Christopher Orman (Pop
Matters) June 24th 2004
I was 17
starting fall semester at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a quaint golden-hilled
town in central California. For my first few weeks in the dorms, I had a
bovine alarm clock, i.e., mooing cows that decided to test their vocal
chords several yards from my window. It felt like, for my citified self,
the romantic epitome of the bucolic. My cousin, the sort we pick up
through marriage and divorce, lived in the area and offered backbreaking
work, which sated my Emersonian philosophies as much as my penurious
On my first day working with him, he loaned me Van Morrison's Astral Weeks
concomitant with perfunctory life-changing comments and soulful
statements. Words I would later term as "neo-hippie power". I distinctly
remember taking it home and leaving it next to my stereo. Its strange
acid-laced cover probably sat there for a week, collecting dust, listening
in on my in-depth mumbles on Botany and dorm hall trysts.
There was a reason for my reluctance: "Brown-Eyed Girl". Van Morrison's
doting love song, replete with poppy "tra-la-la-las", had tempered any
enthusiasm I could initially muster for the album. I didn't want to hear
sappy dross, certainly not while I meddled in such a, so I thought,
highfalutin' state of academic bliss.
But then for some reason, maybe the cheap Rossi I drank one night from a
coffee mug, maybe because I didn't want my cousin to call and it to come
up in conversation, I put on Astral Weeks. I was mesmerized. It was
absolutely brilliant in a sparkling, shimmering way. Yet, I would learn
that its poetic obscurity and antiphonal jazz instrumentation had its own
story, engendering the album with a profundity beyond what I gleamed upon
By 1968, America had entered an inebriated bar brawl with its self. A sort
of ego versus alter-ego clash of Godzilla proportions. Most historians
make references to civil war when discussing the period, often limning how
close the country came to entirely eroding the center until it wouldn't
hold any more, as William Butler Yeats may have metaphorically contended.
How chaotic everything became, like any retrospective glance, is fraught
with left/right contentions and subjectivity. But the facts are there: the
assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Walter
Cronkite's critical evaluation of the Tet Offensive, the Yippie Movement,
one hundred protestors in Chicago are cudgeled (another 175 arrested) by
police, Nixon is elected president. A period of time Lester Bangs
immortally called "one of the darkest periods I have ever experienced."
Astral Weeks arrived in such a climate, with the American youth mired in
bleakness and animosity.
The emotions Morrison conjures forth on attachment and loss offered a
portal for the searching souls of 1968. Lyrically its eight lengthy tracks
are thematically linked by reminiscence. As if turning back to a more
genuine epoch would illuminate a more inspiring path. The opening lines
"If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream"
reflect on moving away from reality to a place more steadfastly
understanding and loving. Tracks like "Cyprus Avenue", "Madame George",
and "Ballerina" are fauvist brushstrokes culled from Van Morrison's past.
These are luminous places and people that serve to realize the humanism
underscoring all experience. Revealing a moment, arguably a hiding place,
of innocence to a culture slowly being destroyed by mounting political
Probably more noticeable to American listeners who purchased it, these
were an Irish echo of Bob Dylan's outpourings on personal emptiness and
societal misgivings. "Girl from the North Country" and "Ballerina" could
be described as lyrical siblings. And throughout the album, you can place
both artists side by side. Their potent poetics, marked by obscure
references and inspired lyrical contortions, were drawn from the same
well. However with one noticeable difference: Morrison wasn't the
truculent, dour Dylan nor the bellicose at times boyishly satirical Dylan.
Morrison came across, a product of his ostensibly otherworldly lyrics,
with sensitivity as well as poignancy. Rage (or outrage) simply was not a
component of Morrison's insights.
The arrangements, marked by strong interplay melding jazz philosophies and
Celtic folk textures, completed Morrison's Astral Weeks earnest images.
Stories and studio logs are sketchy about exactly how Astral Weeks ended
up sounding the way it does. A reference in the liner notes mentions the
recording process taking three days, a remarkably brief period of time.
But it's the details that appear even more astonishing. According to
accounts, Morrison had grown weary, likely from his time with Bang Records
and Them, with the studio process and producers in general. He had fallen
into an ornery streak, never satisfied with the ideas being considered.
There were conspicuous reasons for Morrison's uncompromising stance. In a
1970 interview with Rolling Stone's Happy Traum, Traum recounts Morrison
sitting on his couch playing "Brown Eyed Girl". Traum appears impressed,
making the rather innocuous comment, "it sounds more like Morrison does
now." Morrison, over the course of the next few questions with Traum,
discusses how his early music had been changed to sell records. A seedy
side of the recording industry that made him become pugnacious about
producers who "wanted a product". Morrison's volatility on the subject
even served his songwriting well in later years, "Drunshambo Hustle"
(Quote: "And you were puking up your guts at the standard contract you
just signed") being one of many attacks against the pigeonholing pleasures
of the recording industry.
So rather than cross creative paths with Morrison, producer Lewis
Merenstein had him enter the studio alone. Here Astral Weeks begins to
become more myth than music. With Merenstein at the boards, Morrison in
one session recorded an hour of music accompanied only by his guitar. He
then left. Merenstein subsequently brought in session players to augment
Morrison's story songs. Which means the session players never once spoke
to Morrison about the music. They never played for him, with him, or
around him. An astonishing fact when you consider the hallmark of Astral
Weeks is how perfect the band "interacts" with Morrison. How they sound
completely synchronized, even to a level that could be explicated via
Of course, returning to the 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Morrison didn't
entirely laud the finished product. He talks about the arrangements being
too "samey" before finally offering the admission, "Though I am glad for
what he [producer Merenstein] did for the songs. He did them justice." As
a result of these conflicts and his own artistic ideologies, Morrison went
on to produce 1970's Moondance and all of his subsequent releases
thereafter. Forever turning his back on the Astral Weeks sound, for a more
jump-jive blues and R&B approach. He would dabble in that feel, as on
1981's Common One, 1979's Beautiful Vision, and some of his spoken word
tracks ("On Hynsford Street" from 1989's Hymns to the Silence for
example), but never recaptured its lambent likeness.
Because everything came together and then somehow disappeared, one could
argue Astral Weeks came to life much like John Milton's exhortation at the
beginning of "Paradise Lost": through the muse's effervescent mists.
Morrison, for his part, seems to realize this, and thus sounds forever
reluctant to strip away the mysticism. He refuses to tidy up the album's
ongoing lyrical ambiguity, the centerpiece being whether or not the
character in "Madame George" is a drag queen. Morrison has never entirely
discredited the idea, going so far to say in his 1970 Rolling Stone
interview, "It's really whatever you want it to be about. I write from
some place that I don't know where it comes from at times." Reinforcing
the "great man theory", to use a literary theory description, that
Morrison has returned to the muse both as a source of inspiration and
Which now, in my post-academic haze, reminds me of William Blake. But at
any given moment it reminds me of a lot of things, a list that continues
to collect literary detritus. With the alluvial bands of meaning becoming
limpid personal strata as the years pass, Astral Weeks is important
because it can move along a specific, personal timeline to collect such
memories. The album's meaning remains socially and emotionally fluid,
which ostensibly keeps it significant. Arguably must products forged from
the divine, from Garcia-Lorca's duende (to reference Lester Bangs' 1978
comments), come with this built in timelessness.
He didn't use the phrase for a song title until a year later, but "Astral Weeks" was the album on which Van Morrison fully descended "into the mystic." Morrison's first full-fledged solo 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."
It also sounds like the work of a group of musicians who had become finely attuned to one another through years of working together - but, in fact, Morrison had made his name with rock songs like "Gloria" and "Here Comes the Night," and he sang "Astral Weeks," sitting by himself in a glass-enclosed booth, scarcely communicating with the session musicians, who barely knew who he was.
"Some people are real disillusioned when I tell them about making the record," says Richard Davis, who supplied what may be the most acclaimed bass lines ever to grace a pop record. "People say, 'He must have talked to you about the record and created the magic feeling that had to be there . . .' To tell you the truth, I don't remember any conversations with him. He pretty much kept to himself. He didn't make any suggestions about what to play, how to play, how to stylize what we were doing."
"I asked him what he wanted me to play, and he said to play whatever I felt like playing," adds Connie Kay, the Modern Jazz Quartet drummer, who was also in the group assembled for the session. "We more or less sat there and jammed, that's all."
Kay was hired because Davis had suggested him; Davis got the nod because he had often worked with Lewis Merenstein, who produced the record and rounded up the musicians. Other musicians on the album include guitarist Jay Berliner, percussionist Warren Smith and horn player John Payne - all of them New York jazzmen and session players who knew nothing about Morrison and who rarely appeared on pop records.
At the time, Morrison's solo career was just getting under way; earlier he had let the rough rock and R&B band Them. Until he signed with Warner Bros., to make "Astral Weeks," the mercurial Irishman didn't even have a deal with a major American label, though he had made a few solo recordings, including the sunny pop hit "Brown Eyed Girl" and the scarifying "T.B. Sheets," a ten-minute dirge about a friend's death from tuberculosis.
The songs he brought into New York's Century Sound Studios were a far cry from those earlier tunes. They were long, most of them, and meandering, suffused with the pain of the blues and the lilt of traditional Irish melodies. Morrison depicted the streets of Belfast in a dim, hallucinatory light, peopled with characters who danced like young lovers and spun like ballerinas but who mostly struggled to reach out to each other and find the peace and clam that otherwise eluded them. The crowning touch is "Madame George," 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.
A straight rock & roll band probably wouldn't have know what to do with these songs, but the musicians Merenstein assembled moved with the lightness and freedom that the tunes demanded. And the arrangements, invented on the spot by those players, were as singular as the world they illustrated: a soothing acoustic guitar, gently brushed drums, the caressing warmth of Davis's bass.
Not that the musicians were trying to interpret Morrison's words. "I can't remember ever really paying attention to the lyrics," says Davis. "We listened to him because you have to play along with the singer, but mostly we were playing with each other. We were into what we were doing, and he was into what he was doing, and it just coagulated."
They worked from seven to ten at night, running through songs they had never heard before; both Davis and Kay remember that the basic tracks were finished in a single three-hour session (the liner notes of the compact disc say it took "less than two days"). By seven o'clock some of the musicians had already played on two earlier sessions and Davis, for one, credits the relatively late hour with the way "Astral Weeks" sounds. "You know how it is at dusk, when the day has ended but it hasn't?" Davis asks. "There's a certain feeling about the seven-to-ten-o'clock session. You've just come back from a dinner break, some guys have had a drink or two, it's this dusky part of the day, and everybody's relaxed. Sometimes that can be a problem - but with this record, I remember that the ambiance of that time of day was all through everything we played."
The album wasn't a hit, the way "Moondance" would be in 1970, but it was instantly recognized as one of the rare albums for which the word "timeless" is not only appropriate but inescapable. And songs from the LP have continued to show up in Morrison's live performances since then. "Cyprus Avenue" was often his set closer, and as recently as last year he performed a "Ballerina/Madame George" medley.
As for the "Astral Weeks" musicians, they don't know much more about Morrison than they did back in 1968. "He didn't seem to be the kind of guy who hung out with musicians, so I never got to know him," says Davis, who now teaches music in Wisconsin, in addition to doing session work and playing live dates. "But I'll tell