969 and again in 1970, when they spent a day together riding around the San Francisco Bay area. Marcus seems reluctant to supply details of those meetings but offers a second-hand anecdote that touches on the delicate subject of Morrison the man. The story is equal parts comic, frustrating and cautionary. “One person told me a story of being at a Van Morrison concert and, afterward, lots of people went next door to a bar and were hashing the thing over with great excitement,” Marcus says. “Van Morrison came in and people stood up and cheered. He nodded his head and went to the bar. The guy telling the story said he finally got up his nerve and went up to him. He said, ‘Mr. Morrison, I just want to tell you how much your music has meant to me all of these years.’ Van Morrison said, ‘Why do people need to think they need to tell me these things?’ They guy was crushed and felt horrible. That’s probably one good reason why it’s not a good idea to meet your heroes. They have no obligation to live up to your fantasies.”
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.