Not sure exactly what made me think of this album. Maybe it was due to the recent perusal of Rolling Stone’s latest Top 500 Albums. At number 60, RS says this:
“Astral Weeks was the sound of sweet relief. Van Morrison was newly signed to artist-friendly Warner Bros., after a rough ride with his previous U.S. label, Bang, when he made Astral Weeks in the summer of 1968.
He used the opportunity to explore the physical and dramatic range of his voice in his extended poetic-scat singing, setting hallucinatory reveries about his native Belfast (the daydream memoir “Cypress Avenue,” the hypnotic portrait of “Madame George”) to wandering melodies connecting the earthy poetry in Celtic folk and American R&B.
The crowning touch was a superior jazz quartet, who recorded their basic backing tracks in one three-hour session, without any instruction from Morrison on what he wanted or what the lyrics meant.”
A little history: George Ivan “Van” Morrison was born on 31 August 1945 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Thanks to his father’s record collection, he heard blues and R&B artists like Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Mahalia Jackson and other greats.
Like so many of his generation, he got a guitar, started playing skiffle, and kicked around in various groups. In 1964 – by now playing saxophone and harmonica as well as providing vocals – he started a band called Them. The band’s name was inspired by the classic giant mutant ant movie of the ’50s.
Them lasted for a couple of years and were definitely a player in the so-called British Invasion. They were more on the bluesy R&B side of things rather than the pop side and Van’s tune “Gloria” is a bar band staple to this day.
Van released his first solo album Blowin’ Your Mind! (it’s the 60’s kids) in late 1967. To this day you can’t to a week without hearing “Brown Eyed Girl” on the radio. Van seemed have gone from the R&B to pop bag seamlessly, all the while maintaining the trademark nasally soulful voice.
Now apparently, Van did not like the psychedelic image at all and wanted to be seen as sort of a Dylan Thomas Irish poet singer/songwriter type. His management – who like a lot of record executives care nothing for music but only for money – had other ideas.
Here’s where it gets weird. Now you may or may not know this but while Astral Weeks was recorded in New York, it was largely written and workshopped in Cambridge, Massachusetts.* Why did Van leave New York, get married and move to Cambridge?
Well, it is a strange story involving some unsavory mob-connected guys, a guitar broken over Van’s head, a late-night payoff to get out of Van’s contract made to guys who “weren’t in the music business.” And Peter Wolf. (This whole story is completely fucked-up and totally worth your time reading. See it here.)
Wolf was DJ’ing on WBCN and with his profound knowledge of the blues he and Van got together often, played clubs and got drunk. According to the article Wolf says, “You get really close with so%meone once you’ve thrown up on each other.”
Anyway, enough bullshit. I remember reading about this album a hundred years ago in Rolling Stone. Yet when I first listened to it, I wasn’t blown away. Maybe I was expecting something different, don’t know. Maybe it took me a while to make that mental shift into Van going into the mystic.
But I just listened to it and it is indeed a fine album. One of Van’s complaints about it is that it is too “same-y.” By that i think he means similar arrangements, moods and tempos. But I dunno. i think it all kinda works. It puts you in a mood and keeps you there.
I will say this – I 100% guarantee you that Bruce Springteen listened to this album a lot before he did Wild Innocent and E Street Shuffle. In fact Steve Van Zandt said it was “like a religion to us.” I love Bruce but he owes Van a debt, man.
First up, title tune:
According to Van’s then-wife Janet Planet, Van used to write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness mode during that time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography says its “music is trance-like folk-jazz set to impressionistic, free-flowing lyrics.”
“Cypress Avenue” is named for a street in Belfast. Morrison described it as “a place where there’s a lot of wealth. It wasn’t far from where I was brought up and it was a very different scene. To me, it was a very mystical place. It was a whole avenue lined with trees and I found it a place where I could think.” Some nice, uncredited violin on this tune:
For the last tune, let’s do “Sweet Thing,” a love song we’ll assume is about his then-wife Janet.
And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats, and they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain
This album was a not a commercial best-seller and to this day he is much better-known for albums like Moondance and Tupelo Honey. But to a generation of musicians and poets, this is the one. Martin Scorsese said he based the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver on it.
Elvis Costello described Astral Weeks as “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 said, “It stirred me. I’d never heard anything like it.”
Joan Armatrading has said that Astral Weeks was the first album she purchased as a teenager and that it opened her up musically.
Wikipedia: Morrison has received several major music awards in his career, including two Grammy Awards, inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (January 1993), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (June 2003), and the Irish Music Hall of Fame (September 1999); and a Brit Award (February 1994). In addition, he has received civil awards: an OBE (June 1996) and an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1996). He has honorary doctorates from the University of Ulster (1992) and from Queen’s University Belfast (July 2001).
*There is actually a book about this called Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. One of the players on the album was a guy named John Payne. As it happens, I studied in a Payne jazz ensemble lo these many years ago and you can read about my Two Degrees of Separation from Van the Man here.