Venturing in the Slipstream: the Magic of Astral Weeks

Sometimes an artist captures lightning in a bottle. Usually they aren’t sure how it happened and few can repeat the magic regularly. In 1968, Van Morrison recorded Astral Weeks under awful circumstances. Today, it is widely recognized as a transcendent work, truly one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

It is an album that has made me think and feel alive for four decades. The story behind Astral Weeks is as remarkable as the album itself.

1967 ended badly for Van Morrison. He was 22, in New York, and broke despite the commercial success of “Gloria” (which Van wrote when he was 17) and “Brown Eyed Girl”. Creative differences with his label had led to a contract dispute with its founder Bert Berns.

On December 30, Berns died of a sudden heart attack and control of Bang Records passed to his vindictive wife. Illene banned Van Morrison from her studios, continued to block royalty payments, threatened any club tempted to offer him a gig, and tried to have him deported when she discovered that her husband had not filed all of Van’s immigration paperwork.

Morrison was desperate. He solved his visa problem by marrying his American girlfriend. They fled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Van went acoustic. One night Lewis Merenstein, a Warner Brothers executive, heard him play a song called Astral Weeks. “I started crying. It just vibrated in my soul, and I knew that I wanted to work with that sound” Merenstein reported years later.

Warner Brothers set to work figuring out how to resolve Morrison’s byzantine contractual problems (one part of the resolution required Van to record 3 songs each month for three years for Bang.  He did all 36 songs in an afternoon. They were original, discordant nonsense – nobody said the songs had to be good).

In a brilliant move, Merenstein decided to back Van Morrison with jazz musicians. He contacted Richard Davis, who may have appeared on more jazz albums than any other bassist. They found a guitarist, percussionist, and drummer who were all experienced session musicians with strong jazz backgrounds.

Jazz musicians collaborate — but Van Morrison didn’t do collaboration. He told the studio musicians to “follow him and stay out of the way”. There were no preparation meetings, no discussions, and no lead sheets – the basic thematics of a song that give musicians something to improvise from. The musicians ended up appreciating the artistic freedom, even though Van, who recorded from his own booth and never spoke to them, seemed shy to the point of being anti-social.

They recorded in three sessions in September and October of 1968. Years later, Van recalled the times

“You have to understand something,…A lot of this … there was no choice. I was totally broke. So I didn’t have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do.”

Warner issued Astral Weeks in November, 1968. They did not promote it heavily and the album was a commercial failure. One prominent industry review compared Morrison to Jose Feliciano. According to Merenstein

“(Warner Brothers) just didn’t know what to do with it so they did nothing. They were expecting ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, and the first thing I played them was a seven-minute song about rebirth with no electric guitars and an acoustic bass. They just shook their heads.”

Astral Weeks never even reached the Billboard 200. But it got an extraordinary review by Lester Bangs in 1979 and when Rolling Stone reviewed the album for a second time in 1987, it was to declare Astral Weeks a masterpiece. They declared that the album

“sounded like nothing else in the pop-music world of 1968: soft, reflective, hypnotic, haunted by the ghosts of old blues singers and ancient Celts and performed by a group of extraordinary jazz musicians, it sounds like the work of a singer and songwriter who is, as Morrison sings in the title track, ‘nothing but a stranger in this world.’”

The album sold slowly but acquired a following. It took 35 years to sell its millionth copy and “go gold”.  Many Van Morrison fans don’t know the album and many who know Astral Weeks are not fans of the Van Morrison famous for “Moondance”, “Domino”, and “Wild Night”. More than any album I know, Astral Weeks profoundly affects people. I discovered it in the seventies when I was about the age Van Morrison was when he wrote the music. Producer Lewis Merenstein said in 2009, “To this day it gives me pain to hear it. Pain is the wrong word—I’m so moved by it.”

Astral Weeks has been compared to an impressionist painting – it evokes without directly portraying. It’s a poetic, even mystical album with syncopated rhythms, frenzied and painful vocals, and lyrics that evoke images instead of ideas or stories. It is, in many respects, vocal jazz without the customary extended solos and improv. Some find loose or hidden narratives in the music, which Morrison describes as largely stream of consciousness fit to a melody.

Morrison wrote all of the songs on Astral Weeks in 1966-67, when he was 21 or 22 years old. He told the LA Times that Astral Weeks is “poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination.” And quite an imagination it was:

Astral Weeks the brilliant opener, described by Morrison “one of those songs where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” The Warner guys were right — this ain’t “Brown-Eyed Girl”.

Beside You in contrast, is “..basically a love song. It’s just a song about being spiritually beside somebody.”

Sweet Thing is a popular, circular lyric about nature and romance, described by one critic as “seemingly beginning in the middle of a thought: ‘And I will stroll the merry way.’”

Cyprus Avenue refers to a street in Belfast described by a local as “where all the expensive houses and all the good-looking totty came from…mostly upper-crusty totty…There’s a couple of big girls’ grammar schools up ’round that direction.” Song is over the top with longing and harpsichords.

The Way Young Lovers Do is described by Clinton Heylin as a “lounge-jazz” sound that “still sticks out like Spumante at a champagne buffet.” Maybe the only track that would get a B.

Madame George was originally titled “Madame Joy” and Morrison actually sings the words “Madame Joy” in the song. A swirling, compassionate song about a transvestite (or about George Ivan Morrison?). One of the most emotionally and musically nuanced pop songs ever recorded.

Morrison wrote Ballerina a powerful tale of yearning, in 1966 about the same time he first met his future wife, Janet. A tale of longing that makes people cry.

Slim Slow Slider is a tragic song about watching a young girl die. The songs ends abruptly with the words, “Every time I see you, I just don’t know what to do.” It has been said to be about a junkie but Morrison only has said that it’s about someone “who is caught up in a big city like London or maybe is on dope, I’m not sure.”

The album caught the attention of Sean O’Hagan, a brilliant music reviewer with The Observer, who praised the album’s “vaulting ambition. It is neither folk nor jazz nor blues, though there are traces of all three in the music and in Morrison’s raw and emotionally charged singing”.  O’Hagenlater declared Astral Weeks “perhaps the greatest work of art to emerge out of the pop tradition.”

Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone’s first rock critic (who had reviewed the album very favorably in 1969) and a noted music author said that Martin Scorsese told him that the first half of his movie Taxi Driver was based on Astral Weeks. In an NPR review, Marcus said he has listened to the Astral Weeks record more than any other.

“You can hear these moments of invention and gasping for air, and you reach your hand and close your fist and when you open your fist there’s a butterfly in it. There was really something there, but you couldn’t have seen it. You couldn’t have known.” He asserts that Astral Weeks ended up a touchstone – “a common language” that reached across generations.

“I was so shocked when I was teaching a seminar at Princeton just a couple years ago, and out of 16 students, four of them said their favorite album was Astral Weeks. Now, how did it enter their lives? We’re talking about an album that was recorded well before they were born, and yet it spoke to them. They understood its language as soon as they heard it.”

Elvis Costello: “Astral Weeks is still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium, and there hasn’t been a record with that amount of daring made since.” Johnny Depp, in a Rolling Stone interview in 2008, recalled how when he was a preteen his older brother (by ten years) tiring of Johnny’s favorite music of the time said, “‘Try this.’ And he put on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. And it stirred me. I’d never heard anything like it.” Steven Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) said: “Astral Weeks was like a religion to us.” Alan Light of CNNTime magazine: “Astral Weeks didn’t reach the charts, but its mystic poetry, spacious grooves, and romantic incantations still resonate in ways no other music can.” Glen Hansard of The Frames says that he was captivated by the feeling of freedom when he first heard the album. Hansard says: “It made me realize that so much of what makes music great is courage, and up to that, what I thought made music great was practice and study…This album says there’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply, with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined.”

People who got the album under their skin (including, obviously, me) never let it go. As a result, the album born of desperation, death, and pain now regularly outpolls its modest sales. Mojo, 1995, declared Astral Weeks the second best album ever made. London Times 1993, called it the third greatest album of all time. Time Magazine, 1996 declared it the third greatest album of all time. MTV, 1997, said it was the ninth greatest album of all time. Rolling Stone, 2003, called it #19 of all time.

In November 2008, Van Morrison performed two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, playing the entire Astral Weeks album. The band featured Jay Berliner, who played on the album. A DVD of the concert was distributed exclusively by Amazon, but is now scarce – reportedly withdrawn at Morrison’s insistence.

Many, many people have never encountered Astral Weeks. If by chance, you are one of them, stop the madness and stream it now.