Wednesday, March 28, 2018

About "Astral Weeks"

1) It's the record I used to give to women I liked. I said I'd bought my last copy, since meeting my wife in '03, but then my buddy Dan told me he had a vinyl copy (which I've never owned, having become aware of it after reading St. Lester's famous paean when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung appeared in '87, at the dawn of the CD era) in his store. Never say never again, James Bond.

2) I'd read St. Lester's take on Astral Weeks when it originally appeared in Greil Marcus' desert island disc compendium Stranded back in '79, but at that time, I still blamed Van Morrison for the legion of gravel-voiced white R&B dudes (in which category I sometimes unfairly lumped such disparate artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, and Phil Lynott, among others) that sprang up in the wake of his Moondance mega-success. And that was before "Brown Eyed Girl" topped my list of "songs I never want to hear another bar band play for the rest of my life," surpassing even "Mustang Sally." It seems I wasn't alone. His ex-wife/former muse apparently can't stand to hear his music even today, and his one-time label boss, who once bought him out of a crooked management contract by dropping $20,000 in cash in an abandoned warehouse, remembers him as "a hateful little guy."

3) I'd been touched by Astral Weeks long before that, but didn't realize it. The same year ('70) I beheld Iggy 'n' Alice at the Cincinnati Pop Festival on NBC, I also caught a show on PBS, taped at the Fillmore East, that featured Van topping a bill which also included Albert King in his prime (singing, playing, and embodying "Blues Power") and the Clarence White-era Byrds (doing "Eight Miles High" with an interminable bass solo a la Untitled). Near the end of a riveting performance of "Cyprus Avenue," he started riffing on the line "You were standing there / in all your revelation," pacing back and forth, staring intently at his feet, repeating each phrase over and over until I thought he'd lost his mind -- but I couldn't look away. It was more intense, and more cathartic, than Ig's peanut butter smearage or Alice's pie in the face. I'd had no religious upbringing and wasn't yet tuned into the spiritual realm in any sense, but I could tell this cat was into something deep. When I finally heard the album, I was disappointed to discover that the bit that had so seared my synapses wasn't in the recorded version, although I heard echoes from the same place in the ecstatic repetitions of "Never never," "You breathe in you breathe out," and "You turn around" in "Beside You," or "Goodbye," "Dry your eye," and "The loves to love" in "Madame George."

4) I'm a sucker for stories about local music scenes, dating back to the time when I was freshly out of the service and moonlighting at the record store I'd originally come to Fort Worth to open. It was my good fortune then to stumble on the MC5's Thunder Express CD and the first editions of From the Velvets to the Voidoids and Please Kill Me around the same time, which got me re-obsessed with the Detroit ramalama I'd loved as a teen (before the slightly older cats whose opinions I respected browbeat me out of it -- stupid, stupid boy). I wound up writing 10,000 word articles about obscuro Detroit bands for fanzines and webzines before I got shitcanned from my soul-destroying corporate gig and had to try and make a living writing about local music for my city's giveaway alt-weekly arts rag. In my dotage, I've become quite interested in the '60s-'70s Cleveland/Akron/Kent scenes, which has made me a devoted follower of Nick Blakey's copiously detailed and well-researched liner notes for indie label Smog Veil's ongoing archival "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, not to mention a reader of tomes such as Deanna R. Adams' encyclopedic Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection and Calvin C. Rydbom's slimmer and more narrowly focused The Akron Sound: The Heyday of the Midwest's Punk Capital. So I was intrigued to read a New Yorker piece about Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 -- basically a time capsule from author Walsh's hometown, Boston, during the time Morrison was living there and germinating his singular masterpiece. (Also the source of the ex-wife/label boss insights above.)

5) Am I the only one who misheard "I've got a home on high" as "I've got a hormone high?" Or connected "Madame George" in my mind with "Sister Ray?" The most disturbing anecdote in Walsh's book (well -- except for the one about the New Jersey muso who played with Van in Boston and was subsequently murdered) comes from Morrison's Boston drummer, who recalls the singer repeatedly frightening away young female fans by whispering in their ears, which seems to support St. Lester's contention that pedophilia was a recurring theme in Van's lyrics (going back to Them's "Little Girl" and "Hey Girl," not to mention "Cyprus Avenue"'s "So young and bold / 14, yeah I know"). Of course, you could say the same thing about Sonny Boy Williamson (in fact, I once played with a singer who had to change the words of "Good Morning Little School Girl" to "Good Morning Pretty Lady" before he would sing it). Are creepiness and great art mutually exclusive? Discuss among yourselves.

6) I knew a little of the lore of Astral Weeks, some of which Walsh debunks. Contrary to the John Cale story to which St. Lester referred, Van didn't record his parts separately from the backing musicians, although Walsh's account -- based on interviews with participants and eyewitnesses -- indicates that the singer spent most of the sessions in an isolation booth and didn't interact with the musos. And the music didn't spring fully formed out of its author's head; the album's all-acoustic approach (which was a departure from his work with the Belfast R&B outfit Them, as well as his solo debut Blowin' Your Mind) took shape in a series of August 1968 trio gigs in a Boston cellar nightclub called the Catacombs. One of the most intriguing threads in Walsh's narrative concerns a recording from one of those nights made by Morrison's friend, late night DJ and future J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, and Walsh's quest to find and hear Wolf's tape, and share it with Van's Boston musicians.

7) A big chunk of Walsh's book is devoted to the Fort Hill Community, aka the Mel Lyman Family, a still-extant cult founded by the charismatic and manipulative former harmonica player for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (whom they say died in 1978), which gained notoriety as the subject of a 1971 Rolling Stone piece by David Dalton. There's also material on the Lyman Family's underground newspaper, Avatar; the TV experiments of Shakespearean scholar and "accidental" broadcaster David Silver; the "Bosstown Sound," a failed attempt by MGM Records to make the city on the Charles the next Liverpool or San Francisco; the Velvet Underground's long association with the Boston Tea Party, ubiquitous mover 'n' shaker Ray Riepen's answer to the West Coast's psychedelic ballrooms; the film industry in Boston ca. '68 (including box-office blockbusters The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler as well as muckraking documentary Titicut Follies and Michelangelo Antonioni's youth culture cash-in Zabriskie Point, whose star was a Lyman Family member); Boston's historic involvement in spiritualism and the occult, and its role as the cradle of US psychedelic culture; the birth of underground radio at WBCN; and the James Brown concert that kept Boston from rioting in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. It's a lot of ground to cover, and there's no real unity that emerges, but it's all well reported and gives a strong sense of the cultural ferment of the era -- an atmosphere that's hard to relate to the timeless, healing balm of Astral Weeks.

8) I saw Van Morrison in 1979 at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters, when he was touring the album Into the Music. He had as strong of a spiritual presence as any performer I've ever witnessed except for Patti Smith. At no time, though, did he approach the intense catharsis of that 1970 Fillmore East "Cyprus Avenue."

9) Like no other record I know of, the music on Astral Weeks sounds all of a piece, as if it were flowing from some deep well: the stream-of-conscious poetry (here is Eliot's "perfect order of speech of incantation" incarnate), the extemporized backing by world-class jazz musicians in between jingle gigs, the overdubbed solos (the harpsichord and in particular, that violin!) and string arrangements (which Morrison has disavowed at times over the years). I could listen over and over again (and did, for an afternoon, while writing this). In some ways, the hero of the piece is producer Lewis Merenstein, a true believer in Morrison's talent who was perplexed by the singer's ambivalence about the album they worked on together, and died shortly after being interviewed by Walsh.

10) And of course, come to find out there's a reissue from 2015 with bonus tracks, including longer versions of "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." I don't want to hear it. What can you add that would improve on perfection? (And for what it's worth, when Walsh plays one of the extended versions to one of the participants, the musician says very definitely, "That's not what happened." Messing with the past is funny business. So much for completism.) From the opening song's "To be born again" to its closing one's "I know you're dying / And I know you know it, too," Astral Weeks manages to encompass all the wonder and mystery of life -- with the option, Walsh points out, of reincarnation every time you turn the record over. And I do, I do, I do.


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