Every great work of art has two faces – one that is timely and that represents its own era, and one that is timeless and looks beyond the present to something approaching eternity.
While the Beatles’ 1967 release, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a veritable magnum opus of both time and moment, it now sounds both dated and disconnected. On the other hand, Rubber Soul, recorded two years previously by the same group, sounds exceedingly contemporary, honest, urbane, and enduring. It stills resounds.
Thankfully, there are a few albums, here and there, that approach both timelessness and immortality. Sinatra’s Only the Lonely; Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; Dave Brubeck’s Take Five; Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; Carole King’s Tapestry; Joni Mitchell’s Blue. While these performers were seasoned artists by the time their individual masterpieces were released, Van Morrison was just 22 years old when he recorded Astral Weeks. According to a recent survey in Rolling Stone, Morrison’s “modest little jazz-rock album” remains the favorite for more than two-thirds of all of the current reviewers of the magazine. “There’s Astral Weeks – and then there’s every other album,” critic Dave Marsh recently stated.
Ultimately, “Van the Man” sings about absolute truths throughout the fifty-three-minute excursion into the human heart. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages -and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can somehow grasp. Incomprehensibly, the youthful Morrison sounds as if he had somehow lived several lifetimes.
Irish to the core, filled with remorse that time had somehow passed him by even as he attempted to take in everything that came his way, Morrison sings the way his fellow countryman, John Keats, wrote – unfettered and straightforward.
“I once saw a film on the life of John McCormack, the great Irish tenor,” Morrison stated to critic Ralph Gleason three years after the release of Astral Weeks. “In the film, McCormack played himself. During one portion of the film, McCormack explains to his accompanist that the element necessary to mark the important voice off from the other good ones was very specific. ‘You have to have,’ he said, ‘the yarrrragh in your voice.’”
After just one listening of Astral Weeks, it is obvious that Morrison has the yarrrragh.
Recorded a year after his highly-praised solo debut album, Blowin’ Your Mind, which contained one authentic rock ‘n roll classic, “Brown Eyed Girl,” Morrison’s follow-up release was recorded in October 1968 amidst enduring controversy. Over the previous ten months, he had been sued, threatened with deportation, and then harassed by his old record company, Bang Records, before signing on with the more prestigious label, Warner Brothers, who finally secured him the legal protection he ultimately needed. In the final analysis, Bang Records had wanted Morrison to write unswerving pop hits in the vein of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Midnight Special.”
“I was unwilling to be looked at as a musical hit factory. I wanted to dabble, to explore, without some record executive telling me what my musical tastes should be,” Morrison said in a legendary interview to writer Dave Marsh years later.
By the middle of 1968, Van was residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his new wife, Janet “Planet” Rigsbee. A native of East Belfast, Northern Ireland, Morrison had made a name for himself in his native land as the lead singer of the mid-sixties pop group, Them, a quartet that had scored two minor international hits written by Morrison, “Gloria,” and “Here Comes the Night.”
Van had actually come to the States to make it as a solo artist in early 1967, but by the time Astral Weeks was recorded, he had already become wizened to the unsavory ways of the recording business. In the final analysis, he was not looking for money but for complete artistic control. “Money was secondary; my music was everything,” he admitted later on to critic Ralph Gleason.
While he was getting sued by Bang Records, Morrison had begun to explore the depths of musical improvisation with an eclectic assortment of students from Boston’s Berklee School of Music. By the summer of 1968, he had begun playing local jazz clubs in the greater Boston area, where, he said, “I could feel the freedom of music that I was not feeling in my professional life that had then been put on hold.” He had authored an assortment of disparate songs by then, many of them based on his Belfast youth. When he finally was released from his stifling Bang Records contract, he told Warner Brothers’ executives in September 1968, that he wanted to immediately make a very different record at their studio in Manhattan. In the end, the powers-that-be at Bang acquiesced.
Employing a combination of his own intuition and some word-of-mouth advice from his Berklee-Boston friends, Morrison then hired jazz producer Lewis Merenstein to produce the album and insisted that renowned standup bassist Richard Davis serve as the musical underpinning for all eight of Astral Weeks’ musical compositions. Guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay, and percussionist and string arranger Warren Smith, Jr., formed the rest of the impromptu band behind Morrison’s soaring vocals and evocative acoustic guitar accompaniment. “We recorded the album in three sessions over two weeks. I kept changing my songs, lyrically. We would then gather the band together, play it on my acoustic as I sang. It never took them more than a few listens for them to then get to work and record what I had outlined,” Morrison recalled to Dave Marsh in 1998.
Incredibly, Astral Weeks turned out to be neither rock nor folk nor jazz nor blues, though there are traces of all four in the music and in Morrison’s voice which sounds like a bugle call for the capriciousness of life. Despite the fact that many have classified it as a jazz album, there are virtually no musical solos that would dominate his much more popular follow-up, Moondance. In Astral Weeks, there are interludes of breathtaking beauty when the music surges and subsides, rises and falls, around Van’s soaring voice.
After the album was released, Morrison admitted then that he preferred playing small clubs because of the intimacy of such venues and when asked about all the patrons clinking their glasses, intruding on his performances, he said something along the lines of, “You put your drink down when you really get into it.”
In the end, Astral Weeks better showcases those powers of observation. Van sees all the little things, even though the big things often get in the way. He provides details that may seem mundane on the surface, such as throwing pennies off a bridge in his seminal ballad, “Madame George.” In a further listening, however, that simple act of penny-throwing becomes a metaphor for something much grander. Ultimately, it’s about adolescence – well, most of the album is – but more specifically, teenaged idling and carelessness — you know, when one could get away with wasting precious minutes with such a mindless activity and at the same time, not really be concerned with the consequences. The entire exercise is intimate; this is no stadium-induced album but a private conversation between friends. Van’s lyrics sound like a John Coltrane sax solo – unrestrained, repetition with a point, unencumbered. Indeed, there is an impressionistic painting element to the entire affair – a musical pointillism.
“All the scrapbooks built together stuck with glue
And I’ll stand beside you, beside you
Oh child, to never wonder why
To never, never, never, never wonder why at all
To never, never, never, never wonder why
It’s gotta be, it has to be – you “
The album begins with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” with the lines: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream/where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop,” verses that certainly rival Bob Dylan for imagery and recollection. There is a lilting impetuousness to the tune; it somehow sounds fresh each and every time you hear it played. The playful back-and-forth between Morrison’s little ensemble captures the tone of the lyrics which are decidedly stream-of-consciousness.
The recording’s second song, “Beside You,” commences with an unforgettable exchange between guitarist Jay Berliner and Van’s vocals that seem to wrap themselves around one another. While many have described it as a quintessential love ballad, there is a spirituality present that would become evident in scores of Morrison songs later on. Yes, we surely travel the world as sole adventurers, but to make sense of it, it’s always better to venture forth with someone you love.
The third tune, “Sweet Thing,” the only tune on Astral Weeks to receive airplay as a single, remains one of Van’s most requested concert songs. Over an endlessly descending, circular progression, Morrison sings hopeful lyrics about nature and a romantic partner, seemingly beginning in the middle of a thought: ‘And I will stroll the merry way.’ The band continues to cook throughout this memorable release, especially during its bridge sections. This is a rare moment in recent pop history when the band doesn’t just complement the singer; it is actually interchangeable with the vocals. Like all of the other songs on Astral Weeks, percussionist Warren Smith’s luminous stringed overdubs are deliciously understated – providing a perpetual breeze to whatever climate Morrison and the band is crafting at the time.
“Cyprus Avenue,” the final number of the first side of the album, is a three-chord blues composition that also has been a standard song played at Morrison concerts for more than four decades. The musical and emotional centerpiece of Astral Weeks, “Cyprus Avenue” focuses on Morrison’s childhood in Belfast in lyrics that are both mystical and lingering. The tune is so brilliantly supported by bassist Richard Davis that Paul McCartney once called Lewis’s performance throughout the ballad, immortal. For me, I don’t know for sure about God or what happens to us all when we die. I wish I did. The big questions have always eluded me. But I do know that I could be dead a thousand years and the bass line from “Cypress Avenue” will still live inside some part of me. For that reason, I assume there is some form of an afterlife.
The fifth song, “The Way Young Lovers Do,” seems out of place with the rest of the compositions Morrison included in the album, a lounge singer’s paean that Sinatra might well have recorded with Count Basie or Nelson Riddle. The subject of the song, an adolescent’s first kiss, however, fits well thematically with the rest of the numbers. As one friend once commented to me, Astral Weeks’s songs are ones that Holden Caulfield might have written if he had existed in the late 1960’s.
The most ambitious tune on the release, “Madame George,” is nothing less than a ten-minute excursion into the life of a Belfast boy who soaked up a wellspring of images growing up and who attempts to make sense of it all, including the people he observed along the way who marked his individual passage in time. In an album dominated by stream-of-consciousness lyrics, this ballad is the most impressionistic and emotional of all eight musical numbers. Heartbreaking and evocative, “Madame George” remains the personal favorite for many devotees of Astral Weeks. The rawness of the song is so over-the-top, that it is almost voyeuristic. Cold Play’s Chris Martin admitted recently in Rolling Stone: “A few years ago, I was going through some personal shit, and I put Astral Weeks on and it just tore right through me, especially ‘Madame George.’ I had to stop – turn it off. Of course, I’d course heard it before, but this time it just hit me deep. I can’t remember ever having a reaction quite like that to an album. I haven’t listened to it since. I almost have a few times, but I felt oddly afraid of it.” Raw, honest intensity can do that.
Luckily, Van places a decidedly more sanguine ballad, Ballerina,” as the follow-up. In a way, the song is a love note to the possibilities as anything Morrison has ever recorded. He supposedly wrote it after watching his future wife dance while a student at Berklee. “Not long afterward, we were a couple, we were living in Cambridge, all was well, and I wrote ‘Moondance’ for her that first fall after I came back from recording Astral Weeks,” Morrison told Dave Marsh. “Ballerina” seems to embrace the notion first put forth by Bertrand Russell: To fear love is to fear life and those who fear life are already three parts dead.”
“Slim Slow Slider” concludes the masterpiece with a warning. While the bookends of growing up have involved impulsivity and exploration, those two bookends might get you into trouble when you become an adult. In a way, Morrison says goodbye to his youth even as he clings to it one last time. One is reminded of Dylan’s line, “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now…” in repeated listenings to this gentle shot across the bow that concludes the album.
When Astral Weeks came out in late 1968, I paid it little heed as did the general public at the time. Unlike any other Morrison album, however, it has actually sold more and more copies each year – a word-of-mouth gem that never seemed to grow old with the passage of time.
In the late 1970’s, I worked as an intern at a local Boston radio station for a spell. Superstition abounded, especially in such a whimsical business. One of the rituals for each disc jockey was to have his or her individual stack of records to be left on the shelf “in case the world ended.” It was nothing more than a personal preferred list, but each jockey would put his or her absolute favorite on the very top. After forty-four years of thousands of exemplary musical releases, Astral Weeks remains on top of my personal stack. I can’t imagine another release replacing it.
Like van Gogh’s sunflowers that are forever in bloom or the dancers who will eternally move like the wind in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, the music of Astral Weeks will continually be an undying, musical expression to the realization that the most wondrous of all ages – youth – is fleeting. I will listen to it until my last days because it also contains the ultimate incongruity of life – that something so spontaneous – so spur of the moment – can somehow touch the hemline of immortality.