Astral Weeks

The fourth installment in the Van Morrison album series
by Pat Thomas

I’ve never understood why people feel the need to expand the tale (and myth) of Astral Weeks. It’s perfect just the way it is. And yet, some people aren’t satisfied. Amongst the things I’ve heard thru the years include "The album could have been a double LP; every song was twice as long and was edited down."  Uh, no. A good friend of mine recently reviewed the multi-track master tapes, his report stated, “There’s not much extra there.”  The rumors also dive into the recording sessions. “I heard Van didn’t talk to anyone, especially the other musicians” “I heard all the other instruments were overdubbed later, Van initially sung and played it all by himself” No, get over it folks!

Remember that scene in the Beatles Anthology movie where Paul McCartney addresses the long-standing comments that The White Album should have been a single LP ? And he basically says “Come on, people, it’s THE Beatles, it’s THE White Album”  Well…..come on, people, it’s ASTRAL WEEKS !!! What more could you possibly need and want !?!?

All that said, I’ve got even less time for the people who claim this is Van’s ONLY good album or that he never made another one with a similar vibe. You want a similar vibe? Check out  -Veedon Fleece, hands down the ‘sister’ album to this one. Equally trance-like and transcendent.  You want to hear an equally good album? Explore the 3 long masterpieces that comprise the bulk of St. Dominic’s Preview (while the rest of the record is pretty amazing too!)

Ok, let’s dive in, shall we?

The album was produced by Van’s (then) manager Lewis Merenstein, whom two years later, would produce another pastoral masterpiece, Vintage Violence – the debut solo album from John Cale of the Velvet Underground.  The musicians were all jazzmen pulled from the Modern Jazz Quartet as well as from Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus’ bands.The only musician from Van’s own stable was flautist John Payne. The album was recorded in just three days – in late September and early October 1968 and was released a month later.

Side one: (titled) “In The Beginning”

The album kicks off with the title track "Astral Weeks", 7 minutes of pure bliss, opening with the lines;  "If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream, where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop – could you find me? Would you kiss-a my eyes?  To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again, to be born again” – the combo of the upright double bass and acoustic guitars – it almost sounds like a chorus of cellos to my ears (it probably is), majestic in every way. I’m immediately hooked. It’s the sound of being in love,the sound of melancholic memories, the feel of a spiritual quest. A road trip with the rain beating down on the front windshield, that feels like comfort food, like warm meat and potatoes after walking thru a cold, damp field.  Is there another song by any other artist that sounds like this? No. Is there another song by any other artist that makes you feel this way? No.

The mood and tempo decline (from the previous song) on “Beside You”  - which opens with a bit of Spanish meets classical guitar, while the lyrics are brought to life via a roaming vocal (that vocal style is repeated throughout the Veedon Fleece album by the way). “Beside You” is followed by one of Van’s all time outstanding works: “Sweet Thing” – a standard amongst standards in the massive Van catalog. The opening chords and the words the accompany them: “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” – sound so familiar to me, like an old friend, a lover perhaps, surrounding you, drowning you in a sea of love –it’s the magnificent sound of high-hat cymbals (crashing like water on the beach), the upright bass grounding it, the ringing acoustic guitars and that magical and mystical flute. Ok, this time, I wasn’t imagining it, there is a string section on this song - one Larry Fallon did the arrangements here. Everytime I hear this song, I feel like I’m high, high as a kite. It’s a euphoric feeling, an energizing sound. Beautiful. And hey, the Waterboys version, not too shabby either.

Seven minutes of “Cypress Avenue” closes out side one. I’m much more married to the 1970-1974 live versions of this song, but that’s a different discussion entirely. When Van sings “I’m caught one more time, up on Cypress Avenue” and the harpsichord responds to those words, it’s only 23 seconds that we’ve heard so far and it’s already surpassed most pop songs ever written. As the song continues on, it’s lyrically simple, but feels complex because of  Van’s emotional delivery. He sounds like he’s in pain; this is THE BLUES, but in some kind of Euro-classical setting rather than the south side of Chicago. It’s a cross-cultural masterwork. This time the strings give it a bit of a ‘down on the bayou feeling’ – so America is represented as well. Van is in pain, his tongue is tied every time he tries to speak; he’s overwhelmed with lust. He may be stoned or drunk. He WANTS it, bad. “It’s too late to stop now” –indeed. Lucky for us, we’ve got another side of the LP to explore.

Side Two:  (titled) “Afterwards”

It never occurred to me before, perhaps “afterwards” – is after the sex that Van needed so bad at the end of side one? I used to think it was after the relationship; the love had transformed, or moved on. Maybe it’s all of that and more….

“The Way Young Lovers Do” is an exercise is acrobatic genius. The way the guitar and rhythm bounce along. The vibraphone keeps it moving, providing a much needed “bright” percussive feeling which the horn section also brings home as well. Sort of an upbeat Stax/Volt horn thing which uplifts the vocal line (containing more of a downer sound of remembering, wanting, needing) – it’s chaotic – “happy/sad”– is it a celebration of love or a memorial for lust? The vocal is so playful and mournful at the same time.

10 minutes of “Madame George”– of playing dominoes in drag. A long story song, like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” – but it could also be “Madame Joy” – there’s some fun going on here, a nod to William Butler Yeats wife, “Georgie” – Yeats was/is a Morrison favorite. In 1974, Van (who rarely praises his own work) said that “Madame George” was his own favorite song. For me, it holds a weird place, I mean I like it; at times perhaps, I may even love it. But it’s far from my favorite moment on this album.

On the other hand, “Ballerina” is pure bliss. This could have been written and sung by Tim Buckley, right after he recorded “Buzzing Fly” (on Happy/Sad).  Speaking of which, Van’s vocals here are as expressive, as vibrant, as reaching in feeling as any thing Tim did in 1968/69. Damn, this is good. More blues, more longing, mixed with hope. Many of the themes presented on the rest of the album (musically and lyrically) are somewhat repeated here. It’s NOT the strongest track on the album, but it’s equally as essential as the best songs. “The show must go on…..keep on pushing.”

It all comes to a close with “Slim Slow Slider” – there’s an empty sound as it starts, lots of ‘space’ in the sound, I can hear the fingers of the bass player on the strings. The guitar and vocal are plaintive, the soprano sax ‘calling from way over yonder’ – adding both a jazz AND a blues element. It’s the sound of an open field in Ireland and the sound of the ocean, maybe on the Massachusetts shore-line….don’t forget that the sleeve notes name check Hyannis Port.  “I know you won’t be back, I know you’re dying, and I know you know it too” – this is an ambient (no R&B groove) sequel to “TB Sheets” – the song fades out much too quickly, it’s only 3 minutes long and I would argue – not only should it have been longer, but it probably was longer. In the CD age, they’d have kept it going, but on vinyl, it needed to fade. My guess is, if there’s one song that was a bit longer on the original master tape, it’s this one. Talk about mood music, it was amongst the cover songs recorded by Peter Laughner (of Pere Ubu) in his bedroom on the night he died. “Slim Slow Slider” ends the album on an almost hollow note – but not sure how else it could have gone down, the performer, the artist, is exhausted, emotionally spent, burned out. 

Sometime in the early 1990’s, one of the Irish daily newspapers referred to Van as a ‘rock star’ – the next day, they received a scathing letter in which Van stated in no uncertain terms that he was NOT a rock star – and that anyone who had followed his career from beginning should know that he plays jazz, soul, R&B, and folk. He was correct. Although Astral Weeks is considered a classic in the “rock” genre, it’s more unique than that – while you could say it’s a blend of jazz, soul, R&B, and folk – the most apt description of the music is simply  “Van Morrison.”