Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The dirge to end all dirges

Peter Laughner was one of the original members of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu. Peter Laughner was once dubbed the "mad fool of the Cleveland punk movement." Peter Laughner wrote for Creem. Peter Laughner was a rather prodigious home recorder, taping countless hours of original material and cover songs. Peter Laughner allegedly cut this version of "Slim Slow Slider" the night before he passed away from acute pancreatitis, brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse. Peter Laughner once said, "I'm fucking drinking myself to death."

"Slim Slow Slider" is the most funereal track on Astral Weeks. In Laughner's hands, it becomes the dirge to end all dirges.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"That means I have you by the balls!"

Yet another post referencing my entry on the wonderful One Week // One Band blog:
Thanks to his pre-Them residencies with various Belfast showbands, the Irishman developed a keen sense of what's required to properly lead a backing band: knowing when to praise or chastise musicians (sometimes even on stage); getting a feel for what the audience is fancying or disliking; enforcing the attitude that every show is a singular experience. Morrison also perfected the ability to conduct his band via hand signals, flashing them behind his back while at the microphone. This is from a piece written by Hot Press journalist Jack Lynch:

"The call came at short notice, rehearsals were rushed and he had little time to become au fait with The Man's way of directing the band with hand signals. Come the first gig, everything went well until Van started them on 'Summertime in England,' a long-time highlight of the show and one where, if moved, he takes it WAY DOWN and plays with the dynamics of silence. [Irish drummer] Dave [Early] on his drum-riser is looking down on Van's back. The latter with a chopping movement signals the horns to drop out. Dave, with his eyes peeled, adjusts his stickwork. Another cryptic hand movement and now we're down to bass, Van's warbling and Dave, who has switched to brushes. The audience are rapt. There's the odd yelp and audible sigh. Another sign from Van: palm down as if gently bouncing a balloon. The bass has slowed to an intermittent pulse, Dave is now whispering with the brushes. Van has hitched his Zen caravan to THE MOMENT. Dave is bug-eyed, sweating. Van reaches his right hand behind his back to signal to him. The hand is upturned, claw-like and clenching open and closed. 'What the!' thinks Dave, 'if I take it down any more it won't be there at all.' SUDDENLY another handchop and the brass are back in and the band are in full flight down the final straight. Chatting with Van after the gig, Early mentions that he couldn't quite understand the 'clenched claw' signal. 'Oh that,' says Van, repeating the gesture. 'That means I have you by the balls!'"

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Like a wrung-out dishcloth"

There is one song that wasn't on Astral Weeks that is undeniably Astral Weeks-like in how it's executed: a specific feeling or sentiment or awareness or sensation blooms in Morrison, and he grips it firmly with both hands to prevent escape, stretches it taut and wide, quietly steps inside, explores with all five senses; then he lingers, waits for the appropriate point in time when he must fully articulate what he has perceived—through the strumming of his acoustic guitar, through particular phrases he binds together, through changes in the inflection of his voice, through emphasis placed on certain words—or else all will be irrecoverable: the feeling or sentiment or awareness or sensation will be sapped of its purity and vitality, faded like a photograph left out in the sun.

The song, of course, is "T.B. Sheets." Engineer Brooks Arthur, who was in the studio when Morrison cut the track for his first album, 1967's Blowin' Your Mind!, said the Irishman collapsed in on himself when he completed its recording (it was done in just two takes): "He was just torn apart. He was sitting on the floor in a heap like a wrung-out dishcloth, completely spent emotionally." Unsurprisingly, Morrison's take on the nearly 10-minute opus was a bit understated: "It's drama, isn't it? The blues are drama. That's what I picked up from it."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Crisp, shiny wrapping paper

Why are we here? Not because we are tormented by the quantity of visits our drivel can generate. And certainly not because our meandering dissertations could draw attention to our flair for wordsmithing and inevitably deliver us to bigger/better/brighter things. We are here because we wish to rub elbows with other Astral Weeks fanatics. Like the duder who cut the remix of "Slim Slow Slider" linked here.

It's constructed from simple parts: bleats of John Payne's soprano saxophone, snatches of Van Morrison's acoustic guitar—bits of vocals, such as Morrison's murmuring of the song's title, the line "tell it everywhere you go," and his purring of the word "morning" during the two occasions in which he sings "down by the Ladbroke Grove this morning." This remix is simply glorious—like an old, treasured plaything put in crisp, shiny wrapping paper and then tenderly presented as a new gift.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Live it in these extremes"

This is an episode of "Sound Opinions," which airs on Chicago's WBEZ 91.5. The show is hosted by music critics Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune. (I suppose their gig is the music dork's answer to "At the Movies".) Awhile back, the pair spent 35 minutes or so vivisecting Astral Weeks. Here are a few of the highlights.

Kot discussing "Astral Weeks": "This track builds and builds to this crescendo of feeling and then slowly recedes and literally it's like the trembling of the leaves in a summer breeze at the end. With the fiddles shivering and the bass underneath it all and Morrison's voice finally descending into a whisper."

Kot discussing Astral Weeks: "Do we have to experience a little death in ourselves in order to live life to its fullest? It goes back to that deep, deep feeling and the only way to live life is to live it in these extremes."

DeRogatis discussing Astral Weeks: "He was fascinated with this idea of how does one transcend the everyday, how do you find heaven on earth. In large part, what Astral Weeks is about is you find it in love, in true love. Now he has a lot of definitions of love and that includes pain ... You gotta suffer to get the reward."

DeRogatis discussing "Cyprus Avenue": "Is it him as an older man looking back on the past that he did have and the joys that he had? Is it the past he wished he had?"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

All missives went unanswered

I messaged Sarah St. Catherine in an effort to gather meditations and musings regarding the unique approach she took in covering Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks." However, all missives went unanswered. I don't take it personally; she's not the first, nor will she be the last.

What I was able to puzzle out on my own: St. Catherine's rendition of Astral Weeks' opener is like a slow-moving, misty dream; illusion and beauty coalesce into a singular moment that lingers long after rousing. Where Morrison applies urgency and spontaneity, St. Catherine chooses perfection and precision. Every note—whether from a bass or a mandolin or a pedal steel guitar—is wholly perfect.

On the original, Morrison's vocals betray a fresh blankness; he has emptied his heart of all feeling. "There you go!" he emphatically sings on four occasions, a message to the listener that he has reached the boundaries of personal expression and that all verdicts are left to the listener. St. Catherine's cover is her verdict, a declaration that there's something gorgeous and purifying to being all hollowed out, that when one is finally emotionally empty they have officially taken the first stride on the path to being filled up once more. It's a statement that even the most tensely coiled original song can be pulled taut and straight by another artist.