Friday, December 20, 2013

This is about Astral Weeks; this is not about Astral Weeks

In what is possibly the most edifying commencement speech of our time, David Foster Wallace sketched out a rough outline of adulthood for Kenyon College's Class of 2005. Middle age's defining battle will not take place in the home, the workplace, or a fast-food drive-thru line. No, according to Wallace, this battle will take place inside us, for surviving those middle years is predicated upon whether or not we can muster the strength to "stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out" and endure the "large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches ... boredom, routine, and petty frustration." Wallace, I should mention at this point, hung himself when he was 46.

When I was the same age as the graduates Wallace enlightened, I freelanced for a variety of local weeklies. On deadline nights, I hung around the office of my old college newspaper, chatting with friends who had yet to graduate, extolling them on the merits of a career in the newspaper industry (this was 1996—things were grand). I drank cans of cheap domestic beer, hammered out countless inches of freelance copy, and dispatched stories to my editors via the newspaper's fax machine. I wrote drunk, but only because the banality of high school sportswriting demanded I do so.

One night, I drove a friend from the office to his apartment in Brighton. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that terribly profound heart-to-hearts generally take place in automobiles, so as we rode through Boston—orange streetlights dancing across the windshield, our faces masks of shadowy tension, the song on the radio echoing our conversation—we chatted about post-college life and the transition into adulthood. The phrase "Please kill me if I am still hanging at the college newspaper in 10 years" was heard more than once; we lamented our lack of decent job prospects. This is what we primarily discussed: failure—how it would take shape, when it would confront us, what it would feel like to be utterly squashed by it. Because when you're awarded that freshly embossed diploma and endlessly alerted to the certain triumphs and trophies that await you, it's inevitable that you start dwelling on what goes unspoken, what is entirely disregarded, what lurks in the darkness ready to pounce: All that you dream of one day accomplishing may remain just a dream.

Last week, as I sat in my car in our office parking lot, an adjacent truck slowly inched backwards and for an instant, there was the illusion that I was moving forward even though I was stationery—a metaphor not lost on me. James Salter, who penned one of my favorite books that I read this year, wrote the following sentence in his latest work, All That Is: "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." This is Salter grimly recognizing that life is alarmingly fleeting and a recurring setting for the unimaginable—that failure to leave our own unique mark on the world is the most terrifying failure of all, one you never considered when engaging in late-night heart-to-hearts in automobiles in your twenties.

So I heed the words of individuals like Wallace, who point the way out of this middle-age tangle—one where I am moving forward without moving at all. Be free, Wallace advises, be conscious. The world is in front of you and behind you and all around you—seize it, scrutinize it, savor it. Pursue the kind of freedom that's centered on knowledge and passion. And get cracking on that legacy: a piece of art, a piece of writing, a piece of music, anything that incorporates a piece of yourself.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Will you come back tomorrow?" I said sure.

This quote is from Clinton Heylin's Can You Feel the Silence? It's a particularly crucial moment from Astral Weeks' lengthy gestation. Upright bassist Tom Kielbania, who had recently started pairing up with Van Morrison for live shows, heard flautist/saxophonist John Payne during a Boston-area jazz session. Kielbania then invited Payne to play with him and Morrison down at the Catacombs. Said Payne:
Tom [Kielbania] came out [and said to Van], "Oh, this is the flute player I talked to you about." ... He looked up ... and seemed not irritated, not negative, but just ... not there—not warm at all ... So I didn't feel that good. He didn’t say, "Oh, how are you doing?" or anything ... So I heard the first set, and I didn't like it ... I thought of leaving but ... just kind of hung around ... And then Van came out just before they went on [for the next set], and said, "Do you want to sit in?" And I went, "Oh, sure." So I went up there and he started singing the first number, and I listened for a while and then came in. Even before I came in, I could tell this was a singer of a caliber I had never played with before. But I couldn't feel this from the audience ... because this wasn't my thing ... But once I was up there I could really feel [that] this was ... just coming from a much deeper place ... I started playing with him and I noticed he would react to what I did. I mean if I played something, he was listening to it. I'd never played with a singer who was paying attention to what I did, [such] that I could notice ... So at the end of the first number I was like, "Wow, that was great." And the second number he does is "Brown-Eyed Girl." And he starts singing it, and I knew that song. I didn't know whose it was, but I'd heard it around, you know ... And I suddenly [realized] he isn't covering somebody's song. This is his song ... That night he offered to pay me—and they were making almost nothing. The crowd was thirty people, maybe ... [but] he offered to pay me a few bucks out of the take, and I said, "No, no, I just sat in." [Then] he said, "Will you come back tomorrow?" I said sure.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fluid interpretations

Van Morrison, talking to Los Angeles Times columnist Randy Lewis about Astral Weeks: "The songs are works of fiction that will inherently have a different meaning for different people. People take from it whatever their disposition to take from it is."

Different meanings for different people ... For me, interpretation of Astral Weeks is fluid; what a track signifies or suggests oftentimes changes after repeated listens. "Astral Weeks" presently feels like it's about making peace—both with yourself and with the past. Morrison opens by singing, "If I ventured in the slipstream." His voice is confident and full and slightly tender. When he sings these words a second time, at the track's 3:36 mark, Morrison sounds noticeably different. His voice is slightly higher; he draws out the syllable "stream," putting emphasis on the long e sound. He is desperate, agitated, a touch world-weary.

The first "If I ventured in the slipstream" feels rehearsed—it conjures images of Morrison standing in front of a mirror, fine-tuning a prepared speech for a bygone love, testing words out loud. The second feels like a release: Fortune has presented him with an opportunity to finally deliver his words to the intended recipient; the emotional weight from carrying them is lightened. An eternity has elapsed since he bid her farewell, yet some essence of their love remains. But this isn't about pursuing a reconciliation or even a reckoning. Morrison's breathy allusions to rebirth ("In another time / in another place") make his intentions clear. He is asking his bygone love this: If given another go-round on this here spinning rock, would they try again?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"The past is never dead; it's not even past"

I recently stumbled upon a quote that said in Hollywood success doesn't begat more success; instead, it instills a deep and profound terror of failure. The music industry has long been mired in a similar limbo of its own making. A kind of stasis where songwriters are emboldened to produce marginal recreations of previous material, where explicitly rejecting commercial norms is anathema to industry rules. "The past is never dead; it's not even past"—bold those words, splash them with color, and slap them across the back of a record exec's business card.

So how do these sins get absolved? By disregarding mindsets that consider "not losing" and "winning" to be similar objectives. By accepting that what is safe is also tame. By understanding that songwriters who stubbornly refuse to bend their art to the mainstream demands of the era should be glorified. By taking a young Irish lad who had just scored a Top 10 hit and recorded a rather middling MOR debut album, and dropping him into the recording studio with musicians like the jazz drummer featured in the above video. Ballsy moves like that are rare, no?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A different theory

A tiny addendum to my Dec. 2 post regarding the genesis of Moondance. Since Astral Weeks was the music equivalent of a big-budget blockbuster becoming a box-office flop, Van Morrison was compelled to stride down a more commercial path. "I was starving. Practically not eating," Morrison said years later—very likely unaware of how an Irishman discussing hunger in any context always lends extra gravity to their words. At any rate, the postscript is this: Maybe Morrison's eagerness to separate himself from Astral Weeks was partially because Northern Ireland's rapid descent into sectarian violence took place in the aftermath of the album's release.

His beloved homeland—a place of eternal innocence and allure that was immortalized by his album—was forever altered. How could listeners from that time period hear "Madame George" and not wonder if the Troubles affected the colorful places he evoked and the dreamlike atmospheres he created? Where they spoiled by bomb or bullet? Would Northern Ireland ever be the same? So perhaps it wasn't just a desire to move more records that inspired Moondance, but his disgust, disillusionment, shame—maybe even genuine heartbreak—over what was occurring back home.

(Quick aside: The Troubles' harrowing opening act took place during the 10 days in-between Astral Weeks' final two recording sessions at Century Sound Studios in New York City. On Oct. 5, 1968, a civil rights march in Derry turned violent when the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's now-defunct police force, boxed in the crowd of 400 demonstrators at Duke Street and baton-charged them from two sides. Those who broke free were driven across Craigavon Bridge with water cannons. [According to Tim Pat Coogan's book The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace, the first use of a water cannon in Northern Ireland.] An estimated 90 to 100 demonstrators were treated for injuries. The RUC reported none. Thanks to an RTE cameraman, who was at the scene in Derry filming, pictures of RUC brutality flashed across the globe. One of the most shocking and enduring images was of a bloodied Westminster MP Gerry Fitt, who suffered a head injury from several baton strikes.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I like granola bars

I've found middle age to be a rather lonely proposition. The everyday grind of employment/family/homeownership leaves me feeling cut off from friends, acquaintances, and various others who fall somewhere between "well-wisher" and "mildly supportive ally." There is so little precious time. I spend approximately 6 1/2 hours in a car each week commuting to and from the office. This is generally 6 1/2 more hours than I spend in a social setting chumming it up with other members of my species. This is troubling; the inside of an automobile is quite confining and sarcophagus-like. And there are no beer taps.

What I've also discovered is that middle age is beautifully cruel in its ability to flat-out deflate you. Personal ambition gets squashed by reality. Small defeats are magnified. A carefully constructed legacy is toppled. One morning you rise and shower and eat a granola bar and peck your wife on the cheek, and then realize that every bead of hot water, every shard of granola, and every kiss-induced drop of saliva makes up the tiny filaments in what is the rich tapestry of your boring fucking life.

Over the past few years, I have gravitated toward a pair of albums that explore themes heavily associated with middle age: Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and the Wrens' The Meadowlands. As I once wrote elsewhere, the former articulates "what it feels like to walk through life consciously unconscious," while the latter acknowledges that "even when you write as if your words are eternal, everything you create can still be forgotten and ignored." It sounds dispiriting, sure, but it can also spur much-needed reflection. Reflection that's somewhat like staring close-up at your hairy-eared, grey-bearded, crow's feet-addled visage in the bathroom mirror.

This may sound odd, but I consider Astral Weeks to be a record equally steeped in middle-agedness, even though it was composed by a man in his early twenties. But it's also become a frequently more difficult listen. Astral Weeks' propensity for gazing affectionately at the past, at the ebb and flow of adolescence, at days that are gone forever creates a helplessness that lingers. I'm stuffed with an infinity of memories, yet left feeling all hollowed out inside. Those aforementioned records inform middle-aged folk of what we have become; Astral Weeks hints at what we've become while reminding us of all that we have lost. Pass the granola bars.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Futebol d'arte vs. futebol de resultados

I'm reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson's in-depth history of football—er, soccer; so sorry—tactics and formations. Connections between Astral Weeks and the sport of soccer are nonexistent. (Though I find it slightly fascinating that around the time Van Morrison was at the top of his game, a fellow Belfast native was reaching similarly lofty heights in English football.) Nonetheless, one of Wilson's early observations permeated the Astral Weeks-dominated portion of my brain: "The tension—between beauty and cynicism, between what Brazilians call futebol d'arte and futebol de resultados—is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental not merely to sports but also to life; to win or to play the game well?"

Sheer beauty or glittering prizes? Art or results? Which will it be? One must be sacrificed to produce the other. Following Astral Weeks, Morrison abandoned the unrestricted boldness and expressive individualism of his masterpiece for a more pragmatic (read: commercial) approach. Consider this 1986 quote found in Clinton Heylin's Can You Feel the Silence?: "[Astral Weeks] was a success musically and at the same time, I was starving. Practically not eating. So for the next album I realized I was going to have to do something [that sounded] like rock or [continue to] starve ... So I tried to forget about the artistic thing because it didn't make sense on a practical level. One has to live." Or this, from Johnny Rogan's Van Morrison: No Surrender: "I make albums primarily to sell them and if I get too far out a lot of people can't relate to it."

The result was Moondance, a collection that certainly ranks among Morrison's best, but one that also reveals an artist becoming self-conscious about being too self-conscious. Moondance is more concentrated, more compromising, more devoted to efficiency and discipline. It's evidence that proper self-control is the swiftest path to the Top 40. It's Morrison's I-need-to-eat album—an LP akin to comfort food. Astral Weeks is the more meaningful and eternal release, but also confirmation that even the most enduring pieces of art typically don't pay the bills.