The untold story of how Van Morrison fled record-industry thugs
April 11, 2018 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Astral Weeks is widely regarded as one of the best albums in the rock ’n’ roll canon. Martin Scorsese claims the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver are based on it. Philip Seymour Hoffman quoted it in his Oscar acceptance speech. Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.” Legendary music critic Lester Bangs declared it the most significant record in his life, a “mystical document.” It is also an album that was planned, shaped, and rehearsed here, in and around Boston and Cambridge. This fact has been a sort of secret kept in plain view.

The Boston Globe story answers the obvious question: why was he in Boston?

"Astral Weeks was born out of sheer desperation, conceived at a time when Morrison was trapped in the world’s worst recording contract and evading record-industry thugs."
posted by jenkinsEar (37 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Van Morrison is a genius and this album has been a long-time favorite of mine. Thanks, jenkinsEar, for posting this great background story.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:54 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


i read walsh's book - it's a fascinating account of all sorts of things around boston - it even mentions peter rowan and earth opera - and lou reed mentoring jonathan richman ...
posted by pyramid termite at 11:09 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


So this was the same bad contract that he recorded songs like "Want A Danish" to fulfill?
posted by thelonius at 11:09 AM on April 11 [6 favorites]


So this was the same bad contract that he recorded songs like "Want A Danish" to fulfill?

Yep. This mystic ethereal celestial poetry was simmering in the back of his head, waiting to be born, while he was singing about ringworm.

This is one of my personal "desert island discs" and the lyrics to the title track wormed their way right into me upon first hearing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:14 AM on April 11 [11 favorites]


Morrison was trapped in the world’s worst recording contract and evading record-industry thugs.

How he got out of that contract is an entertaining story as well.

*oop on edit what the other guys said*
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:18 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


I actually kinda like Ring Worm.

Astral Weeks is an astonishing album. It's like the epitome of "holds up".
posted by parki at 11:20 AM on April 11 [3 favorites]


The bizarro recordings that Van Morrison did as a stratagem to get out of his contract with Bang Records are just completely bugfuck, batshit insane. They are songs written by a very talented guy, but they are deliberately written so as to be absolutely unreleasable. That's why you get songs like "Want a Danish" and "You Say France and I Whistle," but what's interesting to me is how the phrasing and breath control of the vocals is almost totally the same style as Astral Weeks, but done with complete filler lyrics done as a Fuck You.

For example, instead of singing lines like

"youbreatheoutyoubreatheinyoubreathoutyoubreathin"

like he would on Astral Weeks or his early 70s LPs, you get Van Morrison doing the same thing with

"wannadanishwannadanishwannadanishwaahuhanadaaaaaayniiiiiish."

It is madness, but aye, there is method in it.
posted by jonp72 at 11:26 AM on April 11 [12 favorites]


Astral Weeks is in my Top 5, despite the fact that I am completely meh about pretty much everything else Van Morrison has ever done (I appreciate his talent, but most of the time it is applied to songs that just aren't my jam). But Astral Weeks is perfect. This is a great article!
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:37 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Legend has it he once threw Tiny Tim off a boat because he didn’t like the look of him.

Tough but fair.
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:40 AM on April 11 [29 favorites]


Hey, that record has my high school bass teacher on it!
posted by stet at 11:43 AM on April 11 [5 favorites]




Hey, that record has my high school bass teacher on it!

iirc, Richard Davis played bass on Astral Weeks....he taught at your high school? Or you took lessons from him when you were in high school?
posted by thelonius at 11:52 AM on April 11


One of my favorite albums, forever and ever. A titan. A thousand hearts.
posted by Miko at 12:01 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I took lessons from him in high school while he was a professor at UW. It was kind of a trip.
posted by stet at 12:01 PM on April 11 [5 favorites]


I took lessons from him in high school while he was a professor at UW. It was kind of a trip.

Wow! Did you have any idea you were taking lessons from one of the top bass players? I remember reading a guy's recollections of taking lessons with Jimmy Garrison in high school, and having basically no idea how fortunate that was.
posted by thelonius at 12:04 PM on April 11


Morrison lived on Green Street?
posted by pracowity at 12:17 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I did know. My mother really did me a solid for hooking that one up. Also, when I asked him if he played on 'Walk on the Wild Side" (he did not), he told me he had no idea on account of he was playing a lot of sessions then and couldn't keep track. It is entirely possible that he doesn't remember playing on this album.

It's also entirely possible that I saw him play with Clyde Stubblefield and didn't realize it. Fucking youth is wasted on the young.
posted by stet at 12:21 PM on April 11 [7 favorites]


I took lessons from him in high school while he was a professor at UW. It was kind of a trip.

Richard Davis is an astonishing player - I actually just stopped while cooking breakfast over the weekend to pay attention to what he's doing on Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack". The diversity and quality of his work as both a leader and a sideman puts him up there with the greatest American bassists.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:46 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Sound Opinions has a great episode about Astral Weeks, which is what first turned me on to it.
posted by frogmanjack at 12:56 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I first heard Astral Weeks all the way through when I started seeing a new guy several years ago and he'd put it on at the start of sexytimes. I wish I could still listen to it, but unfortunately that guy ripped my heart out and ate it in front of me and now when I hear any of the songs from that album my stomach flips over and I just can't listen. That'll teach me to bang it out to any music that's actually good, from now on I only get down to Yakety Sax I guess.
posted by palomar at 1:00 PM on April 11 [28 favorites]


The Boston Globe story answers the obvious question: why was he in Boston?

Presumably he was just a big fan of the song "Dirty Water" and wanted to see all the fuss was about.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:25 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


One day, Sheldon says, “Van came over to the house in Cambridge and he said that he had a dream and in the dream there were no more electric instruments. So he got rid of the drummer
Yeah, man, go natural!

...wait, the drummer?
posted by clawsoon at 1:49 PM on April 11 [13 favorites]


Once again I plug Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, who did a show on Astral Weeks on April 1.
Deeper Into the Mystic: More Thoughts on the Meaning of Van Morrison’s Story[newsletter link]. Van Morrison’s Cosmic Accident [episode]. This Week: The Secret Boston Story of Van Morrison’s epic album — with Ryan Walsh, John Payne [played flute and sax on Astral Weeks], Paul Muldoon and Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs.
As usual with this show, deep and smart conversation. I'm a latecomer to Astral Weeks, and this helps me appreciate it even more.
posted by conscious matter at 1:56 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]


and ummm, previously ...
posted by philip-random at 2:27 PM on April 11


First link doesn't work for me "This video is no longer available."

Astral Weeks is indeed a masterpiece, second only to Veedon Fleece, not just the greatest Van Morrison album ever but the greatest album, imo.
posted by dobbs at 2:33 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]


I've lived in the area for more than two decades and had no idea. Nor have I ever listened to Astral Weeks.

With Patriots Day coming up Monday, I now know what I'm doing this weekend. Thanks for posting this evocative story.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:17 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


MeFi folks are just killin' it these days with music posts. AW is also near the top of the list for me, and i've only just been listening to Van a lot lately again after some time off. It's amazing how many live shows have surfaced in the past few years, and hearing him during this period is such a treat.

I agree with Dobbs that the only full album I'd rather listen to is Veedon Fleece. So good.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:53 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Don't get me wrong, Astral Weeks is a worthy album, but there's one guy in every crowd who prefers Moondance no matter the heaps of critical adulation heaped upon the former. I am that guy.
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:32 PM on April 11


Listening to Astral Weeks right now and getting blown away by it once again. How the hell does a 22 year old write something like "Sweet Thing"?
posted by octothorpe at 5:57 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]


Well, Dot was probably no older than 20 when she wrote Sweet Thing.
posted by mubba at 6:19 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]


Not the first genius caught in a shit contract.

And not one of those albums you can just put on for background music.

Good deal. They don't make 'em like that any more. Now I've just gotta carve out an hour to actually learn how to listen again. Can I still do that?
posted by Twang at 6:44 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Now I've just gotta carve out an hour to actually learn how to listen again. Can I still do that?

Yes. Put on this record, and just lie down on the carpet and listen. It's literally easier than watching netflix.
posted by weed donkey at 8:23 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


One of the best rock and roll albums for sure. Great post, didn't know this story. Also seconding Veedon Fleece as Van's other masterpiece... Though Saint Dominic's Preview ain't bad either.

er, thirding Veedon Fleece on edit
posted by SystematicAbuse at 6:13 AM on April 12


Needed this.
posted by filtergik at 6:31 AM on April 12


Damn that Boston Magazine article hit the sweet spot, how cool to think of Van and Peter Wolf hanging out together. Astral Weeks is my go to disc for when the shit gets heavy.
posted by e1c at 12:59 PM on April 12


Many years later, Van's Too Long in Exile included this song - Big Time Operators.
posted by megatherium at 2:29 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


This album.

Goes too deep for me to put into words, so thanks to everyone above for doing such a wonderful job expressing your relationship to this lp.
posted by ezust at 6:46 AM on April 14


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