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Astral Decades
September 25, 2008 12:04 AM   Subscribe

“In the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what's more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” Lester Bangs on the topic of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks which began recording exactly 40 years ago today in Century Sound Studios NYC.

Released less than two months later, it might not have changed popular music forever. But it definitely changed a few lives.

A recent take on the title song by the man himself.

Glen Hansard's 2008 Bonaroo version, which proves it's really just rebel Irish folk after all.

A 1989 version of 1980's Summertime in England, just because.

The metaphysics of something or other.

That whole Lester Bangs essay.

A recent biography just in case you were under the impression that Van was actually a nice guy.
posted by philip-random (36 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good post. Great album! I don't agree with any of the essays above but I found something interesting in each of them and they caused me to listen again, a couple of times, to this great work of art.
posted by CCBC at 12:43 AM on September 25, 2008


Haven't clicked anywhere yet, but it turns out that this was the album I've been needing to listen to for weeks. The world is going to shit; I'm stoned and listening to Van. Thanks.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:34 AM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Anyone wishing to see videos without that big "VM" logo plastered over the action should leave YouTube and go here.

These days Van's vocal delivery, it usually seems kinda slurred, doesn't it? Like he's had one or two too many? I mean, I guess it's always been a little like that, but, I dunno, maybe it's just age.

I do recall seeing him on the Letterman show a few years back, though, and he had definitely knocked back a few... his performance was a bit of a shambles.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:51 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yet another website that changes the dimensions of my browser window. Whoever thought that functionality was a good idea?
posted by dunkadunc at 3:13 AM on September 25, 2008


Flapjax, I haven't seen him recently, but I did see him in the early 90s, with the JB horns. It was amazing. His delivery has never been terribly clear, but I suspect he's been on and off the wagon more than a few times.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:35 AM on September 25, 2008


I've never seen George Ivan live, I came close in 2001 in England, but couldn't risk the perfection of this album being ruined by an older reality.
Astral Weeks just takes my breath away with the layers and contrasts of complexity and simplicity. Lovely post.
posted by bystander at 3:46 AM on September 25, 2008


Yet to me, the whole of Astral Weeks, indeed, the whole of Van Morrison's subsequent career, is not worth one chorus of Brown-Eyed Girl, who real auteur was the great/loathsome Bert Berns, also responsible for Hang on Sloopy, Twist and Shout, Little Bit of Soap, etc. For that matter, the best of Morrison's post Bang Records career may not be worth the least cut of any Them album -- at least for some of us. Indeed, for some of us, Van Morrison was killed by exposure to the saxophone. I say all this to inform the Astral Weeks crowd, that there is an alternate universe out there that measures Morrison not by the greatness of Astral Weeks and beyond, but by all that went before, and to whom Astral Weeks was like the edge of a cliff -- he stepped from the cool, trig world of tight, pop authority into an abyss of jazzy-wazzy incoherence.
posted by Faze at 4:33 AM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


there is an alternate universe out there

Yeah, it's known as Bizarro World. Astral Weeks am bad record!

the whole of Astral Weeks, indeed, the whole of Van Morrison's subsequent career, is not worth one chorus of Brown-Eyed Girl

Sure, if you're an overweight divorcee requesting that it be played by the cover band at the trashy lakeside dive.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:44 AM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I've been meaning to re-listen to this album again for weeks now. Now I'm really going to have to.

"Jazzy-wazzy incoherence" or not, Faze, you can have it only by exhuming my corpse (you're not even going to be able to pry it out of my cold, dead hands).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:48 AM on September 25, 2008


Faze, I've disagreed with you on points here and there in the past, but I gotta give it up: "jazzy-wazzy incoherence" is a great phrase.

I'd say that Van Morrison's jazzy-wazziness, however, is not incoherent as much as it's just... banal. Over a bed of largely diatonic jazzy-wazziness, Van has been intoning a characteristically limited intervallic melodic vocabulary for decades now.

I don't hate it, by any means, but it's been very predictable for a long time now.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:10 AM on September 25, 2008


I liked the "playing Brown Eyed Girl 10,084 times every six minutes" comment in the something or other link. You got your humor in my despair. It's delicious.

Faze, I'm trying to reduce your statement to simplest terms, a la high school algebra, and keep getting "Spice Girls > John Coletrane". I'm not even counting on partial credit on that one.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:24 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not even counting on partial credit on that one.

That's a good thing, because you've misspelled "Coltrane". You must stay after class and write Ascension on the blackboard one thousand times.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:29 AM on September 25, 2008


Doh! Put all my effort into making sure I didn't type train for the second syllable and look what it got me.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:38 AM on September 25, 2008


I love Astral Weeks. But I think of it mainly as a Richard Davis-Connie Kay album with some Van Morrison vocals.
posted by neroli at 5:41 AM on September 25, 2008


...a Richard Davis-Connie Kay album with some Van Morrison vocals.

Yeah, that was a stellar bass/drums rhythm section he hired there! And don't forget Warren Smith on percussion, no slouch either!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:57 AM on September 25, 2008


I love the production on that album, nicely layered but all the layers are crystal clear; pretty rare for pop/rock records from that era. And agreed Richard Davis is awesome (listening to Cypress Avenue as I'm typing this)..
posted by p3t3 at 6:18 AM on September 25, 2008


I love Astral Weeks. After all this time, it still gets regular play in my house.

As for his more recent career, I still enjoy Poetic Champions Compose and The Healing Game. His new one, Keep It Simple, didn't impress me on the first few listens but it's growing on me.

Van hasn't really "stretched" in a long time, but his throwaway stuff is still better than most of the junk out there. Few artists can switch gears from folk to "jazzy-wazziness" to doo-wop as well as Van the Man.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:41 AM on September 25, 2008


Astral Weeks is a good record, but I'll have to agree with Faze that if you gave me the choice between keeping only it or his music from Them, my answer would be G-L-O-R, G-L-O-R-I-A....
posted by jonmc at 6:42 AM on September 25, 2008


For a definitive live version of Cyprus Avenue, you really need to listen to the album It's Too Late to Stop Now. For just over ten minutes Van swoops and climbs over hills and valleys building to an incredible climax. Just before the last crescendo, a fan yells "turn it on Van" and Van just purrs "it's turned on already". And then the band kicks in for a final roar. It's epic.
posted by Ber at 6:58 AM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Had I access to the YouTube at work, I'd put in a (for me) obligatory link to Jeff Buckley's cover of "The Way Young Lovers Do" from Live at Sin-é .

But I don't, so I won't. I will, however, say great post!
posted by SpiffyRob at 7:06 AM on September 25, 2008


Fortunately we don't have to choose between the snarly bored Richard Cory garage rocker and the mumbling soul-jazz shaman he became (any more than we have to choose War over the Animals or Ziggy over Let's Dance...) They're different moods for different moments and ranking them simply because they are different is immature. A lot of great garage rippers started to suck desperately on the corporate jimmy in the 70s (cf B. Seger or G. Earring) but Van wasn't one of them.

His hit have been nailed into our ears so much we miss the weird shambolic poetry...check out his 1980 album Common One if you want to hear the craziness refreshed.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:23 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Astral Weeks is one of the greatest albums ever. And yeah, Them made great rock-and-roll, and I really don't see the fucking point of saying one of them is better than the other. That kind of bullshit is what fuels stupid "best 100" debates. They're completely different kinds of music that satisfy different parts of your soul.

I love Astral Weeks. But I think of it mainly as a Richard Davis-Connie Kay album with some Van Morrison vocals.

That album is the first time I recognized the greatness of jazz bass (Motown introduced me to the greatness of rock bass [shoutout to James Jamerson]), and Richard Davis is the first jazz bassist I knew by name (Mingus was undoubtedly the second). I can still hear the opening bars of the album resonate in my mind, gut, and soul. Great playing, great record. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 7:45 AM on September 25, 2008


Heh. I took lessons from Richard Davis in high school. It was a scary experience when I hadn't practiced enough. My favorite record of his remains Heavy Sounds with Elvin Jones. I forget which album it was on, but he also recorded a gobsmackingly beautiful version of Thad Jones' A Child is Born.
posted by stet at 8:30 AM on September 25, 2008


it was the weirdest thing how I learned to love that album. I had been listening a lot to Jeff Buckley, and had (in particular) been obsessing over the double live cut of Live at Sin E, the one released posthumously. And on there, among practically a thousand stellar covers, are these just incredible covers of Sweet Thing and The Way That Young Lovers Do. As with many things, I learned to appreciate the original artist that everybody but me already knew was great only after hearing someone else cover their song. The same was true for me with Bob Dylan.

So I wanted to hear the original, and it did absolutely nothing for me. Being too young to have grown up ignorant of songs like Brown Eyed Girl, and Wild Night, the entire album just sounded like more syrupy, happy predictable Van Morrison stuff. I didn't like it when I first heard Brown Eyed girl, and I didn't like it when I first listened to Astral Weeks, either.

Later, reading Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, which is certainly a book for music lovers if nothing else, I came across his description of the main character listening to Astral Weeks "as if he didn't feel raw enough already." I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. So, I decided to give Astral Weeks another listen, with an ear open for some indication of raw emotion, of pain and anxiety.

Oh. So THAT'S why people love this album.

It's been regular pumped out of my speakers ever since. I find it amazing how easy it is to dismiss it if you didn't know a world without Van Morrison. I imagine that if you could hear the album when it first came out and could hear how unlike anything that came before it it was, it would almost be a revelation. I simply cannot comprehend a world without it, though. For all I love it, I still have to disassociate it from what I grew up knowing of Van Morrison when I listen to it.
posted by shmegegge at 8:41 AM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I love Astral Weeks but I have to say I prefer the odd R & B version of Madame George from the sessions that were eventually released as Bang Masters.
posted by grounded at 8:51 AM on September 25, 2008




Thanks for posting this. Spent my lunch hour at work in the park and listened to Astral Weeks on my iPod. I'll never get over how good this album is.
posted by smitt at 11:24 AM on September 25, 2008


Thanks for posting this homage to Van's Astral Weeks.

It's such a sublime song and piece of music.

I first heard this album on Mar 07 1970, age 16, the day of the solar eclipse. In Fishkill, upstate NY, with my then 25 year old school teacher, David, who I was having an affair with. He'd cut some white lightning acid on a matchbox and I licked the dust off the surface. Most stoned I've ever been in my life, whited out, scary for 8 hours. Hallucinated an undulating stairway to heaven. Astral Weeks brought me to Earth again, serenely, with such love.

Seeing Van Morrison that year at at a concert at Princeton University, he was so loose, mellow, fluid, his music very raga-like with a structure but so much improvisation. Decades later I found out he's not an easy-going person but an exacting musician, old fashioned and highly disciplined. This was unexpected and in seeming contrast with that blues-jazz flow of the sound. But then it reminds me of how Zen painting seems to be so 'free' but actually takes years of intense preparation. It makes me love Van the Man and his marvelous music all the more.
posted by nickyskye at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Most stoned I've ever been in my life, whited out, scary for 8 hours. Hallucinated an undulating stairway to heaven. Astral Weeks brought me to Earth again, serenely, with such love.

That's pretty much how I properly "discovered" the non-top-40 Van Morrison. The trip doesn't sound like it was as intense as yours and the song was actually "Listen to the Lion" from St Dominic's Preview ... but the man's unique take on music both ethereal and from the gut did definitely make planet earth look and feel and SOUND like a place returning to.

And I've been here ever since.
posted by philip-random at 2:07 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Astral Weeks is one of my very favourite albums.
posted by ob at 2:49 PM on September 25, 2008


Don't be downhearted, Faze, I agree with you. Back in the day, I used to persuade some of my hippie-dippie folk guitar playing friends to perform Sweet Thing, but only because it was the most hysterical thing that I'd ever heard in my life. We'd spend the whole song, vainly trying to suppress our laughter as they did that whole yowling, hooting caterwauling.

I disagree re. Brown Eyed Girl though. Even though Bert Berns is completely awesome, I always preferred Gloria myself.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:07 PM on September 25, 2008


I listened to it again today and still don't like it all that much. Give me Veedon Fleece any day.
posted by Manhasset at 5:36 PM on September 25, 2008


I "discovered" this album for myself on March 23rd of this year(that day i also put it into my itunes, that's how I know). I can't express my love for this album in a satisfying way, it is just so amazing. It is a rope bridge over an entire ocean. It makes me proud to be human.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:39 PM on September 25, 2008


I wished I could have posted earlier today. I sneaked a peek at MeFi today at work, but couldn't post. I just wanted to add that I too love Astral Weeks, and that "The Way Young Lovers Do" is my single favorite bass recording ever. That song is fantastic, the arrangement, the production, all of it, but that bass part just KILLS me.

I really wanted to get in earlier just to say that so some of you queuing up that album might take special notice of that song.
posted by glycolized at 7:57 PM on September 25, 2008


Don't be downhearted, Faze, I agree with you. Back in the day, I used to persuade some of my hippie-dippie folk guitar playing friends to perform Sweet Thing, but only because it was the most hysterical thing that I'd ever heard in my life. We'd spend the whole song, vainly trying to suppress our laughter as they did that whole yowling, hooting caterwauling.

Man, you remind of those die-hard folkies who never forgave Dylan for going electric in July 1965, living your life looking in the rear view mirror.
posted by philip-random at 11:12 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Mr. Morrison intends to revisit the seminal 1968 set in full in concert early next month, according to a Billboard.com report. He'll do this sweet thing at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl on November 7 and 8, reportedly with some help from a few of the musicians who played on the album."
posted by juliplease at 6:49 AM on October 3, 2008


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