Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wiping our feet

Liz Lupton, a publicist at Berklee College of Music, wipes her feet on the sidewalk, a gesture akin to someone vigorously wiping their shoes on a doormat following a long walk through heavy mud. We breathe in the late autumn air, squint as our eyes adjust to the afternoon daylight. "I went to college in Indiana and lived with four girls," Lupton tells me, "and our place wasn't nearly as gross."

Lupton and I are standing outside 1120 Bolyston Street in downtown Boston. The busy block is part of Berklee's sprawling urban campus; students dart past alone or in groups, carrying unwieldy instrument cases and oversized knapsacks. Had I the need to form a competent backing band, a 30-second canvassing of my immediate area would have unearthed all the necessary musicians (I may have even saw a flugelhorn). My thoughts suddenly turn to Van Morrison and how he just did that—right here, at Berklee, one of the world's most prestigious music schools. And how night after night for months, a pair of young music students followed him through the battered door behind me, down a long set of stairs and onto a tiny stage, where they performed to crowds of varying degrees of size and enthusiasm.

I'm standing outside 1120 Bolyston Street, site of an old music club known as the Catacombs. If the place where Astral Weeks' heart began beating was Morrison's cramped bedroom in Belfast, then it was here at the Catacombs that the album took its first sharp breaths.

More to come ...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mouse-shit-filled hallways

So I ambled through (what I believe was once) The Catacombs. One, two stories below 1120 Bolyston St. I explored mouse-shit-filled hallways. Passed through rank, darkened spaces; crept down steep, deserted stairwells. Came up for air, rubbed my eyes on a coat sleeve.

I will eventually post more about my adventure. Still sorting out the conflicting and interesting information I have received regarding The Catacombs and its whereabouts. But I have to say: The place I visited certainly felt like it. There, the living sang unaccompanied and the dead harmonized.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"A lot of allegory"

Elliott Smith died 10 years ago yesterday. I mention this on a blog dedicated to Astral Weeks because of a passage I read in Pitchfork's oral history of Smith's music:
DORIEN GARRY: But it would infuriate him when people asked him what his lyrics were about. He really hated having to have an answer for what every character and every story was. Music was a way of channeling thoughts and feelings that were bigger than him into art, and he didn't feel like he owed every single person an explanation of what everything was about.

LARRY CRANE: His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It's his own life, but it's a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.
This ran parallel to an excerpt from Clinton Heylin's biography of Van Morrison, Can You Feel the Silence?, which analyzed the Irishman's approach to songwriting:
Morrison has always fiercely resisted autobiographical interpretations of his songs, often in the face of indubitable evidence ... And yet it seems quite inconceivable that such a young, inexperienced writer could construct such an internally consistent universe, and place at its centre a girl perfectly suited to her surroundings, save from personal experience.
Along with Astral Weeks, Smith's self-titled release is among my favorite 20 or so albums of all time.

Friday, October 18, 2013

An autumn impression (featuring beer)

On Saturday, I sat lazily atop a picnic table, drinking beer from a can, relishing how the White Mountains' autumn days—no matter how cloudy or cloudless—always feel so pleasantly low-lit, like when you turn down the dimmer switch in a room. Happily seduced by one of those "lonely intervals where the afternoon lingered" (so described by Henry James in his essay "New England: An Autumn Impression"), I watched the leaves lightly fall from a small maple tree. There was no soft breeze, no animal darting along a branch, no fat raindrops; each leaf's pleasing departure and descent was not the consequence of another event. They fell simply because it was time to fall. It was all so cosmically pure and epic. I opened another beer.

I thought of Astral Weeks and wondered if when the album was recorded—three fall days in 1968: Sept. 25, and Oct. 1 and 15—had any influence on its mood and tone. Autumns in my foliage-bedecked corner of the world are dominated by flashes of warmth and pangs of loneliness. It's like walking back and forth between one room with a fire on the hearth and another without. Exploring the Jackson/North Conway area's diabolically twisted back roads, I saw a man whose skin was flushed red from physical exertion and at his feet were brown, crumbled husks and they were trampled into the cold, acrid earth and I thought, Okay, so that's autumn.

In the fall, you feel quite alive among the death and decay. This contrasting state of affairs spurs reflection on where you are, where you've been, and where you are going. You are strengthened by the future, weakened by the past, tormented by the last vestiges of color, emboldened by a promise of rebirth. You are enchanted by the cold steel of a vacant railroad bridge, an empty swimming hole, a forlorn-looking skiff for sale on a yellowed lawn, a deserted diner advertising homemade pumpkin bread, a lone church steeple set against a vibrant backdrop, cold rain pelting an air conditioner left in a window. Do we hear any of that in Astral Weeks? Possibly just a little bit? Maybe?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A diagnosis and a prescription

Here's a story from well-known music critic Steve Hyden. The gist is rather straightforward: Hyden submits suggestions to artists regarding what directions they should go on their next releases. Writes Hyden: "I picked these artists because (for a variety of reasons) they seem like they could use a little album-doctoring."

In case you're all clicked-out right now, I will post one of Hyden's prescriptions. This one is intended for Madonna, who recently mentioned the possibility of a new album in 2014. (Quick and boring aside: Hyden's prescription for Madonna was the one I found myself agreeing with the most, primarily because I've willingly dismissed her oeuvre with the exception of ballads such as "Live to Tell" and "Oh Father"—ballads that conflate sentimentality with slickness so effortlessly I found them poignant at age 14, schlocky at 24, and then crushingly poignant at 34.)
The diagnosis: The last 30 years of pop music would look and sound very different were it not for Madonna—on this point we can all agree. What's debatable is what exactly people want from a Madonna record now that she's in her mid-fifties. Do we want Madonna to make 12 songs that re-create the sound of "Lucky Star" and "Into the Groove?" Or do we want her to work with hip producers in order to "reinvent" herself?

The prescription: Actually, I'd like to see Madonna avoid dance music altogether. Instead, I think she should spotlight her ballad-singer side. Madonna's slow songs are typically undervalued, but I think they rank among her best: "Crazy for You," "Live to Tell," "Oh Father," "Rain," "Take a Bow," "Frozen," and so on. I'd love to see her make a dark, borderline goth record reflecting the unique perspective of a pop diva several decades deep into the game. (Sort of like a Bat for Lashes record meets Dylan's Time Out of Mind.) She can always follow it up with a greatest-hits tour, but this kind of album would be unique in her catalogue and potentially stand out as one of her most intense and rewarding.
Feeling beaten and uninspired, I whipped up a prescription and diagnosis for Van Morrison—one that would have been penned by 1969's answer to Hyden and came on the heels of the tepidly received Astral Weeks.

The diagnosis: A half-decade into his career and already Van Morrison has become a frontman of startling ferocity. Belfast blues, ginger-haired soul, three-cord power anthems—whatever type of canvas Morrison is painting upon, he invariably does so with brute power and sharp clarity. However, Astral Weeks felt like a misstep, a meandering and bloated heap of self-indulgence. With his mentor, Bert Berns, cold in the ground and a new label, Warner Bros., eager to please their Irish wunderkind, the 23-year-old Morrison was left to his own devices. He ultimately strove for epic and ended up sounding overwrought.

The prescription: Astral Weeks' lone strength was its effusive appreciation for a particular time and place: Morrison's adolescence in Belfast. In a way, he was returning to his roots. Morrison's next album should do much of the same—only this time, go a bit further back, all the way to his prepubescent years. What if Morrison stepped out from behind the cluster of notable jazz musicians that sheltered him on Astral Weeks, shelved his notable gruff persona, and tackled the airy and lighthearted folk songs many of his contemporaries (including some of the Irish variety) are covering? How wonderful would it be to hear Morrison inject his trademark uncurbed exuberance into kiddy ditties like "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," "The Unicorn," and "The Marvelous Toy?" After the debacle that was Astral Weeks, such a youthful shift in direction would be rewarding to both Morrison and his fans.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Distant music

From James Joyce's "The Dead":
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
Gretta, we're informed, was listening to "The Lass of Aughrim." Saturday morning, as the strains of "Beside You" played softly in my subconscious, gleefully trapped in my bed, a book balanced on my chest, I pretended rather foolishly that Gretta was paralyzed by Astral Weeks.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Personal dispatch #8

This is a dispatch from Ferdia Dwane, who recorded a pair of crisp, clean covers of Astral Weeks tracks. Dwane's voice splendidly strains to reach the upper registers; his guitar strumming is brisk and expressive, yet always controlled. He provided a bit of background information, as well as why he performed these particular songs.
I am from Cork in Ireland, 21 years old. I've been playing music since I was a child. I don't perform very frequently in a public setting (outside of family occasions), but I plan on performing more over the next year. I am a huge fan of Astral Weeks; out of the many records I own I would consider it my favourite.

Honestly, the reason I chose those two songs to cover was just a matter of wanting to cover songs off Astral Weeks and realising those two were probably the most straightforward to learn. I generally record all my music in my house, mostly in my bedroom using a Zoom H2 microphone and GarageBand. Recording takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. But with these tracks they were thrown down pretty quick.