Friday, August 30, 2013

Painstakingly remade

This is Astral Weeks modernized. Fitting, I suppose, because over the past 15 years Belfast has been painstakingly remade. Murals become a primer coat for compositions less incendiary. Hulking, glistening, tapering edifices are constructed of silver-anodized aluminium shards.

StraightFace's cover of "Astral Weeks" is equally novel and synthetic. It's a track with an electronic bent; sequenced notes emulate notes that once emerged from human bellies. It firmly grasps the soul of Van Morrison's original song and gently places it inside a chest fashioned from sparkling plastic.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


This is one of my recent favorite exchanges on the subject of Astral Weeks' merit and worth. It was snipped from PopMatters' ongoing Counterbalance series, which features writers Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn deconstructing and vivisecting music's quote/unquote great albums. Essentially, it's the music-crit equivalent of two men shattering a deer with their car and then getting out and fingering the viscera, and tossing around astute and witty observations regarding the consistency, blush, and fragrance of the guts.
Mendelsohn: I'm not saying it doesn't deserve the accolades, but Astral Weeks (and I feel a bit silly saying this) may be the least accessible record we've talked about thus far ... Astral Weeks is a rambling record with a heavy jazz influence, lyrics that rival beat poets, and the average track goes on for seven minutes. It's no wonder no one cared when it came out.

Klinger: See, now this is one of those times where you and I can say the exact same sentence and mean the exact opposite. After all, Astral Weeks is a rambling record with a heavy jazz influence, lyrics that rival beat poets—and the average track goes on for seven minutes! What's not to love?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


On a brick wall along my own private Cyprus Avenue—a Cyprus Avenue I hold deep inside, a Cyprus Avenue that's encircled, swathed, and gently paved over my soul—there are words written in a fine and flowing hand, words penned with paint made from charcoal, children's spit, and animal fat. They lie beneath the shade of Austrian pine and common lime: "I wonder if it seems to you / Luriana Lurillee / That all the lives we ever lived / And all the lives to be / Are full of trees and waving leaves." This is from "A Garden Song," a poem by 19th century English politician Charles Isaac Elton. They're Astral Weeks-like in both essence and substance, no?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Personal dispatch #6

This is a dispatch from Modal Roberts, who cut a rather spastic and unnerving rendition of "Astral Weeks." Dubbed "Astral Weeks Suicide" (and recorded under the pseudonym Johns Original Wife), it's unlike any Van Morrison cover I have heard. It transforms a gorgeous paean to rebirth into a ferociously deranged assault on your soft, white soul; it's music to be damned to. It's like a long, steaming piss on a bed of dahlias. It's No Wave having a thumb war with Celtic soul. Roberts provided a little background on the recording of the song.
I like the whole of Astral Weeks not just the one song and would like to cover more tracks from it.

[This] is an improvisation with me doing vocals and a friend doing keyboard. The idea was to do the song in the style of New York electronic duo Suicide. I am a big fan of theirs, too. It seemed like fun to take Astral Weeks from its pastoral, acoustic setting and transplant it into an alien, urban, electro environment, while still keeping its poetry intact.

It was just something we did to amuse ourselves and I haven't listened to it for ages. But listening now, I think it sounds pretty good. I like the energy and the impro around the lyrics—pulling in a bit of Moondance even!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Meagerly Yeatsian"

The adjective "Yeatsian" incessantly nips at Van Morrison's heels. Where the blame lies is not so much Morrison's verses and choruses, but persistent talking points. For every verse he committed to exploring themes even casually associated with mysticism, he devoted three interviews to prattling on about the creative, otherworldly impulses behind such lyrics.

Critics, biographers, and fans have seemingly identified instances of mysticism in just about every deep fold and shallow crevice in the Morrison catalogue. W.B. Yeats and the singer/songwriter are frequently and enthusiastically cited as two peas in an ethereal pod. The opening of Steve Turner's book Too Late to Stop Now features a full-page photograph of Morrison sitting pensively among sunset-colored drop cloths and lagoon-colored drop cloths, complete with a Yeats quote for the caption: "Above all, it is necessary that the lyric poet's life be known, that we should understand that his poetry is no rootless flower but the speech of a man."

The reality is Morrison's indebtedness to Yeats is overblown at best, disingenuous at worst. "Marginally Yeatsian" is a more promising description or "meagerly Yeatsian" or even "Yeatsian to such a tiny degree it's hardly worth discussing with friends over pints or with strangers at bus stops." Morrison's writing style is beholden to no single influence other than his own quote/unquote cleverness. It's why the task of penning lyrics often finds him guilty of committing the most unconscionable artistic sins. From biographer Johnny Rogan: "Meaningless repetition, poorly thought-out imagery, cloying sentimentality, cosmic buffoonery, faux and gratuitous literary name-dropping, heavy-handed symbolism or decorative words employed purely for their poetic association are all there in embarrassing abundance."

Morrison's true intersections with Yeats: his "Before the World Was Made" appeared on 1997's Now and in Time to Be: A Musical Celebration of the Works Of W.B. Yeats; also, his intent was to record a musical adaptation of the poem "Crazy Jane on God" for 1985's A Sense of Wonder, but he was denied permission by Yeats' executors, which prompted a sullen Morrison to respond, "I thought I was doing them a favor—my songs are better than Yeats."

Nonetheless, despite spending several hundred words poking holes in any Morrison-Yeats parallels, there are three Yeats lines that have long reminded me of Morrison and his Belfast home:

"Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn / Come clear of the nets of wrong and right"

"But I, being poor, have only my dreams / I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams"

"I had this thought a while ago / 'My darling cannot understand / What I have done, or what would do / In this blind, bitter land"

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Free of doctrinal baggage

I suppose it's impossible to curate a blog that casts a penetrating eye on a city blighted by centuries-old sectarian hatreds and never explore matters of religious doctrine and faith. So here we go ... Two recent essays analyze the notion that individuals heavily immersed in religion suffer from a dearth of creativity. From Rod Dreher's piece:
We live in a time and a place in which people with creative gifts are enveloped by an ethos of expressive individualism, a way of seeing the world that rejects accepting the disciplines of religion and tradition, and poses them as threats to creativity—which, for the artist, means a threat to his sense of self.
Of course, Dreher does write in generalities (as does the author of the other essay I linked) and is quick to deliver the caveat that there are obviously creative types who use their hands to clasp prayer beads just as often as they use them to work with clays, and that embracing atheism will not punch your ticket to the Met. Nonetheless, both writers draw conclusions that I find myself arriving at whenever I infrequently contemplate what sparks creativity and what stymies it.

Creativity thrives on confrontation, curiosity, and change. Creativity embraces what's prickly and strange, and in extraordinary instances, what's dangerous. Creativity flourishes when a particular kind of emotional responsiveness to the world—one that's pure, impartial, and a tad sophisticated—is not only permitted, but encouraged.

The religious mind? It can offer resistance to the influences detailed above. It's a product of static restrictions and tightly-held covenants and a colorless stability where no questions are asked. Religion is wonderful at encouraging a rather empty single-mindedness. I'm reminded of a quote by a German theologian and philosopher named Meister Eckhart: "If you focus too narrowly on a single path to God, all you will ever find is the path."

How does all of this apply to Van Morrison? Well, the singer-songwriter was raised by an atheist father and a mother whose dalliance with the Jehovah Witnesses was attributed more to a quest for self-improvement rather than atonement for her soul. ("I wouldn't describe my mother as religious," Morrison said. "I think that would annoy her. She's a free-thinker.") Morrison was raised without the doctrinal baggage countless others from Belfast carry. His faith was rooted in a passion for creative thinking and self-expression, rather than narrow creeds and dogma. Outside the confining perimeters of religion, he pursued the belief that one can be wholly spiritual without being fiercely devout. Astral Weeks is a brilliant testament to this.

"I saw so many Catholics and Protestants for whom religion was a burden," Morrison once observed. "There was enormous pressure and you had to belong to one or the other community. Thank God my parents were strong enough not to give in to this pressure."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Belfast's answer to Andy Warhol

Those individuals with starring roles in the Astral Weeks story generally made their influence felt during the album's gestation period and later birth: producer Lewis Merenstein, who assembled Van Morrison's legendary backing talent; Berklee School of Music students Tom Kielbania and John Payne, who collaborated with Morrison and aided him in bringing precious purity to his misty early versions of Astral Weeks' compositions; Richard Davis, whose potent basslines are like the first quick, decisive strokes a painter makes upon a canvas.

Then there's those who had bit parts in the story, persons who made an impact that was more subtle and removed. Like Cecil McCartney, a bloviating, quirky Belfast School of Art student who Morrison chummed around with during the summer of 1966. McCartney—described as "Belfast's answer to Andy Warhol" and "the original space cadet" (those may have been his own words)—had a catalog of passions that allegedly awed Morrison: astrology, alchemy, vegetarianism, Buddhism, meditation. ("I was one of the first intellectual, thinking people that he [Van] met," McCartney bragged.)

At McCartney's personal studio in Bangor, Morrison was so impressed with one of the art student's paintings it inspired the title of the album on which he reached his creative pinnacle. "Van looked at the painting and it suggested astral travelling to him," McCartney remembered. "I don't think I went into very deep explanations as to what the paintings were about. Most of my paintings at that time, the misty stuff, was based on atmospheric effects like Turner would have painted, but it was also very heavy, biological, metaphoric shapes ... Probably the influence of psychedelia, although I didn't use psychedelic drugs. I was on a natural high."