Hymns To The Silence – Inside The Words and Music of Van Morrison

Hymns To The Silence –
Inside The Words and Music of Van Morrison
By Peter Mills
Continuum Books – £15.99

In Chapter One of this altogether, astonishingly thorough investigation of Van Morrison, Peter Mills writes: ‘’Arguably all popular culture, as we understand it, indexes the influence of American popular culture on the development of cultures drawn into its slipstream.’’ Whether or not one agrees with this – and I’m not entirely sure that I do – it’s a rather brash and bold statement to make. For it could be argued that America has no actual culture, and what little culture it does have, was inadvertently inherited from that of European immigration.

Moreover, I do understand what Mills is getting at, in relation to the American influence of Jazz, Blues, Country, Soul, and the all-explosive and rather tempestuous trajectory of Rock’n’Roll. And as this book is essentially about a time wherein these very facets of American musicology were already set in place, it might seem a little superfluous to constructive requirement, to delve deeper into the country’s fraught history. Although for the sake of (historical) clarity, said idea of (non) American culture is worth bearing in mind.

Hymns to the Silence- Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison is on occasion, a rather charged and translucent, yet in-depth examination of an altogether complex master of his trade; the sort of which, traverses way beyond the seemingly proletarian analysis of many of its peers. Neither biography nor cosmogonic chronology, this book is both an appreciation of, and a more than considered study of one of the most influential and unique artists of recent times.

To be sure, Van Morrison tells it, calls it, heals it and bequeaths it – as only he sees invariably fit to do. The ‘it,’ being something as equally indescribable and indecipherable, as his voice is magnetic, alluring, uplifting yet simultaneously heartbreaking. Hence the term, Van the Man – as he is indeed, The Man.

Perhaps the only musician, truly worth embracing in relation to spirituality of musical truth.

Writing in the chapter ‘A Three-Cornered Quartet,’ Mills relates the relative essence of ‘Veedon Fleece,’ to that of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. In so doing, he sheds much (affecting) light on the rather hallowed importance of Morrison’s inexorable and sacrosanct belief in the here and now: ‘’Part of the value of Morrison’s work is to see how he identifies the ‘otherness’ of the world shadowing the world we see […]. In the phrase ‘Veedon fleece,’ Morrison thus coins a language to describe this otherness: here is the ‘IT’ that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were after in On The Road. The song […] supplies the emotional wholeness which seems central to at least part of what we understand as gestalt, arriving at a moment poised between going forward and looking back – and just being, in the here and now.’’

Such openness of identification, is what enables Van Morrison to touch the stars; a beautiful and almost magical quality, the likes of which Sheryl Cole and Craig David et al, can only continue to dream of. Not only will the likes of they, forever fail to understand the fragility – let alone the tenderness – of such spiritual wisdom; they’ll forever fail to attain even a tiny modicum of its musical essence. But then we are talking about genius here, and Peter Mills knows this all too well: ‘’[…] it seems to me that it is the tiny detail – the aside in a live performance, the fluffed lyric left on the studio take, the single note which changes the temperature and atmosphere of an entire song – that gives us the key to the bigger themes, and to the impact and resonance of the songs, recordings and performances this book takes as its subject.

Littered with sparkling quotes from such artists as Kevin Rowland, Maria McKee, Kate Rusby and Fiachra Trench (themselves armed with an acute knowledge and understanding of Van Morrison’s work), I cannot praise this book highly enough. Its investigative validity is agglutination to that of the musical importance of its subject.

David Marx


3 responses to “Hymns To The Silence – Inside The Words and Music of Van Morrison

  1. Stephen Cooper

    I was feeling glad that at least one person had enjoyed this book since I thought it awful. An appalling lack of intellectual rigour. Appallingly researched since it’s error strewn on matters of fact. Thank God for Greil Marcus, that’s what I say…

    Then I got to your last paragraph. “Sparkling” quotes? “Acute” knowledge? Do you happen to work for Continuum by any chance?

    • Hi Stephen,
      Greil Marcus is indeed in a league of his own, and with the possible exception of Charles Shaar Murray, there aren’t many music writers who come close… With regards the book, it’s been a while since I read and reviewed it, but if memory serves, it was strewn with upbeat enthusiasm – which in and of itself, made for rather pleasurable and on occasion, ‘sparkling’ reading.
      No, I don’t work for Continuum, although I have reviewed a fair few of their books recently.

  2. Rick Barnes

    Thanks for pointing us the way of this one, David – a fantastic read, and one which I’ve been waiting for for a long time – takes the subject of Morrison on and to new places. Really good stuff, a new voice you’ve spotted here. Thanks again!

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