I love Van Morrison, but I have a confession to make. I don’t like Astral Weeks. I’ve always found it much easier to admire than to love, but that all changed this week on the daily roadtrip between Limerick and Cork…
I have been a Van Morrison fan for just about as long as I can remember. I remember being introduced to him in the mid 1980s. I was vaguely familiar with him as someone whose name was dropped frequently in conversations in our kitchen between my sister, Yvonne, and her ever so windswept and interesting friends from college (she’s seven years older than me, and when you’re a sixteen year old boy, a 23-year-old female sibling, that’s a bit of generation gap. Anyway.) as they used to go see him play back in the days when he was a regular fixture in performance at the Grand Opera House and The Ulster Hall.
It wasn’t until Yvonne took me along to The Ulster Hall to see Van Morrison play at The Ulster Hall for my birthday that I really understood that the reverential tones in which his name were uttered were entirely appropriate. That’s when I started to read about him, and become aware of the landmark Astral Weeks album. Naturally, I went out and bought it, and… well, I was disappointed. All of the songs are brilliant (bar one; The Way Young Lovers Do is the turkey of this album), but I found the arrangements and instrumentation, while completely unique, shrill and headache inducing.
Hey, I was only 17, right? But my first impression was that the slower songs, mostly, worked best, and beautifully so. Madame George is gorgeous, uplifting and heartbreaking all at once. Slim Slow Slider is a beauty as well. Sweet Thing is a graceful performance indeed. But Cyprus Avenue and Ballerina, which move so deftly, seem by their conclusions to be swamped in an excess of strings, flute and keyboard flourishes; not lush like Mantovani, but something harsher. I also thought (still do) that The Way Young Lovers Do was a complete mess. And (sacrilege!) the title track starts brilliantly before Richard Davis moves up to the upper fretboard of his bass in a virtuoso display of musicianship that I just found unnecessarily fussy. I won’t even begin to describe how difficult I found it to listen to Beside You. And the lack of restraint in Van Morrison’s voice on this album didn’t for me, do it any favours on a first listening.
Times change. I’ve grown to respect and admire Astral Weeks a great deal. However, I’ve never really loved it. Until this week. This week it was the soundtrack for my daily commute to work between Limerick and Cork. Perhaps it was the weather, which created a lush green landscape of fields all misty wet with rain. But it’s more likely that I wasn’t listening to the original work, but rather the ’Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl’ CD from a few years back, which I recently borrowed from the library.
Interestingly, it probably works so well because Van himself is less abandoned vocally, singing in a much chestier register than he was some 30 years earlier, but also, the musicians, while adhering to the unique Astral Weeks instrumental mesh of acoustic guitar, upright bass, drums, strings and flute, are more the servants of the songs, and the live mix is balanced without being slick. What’s lost—that edge of the seat sensation that Van and his musicians are going to take off and soar skyward—is compensated for by a hypnotic, pulsing groove, that seduces rather than shouts.
Seduction is probably a word most people would prefer not to associate with Van Morrison. But he’s finally managed to get this beautiful body of work across to this listener at least (not that my listening habits are causing him many sleepless nights), and made me see, finally, what motivated the great writer Lester Bangs to write his essay on ‘Astral Weeks’ in 1979, a piece of writing that I’ve always held in much higher regard than the album he is writing about. Until now that is.
“I believe I’ve transcended…” Van sings at the end of the live version of the title track. I believe he has. Absolutely brilliant. It may even prompt me to revisit the original album. Now where did I put those Nurofen…