Published: Nov 07, 2016
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’ve never had reason 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 from Amazon and get a free MP3 download, 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 how 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.
“Madame George” is the first song I ever heard about a drag queen. This was recorded at a concert a few years ago.