Can You Feel the Silence?

Clinton Heylin (Chicago Review Press)

Anyone who has followed the trajectory of Van Morrison's career knows he began as a brooding but brilliant Belfast singer, blending R&B with Irish mysticism, punk rage and a little narcissism, creating a pulsating groove that has never been duplicated. That was then. Forty years later, what mostly remains is the self-absorbed bitterness.

So it comes as no surprise to learn, via Brit writer Clinton Heylin's new Morrison bio Can You Feel the Silence?, that the singer is indeed a grouchy bastard living out his days staring at his own navel.

Now, we've seen this rock-write strand before: musical titans stripped down to their sociopathic selves. But in this case, the author ends up looking nearly as antisocial as his subject. Heylin comes across just as creepy, looking like a pupil of John Lennon biographer Albert Goldman -- a writer who paid his bills by stealing the coins off the eyes of dead rock stars.

Heylin had his work cut out for him profiling the reclusive Morrison. But it's clear from page one that he took Morrison's troll-under-the-bridge routine personally. He opens the book recounting a vaguely threatening phone call from Morrison's "people" warning him away from his prey. From there, each anecdote that Heylin recounts seems designed to leave a sour taste.

This is not to suggest Heylin didn't do his homework. There is compelling minutiae about Morrison's early days with Them, and sharp session details behind such classic albums as Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece.

For all his digging, however, Heylin fails to crack the biggest mysteries behind the man, such as the identity of the 14-year-old lass who broke the singer's heart and inspired his best work. (The author doesn't even care to advance Lester Bangs' famous suggestion that maybe the guy just has a thing for young girls.) More important, it never crosses Heylin's mind to explore how such a prickly misanthrope could deliver the sheer joy of "Blue Money" or "Wild Night."

Instead, what we get is a gossip-loving bully picking on the fat kid in gym class.

 
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