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Astral Weeks: Behind Van Morrison’s Celestial Masterpiece
Warner Music
In Depth

Astral Weeks: Behind Van Morrison’s Celestial Masterpiece

Hailed as ‘the most adventurous record in rock’, ‘Astral Weeks’ ensured Van Morrison’s name would be forever written in the cosmos.

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Van Morrison was living what he called “a very hand-to-mouth existence” when he recorded the majestic Astral Weeks album in the autumn of 1968. He was 23, broke, depressed, drinking heavily and living in Boston with his first wife, Janet Rigsbee (aka Janet Planet), with whom he worked on a group of imaginative songs he had written as a teenager back home in Belfast and during his residence in Ladbroke Grove in London.

Listen to ‘Astral Weeks’ here.

“Sophisticated poetry that is multi-layered in sounds”

The sublime eight-song album, recorded over just three days (25 September, 1 and 15 October) at Century Sound Studios, 135 West 52nd Street, New York City, represented what Morrison called “sophisticated poetry that is multi-layered in sounds”, a jazz-infused acoustic song cycle behind stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being transported to “another time” and “another place”.

Morrison spent the summer of 1968 playing small clubs and high-school gyms across New England, using a group of local musicians, including flute and soprano saxophone player John Payne, under the banner of the Van Morrison Controversy. As soon as he returned from gigs to his base in Boston, Morrison refined the eight songs – Astral Weeks, Beside You, Sweet Thing, Cyprus Avenue, The Way Young Lovers Do, Madame George, Ballerina and Slim Slow Slider – that would make up Astral Weeks.

“What are we wasting time for? Let’s go make a record”

Morrison had previously recorded versions of Madame George and Beside You for Bang Records, though he later admitted “the arrangements were nothing like what I had in mind for those songs”. He would put that right with Astral Weeks. In Ryan Walsh’s 2018 book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History Of 1968, Janet Rigsbee recalled that Morrison would leave a tape recorder running while he played guitar and improvised for 20 minutes at a time. Then they would listen back while he decided what lyrics to retain and how to improve the structure. “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy,” she joked to Walsh.

Walsh also details how Morrison was in Boston to escape the mob-connected men who owned a record contract he had signed in New York. After seeing Morrison in concert, Warner Bros executive Joe Smith sent the producer Lewis Merenstein to audition Morrison in Boston, in early September. “What are we wasting time for? Let’s go make a record,” Merenstein told Morrison. The label paid cash to buy out his contract.

Merenstein insisted that Morrison dropped his touring band (only Payne ended up playing on the record) and he instead brought in an élite group of session musicians: Jay Berliner (guitar), Richard Davis (bass), Connie Kay (drums) and Warren Smith, Jr (percussion and vibraphone). Berliner, who earlier the first day had recorded jingles for both Noxzema and Pringles potato chips, said none of the session men had heard of the young musician from Belfast. Morrison later admitted, “It was really the producer that brought these other people in. I didn’t know who they were.”

“An alchemical situation”

They were all top-class jazz musicians. Davis had performed with Sarah Vaughan and Oscar Peterson, Kay was a member of Modern Jazz Quartet and Berliner had recorded with Harry Belafonte, Blossom Dearie and Charles Mingus. They all blended superbly with singer and guitarist Morrison, who later described it as “like an alchemical kind of situation… they recruited the right people to do that project. It was so easy working with these people.”

Morrison strummed a few of the songs, and the musicians were given chord sheets before being encouraged by both Morrison and his producer to improvise on the music. Smith told Rolling Stone magazine in 2018, the year Astral Weeks turned 50, that “Van was kind of quiet. He sat in the control booth most of the time and listened and then overdubbed his tracks. Everything worked pretty well. He pretty much kept to himself. He didn’t make any suggestions about what to play, how to play, how to stylise what we were doing.”

On the first recording day, they laid down Beside You, Cyprus Avenue, Astral Weeks and the epic Madame George, which reached nine minutes 25 seconds in its final version. Morrison said the long songs, including the seven-minute tour de force Ballerina, came out of a desire to break out of the “rigidity” of the popular music of the time.

His new version of Madame George was groundbreaking, full of repetition of words and phrases such as “love”, “dry your eye” and “say goodbye”. Morrison told Niall Stokes in an RTÉ television interview in 1999 that “the repetitive thing” sprang from his upbringing in East Belfast, and “the way people talk, you know, hearing things against the rhythm of speech. The rhythm of speech. It came out of that, and the music I was listening to at the time. Which was, you know, sort of soul jazz sort of stuff. So it was a combination of those two things.”

“The most adventurous record in rock”

After the album was recorded, the string arrangements were overdubbed by conductor Larry Fallon, who also worked with Jimmy Cliff and Gil Scott-Heron. “Larry was a great arranger. He seemed to understand this music – which is rare and is not easy to do,” said Morrison.

Warner Bros considered releasing Sweet Thing as a single but finally decided against issuing any singles at all when the album came out on 29 November 1968. The songs were divided equally between Side One (labelled “In The Beginning”), and Side Two (“Afterwards”).

Though initial sales were slow, Astral Weeks soon gained a reputation as a masterpiece. It kept selling and went gold 33 years later. Now, the album is hailed by other musicians as a seminal work. Bruce Springsteen said it gave him “a sense of the divine”, while Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium”.

Morrison, who later recorded a live version of the album, featuring a 68-year-old Jay Berliner in his group, has sometimes complained about the “mythologising” of Astral Weeks, stating on its 50th anniversary, “When I get people saying, ‘That’s my favourite album,’ my feeling is that I was just a kid when I made that record; I didn’t know what was going on. It’s something that’s there.”

The “something” that’s there remains, however, simply magical.

‘Astral Weeks’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Astral Weeks

It’s fitting that Astral Weeks’ emotive title track is also the album’s opening cut, as it was the first song Van Morrison performed for producer Lewis Merenstein. “I started crying,” Merenstein recalled in Clinton Heylin’s Morrison biography, Can You Feel The Silence? “It just vibrated in my soul and I knew I wanted to work with that sound.”

Certainly, Astral Weeks’ louche, rolling rhythm makes for the ideal introduction to such an adventurous, freewheeling record, and it’s bolstered by some of Van Morrison’s most enigmatic, Dylan-esque lyricism (“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”). However, the Belfast bard did later confess that the line “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall” related to his real-life custom of carrying around a poster of his hero (aka influential blues man Lead Belly), which he would hang on the wall wherever he laid his hat.

Beside You

Van Morrison recorded a notably different early take of Beside You for Bang Records’ boss Bert Berns in December 1967, and it suggested that Berns expected Morrison to continue with the poppier approach he’d adopted for his breakthrough hit, Brown Eyed Girl. Morrison, however, had other ideas, later telling biographer Erik Hage that he wanted to work in a more acoustic medium which would provide him with the opportunity for “greater vocal improvisation and a freer, folkier feel”. As the looser, impressionistic Astral Weeks version of Beside You reveals, Morrison’s thinking prevailed in the end.

Sweet Thing

Built around Morrison’s insistent, cyclical acoustic guitar riff, with flute and strings making discreet interjections, Sweet Thing finds the singer waxing lyrically about nature and romance, vowing “never to grow old again”. The bucolic aspect of the lyric (“We shall walk and talk/In gardens all misty and wet with rain”) suggests he might have written the song for his first wife, Janet “Planet” Rigsbee, but in an interview with music historian Ritchie Yorke, Morrison later stated, “It’s a romantic love ballad not about anybody in particular but about a feeling.” Nonetheless, the dreamy Sweet Thing has since soundtracked on-screen romances to great effect, not least in Nicholas Stoller’s 2012 romcom, The Five-Year Engagement.

Cyprus Avenue

Arguably the most widely feted of Astral Weeks’ eight songs, Cyprus Avenue clearly has a special resonance for Van Morrison, as it remained the closing song in his live set for many years. Indeed, this deceptively simple three-chord blues was entirely personal for its composer, as it directly related to his upbringing in East Belfast.

The song’s dialogue is related from the point of view of an outsider watching from inside a car and becoming tongue-tied when he sees the refined girl he fantasises about, but despite Morrison’s usage of poetic language (“Yonder come my lady/Rainbow ribbons in her hair/Six white horses and a carriage/She’s returning from the fair”), the song was inspired by cold reality. Cyprus Avenue was “a street in Belfast”, Morrison told biographer Brian Hinton, “a place where there’s a lot of wealth. It wasn’t far from where I was brought up and it was a very different scene. To me it was a very mystical place.”

The Way Young Lovers Do

Astral Weeks has enjoyed five decades (and counting) of critical acclaim, yet The Way Young Lovers Do is its one cut which polarises opinion, with even Morrison devotee Clinton Heylin writing it off as “lounge-jazz”, which “sticks out like [Asti] Spumante at a champagne buffet”. Yet that seems harsh, for while The Way Young Lovers Do is the most direct and linear-sounding of Astral Weeks’ eight songs, that does nothing to diminish its power. Indeed, while Morrison himself has said the song is simply what it purports to be (“basically a song about young love”), the stridency of the performance and the urgency in his vocal delivery give it an edgy atmosphere all its own.

Madame George

Often referred to as Astral Weeks’ centrepiece, Madame George is again set on Belfast’s Cyprus Avenue, but its lyric – which broadly tells of the mysterious titular Madame “in a corner playing dominoes in drag” – is notably more opaque. However, that indefinably cryptic quality ensures the lasting appeal of this impressionistic, ten-minute stream-of-consciousness song. Neither Morrison nor the musicians seemingly try too hard (Erik Hage accurately suggests Morrison’s vocal is “like some kind of twilight state between sleeping and wakefulness”), yet their jazzy somnolence still captivates.

Ballerina

The oldest composition on Astral Weeks, Ballerina dates back to 1966, when Van Morrison was still a member of Belfast R&B outfit Them. Guitarist Jim Armstrong later recalled the song was originally quite formative, telling Clinton Heylin that Morrison “had all these words, we sort of formalised it, ’cause there was no structure to it”, though Them would perform Ballerina live in Hawaii towards the end of their time with the singer.

Morrison was inspired to write the sone after gigging in San Francisco for the first time in 1966 (he told Ritchie Yorke, “I had a flash about an actress in an opera house appearing in a ballet, and I think that’s where the song came from”), but Ballerina grew in stature after he left Them and took the song with him. By the time Morrison recorded it for Astral Weeks, Ballerina was a seven-minute tour de force which inspired one of his most dynamic vocal performances. As Brian Hinton later put it: “All human emotion is crystallised here, and subtly vocalised: desire, joy, hope, world-weariness, consolation, awe and anticipation.”

Slim Slow Slider

Speculation has long been rife as to who inspired Van Morrison to write Slim Slow Slider, though the singer himself has been vague about the song’s source material, telling biographer Brian Hinton the song was about someone “who is caught up in a big city like London or maybe is on dope, I’m not sure”. Wherever the truth lies, Slim Slow Slider stands apart from the rest of Astral Weeks as it’s the only song that doesn’t feature the string overdubs which play a subtle yet crucial role throughout the rest of the album. With hindsight, it was the right decision to leave the song relatively unadorned. John Payne’s flute and Richard Davis’ lumbering bass add colour to a stark, bluesy lament which could only have made for the album’s postscript.

Original article: 31 August 2021

Update: 29 November 2020. Words: Alan York

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