Monday, November 5, 2018

Astral Weeks

its the 50th anniversary of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. here's a little essay I wrote for Radio Silence on the album about 6 or 7 years ago...
Thirty-three years after its initial release, Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks finally went gold in the United States in 2001. Success was a long time coming for a record that produced no hit singles and never got close to the top of any of the Billboard Album Charts.

It was Van Morrison’s second solo project and his first since getting released from a troubled contract with Bang Records. Born in Belfast in 1945, Ivan “Van” Morrison had grown up listening to soul music, jazz, and R&B. His first successful band, however, was the tight pop ensemble Them, who had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. and U.S.

Eventually Van Morrison left Them and moved to the United States in 1968, playing solo gigs in coffee shops and clubs in and around Boston. Liberated from U.K. tours, his contract and the constraints of writing three-minute pop songs, Morrison entered the most creative stage of his career. He invented a highly original Celtic-fusion sound of lush strings, acoustic guitars, brush drums, double bass, flute, and a singing voice whose geographic locus seemed to exist somewhere between Motown and East Belfast.

Astral Weeks was recorded in autumn of 1968 with experienced New York session musicians. The players were given no lead sheets but instead were expected to improvise along with Morrison as he crafted melodies and sometimes lyrics on the spot.

The resulting album was lush, jazzy, discursive, with a heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and an un-ironic nostalgia for the Belfast of Van Morrison’s childhood. It certainly wasn’t what America or Britain wanted to hear in the turbulent year of 1968-69. Van Morrison moved on to more R&B-inspired material that brought him commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Astral Weeks was very much the background music of my early childhood growing up in a sprawling council estate north of Belfast in the 1970s. My older brother played the record constantly, and as further torment taught himself to play many of its songs on his guitar. I was not impressed. I had little time for an album that to me was a dreary hangover from a hippie era that had now been mercifully euthanized by punk rock. The first record I bought was the Undertones’ eponymous debut, and close on its heels came records from the Specials, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Buzzcocks.

It was only in the 1990s, after I too had exiled myself across the Atlantic, first in Boston and then New York, that I began to appreciate Astral Weeks for the masterpiece that it so clearly is.

Something happens to an Irishman or woman when they’re away from their green, sodden homeland, and this can manifest itself in a mawkish love of nineteenth-century rebel songs or the dodgy poems from Yeats’ fairy phase. Fortunately Van Morrison’s deep musical knowledge meant that his homesickness album was going to be of a different order of magnitude. Yes, there would be Yeats and the Celtic Twilight, but there would also be Huddie Ledbetter and Jackie Wilson, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Phil Spector.

The album begins with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” a beautifully orchestrated string-heavy song that eschews the pop structure of verse-chorus-verse. Morrison sounds as if he is free-associating memories and images of his past in dense, lyrically rich stanzas. “Astral Weeks” bleeds seamlessly into the trippy “Beside You” and the bluesy, upbeat “Sweet Thing.” In all three songs Morrison’s vocals weave in and out of the melody, which is often carried by Jay Berliner’s classical guitar or the strings, double bass, and flute.

The high point of side one is the three-chord impressionistic blues song “Cyprus Avenue” about a leafy street in East Belfast where all the pretty girls in Morrison’s childhood seemed to live. “Cyprus Avenue” features Morrison on rhythm guitar, Richard Davis on double bass, Larry Fallon on harpsichord, and an anonymous session flute player (possibly John Payne or John Elliot) who turned in an inspired, melodic jazz performance for cash-in-hand. The joyous stream-of-consciousness lyrics of “Cyprus Avenue” are deceptive, as this is really the story of a kid from the other side of the tracks longing for a world that he cannot have.

Side two of Astral Weeks begins with the upbeat "The Way Young Lovers Do" with Warren Smith Jnr a standout on percussion and then slides into the extraordinary nine-minute, forty-five-second “Madame George,” an ode to a lost world of Belfast life in the 1950s. “Madame George” is the emotional climax of the album, and the songs that follow in its wake, “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider,” are the excellent post-coital Woodbines.

With a call back to side one of the record, “Madame George” begins like this:

Down on Cyprus Avenue

With a childlike vision leaping into view,

Clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe,

Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George.

Ford and Fitzroy, like Cyprus Avenue, are streets in Belfast where the title character of the song, Madame George, parades confidently in her pumps, much to the amazement of the young Protestant lad from East Belfast, Ivan Morrison. Much ink has been spilt trying to decipher the lyrics of “Madame George,” and Van Morrison himself has added to the confusion by telling several contradictory stories over the years. Tom Nolan writing for The Wall Street Journal in 2007 claimed that Madame George was none other than Georgie Hyde-Lees, W.B. Yeats’ wife who died in 1968. This seems unlikely. Mrs. Yeats was not the type to be seen legging it from the police along Fitzroy Avenue in 1950s Belfast. There are at least four other credible theories I've found about the identity of Madame George/Madame Joy but as the song continues it becomes obvious to me that Madame George is a brassy drag queen who either runs a shebeen or some kind of tranny knocking shop or both.

And you think you’ve found the bag,

You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag.

And in the corner playing dominoes in drag

The one and only Madame George.

And from outside the frosty window raps,

She jumps up and says, “Lord Have Mercy, I think that it’s the cops,”

And immediately drops everything she gots

Down into the street below.

Van Morrison again weaves his voice through the strings, flute, acoustic guitar, and stand-up bass; the musicians riffing their parts (including the anonymous flute player) heading off in half a dozen different directions but always coming together again in a kind of miracle of pace and timing.

“Madame George” is an impressionistic, wildly romantic take on a Northern Irish boyhood. I have never heard anyone within a hundred miles of Belfast say “Lord have mercy,” but it is Morrison’s absolute sincerity that adds credibility here and makes the song so wonderfully transcendent and endearing. This is many songwriters' favourite song from Bruce Springsteen to Harry Styles. Martin Scorsese apparently imagined the opening of Taxi Driver as an homage to Madame George and it comes up again and again in other movies too. 

The "get on the train, the train, the train" bit gets me every bloody time. 

In some CD versions of Astral Weeks the tracks have been re-arranged so that the album ends with “Madame George,” but I like the way it is on my old vinyl, giving me two songs to recover before flipping the record and playing the whole thing again.

Astral Weeks cultists used to be proud of their hermetic knowledge, but then in 2001 it went gold, in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it nineteenth on its list of Greatest Albums of All Time, and the British rock magazine Mojo put Astral Weeks second on their list. The secret was leaking out, and Van Morrison himself blew the gaff completely in 2008 by performing two Astral Weeks concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, which were subsequently released as a live album.

For me the record is not only a perfectly conceived work of art, but it is also an emotional journey into my own Belfast boyhood, and perhaps even a glimpse of a future Belfast where the scars of the 1970s and 1980s have faded, and the city can become again an ordinary provincial town where the idle street kids dream about music and girls rather than bullets and bombs