Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Feathering Death Through Astral Weeks

The beauty and the magic of Astral Weeks,
Like all things pertaining to love, will last forever.

The above was the two-line review I wrote in 1968 for City Week, a Belfast newspaper, of Van Morrison’s groundbreaking album, Astral Weeks. The Editor, Chris Moore - who was more used to wielding his red pen on my double page reviews (as with the triple-disc Woodstock Album) - said, politely, “And would you like to expand even just a little on that?”

“No, I think that covers it for me,” I replied, not even realising that it was then, and still is now, an impossible album to review. Astral Weeks was and is, so totally engaging, demanding even. It’s not even that it’s haunting album; it’s more it’s an album that haunts you. It is impossible to put on your record/CD/cassette player unless you’re prepared to forsake everything else, bar breathing, for the next 46 minutes.

I remember like it was yesterday how I was initiated into the world of Astral Weeks, the album I have most definitely listened to more than any other in the intervening 42 years. I’d moved to London from Magherafelt 18 months previously and I was making one of my regular excursions from Wimbledon up to The Marquee Club in the West End, in Wardour Street, this time to see and hear Terry Reid perform. I was greeted by a notice, posted on the securely locked door of the club, stating that the show had been cancelled due to Mr Reid’s illness. On my way back to the tube station I visit Musicland’s record store in Piccadilly Circus for a browse and on said browse I happened upon a shrink-wrapped, American import copy of Astral Weeks. In those days there could be as much as a six-month delay between the US and the UK release of certain albums. So people like the Musicland chain would import copies at the time of the US release and charge a premium to impatient fans for doing so. The price for the album was a lot more than the coins remaining in my pockets so, I paid a deposit to secure the album, returned to Wimbledon, scrounged the necessary funds from my mates and returned immediately to Piccadilly Circus to collect my prize. And the reason for my excitement? Well quite simply at that stage my top five favourite albums were:

1. The Beatles - Rubber Soul

2. Otis Redding - Otis Blue

3. The Freewheeling Bob Dylan

4. Them - Them Again

5. Van Morrison - Blowin’ Your Mind

By the end of that weekend I had a new Number 1 favourite album and I spent every waking minute listening to it. If I said I was totally addicted to it you might get the picture. It wasn’t just that it was way beyond its time in 1968, because it is still beyond its time. It wasn’t just that Astral Weeks might be the best album ever made – I mean to even consider this to be so, might just, in a way, serve to sully the work somewhat.

I remember the Astral Weeks trips (never assisted by chemicals) as being full weekend sessions. People who really love music spend so much time and energy pursuing their next fix. I have found to my delight that Astral Weeks has always repaid this commitment completely and perfectly. A few years later I even wired up two stereo systems and played two copies of the album a lyric line out-of-sync with each other for a basic, but truly mind-blowing, quadraphonic sound. Most people I knew who were into Astral Weeks had bought several copies because they’d played the vinyl so much, they’d actually played it out.

One of the major points I keep coming back to with this work was the total contrast between this album and the scene it had come out of. Three minute pop songs were not just the rule; they were the regulation of the music industry. Even by hinting it was an Opera and entitling side one, “In The Beginning” and side two, “Afterwards” shows someone was aware, at least to some degree, what it was they’d tapped into.

Even the way the album concludes, it leads you to believe that it’s not really ending, it’s continuing on out there somewhere, it’s just that you’re no longer involved on the musical journey; you need to return to earth to revive yourself mentally and physically before making a return trip.

Van Morrison was a member of Belfast’s finest ever band, THEM (Decca Records). They’d recorded a couple of albums: The Angry Young Them in 1965 (featuring garage band classic Gloria recorded by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to The Doors and a US top ten hit for Shadows Of The Knight) and Them Again, in 1966. They enjoyed a couple of hit singles, Baby Please Don’t Go (the UK Top 10, and the flip side of Gloria) and Here Comes The Night. The latter single was composed and produced by Bern Berns who flew a dejected Van to the US at the demise of Them.

Blowin’ Your Mind was Van’s first solo album and was produced by Bert Berns (for his own label Bang Records). The album featured Van’s first (of 2) US top ten hits, Brown Eyed Girl. The other being Domino from 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, where Van used what became his signature, ultra-melodic Irish Showband brass-section, led sound for the first time. Van Morrison and Bert Bern’s battles are well documented. Suffice to say, that even just a few months after his top ten hit, Van, due to the ensuing dispute, penniless and unable to record, took to the road around the Boston area, basically to pay the bills. The economic line-up was Van on Guitar and vocals, Tom Kielbania, bass, and flautist, John Payne. Months passed, Bert Berns died, and Warner Bros Records stepped in and resolved the situation and signed Van.

Warner Bros in turn co-opted Lewis Merenstein from Inherit Productions to produce the first album under the deal. Merenstein visited Van in Boston to hear the material Van intended to use and was immediately floored by the song Astral Weeks.

One of Merenstein’s first revolutionary decisions was to take Van out of his comfort zone of R &B/Soul/Pop and guide him towards the jazz world by booking veteran jazz bassist Richard Davies; guitarist Jay Belinger (who worked with Charlie Mingus) and drummer Connie Kay, from the Modern Jazz quartet. This was the core band for the planned recording sessions.

These musicians met Van for the first time when they turned up for the first session on Sept 25th 1968, in Century Sound Studios in New York. Van was less than a month over 23 years old. There were no chord charts for the material. Van showed them his guitar parts and asked them to follow him, encouraging the musicians to play what they felt. That day they recorded Cyprus Avenue, Madame George and Beside You, all with a mysterious flautist, who was replaced for the final cut of the day, Astral Weeks, by Van’s regular gigging musician, John Payne. The second session, early morning on Oct 1st, was somewhat less successful. Barry Cornfield (guitar) stood in for the unavailable Jay Berliner and the only track they managed to catch from this session was As Young Lovers Do. The revised combo and resultant studio vibe obviously explained the different feel/sound of the track compared to the rest of the album. The final session (Oct 15th) engineered (as were all the sessions) by Brooks Arthur with Jay Berliner back on guitar and John Payne on flute, produced The Way Young Lovers Do, Sweet Thing and Ballerina. Then they spent a considerable period of time searching for a track to close the album. They attempted several songs from Van’s book of songs until they settled on Slim Slow Slider, which featured John Payne on flute and soprano saxophone.

Also involved in the Astral Weeks sessions were Warren Smith, percussion and vibes, and Larry Fallon, an arranger & conductor who also played harpsichord on Cyprus Avenue.

The Astral Weeks songs were written over a five-year period. One of the earliest would appear to be Ballerina because Jim Armstrong, the guitarist in one of the constantly changing versions of Them, remembers trying to put a shape on it in the earlier Them days. Beside You and Madame George were recorded for Bang Records in December 1967. With Bert at the helm and the obvious slapstick approach we can see exactly how much Lewis Merensten and his vision added to the artistic success of the work. Sweet Thing is the only song Van has so far permitted to appear on any of his approved complication albums. Slim Slow Slider is the only track on the album not to have strings.

The album itself – a song cycle, a concept album, an opera, call it what you will and it certainly has been labelled all of the above at various times – is (still) like nothing you’ve ever heard. The major problem, I find, with trying to describe something like this is the fear that someone will read your words and think, “So it’s not a verse/chorus/verse/ chorus /middle-eight/ verse/chorus/chorus type of song, Oh I wouldn’t like that.” And pass the album by. Or they might think, “It doesn’t have a hook, I love songs that have hooks, the hook helps me remember the song. So I wouldn’t like this.” Or even, “if I can’t whistle it, I won’t buy it.” And not listen to the album. That quite simply would be the crime of the century.

All I can tell you is that you will not be prepared for the shock of experiencing Astral Weeks for the first time, nor will you have any idea of the joy you will experience by going back to it again and again.

Like all great works of literature, Astral Weeks enjoys the classic beginning, middle and end, each with their respective dramatic pay-offs.

During the first two songs, Astral Weeks and Beside You the singer and musicians jostle you along. You’re tempted to be careful because you’re unsure of your surroundings, but they refuse to allow you to relax and be comforted. The result is you’re continuously on edge, exhausted even, but too excited by the soundscape to be scared. In Sweet Thing though the singer and musicians do allow you to loosen up (a little) but by now you’re ready for your journey and keen to get on with it. Then you realise the combo have just been setting you up, setting you up to destroy you, destroy you totally with Cyprus Avenue.

“Afterwards,” (or “side 2” in old money) opens with The Way Young Lovers Do, during which you’re tempted to come out of the dream, but you find yourself resisting this because it is, “between the viaducts of your dreams,” as the artist very visually puts it, that your need to be for the next two tracks; the monumental Madame George and the vibes led Ballerina with it’s perfectly drawn poetic imagery. The string arrangements are, purely and simply, perfect. Perfect but never, ever predicable and as vital as Robert Kirby’s were to Nick Drake’s classic Bryler Layer album. Slim Slow Slider is the album closer they searched so diligently for during the final recording session. With hindsight they really couldn’t have picked any other song in the world for this slot. The artist sets up the closing scene flawlessly and we see the girl, perhaps his girl, perhaps not, “with her brand new boy and his Cadillac.” As Slim Slow Slider, and the album, ends abruptly, you’re left wondering where she is going and why she won’t be coming back.

There are many myths and legends about Astral Weeks; some factual some clearly fictional. Some say there is a 40-minute piece of this opera that was recorded at the same time but never released. Van denies this and perhaps the legend grew from the several unused tracks they attempted on the final session (Oct 15th) when they were searching for their final track. The album has always sounded like a completed piece of work to me, although Into The Mystic (from the Moondance album) and Hey Girl (from Them Again album) sound as though they could have been from the same writing vein. Interestingly enough, when Van recently attempted a live version of the album he included Listen To The Lion (from St Dominic’s Preview) in the concert. Martin Scorsese claimed that the first half of his film Taxi Driver was based on Astral Weeks. Astral Weeks was one of the biggest, reportedly THE biggest, ever selling Import album in the UK. The album continues to do well in best album polls; significantly Astral Weeks was voted the Best Ever Irish Album in Hot Press Magazine, Dublin, in 2009. Van has suggested that Astral Weeks is a total work of fiction, just stories. I don’t believe this to be true. If it is, then it just might be one if the best collection of short stories ever written.

Could he have been writing about, or even to, the same person he addressed in the devastating powerful and equally unnerving, TB Sheets, from the Blowin’ Your Mind album? Is there a code to his writing? . In American Pie Don McLean knew in detail the complicated solution to the sublimely crafted, cryptic lyric of his classic song. But what are the lyrics to Astral Weeks about? Do they all have a spiritual backdrop or is there a more sensual sub-plot? Did Van create his own code to deal with subtle sexual overtones perhaps? Around the same time Jim Morrison was publicity breaking down the sexual barriers of the late sixties. It could be argued, that, while doing so, he found it impossible to retreat from his stance and regain the treasured, hallowed, solid-ground again. Maybe the process even helped to ruin his already troubled life. Did Van find a more discreet way? You know some times, in this work, you have a hint of someone, maybe the writer, trying desperately to reclaim something or other; or perhaps longing to return to a another, perhaps, happier time. Maybe we’re talking about something as difficult to achieve as unscrambling an egg, or, put another way, reclaiming their innocence or the innocence of a third party? But, you know what? A big part of the success of writing is creating a space, a void if you will, that others can inhabit and relate to. We can’t expect sign-posts and clues at every turn and if we do we’re certainly not going to find them in Astral Weeks.

In 1979 I was in a very privileged position of working with Van as his agent and promoter. I always found him a) to have an incredible sense of humour and b) to be an extremely professional individual. I eventually became his quasi manager; the legendary Pee Wee Ellis was credited with Van’s, ‘brass arrangements’ and I was credited with, ‘business arrangements.’ When I eventually worked up the courage to discuss Astral Weeks with him, Van agreed that when first released, the album had enjoyed great acclaim and reviews, but reviews weren’t paying the bills; he had a wife and a young baby daughter and was quite literally struggling to earn enough money to survive. So, basking in the glory of Astral Weeks was not his priority. Elsewhere he seemed, on the one hand, to downplay the album, yet still occasionally confessed his pride in it. The obvious difficultly must have been: when you create such an incredible work of true genius so early on in your life, artistically speaking, where is there left to go?

In the six years I worked with Van, I attended most of his concerts and, on very rare occasions he included selections from Astral Weeks on the song list. As the intros for these masterpieces started you could actually sense the audience collectively hush and slip back into their seats in disbelief and anticipation as they embarked on a journey, a journey that left both the artist and the audience gasping for air.

Perhaps, in a way, Astral Weeks over the years has outgrown the artist. For the original album Van was part of the deal, he wasn’t the entire deal; he was the singer and the writer. He allowed himself to be totally arranged and produced. Interesting to note that, artistically speaking, he never ever gave anyone that amount of control over him again. It’s not even that the original is a warm acoustic, seductive sound that caresses and soothes you. No, it’s a hard and edgy sound and because of that it keeps you attentive to the degree that you’re never disappointed with whatever it is. In a way it’s a bit like experiencing a brush with death; well on consideration maybe it’s more like feathering death. Sometimes, and I know this might sound a bit hippyville, but it actually sounds as if Van’s the instrument and the piece is playing him.

To be fully aware of how vital the production was to the success of the piece, you have to listen no further than earlier attempts Van had made on some of the pieces at previous Bang Records recording sessions. When you listen to the (December 1967) attempts of a few of the Astral Weeks tunes, on various Bang outtake sessions, the scary thing you start to think is: if Van hadn’t joined Them… if he hadn’t left Them… if Bert Berns hadn’t signed him to Bang Records and flown him to America… if Van hadn’t gotten away from Bang Records… if Van hadn’t needed to tour with a scaled down acoustic biased set-up for financial reasons … if he hadn’t signed with Warner Bros… if Warner Bros hadn’t enlisted Lewis Merensten… if Merensten hadn’t been so moved by the material… if Merensten hadn’t made the inspired choice of musicians…if… well on and on, really. The point I’m trying to make I suppose is, luckily all of those things did happen and this breath-taking thing of beauty was realised because, like all works of true genius, it came so scarily close to not happening.

And now for the bit before I go.

This time I saw:

Seamus Heaney, another one of the great voices of our time, at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Stephen Fry with his entertaining and engrossing one-man show at The Royal Albert Hall, London.

Sir Stephen Hawking at The Royal Albert Hall, London – just totally amazing and perhaps the quickest two hours of my life.

Van Morrison at the Royal Albert Hall, London – a workingman in his prime, the best concert I’ve seen him do in over 20 years!

Ray Davies at The Olympia Paris – the prefect venue with the artist and audience both in perfect form.

Sir Michael Parkinson – One Man Show at the Cadogan Hall, London - now that’s entertainment!

Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott, flawless at The Royal Festival Hall, London.

The Waterboys with their triumphant An Appointment With Mr Yeats at The Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin

And read:

Howard Sounes - The Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. Even thought we all know the ending it’s still sad.

Nicholas Evans - The Brave.

Michael Connelly – The Reversal. A 10 outta 10.

Dave Fanning – the thing is this was a very quick and enjoyable read.

Deborah Cadbury – Chocolate Wars –  I felt like a silent investor so I just had to read it. A surprisingly great and informing read.

And watched:

Friday Nights Lights, DVD Season One – and it might just be the best American TV series this side of West Wing.

House – series 6. It’s getting better all the time.

And (surprise, surprise) listened to:

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks

Cheers until next time.