by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 23, 2003
The 'Masterpiece' that Is Astral Weeks
A consideration of one of rock's greatest albums
When Van Morrison sings, "To never, never wonder why at all," is he commenting on the many of us who are so busy just dealing with life that we never stop to consider our circumstances? Or perhaps don't have the luxury to do so, or to change them or to even consider the possibility of changing them?
That line is from "Beside You," a song that appears on Morrison's 1968 album Astral Weeks, and it is just one example of what makes this album a masterpiece. I tend to use words such as "masterpiece" and "classic" way too casually. Certainly, at the time I use them, I really feel that the music in question is deserving. But time is the great leveler, and only with the passing of time does it become truly clear (sometimes) which albums are the great ones, and which were a passing fancy. Astral Weeks has lifted me up, inspired me, challenged me, made me think about life and just made me feel alive for over 30 years. Every time I hear Morrison sing "To never, never wonder why at all," I can't help but consider my life. Where I've been, where I am right now, and where I'm headed.
Morrison covers a lot of emotional/spiritual/soul-searching ground over the course of Astral Weeks' eight songs. Much of the writing is abstract ("If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dreams"). The album is Morrison's version of a coming-of-age novel; it's also a love story. Some of it makes literal sense, some of it just feels right. No matter how many times one listens to Astral Weeks, there's something new to discover: a line, a vocal twist and turn, a musical revelation.
The British writer Barney Hoskyns called Astral Weeks "a unique tour de force of hippie-soul troubadourism that made its maker an icon of musical mysticism...."
"More than anything else," Hoskyns wrote in a 2001 Mojo article, "Astral Weeks is about the power of the human voice ecstatic agony, agonising ecstacy. Here is an Irish tenor reborn as a White Negro a Caucasian Soul Man pleading and beseeching over a bed of dreamy folk-jazz instrumentation: acoustic bass, brushed drums, vibes and acoustic guitar, the odd string quartet and of course flute."
It was a 1969 review in Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus that first hipped me to this album, that caused me to tune into Van Morrison. In the late '60s I was a teenager with not a whole lot of money, and I had to pick and choose which albums to spend my $3 on (yeah, you could buy a new vinyl album for about $3 back then). So when it was first released, I didn't rush out and buy Astral Weeks, the second solo album from the former leader of Them (perhaps best known for the international hit "Gloria").
I didn't even think I liked Van Morrison. Or, rather, I distinctly didn't like him, based on two songs that I heard way too much of: a nine-plus-minute-long song called "T.B. Sheets" that seemed to be played near-constantly on the underground FM radio stations KMPX and then KSAN during the late '60s, and the title track off Morrison's 1970 album Moondance.
The problem for me was Morrison's voice. I just didn't like it. Why? I have no idea. All I can think is that it's one of those voices that you have to get used to. Maybe it was just too real for a 15-year-old. Whatever.
Marcus' words about Morrison's album he described Astral Weeks as "a unique and timeless album" stuck with me, and in the early '70s I eventually picked up a copy. Wow! What a revelation. Here was an album as good in its own way as Bob Dylan's masterpieces, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Point being, this was simply one of the great albums, a perfect album.
Van Morrison had, until Astral Weeks, made rock and blues recordings with the help of rock musicians. Yes, he had an expressive and distinct voice, but the music of Them (or what I heard on the radio, anyway) in no way prepared me for the leap he'd made with Astral Weeks.
After Them ended, Morrison, an Irishman, had moved to New York City in 1966 and, a year later, recorded his first solo pop hit, "Brown Eyed Girl," which appeared on the very so-so album, Blowin' Your Mind! (which also included "T.B. Sheets"). Morrison disliked that album. He wanted to part ways with its producer, Bert Berns, and Berns' Bang label; Berns was also managing Morrison. Berns died of a heart attack in December 1967; Morrison hired a new manager, who in turn paired him up with Lewis Merenstein, a producer who'd worked with jazz legend Thelonious Monk. Morrison was signed to a new label, Warner Bros., that was willing to let him make whatever kind of album he wanted (Warner's had also signed up Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead they needed hip young artists and were willing to give them an unprecedented degree of artistic freedom).
Merenstein assembled a group of jazz musicians to record the album that he would title Astral Weeks. Jazz musicians? The pairing of a rock 'n' roll singer with jazz cats was really something new. The session band that Morrison worked with was exceptional. It included guitarist Jay Berliner (who had played on a number of Charles Mingus albums, including the amazing Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), percussionist/vibraphonist Warren Smith, Jr. (who had played with Mingus and would do sessions with everyone from Aretha Franklin and Tony Williams to Sam Rivers and Joe Zawinul), drummer Connie Kay (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), acoustic bassist Richard Davis (he'd recorded with Eric Dolphy, Billie Holiday and numerous others) and the talented saxophonist/ flautist John Payne (the only one without Grade A credits). A string section, conducted by Larry Fallon, was used to flesh out some of the songs.
"I'd never played with a musician of his calibre before," Payne told Hoskyns. "Here was a guy whose sense of rhythm and phrasing went very, very deep. I'd never had that feeling from a singer before. He was a big jazz listener his whole life, and that had a lot to do with his phrasing, which was unbelievably good and varied. It took me years to realise how much he'd taught me."
The album was recorded in two or three days on September 25 and October 15 (there was a third day, but apparently nothing usable came from it) at Brooks Arthur's Century Sound studio on West 52nd Street in New York, like a jazz session. The musicians created an ethereal mood music that brought out the artist/poet in Morrison. Astral Weeks is a work of art; it has the sound of a semi-improvised art piece. Rock music (is this rock music?) had never sounded like this before. (Marcus once wrote that Richard Davis "provided the finest bass playing ever to appear on a rock & roll record.")
The resulting music is neither rock nor jazz. It's a strange hybrid that exists on its own terms. The album concludes with the beautifully downbeat "Slim Slow Slider," with its sneering putdown of a former lover: "I saw you early this morning/ With your brand new boy and your Cadillac/ You're gone for something/ And I know you won't be back/ I know you're dying baby/ And I know you know it too."
Is the story that Astral Weeks tells a tragedy then? Yes and no. Sure, if "Slim Slow Slider" is the end, then the end is not just death, but what I would call "soul death." From the perspective of the character the poet that Morrison plays as he sings "Slim Slow Slider" to the girl who broke his heart, she has left him (betrayed him?) for someone brand new, a "boy," and for money, a glamorous lifestyle (certainly that's what the Cadillac represents).
Yet because one is, almost literally, forced to listen again and again to Astral Weeks, it's as if "Slim Slow Slider" leads right back into the title track, which is the album's opener, and so, again, we return to the beginning and to those wondrous lines, "If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dreams."