Woody Allen's dimming view of humanity hasn't done much for his recent films, but it did allow him to create an unforgettable protagonist in 1999's Sweet And Lowdown. Played to unreflective perfection by Sean Penn, jazz guitarist Emmet Ray gives inspired, transporting performances, then blows off steam indulging in his favorite hobby: shooting rats down by the railyard. He's the perfect emblem for the gap between artists' capacity to create beauty and the ugliness that so often dogs their lives, and he's worth keeping in mind when reading the Van Morrison biography Can You Feel The Silence? At his best, Morrison sounds divinely inspired, yet biographer Clinton Heylin (author of the Dylan bio Behind The Shades) can scarcely find anyone to say a nice word about him. Morrison attempted to stop the book's publication and warned acquaintances away from talking, which might account for both skewed reportage and the generally hostile tone of Silence's introduction. But Heylin quickly reveals himself as a fastidious, evenhanded researcher, reconstructing as best he can the life of a man who's attempted to shroud himself in secrecy. Born in Belfast with his ears tuned to America, Morrison took his music into that verdant cul de sac where jazz and R&B meets Celtic mystery. If he'd never recorded another note, history would still remember him as the man behind Them's "Gloria," garage rock that reached for the transcendent. Yet the best was still to come, in a solo career that, from 1967 through 1974, produced one of the great stretches of sustained creativity in contemporary music. By Heylin's account, however, the man behind the music is less a monster than a classic grumpus prone to curling into a ball of whiskey and ego. Though thoroughly detailed, Can You Feel The Silence? suffers from a shortage of psychological insight: It never attempts to find a connection between Morrison's inability to handle fame and his music's later decline into scotch-soaked nostalgia and New Age fumbling. His life seems short on dramatic incident, which doesn't help–eventually, it becomes a repeated cycle of drinking, romantic and professional breakups, half-considered philosophical explorations, and disappointing albums, until Morrison starts to seem too dull to warrant so much attention. How can this all sound so meaningless as long as Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece plays on the stereo? Call it the Emmet Ray paradox.

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