Van Morrison’s mystical masterpiece is perhaps more loved now than ever before. Fifty years on, we take a closer look at its story, the strains of jazz that run through it, and the reasons why its myth persists.
For an album to be considered timeless, it would need to transmit truths that never grow old; to carry a sense of universal relevance. For Astral Weeks, that relevance is clear – it consistently appears near the top of all-time lists. Its eight mystical tracks seem formed by disparate memories and imagined dreams, of Van Morrison’s Belfast childhood in “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George,” of scattered visions in “Ballerina,” “Astral Weeks” and “Slim Slow Slider” or, of fledgeling romance, equated with a heaven on earth in “Sweet Thing,” “Beside You” and “The Way Young Lovers Do.” Together, they conjure a glimmering, mythical world that feels distinct from the rest of Morrison’s oeuvre. In fact, the album seems untethered from reality altogether. As such, to call it timeless feels inescapable.
Listeners connect with Astral Weeks through its alluring imagery and the poetry in its lyrics and instrumentation. However, as with an impressionist painting, it is often hard to discern exactly how this effect is achieved. The 50th anniversary of its release offers a good opportunity to take a closer look.
“To be born again”
The story begins with Morrison on the run. He left New York for Boston, escaping a mob-affiliated record contract that had him over a barrel. Ryan Walsh’s book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, takes us right into the milieu of that year, amongst the tensions of the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK, The White Album, Beggars Banquet and At Folsom Prison. While playing the Boston scene, Morrison caught the attention of Bob Schwaid and Lewis Merenstein (Warner Bros). His new sound surprised them, far removed from the pop-rock of “Brown-eyed Girl.” According to Merenstein, it seemed he “was going back in time, to be born again.”
Indeed, this idea of drifting through time zones is threaded through Morrison’s lyrics. The centerpiece, “Cyprus Avenue,” feels caught somewhere between memory and hallucination, flashing back to Morrison’s Belfast childhood. The acoustic bass lines bend comfortingly, forming a groove for shimmering and cascading harpsichords. They flow boundlessly, as do the images that appear and disintegrate like episodic nostalgia, too momentary to discern beyond their form. This is Morrison’s myth-making: the woman with “rainbow ribbons in her hair” may or may not exist, but her image flickers to life either way.
It may be that this inherent mysticism fed into the lore surrounding the album. The received history of Astral Weeks often sounds dubious and blurry. For instance, Jane Planet’s (Morrison’s then girlfriend’s) half-remembered story of a shady deal, whereby $20,000 was paid to Bang records in an abandoned warehouse for Morrison’s musical freedom. Or the disparate reports of a guitar being smashed over his head by an angry stakeholder. It seems appropriate for an album of free flow storytelling to have triggered some auxiliary myths, whether they ring true or not.
A seasoned jazz bill
Nevertheless, recording began late in 1968 and Merenstein handpicked a stellar line-up: Richard Davis, the bassist who played with Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy and on many Blue Note titles; drummer Connie Kay who had supported Chet Baker and Miles Davis; guitarist Jay Berliner and percussionist Warren Smith Jr. who had both featured in sessions with Charles Mingus. This was a seasoned jazz bill, a far cry from Morrison’s reputation as a budding rock singer.
But mysticism needs mystery, and Morrison’s reported behavior over Astral Weeks’ two recording sessions pictures an enigmatic, aloof artist. Davis can’t recall having any conversations with him, while Connie Kay remembers being told to play “whatever I felt like playing.” What’s more, Morrison remained isolated in a recording booth throughout.
Yet by some strange serendipitous alchemy, this group of musicians, who had never played together before, managed to find access to a shared vocabulary, one that has beguiled listeners ever since – not because of its intangible qualities, but rather the way it’s poetry draws us in. On the title track “Astral Weeks,” the lyrics read like a stream of consciousness, venturing through the “viaducts of your dreams.” In between plucked guitar, ethereal flute, gliding strings and Morrison’s rich propulsive tones, we find ourselves in a “another place,” one infused with fleeting beauty and generalised longing.
The myth appears
But despite being much-loved now, the album spent its first thirty years in relative obscurity, especially compared to Morrison’s next LP Moondance. Indeed, on Morrison’s 2007 compilation Still on Top — The Greatest Hits, not one Astral Weeks track appears. While this all feeds into the album’s mystery, the artist himself has remained oddly indifferent. To Rolling Stone in 1970, he simply claimed the arrangement was too “samey,” that he would change it if he could.
Yet, for many, the appeal of Astral Weeks is the synthesized, bubble-like world it creates. It is a vision that will always remain unchanged, of a twenty-three-year-old artist brimming with boldness and wonder. Without considering the rules, Morrison dives deep into half-known territory, without a harness to pull him back.
This sensation is most evident in a sweeping ode to the composite ghost of the one and only “Madame George.” It is a spiraling melodic journey that follows the “clicking, clacking” of her “high-heeled shoes,” all the way down “back streets” and beyond. Though we are being invited into an unknown world, the imagery “creeping into view” feels familiar. It hits us gradually until the myth appears – somewhere between rock, folk, classical, jazz and psychedelia, shimmering before us.
*All Quotations taken from the lyrics and from:
Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, published by Penguin Press
Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence? Published by Penguin Viking
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (Warner Bros.)