ASTRAL WEEKS – 50 YEARS LATER
THE STORY OF VAN MORRISON’S MYSTICAL MASTERPIECE
In 1967 Van Morrison had himself a top-ten single with “Brown-Eyed Girl”. Today the song is his most well-known and can be heard daily on any classic rock themed radio station and is a staple for any bar band. However, the artist who penned it does not quite share the same views of it that the public has. Since it was released, Morrison has had mixed feelings with the song and has tried to distance himself from it as much as possible.
In early 1968, the Belfast native moved to Boston with his then wife Janet “Planet” Rigsbee. At the time Boston was slowly becoming a subterranean haven for musical misfits. Beantown native Jonathan Richman was slowly hitting the music scene and proto-punk gods The Velvet Underground had recently relocated there from the Big Apple.
The 22-year-old Northern-Irish songwriter was looking to distance himself from the pop-orientated sound that had dominated his debut solo LP, Blowin’ Your Mind. Seemingly at ease in his new environment, he began writing and recording demos for his spontaneous folky numbers in his backyard. Since many of the songs went on in a stream-of-consciousness manner for 20 minutes, Morrison asked his young wife for her opinions on how to refine these new tracks.
After having the skeleton of what would be Astral Weeks written, Morrison began touring the Boston area with bassist Tom Kielbania, a student at the Berklee College of Music, who began to use an upright bass to suit his new folk sound. Kielbania would later bring in the jazz-trained flautist John Payne into the group making the trio complete.
It was on this humble New England tour that Van the Man was approached by Warner Bros. Records. Despite the Morrison’s moody artistic temperament and tendency to leave the stage mid-set, the label was very interested in signing him, expecting a successful follow-up single to “Brown-Eyed Girl”. Still legally bound to Bang Records, Morrison accepted the deal anyway. Eventually a bargain was agreed upon in which he would write three songs per month for his former label over the course of one year. Eager to get down to his album on Warner Bros., he wrote all 36 throwaway songs in a single recording session to be rid of Bang Records.
“I went up and it was at Ace Recording Studio at 1 Boylston Place, and there was Van Morrison, very timidly sitting on a stool and I came in very timidly sitting on a stool and he played,” said Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein describing the first time he saw Morrison. “And the first tune he played was ‘Astral Weeks.’ Thirty seconds into it, my whole being was vibrating, because having spent all that time with jazz players, when he was playing, I could hear — the lyric I got right away; I knew he was being reborn. I heard 30 seconds, a minute and it went right through me, and I got the poetry of it. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.”
After all of the legal shenanigans had been taken care of, Morrison, Merenstein, and a crew of session musicians began laying down tracks for his new LP in September in New York City.
Despite being given complete artistic freedom, Morrison was still as moody as ever. Hardly speaking two words to the jazz ensemble collected to back him up; he locked himself in a glass recording booth and recorded the vocals by himself.
“Morrison couldn’t work with anybody,” said Velvet Underground member John Cale, who happened to be recording in the same studio. “So finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes.”
Merenstein had pieced together Morrison’s backup band with the help of veteran jazz bassist Richard Davis, who was best known for playing on Eric Dolphy’s masterpiece, Out to Lunch. Davis and Merenstein brought in guitarist Jay Berliner, Warren Smith Jr. for vibraphones and percussion, and drummer Connie Kay.
“If you listen to the album, every tune is led by Richard and everybody followed Richard and Van’s voice,” says Merenstein. “I knew if I brought Richard in, he would put the bottom on to support what Van wanted to do vocally, or acoustically. Then you get Jay playing those beautiful counter-lines to Van.”
Davis’ presence on the record cannot be understated as his musical arrangements are equally important to the music as Morrison’s voice and deeply poetic verse. It would be hard to imagine this album without the input of Richard Davis, whose arrangements take these three-chord folk tunes to another level.
Despite bringing Morrison’s music to new heights, Davis was not impressed by the sulky Irish singer. Coming from a background in jazz, Davis was used to connecting to his fellow musicians both prior to and during the recording process. This was not the case when the two worked together on the Astral Weeks sessions.
“He was remote from us, ’cause he came in and went into a booth,” recalled Davis. “And that’s where he stayed, isolated in a booth. I don’t think he ever introduced himself to us, or we to him…And he seemed very shy…”
Even though there was a disconnection between the musicians, listening to these sessions in their final mix seems to reflect just the opposite. The music of Astral Weeks echoes a band coming together in complete harmony. From Davis’ jazz-like bass lines to the lush orchestration, the music blends seamlessly with Morrison’s emotional lyrics.
It is here on Astral Weeks that you can hear Morrison’s poetry really take off. “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,” he sings, capturing the listener immediately on the album’s title-track. Perhaps no one other than Bob Dylan himself could top a stanza such as this.
Other lyrical masterpieces on the record include the two epic pieces “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George”, which both take inspiration from a street name in his hometown of Belfast. Working in a similar way to writer James Joyce, Morrison writes as a Northern-Irish exile reminiscing about his birthplace with nostalgia.
In “Cyprus Avenue” he channels his inner Roman Polanski and delivers the tale of a man in love with a 14-year-old girl. Even with the pedophiliac nature of the tune, Morrison somehow gains the listeners’ sympathies. With the beauty and tenderness of the lyric, you can often forget about what, or who, he is really singing about. It is “Madame George” though that is often considered the album’s centrepiece.
“The crowning touch is ‘Madame George’,” Rolling Stone wrote when revisiting the album in 1987. “A cryptic character study that may or may not be about an aging transvestite but that is certainly as heartbreaking a reverie as you will find in pop music.”
Morrison has denied that the song is about a transvestite, claiming that the original title was “Madame Joy”. An early recording of the track made while he was still under contract with Bang Records proves this statement true. However with lines like “In a corner playing dominoes in drag/The one and only Madame George” it’s hard not to not to give the listener that impression.
“It’s like a movie, a sketch, or a short story,” Morrison told biographer Richard Yorke in 1974. “In fact, most of the songs on Astral Weeks are like short stories. In terms of what they mean, they’re as baffling to me as to anyone else. I haven’t got a clue what that song is about or who Madame George might have been.”
During the same interview, he also confessed that it was his favourite track he had ever composed.
“When you fall into a trance/
Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance/
With your folded arms and history books/
You glance into the eyes of Madame George”,
it’s easier to picture someone like W.B. Yeats penning this verse rather than a 22-year-old pop singer.
Perhaps even more than the lyrics on the record, the first thing that grabs you is the way in which they are sung. Morrison began to experiment with his voice using it as a jazz instrument rather than singing in a traditional pop manner. While not the first to sing in a “vocalese” manner, he certainly gave it a new spin mixing it in with folk music. Morrison’s vocal bending in “Beside You” and the playful tongue twister “The love’s the love, that loves to love,” repeated over and over in “Madame George” are unlike anything ever recorded in pop music history.
Upon its release on November 29, 1968, the album did not chart nor shield any hit singles, being largely overshadowed by The Beatles’ White Album and The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet. While the albums core is folk-rock, its blend of jazz, baroque and vocalese singing made it arguably the most unique record of the year.
Like so many other commercial misses of the day (Pet Sounds and Forever Changes to name a few) Astral Weeks slowly gained a cult following. Such big names as Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese all claim to be obsessed by the album. The latter supposedly based the first 15 minutes of his film Taxi Driver is on it.
After the disappointing sales of the album, Morrison went back into the studio the following summer to record more commercial-type music. Rather than continue his line of mystical folk-jazz, Van the Man recorded R&B based tunes that would eventually become the stellar Moondance. Featuring tracks like “And it Stoned Me”, “Into the Mystic” and the title track, the album was an instant hit.
During the early 1970s he continued to make some of the best Blue-Eyed Soul in the business with albums like His Band and Street Choir, Tupelo Honey & Saint Dominic’s Preview.
It seemed up until the release of 1974’s Veedon Fleece that Morrison had completely disowned his stream of consciousness, Celtic-folk rantings for his new R&B persona. Up until that point, Astral Weeks was a one-off, never having sold, nor was a tour scheduled to support it. In fact, Morrison rarely performed anything off of his 1968 masterwork. Not until 2008, during his Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl concert did many of these songs see the light of day.
Along with its influence on musicians, Astral Weeks continues to place highly in “greatest albums ever” polls. In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it at number 19 on their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 1995 Mojo placed it in their number two spot.
Elvis Costello has claimed that it is the “most adventurous record made in the rock medium,” while long-time fan Jeff Buckley would often perform both “Sweet Thing” & “The Way Young Lovers Do” during his live sets. Both Astral Week covers were included on his posthumous double-album Live at Sin-é in 2003.
Much has been written about the mystical song-cycle laden inside the grooves of Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece, but perhaps rock critic Lester Bangs summed up its essence best:
“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 comprehend,” he wrote a decade after the album was released. “It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim … one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”