Friday, October 3, 2008

Astral Weeks

We are pleased to bring you this earnest and engaging reflection from one of our favorite contributors/readers regarding one of his (and our) favorite albums. There is no doubt that this album will have greater meaning and significance after reading this pointed examination. Enjoy.

Van Morrison is about to do something very
Un-Van Morrison. Not only is he intentionally revisiting his back catalog, but he is re-creating his first solo album, Astral Weeks -- the masterpiece -- in its entirety -- with horns, strings and all before a live audience. According to recent news clippings, he will be gathering many of the musicians who appeared on the original album. These will be two very special shows at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl (live recordings on vinyl should be out by Christmas, and cds, in early 2009). Very, very exciting stuff.

A look back on Astral Weeks:

Never before has there been a more perfect album. From the moment the needle hits the wax (or "play" for you digital heads), this collection of songs has the ability to release endorphins within the listener's body and mind. Truly a special composition, the album is, for me, one long dream sequence; the "subconscious" concept album. No literal thread, but complete symmetry, balance, and theme.

Side 1:

Astral Weeks
- The title track starts off the album instantly. Tapping high hats, shakers, John Platania on guitar, and then, "if i ventured in the slip stream / behind the viaducts of your dreams." At this point, you're in that quasi-alert state just before sleep -- a sort of semi-conscious dream. The song continues as a perfect microcosm of the whole album. Lyrically, nothing quite makes sense. Every reference point is negated with another meaningless phrase. The stream of consciousness of Joyce buried in Irish poet folklore and paired beautifully with Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The strings pick up. Enter a dancing flute (John Payne). "Ain't nothin' but a stranger in this world / ain't nothin' but a stranger in this world." And finally, we are reminded exactly where this album is coming from and hopefully where it is taking us: "in another time, in another place / in another time, in another place."

Beside You
- Track two starts off a bit more ominously. We're reminded that we are all lost somewhere, alone, "down the road so dark and narrow, in the evening." The song is filled with fear, loneliness, and longing to be, as the title and refrain suggest, beside you. Once again, there is something in the ether -- it can't quite be touched, quantified, accurately described or caught -- "you turn around / you turn around / you turn around." The same dancing flute pervades this track. Only this time a bit more somber, almost haunting. We are alone. We are mortal. "You breath in/you breath out / you breath in/you breath out."

Sweet Thing
- The rhythm guitar, the triangle, the pounding of the upright bass, and then, "I will stroll my merry way and jump the hedges first / and I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst/and i will never grow so old again / and I will walk and talk in gardens all misty wet with rain." Here, Van has found what Ponce de Leon dedicated his life to. The dream motif continues. This is a surreal world where all are invincible; what is old and broken is repaired as new; what is dead, is alive once again. "And I will never remember that I ever felt the pain." The greens are greener, the sun is brighter, the love is sweeter, and we're all drunk on optimism. "Sugar baby with the champagne eyes."

Cyprus Avenue
- Van's ode to childhood insecurity and subdued class warfare. "Caught one more time up on Cyprus Avenue." This is the dream when you realize everything looks familiar and you're back in your old neighborhood; back in grade school; angst-ridden, frustrated and angry at being forced to walk past those "big mansions on the hills" and when you're too nervous to talk to the girls; "my tongue gets tied every time I try to speak;" and when "my insides shakes just like a leaf on a tree / I'm caught one more time way up on Cyprus Avenue."

Side one ends with this track. And if the album ended right here, this would be one passionate, complete free-form composition. An incredible accomplishment for a budding solo artist -- only 23 years-old. But as he would later scream while performing this track live in 1974 (backed by the Caledonia Soul Orchestra), "it's too late to stop now."

[flip record over]

Side Two:

The Way Young Lovers Do
- Side two starts with this frenetic jazz-influenced ramble. The horns are wailing, the strings are doing their best impression of a horn section, all the while Van is scatting along. Perhaps the simplest lyrical composition on the album, the track sums up youthful idealist love quite succinctly: "we sat on our own star and dreamed of they way that we were / and the way that we wanted to be / of the way that I was for you / and you were for me" -- the staccato of those lyrics repeated for emotional impact, followed by the free-form jazz solos until it brazenly backs away from the moment: "and we danced the night away."

Madam George
- Clocking in at over 9 minutes, this track shows Van at his most patient. It has been said that this is by far the greatest song ever written about a transvestite with a love of gambling. I'd have to agree. The song returns to Cyprus Avenue with a bit of a flip -- we are no longer "up on Cyprus Avenue" but instead, "we're down on Cyprus Avenue." This is one of the most surreal dream sequences of the album. The narrator is stuck in smoky parlors with "the one and only Madame George...playing dominoes in drag." The room is "filled with music, laughter, music all around." The cops break up the party, the guests are as frazzled as the violin strings, and contraband is thrown from the window "out onto the street below." If you're lucky, you'll have enough time to say your respects, and hop a "train down to Sandy Row." As for the Queen of the party, it doesn't look good. Van compels us to "say good bye, good-bye, good-bye," and lastly to "dry your eye for Madam George." The song fades out, fades back in, back out again, and then in, as Van scats "Love to love to love to love to love to love to love," and finally reminds us to "say good-bye / take the train and say good-bye."

- "Spread your wings / come on fly a while straight to my arms / oh little angel child." Does it get better than this? Once again, stream of consciousness takes over. Just when a narrative takes shape, Van shatters it. "When it gets to you / and you feel like you just cant go on / and you think you're heading for a fall," he continues, "just step right up / ring the bell / just like a ballerina." You are startled in your sleep, you wake up, and you try to make sense of the dream you were having. Can never quite touch it; can never quite reason with it. With eyes open, there is no narrative. "Get on up / keep on movin' / moving on / a little higher baby."

Slim Slow Slider
- The most somber song on the album. Death, despair, jealousy, hopelessness, the end. The juxtaposition to Sweet Thing. This time, the dream is over; what's dead is dead and what's living is dying. "I know your dying, and I know you know it too." This is desperate, this is dark. There are no happy endings. Drug references seem to bubble up from this one. Is it Heroin? Cocaine? "Horse you ride is white as snow." Is it a farewell to youth? Is it one long suicide letter? "I saw you walking this morning / catching pebbles from some sandy beach / you're out of reach / saw you out there this morning / with your brand new boy and your Cadillac / you're gone for something/and i know you won't be coming back / every time I see you, I just don't know what to do / I know your dying, and I know you know it too."

The metaphor of the pebble tossed sidearm into the pond seems to work. The pebble hits the waters, skips up into the air, skims the water, back into the air. Water, air, water, air, and then finally, it sinks to the bottom.

Mojo magazine put out a fantastic retrospective of the making of the album a few years ago. Stories abound how Van didn't communicate with any of the session musicians on the album. He ran to a private room between sets. The 23 year old skiffle musician was in awe with the great jazz session men playing on his song cycle. But that's not for me to comment on. In the meantime, we should all wait with high expectations that these live shows in November produce something as special as the 1968 live jazz sessions in NYC. Until then, the record sounds as sweet today as it will 40 years from now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds a lot like this post, and posted about 3 hours after the weight posted.

people are remembering how great this album is.