Tag Archives: Van Morrison

Cyprus Avenue

Music Review: Astral Weeks album by Van Morrison

astral-weeks-amazon

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.

astral-weeks-back-of-the-album

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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Brand New Day

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Grant Place Press, $24.95, 336 pages)

“I was lost, double crossed with my hands behind my back…”   Van Morrison (“Brand New Day” – Moondance album)

Yale grad Gloria Zimmerman is so germ-phobic that she endures an overnight flight from Chicago to London and then an excruciating car ride to Oxford University without peeing.   When she and her nearly bursting bladder finally reach her flat – and the private bathroom that she will sanitize and make her own – she discovers to her horror that she must share it with a neighbor.   Not only that, but he is messy and dirty – and he is occupying the toilet when she arrives.

Gloria is a Rhodes Scholar who is studying feminist poetry.   Her untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has always prevented her from forming close friendships.   But even though flatmate Henry Young, a music student and son of a priggish and disapproving Oxford don, is an “unrefined, germ-infested oaf,” he intrigues her.   Or, more to the point, his taste in music does.   They share a love of the music – and the poetry – of the iconic rocker Van Morrison.

That small spit of common ground is enough for love to wedge its foot between the door and the jamb.   Henry embraces Van Morrison’s “fatalistic optimism” and dedicates himself to releasing Gloria from the prison of her cleaning compulsions.   But is it enough to keep the door open when the true extent of Henry’s vile germs becomes apparent?

Author Andrea Kayne Kaufman is a lawyer and a professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, where she serves as chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum.   In an interview on her website, she speaks of her belief that people can overcome “irrevocable” damage with hard work and hope.   Her characters Henry and Gloria both view themselves as unlovable.   But as Van Morrison wrote, “It’s a marvelous night for a moondance…” and attraction compels them to muster the strength to try to help each other

Experts on OCD have raved about Kaufman’s sensitive and accurate portrayal of the condition as viewed from the inside.   But readers of all stripes will appreciate Oxford Messed Up for its unique take on what it means to love another human being, warts and all, and for its profound message of hopefulness.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Oxford Messed Up is also available in a trade paper version for $14.95, and as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman.

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Oxford Messed Up

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kaufman has been getting a lot of buzz in the publishing trade.   This debut novel by Kaufman is about a young, academically brilliant woman –  Gloria Zimmerman – with severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who attends Oxford University.   There she meets a unique and tragedy-stricken neighbor by the name of Henry Young.   Gloria and Henry find themselves drawn together by a shared obsession with the music and lyrics of one Van Morrison.

“Van Morrison’s lyrics provide a backdrop for this narrative, which is more than a love story – it is a study of fatalistic optimism.   I couldn’t put this book down because Kaufman makes you care deeply about the individual journeys of her two protagonists.”   Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Oxford Messed Up is a hardbound release from Grant Place Press ($24.95, 328 pages).   It is also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.   You can sample the book now by clicking on this link:

http://andreakaynekaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/OMU_Preview_Download.pdf

Joseph Arellano

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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