“The greatest work of art is to love someone."
- The Letters of Vincent van Gogh


Astral Weeks

Van Morrison

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 25, 2015
Category: Rock

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Greg Pardlo
Anonymous 4
WEEKEND MOVIES: I adored Brooklyn. Was rocked by Spotlight.
HOLIDAY CLASSIC: So many reasons to be grateful. I’m grateful for this, and what it signifies, and what it opens in me when I hear it. If I could give it to all of you, I would.

In l968, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just down the block from Van Morrison. Whenever we passed one another on the street, I would nod. Morrison would just stare. Or glare. “Unpleasant,” I concluded.

I have seen Van Morrison in concert many times over the past 40-odd years. I have never had to reconsider this opinion. Van Morrison is one chilly, angry guy.

But we shouldn’t judge artists on personality, only their work. And so the important thing to know is that, in l968, Morrison went to New York, and, in just two or three days and for a total cost of about $22,000, recorded “Astral Weeks.”

For a record — that’s what we called musical releases back then, so let’s preserve the language here — that’s #19 on the Rolling Stone list of all-time greats, “Astral Weeks” is not widely known. No hit came off it; even on alternative radio, I rarely hear it. Over the years, I have bought it for dozens of people, many of them Morrison fans, and few seemed to know of its existence. [To buy the CD at a ridiculously low price from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Clearly, “Astral Weeks” is no “Moondance.”

What it is is much harder to say. It’s a song cycle that’s jazzy, tormented, light years from the psychedelia that dominated rock music in 1968. It’s a visionary meditation that’s both timeless and prescient And then it’s a mystical space shot hurled aloft on butterfly wings (the backup musicians are an acoustic guitarist, acoustic bassist, a subliminal drummer, a flutist and, from time to time, a string quartet) and anchored by a voice that starts in Ireland, transits to Mississippi and ultimately resides in that place called Genius.

And the writing! This is it starts:

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the back roads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

The great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote reams in praise of “Astral Weeks,” but this passage pretty much sums it up:

Van Morrison was twenty-two — or twenty-three — years old when he made this record; there are lifetimes behind it. What “Astral Weeks” deals in are not facts but truths. “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.

Yeah, you can play it as background music; it’s that pretty. But if you listen to it — really listen to it — you will find yourself being taken deep inside, to the part of you that, I suspect, you care about most: the part where the only thing that matters is what happens between you and one other person. Though it may be quiet in there, it’s far from peaceful; this is where we conduct the epic battle between self and surrender, between risk and loneliness.

It’s a very personal piece of music; this is just how it seems to me. But almost five decades after the fact, I still believe that if you give “Astral Weeks” a chance, you will play it as long as you live.


Here’s the entire CD.

“Madame George” is the first song I ever heard about a drag queen. This was recorded at a concert a few years ago.

Short takes

Car Seat Headrest: Way ahead of the curve

Biting my clothes to keep from screaming
taking pills to keep from dreaming
I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

I was referring to the present in past tense
it was the only way that I could survive it
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

heavy boots on my throat, I need
I need something soon I need something soon….

For The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) on Car Seat Headrest, click here.

To buy the CD from Amazon, click here.
To buy the MP3 download, click here.
For the tour schedule, click here.

When the dead are still alive for us: “Best Man”

I know Owen Lewis as a psychiatrist (not mine) and a professor at Columbia. His poetry comes as late-breaking news, and the subject of “Best Man” even more so: 23 poems about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. These poems are blunt, colloquial, rooted in real events. Jason steals Owen’s prescription pad. Owen breaks the phone Jason called on. Jason’s body is “Found After Three Days… Your face running off your cheeks, in rivulets.” But “Best Man” is much more than reportage. In the end, Owen Lewis takes his brother’s years of self-destruction and their inability to connect and turns them into a kind of conversation. And the reader comes to understand how the accomplished healer and his lost brother are rendered… well, not equal, but definitely brothers. The Edward Hirsch lines that begin the book couldn’t be more appropriate: “Look closely and you will see/ Almost everyone carrying bags/ Of cement on their shoulders.” [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.]

Take once a day, in season: Josh Ritter, “Homecoming”

From his new CD, Sermon on the Rocks.

I feel a change in the weather
I feel a change in me
The days are getting shorter
And the birds begin to leave
Even me, who’s been so long alone
I’m headed home…

Take a trip to Harbour Island without leaving home

It’s not easy to get to Harbour Island. Fly to the Bahamas, take a small plane from Nassau to Eleuthera, then board a boat for the 15-minute crossing to Harbour Island. Once you’re on the tiny island — three miles long, a half-mile wide — there are no cars, only golf carts. Why go to all that trouble? For the pink sand beaches, the total absence of tension, the relatively few rich Americans — and the bonefishing. My friend Elizabeth Howard, who has spent considerable time on Harbour Island, has written a charming story for children about a local girl and the afternoon she gets to spend with a legendary fisherman. And Diana Wege’s illustrations are the next best thing to being there. [To buy “A Day with Bonefish Joe” from Amazon, click here.]