Mission: Re-Listen-Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

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Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (Released in November of 1968)

Van Morrison first broke on to the international music scene in 1964 when he answered an ad for musicians to play at a new R&B club at The Maritime Hotel in Belfast, Ireland. He formed a new band out of the remaining players of a group called The Gamblers. This new band took the name Them from the fifties horror film. Their strong R&B performances quickly became the thing of legend with the band playing without a setlist and Morrison ad libbing songs creating them on the spot.

The band was signed to Decca Records recording two albums and releasing 10 singles including the hits “Here Comes The Night” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go”. But it was their version of the garage band classic “Gloria” that would become a rock standard. Depending on his mood, Morrison would extend this song up to 20 minutes in concert.

Building on the success of their singles in the U.S., and riding on the back of the British Invasion, Them undertook a two month tour of America in 1966 that included a three week residency at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles. Toward the end of the tour, the band became involved in a dispute with their label over revenue. With their work visas expiring, the band returned to Ireland dejected. They broke up a short time later.

But Van Morrison had other plans. Bert Berns, Them’s producer, persuaded Morrison to return to New York to record solo for a new label he was forming called Bang Records. During a two day recording session, Morrison recorded eight songs that were originally intended to be used as four singles. Instead, these songs were released as the album Blowin’ Your Mind! without Morrison being consulted.

However, from these early sessions emerged the song “Brown Eyed Girl”. It was released as a single in June of 1967 reaching number ten on the U.S. Charts. Following the death of Bert Berns later that year, Morrison became involved in a contract dispute with Berns’ widow that prevented him from performing on stage or recording in the New York area.

Morrison moved to Boston to try and find his professional footing. But he had trouble finding concert bookings which quickly led to financial problems. Van fell into a state of depression and considered returning to Belfast. Eventually he started to get a few gigs in small clubs and coffee houses. After catching him live, reps from Warner Brothers Records bought out his contract with Bang Records and signed him to a record deal. In order to earn his freedom, Morrison recorded 31 songs in one session to fulfill a clause in his original contract with Bang. Many of the songs were nonsensical and were not used by Bang. These have become known as the “revenge songs” by Morrison.

Morrison was finally free to pursue his vision. He’d been performing a cycle of songs in several clubs around Boston that was very different than his one hit “Brown Eyed Girl”. Many who had heard the new songs described them as “mystical”. But no one suspected what was about to happen when struggling artist Van Morrison entered a recording studio in the fall of 1968. One of rock music’s greatest and most important records was about to be created.

Enjoy this classic album re-listen of Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Madame George
7. Ballerina
8. Slim Slow Slider

 

(click player for Astral Weeks by Van Morrison)

 

Astral Weeks is the second studio album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It was released in November of 1968 by Warner Brothers records. The album blended folk, blues, jazz and classical styles in what was a radical departure from Morrison’s previous pop hits such as “Brown Eyed Girl”.

The lyrics and cover art portrayed the symbolism equating earthly love and heaven that would often be featured in the singer’s subsequent records. His lyrics have been described as impressionistic, hypnotic and modernist, while the record has been categorized as a song cycle or concept album.

Astral Weeks did not originally receive promotion from Morrison’s record label and was not an immediate success with consumers or critics. Its standing eventually improved greatly, with praise given to Morrison’s arrangements and songwriting.

The album has been viewed as one of rock’s greatest and most important records. It was placed on numerous widely circulated lists of the best albums of all time and had an enduring effect on both listeners and musicians.

 

At the beginning of 1968, Van Morrison became involved in a contract dispute with Bang Records that kept him away from any recording activity. This occurred after the sudden death of the label’s founder Bert Berns who was discovered dead in a New York hotel room on December 30th, 1967. Prior to Berns’s death, he and Morrison had experienced some creative difficulties. Berns had been pushing Morrison in a more pop-oriented direction, while Morrison wanted to explore newer musical terrain.

Berns’s widow, Ilene Berns, held Morrison and this conflict responsible for her husband’s death. Following Berns’s death, Ilene Berns inherited the contracts of Bang Records. Legally bound to the label, Morrison was not only kept out of the studio, but also found himself unable to find performing work in New York as most clubs refrained from booking him, fearing reprisals. Bert Berns was notorious for his connections to organized crime, and those connections still impacted artists trying to leave Bang Records like Morrison and Neil Diamond even after Berns’s death.

Ilene Berns then discovered that her late husband had previously been remiss in filing the appropriate paperwork to keep Morrison (still a British citizen) in New York, and contacted the INS in an attempt to have Morrison deported. However, Morrison managed to stay in the U.S. when his girlfriend Janet Rigsbee agreed to marry him.

Once married, Morrison and Rigsbee moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he found work performing in local clubs. Morrison began performing with a small electric combo doing blues numbers, songs from Blowin’ Your Mind! and from Morrison’s Them band days. Two of the musicians soon left but Morrison retained the bassist, Tom Kielbania, a student at the Berklee School of Music.

 

Morrison decided to try an acoustic sound. He and Kielbania began performing shows in coffee houses in the Boston area as an acoustic duo with Morrison playing guitar and Kielbania on upright bass. Before this, Morrison had primarily recorded and performed with electric musicians. The acoustic medium would provide him “greater vocal improvisation and a freer, folkier feel”.

Later, Kielbania invited jazz-trained flautist John Payne to join them. The trio of Payne, Kielbania, and Morrison continued performing for four months during which they began to develop the template for Astral Weeks.

It was around this time that Warner Brothers Records approached Morrison hoping to sign him. Presumably, their interest focused on his prior success with “Brown Eyed Girl”, not on Morrison’s current acoustic work. Regardless, their interest allowed Morrison to return to the recording studio.

Noted producer Lewis Merenstein received a call from Warner Bros. to see Morrison in Boston, and related how eight or nine producers had gone to hear Morrison, thinking they were going to hear “Brown Eyed Girl” only to find that “it was another person with the same voice”. Merenstein first heard Morrison play at Ace Recording studio and recalled that when Morrison played the song “Astral Weeks” for him, “I started crying. It just vibrated in my soul, and I knew that I wanted to work with that sound.”

 

With his legal matters resolved, Morrison entered Century Sound Studios in New York for three sessions starting at the end of September of 1968. Merenstein, who had a background in jazz, was quoted as saying “Morrison was not an aficionado of jazz when I met him. R&B and soul, yes; but jazz, no.”

For the Astral Weeks recording sessions, Merenstein first contacted veteran bassist Richard Davis. Perhaps best known for his work with Eric Dolphy, Davis essentially served as the session leader, and it was through Davis that Merenstein recruited guitarist Jay Berliner, percussionist Warren Smith Jr., and drummer Connie Kay. All of these musicians had strong backgrounds in jazz, as Berliner had worked closely with Charles Mingus and Kay was part of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Morrison was still working with Kielbania and Payne, but for these sessions, they were essentially replaced. According to Kielbania, “I got to show all the bass lines to Richard Davis. He embellished a lot of them, but I gave him the feeling.”

Davis proved, perhaps, to be the most pivotal instrumentalist during these sessions. “If you listen to the album, every tune is led by Richard and everybody followed Richard and Van’s voice,” says Merenstein. “I knew if I brought Richard in, he would put the bottom on to support what Van wanted to do vocally, or acoustically. Then you get Jay playing those beautiful counter-lines to Van.”

Davis was not impressed by Morrison, but not out of disdain or any preconceived notions, but rather because Morrison’s professional comportment generally did not meet Davis’s expectations. “No prep, no meeting,” recalls Davis. “He was remote from us, ’cause he came in and went into a booth… And that’s where he stayed, isolated in a booth. I don’t think he ever introduced himself to us, nor we to him… And he seemed very shy…”

Drummer Connie Kay later told Rolling Stone that he approached Morrison and asked “what he wanted me to play, and he said to play whatever I felt like playing. We more or less sat there and jammed.”

The live tracks for the sessions were performed by Morrison on vocals and acoustic guitar in a separate vocal booth with the other musicians playing together on upright bass, lead acoustic guitar, vibes, flute, and drums.

For the Astral Weeks sessions, apparently they did not employ any lead sheets, or at least none were distributed to the musicians. “What stood out in my mind was the fact that he allowed us to stretch out,” recalls Berliner. “We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt.” Berliner actually had great appreciation for the freedom given to him and the band; something few, if any, of them were used to. “I played a lot of classical guitar on those sessions and it was very unusual to play classical guitar in that context,” says Berliner.

 

The first session was held in the evening on September 25th, 1968. It produced four recordings that made it to the album. Only three had initially been intended for inclusion: “Cyprus Avenue”, “Madame George”, and “Beside You”.

Although not scheduled to play, Payne still attended the first session and listened as another flautist played his parts. To this day, nobody recalls the name of this flautist and he is not included in the album credits. When Morrison tried to squeeze in one last tune during the end of that first session, Payne spoke up and pleaded to Merenstein to permit him to participate. Payne was then allowed to play on what became the title track of the album-”Astral Weeks”- the fourth song produced from this initial session. For the remainder of the sessions, John Payne played on every song.

The next session occurred early in the morning of October 1st. But it was the wrong time of day for jazz musicians to create and only “The Way Young Lovers Do” from this session would make the album. That is the reason for the different “lounge-jazz sound” on this track.

The third and final session, in the evening on October 15th, produced three more recordings that completed the album-“Sweet Thing”, “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider”. Davis expressed to Rolling Stone that there was a “certain feel about a seven-to-ten o’ clock session” and that “the ambience of that time of day was all through everything we played”.

The search for an album closer consumed a considerable amount of time of the third session. They attempted (and rejected) a number of songs until Morrison suggested “Slim Slow Slider”. “I don’t think we’d ever done [it] live,” recalls Payne. “[Morrison] had a book full of songs… I don’t know why he decided to do it…And we were first doing it with the drums, with Richard Davis and Connie Kay and the guitar player and the vibe player and me and Van-all of us were playing. Then I started playing soprano sax on the thing, and Lew said, ‘OK, I wanna try it again. Start again. And I want just the bass, the soprano sax, and Van.'”

It was a successful take, but it also came with a very long coda, prompting Merenstein to make a large cut during the editing process. Many of the tracks on Astral Weeks would be subjected to edits (mainly to tighten the performances), but the one on “Slim Slow Slider” was easily the most substantial. “I would estimate three, five minutes of instrumental stuff,” says Payne. “We went through stages [until] we got to be avant-garde kind of weird, which is what you hear after the splice-all that weird stuff we’re playing-but there was a whole progression to that.” According to Merenstein, before he cut it, the coda “was a long, long ending that went nowhere, that just carried on from minute to minute…If it had [some] relativity to the tune itself, I would have left it there.”

The recording engineer for the album, Brooks Arthur, remembered the sessions in 2009: “A cloud came along, and it was called the Van Morrison sessions. We all hopped upon that cloud, and the cloud took us away for awhile, and we made this album, and we landed when it was done.”

Morrison’s impression of the sessions was “The songs came together very well in the studio. Some of the tracks were first takes. [But] the musicians were really together. Those type of guys play what you’re gonna do before you do it, that’s how good they are.”

 

Irish painter Cecil McCartney influenced the title of Astral Weeks. Morrison related how “A friend of mine had drawings in his flat of astral projection. I was at his house when I was working on a song which began, ‘If I venture down the slipstream’ and that’s why I called it ‘Astral Weeks’.” “It was a painting,” McCartney corrects. “There were several paintings in the studio at the time. Van looked at the painting and it suggested astral traveling to him.”

The album cover photograph of Van Morrison was taken by Joel Brodsky, best known for his Young Lions photoshoot with Jim Morrison. The squared circle in the cover photo is described as portraying “the mystic symbol of the union of opposites; the sacred marriage of heaven and earth”.

Astral Weeks had poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics that evoked emotions and images instead of coherent, intellectual ideas and narratives. NPR has called it a folk rock album-“perhaps the seminal album of the folk-rock genre”. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame online biography of Morrison described the music as trance-like folk jazz set to “impressionistic, free-flowing” lyrics. Another critic viewed the music as an amalgam of folk, blues, jazz, and classical music that is unlike rock.

Although usually described as a song cycle rather than a concept album, the songs do, when considered in their totality, seem to link together as one long song, forming an “intangible narrative of unreachable worlds” and delivered with what one writer calls “a masterpiece of virtuoso singing”.

The album has meditative songs that combine themes of nostalgia, drama, and Morrison’s personal mysticism and are performed in a blue-eyed soul style. This form of symbolism would eventually become a staple of Morrison’s songs, equating earthly love and heaven, or as close as a living being can approach it.

 

Astral Weeks sold poorly when it was first released in 1968. The album became a somewhat popular cult import in the United States, while in the United Kingdom it was largely overlooked by critics.

The British magazine Beat Instrumental published a negative review of the record, finding Morrison’s songs monotonous and unoriginal. New Music Express regarded it as a pale imitation of the guitarist Jose Feliciano’s 1968 Feliciano! album which was one of the year’s best-selling records.

With the exception of Astral Weeks‘ title track, they felt the compositions were indistinguishable and “suffer from being stuck in the same groove throughout”. The American magazine, Stereo Review, panned it as a “free-verse mind bender of an album”, plagued by nonsensical lyrics and incoherent singing from Morrison, especially on “Madame George”.

In 1969, Greil Marcus reviewed the album positively in Rolling Stone, saying that Morrison’s lyrics were thoughtful and deeply intellectual, “in terms of the myths and metaphors that exist within the world of rock and roll”. He believed both the music and lyrics captured the spirit of Bob Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding, while calling Astral Weeks a “unique and timeless” record.

Rolling Stone later named it the album of the year. Melody Maker also called it one of the year’s best records, featuring Morrison’s “small harsh voice” backed by an attractive musical combo that “verges on genius” during “Madame George”.

Astral Weeks‘ critical standing greatly improved over time as it is now considered one of rock’s greatest records and a culturally significant work. One critic summed it up nicely calling it “Morrison’s ‘most beautiful and intense album’, the foundation for his ‘legend’, and a work that continues to captivate musicians and listeners.”

Lester Bangs said its anguished feeling resonated with him on first listen, calling it “the rock record with the most significance in my life so far … a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.”

Irish musician Glen Hansard said it made him think about life with a greater depth of feeling, “with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined.”

Another critic credited Morrison for fully realizing his ambition to “create without pop’s constraints” on Astral Weeks. “Its reputation among critics was justified because “unlike any record before or since,” it “encompasses the passion and tenderness that have always mixed in the best postwar popular music”.

In his 1975 biography of Morrison, Ritchie York wrote, “It was almost as if Van Morrison, elusive at any time, had deliberately created an album of music which would indefinitely withstand the vulgarity of music industry image-making. Later they might say that other albums were reminiscent of Astral Weeks, but they could never claim that Astral Weeks was like anything else.”

 

Astral Weeks has appeared in all-time best album polls worldwide, and according to Acclaimed Music, it is the 15th most ranked record in critics’ all-time lists. In 1978, it was voted the 4th best album of all time in a poll of 50 prominent American and English rock critics. It was also ranked second greatest by Mojo in 1995, 19th by Rolling Stone in 2003, maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list, and 3rd by The Times.

In 1998, it was voted the 9th greatest album of all time in a “Music of the Millennium” poll. In 2000, Q placed the record at number 6 on its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. Time included Astral Weeks in its 2006 list of the “All-TIME 100 Albums”. When Astral Weeks was voted the best Irish album of all time in 2009, Niall Stokes wrote in Hot Press, “It’s an extraordinary work, packed with marvelously evocative songs that are rooted in Belfast but which deliver a powerful and lasting universal poetic resonance.” The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

In 2001, the album was certified gold by the RIAA, having shipped 500,000 copies in the U.S. Music historian Andrew Ford said the album’s commercial performance, much like its musical aesthetic, is similar to classical music: “Neither instant nor evanescent: Astral Weeks will sell as many copies this year as it did in 1968 and has every year in between”

 

In November of 2008, Van Morrison performed two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, playing the entire Astral Weeks album. The band featured Jay Berliner who played on the original album. Morrison toured performing the album live throughout most of 2009, with Rolling Stone calling these concerts “some of the most inspired performances of his whole career”.

When asked by Rolling Stone why he was performing the album again live after forty years, Morrison replied: “It received no promotion, from Warner Bros.—that’s why I never got to play the songs live. I had always wanted to play the record live and fully orchestrated—that is what this is all about. I always like live recording and I like listening to live records too. I’m not too fond of being in a studio—it’s too contrived and too confining. I like the freedom of live, in-the-moment sound.”

As for the songs on the original album, Morrison told the Los Angeles Times “the songs are poetic stories, so the meaning is the same as always—timeless and unchanging. The songs are works of fiction that will inherently have a different meaning for different people. People take from it whatever their disposition to take from it is.”

 

 

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