Tag Archives: Astral Weeks

Cyprus Avenue

Music Review: Astral Weeks album by Van Morrison

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In October of 1968, the album Astral Weeks was released to the world.  The vinyl disc was produced by Van’s then manager Lewis Merenstein, who two years later would produce another pastoral masterpiece, Vintage Violence – the debut solo album from John Cale of The Velvet Underground.

The musicians on Astral Weeks were jazzmen pulled from the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as from the Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus bands.  The only musician from Van’s own stable was flute player John Payne.

OK, let’s dive in, shall we?

Side One: (titled) “In The Beginning”

The album kicks off with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” seven 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 almost sounds like a chorus of cellos, 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.

Is there a song by any other artist that makes one feel this way?  No.

The mood and tempo drop down on “Beside You,” which opens with a bit of Spanish meets classical guitar, while the lyrics are brought to life via a roaming vocal.  This is followed by one of Van’s all time outstanding works, “Sweet Thing” – a standard among standards in the massive Van Morrison catalog.  The opening chords and the words that 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 oceans 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. Perhaps a lover.

“Sweet Thing” has the magnificent sound of high-hat cymbals (crashing like water on the beach), the upright bass grounding it, the ringing acoustic guitars and a magical and mystical flute.  Oh, and there’s a string section on this song.  Larry Fallon did the arrangement.  Every time I hear this song, I feel like I’m high as a kite.  It’s a euphoric feeling, an energizing sound.  Just beautiful.

Seven minutes of “Cyprus Avenue” closes out side one.  I prefer the 1970-1974 live versions of this, but that’s another discussion.  When Van sings “I’m caught up one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue…” and the harpsichord responds to those words, we’re only 23 seconds in; it’s already surpassed most pop songs ever written.  As the song continues it’s lyrically simple but feels complex.  Van 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.

The strings give “Cyprus Avenue” a bit of a “down on the bayou” feeling, thus America is well represented.  Van is in pain, his tongue is tied every time he tries to speak; he’s overwhelmed.  He may also be stoned or drunk.  “It’s too late to stop now.”  Indeed.

Luckily for us, we have another side of the LP to explore.

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Side Two: “Afterwards”

“The Way Young Lovers Do” is an exercise in acrobatic genius.  The way the guitar and rhythm bounce along.  The vibraphone keeps it moving, providing a much needed “bright” and upbeat percussive feeling that the horn section supports as well.  It’s sort of an upbeat Stax/Volt thing that uplifts the vocal.  The vocal is simultaneously playful and mournful.

And then we have ten full minutes of “Madame George” – of playing dominoes in drag.  Like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” it’s a long story song. But it could also be “Madame Joy” – there’s some fun going on here, a nod to William Butler Yeats’ wife Georgie. (Yeats was and 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’s far from my favorite moment on this album.

But “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 anything recorded by Buckley in 1968-’69.  Damn, this is good.  More blues, more longing mixed with hope.

“Ballerina” is 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” and air in the sound.  I can hear the fingers of the bass player on the strings.  The guitar and the 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 shoreline.  “I know you won’t be back, I know you’re dying, and I know it too…”  This is an implied sequel to “TB Sheets.”

“Slim Slow Slider” fades out much too quickly, it’s only 3 minutes long.  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 is a bit longer on the original master tape, it’s this one.

“Rider” ends the album on an almost hollow, existentialist note.  Yet I’m not sure how else it could have ended as the performer, the artist, is exhausted.  He’s emotionally spent, fully burnt out.

Sometime in the early 1990s, one of the Irish daily newspapers referred to Van as a “rock star.”  The next day the paper received a scathing letter in which Van stated in no uncertain terms that he was not a rock star – and that anyone who followed his career from its beginning would 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. You might say it’s a blend of jazz, soul, R&B, and folk.  The most apt description of the recording is to simply say, “It’s Van Morrison.”

Highly recommended.

Pat Thomas

Pat Thomas works with a record company based in Seattle and Los Angeles.  He’s also an author.  Like the fictional character Zelig, he seems to always be in the place where it’s happening, no matter where or when that may be.

 

 

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Domino

Music Review: A Look Back at One of Van Morrison’s Best Albums.

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A lot of attention has been focused over the years on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album from 1968, and the album that followed it, Moondance. I’m sure that many of Van’s fans would list one of these two releases as their favorite of his, but my personal favorite is His Band and the Street Choir from 1970.

Here are some track-by-track notes on this record whose songs offered a lot of variety in musical style, and were placed in near-perfect order.

“Domino” – A great rocker and album opener; Van with an eleven-piece band. John Klingberg’s fine bass work can be clearly heard on the 2015 remaster from Warner Brothers. I’ve always loved the lines: “There’s no need for argument/ There’s no argument at all/ And if you never hear from him/ That just means he didn’t call…”

“”Crazy Face” – A pre-Eagles Desperado-type song. “He stood outside the church yard gate/ And polished up on his .38 and said/ I got it from Jessie James…”

“Give Me A Kiss” – A bouncy number that sounds like Elvis Presley circa 1956. More sweet brass backing from the band.

“I’ve Been Working” – Van as a macho soul man. This has always been his best on-stage performance number, and there’s just a touch of Tower of Power, War and the Doors in the break.

“Call Me Up in Dreamland” – Ragtime meets Dixieland meets southern Belfast rock. The Band might have sounded like this if they’d been less heavy.

“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” – The haunting love poem that closed out side one of the L.P. His then-wife Janet Planet explained this best: “I have seen Van open these parts of his secret self – his essential core of aloneness I had always feared could never be broken into – and say… yes, come in here… know me.”

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“Blue Money” – Side two of the long player opened with this blazing tune. As much as I love “Domino,” “Wild Night,” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” this has always been my all-time fave Morrison single. (I often wonder if this was the song that inspired Steely Dan’s “Peg”?) It seems that almost every time a “Best of…” Van Morrison collection has been released, there are numerous complaints because this song is not included. Janet Planet contributed the Linda McCartney-ish background vocals.

“Virgo Clowns” – A positive take on Jackson Browne’s irony. “Now you know exactly who you want to be now. Let your laughter fill the room.”

“Gypsy Queen” – Smooth as a slide across the ice… Van captures the spirit of Motown. Say it’s alright. (Van himself said in 2007, “It’s always been about soul.”)

“Sweet Jannie” – Back to the cradle, with a blues rocker featuring a B.B. King-style guitar lead. Elmore James had nothing on this.

“If I Ever Needed Someone” – Van’s “My Sweet Lord.” “To keep me from my sorrow/ To lead me on to givingness/ So I can see a new tomorrow.”

“Street Choir” – The closer. A great, downcast, tribute to a long-lost love; one who will not be accepted back. “Why did you leave… Why did you let me down?/ And now that things seem better… Why do you come around?/ You know that I can’t see you now.”

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Like all of rock’s best albums, from What’s Going On to Graceland to The Rising, this one is life affirming. My score: 89.5 out of 100 points.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: The 2015 reissue of His Band and the Street Choir, remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, contains five bonus tracks; alternate takes of five of the twelve songs.

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

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“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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Into the Mystic

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (Public Affairs, 208 pages, $25.95)

“To this day it gives me pain to hear it.   Pain is the wrong word – I’m so moved by it.”   Lewis Merenstein, producer of Astral Weeks

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Greil Marcus has provided the world with a love letter – one addressed to Van Morrison.   Anyone who’s heard Van Morrison’s music is likely to admire this book.   It’s one of the few nonfiction books in which the Prologue and Introduction do not serve as unnecessary baggage, Marcus taking us back to the world of a very young Morrison with Them.

Rough God (the title taken from a line of poetry by Yeats) is a series of essays on the artist as a young and very mature man rather than a conventionally structured biography.   The entire point of the book, however, is to pay tribute to Morrison’s now 41-year-old masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   The producer of the record said that just 30 seconds into recording the album, “My whole being was vibrating.”   Marcus delves deeply into what Lester Bangs called the “mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”

If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of Astral Weeks, Marcus translates it and makes it clear.   This in itself is worth the price of admission, as if one were unlocking the core of Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul.  This work also examines some of Morrison’s lesser known recordings.   Like his song “Domino,” it’s joyful noise.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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