Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More Vaniac support group

Checking in with another Van Morrison enthusiast who is well known in the blogosphere ... This time we fired off a few questions to John Gilligan, who launched his unofficial Morrison blog, Mystic Avenue, way back in 2006 (he's currently at 578 posts; amazing). Gilligan throws up photographs, set lists, gig reviews, recent news, and his own Van-related ruminations.

Throwing Pennies: What is your favorite song and album by Van Morrison?

Gilligan: Hard to name just one song. This month my favorite Van song is "Wavelength." Favorite album this month is Hymns to the Silence.

Throwing Pennies: What was the impetus behind starting a Van Morrison blog? What keeps you going? Finally, any chance Van is aware of what you do and how long you have been doing it for?

Gilligan: I had the idea to do a blog for a couple of years before I created it. I just want to gather all information, concert reviews, set lists, and photos—in one place in a timely manner, as I believe that's what Van's fans are most interested in. Not sure if Van is aware of the blog, but his management is!

Throwing Pennies: In a few words, tell me why you find Van's music so compelling?

Gilligan: It's about healing and redemption. Today you got the blues and all seems lost, but if you wait, tomorrow is a Brand New Day.

Throwing Pennies: Where would you rank Astral Weeks in Van's vast, rather immense discography?

Gilligan: Definitely at the very top. It's more of an experience than an album.

Throwing Pennies: How do you think Van will be remembered by history? In other words, what do you think his music legacy will be?

Gilligan: They'll be talking about Van's music 1,000 years from now. I think he will be remembered for bringing spirituality to rock and roll and pop culture. He also will be remembered for bringing a mystical vision of Belfast and Northern Ireland. It has made places like Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield, Coney Island, the Beechie River, etc., a tourist destination for people all around the globe.

"When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one"

Behold one of "Madame George"'s most colorful and homespun images: "The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops / Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops." It's a couplet that probably makes a few of today's listeners wince, thanks to the growing stigma attached to tobacco use. (Years of vigorous anti-smoking campaigns and legislation have done the trick. In April of 2007, it became illegal to smoke in Northern Irish workplaces and enclosed public spaces. In September of the following year, the age of sale of tobacco products rose to 18.)

During Van Morrison's adolescence, cigarette smoking wasn't just socially acceptable—it was out-and-out cool and sophisticated. According to Action on Smoking and Health, in 1948 an astounding 82 percent of British men smoked, of which 65 percent smoked manufactured cigarettes. Consider this passage from Peter Smyth's book Changing Times: Life in 1950s Northern Ireland:
Before the end of the decade cigarettes were being presented in more attractive ways in crush-resistant packets with flip tops, and gift vouchers began a new craze. Brands like Kensitas and Ardath led the voucher charge which was soon to be followed by other brands, the manufacturers calculating, rightly, that the prospect of a free gift was a short-time inducement to smoking far more alluring than any thoughts of long-term consequences.

Smokers in Northern Ireland seemed undeterred by possible health risks, and local tobacconists dispensed Four Square, Park Drive, Woodbine, Gallaher's Blues, Craven A, Bristol, Airman, Dunhill, Senior Service, Players, du Maurier, Baron's, Churchman's No 1 and Olivier among others at prices ranging from 3-4s (15-20p) for 20. Cigarettes with filter tips had been re-introduced after the War to cut down on the amount of tobacco which had to be imported, and although these were at the cheaper end of the spectrum they were, at least initially, disliked by smokers accustomed to getting an undiluted inhalation of nicotine and tar. In terms of advertising no hold were barred. Craven A, for instance, was portrayed as the cigarette for young lovers: "When two young people share the same taste, their hearts are one. When that taste is Craven A ... Their preference is based on rich, fine tobacco, so cool to smoke, so kind to the throat ... With a natural cork tip that protects the lips and keeps the end firm ..."
So now that Morrison couplet becomes even more colorful: East Belfast kids tumbling out of their local tobacco shop, clawing open crush-resistant packets, sparking up Woodbines or Craven A's, inhaling deeply, exhaling with smiles, sharing the same taste, their hearts as one ... Look away, anti-smoking folks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vaniac support group

Been reaching out to fellow Vaniacs who curate blogs ... Say hello to Wiltshire's Pat Corley, who's been running Visions of Pat since way back in 2004. Corley has dedicated countless words to reviewing Van Morrison's albums as well as the dozens of live gigs he has attended. He answered a few of my questions via email. Check it out (and please check out his blog).

Throwing Pennies: What is your favorite song and album by Van Morrison?

Corley: Favourite song, "In The Garden." Favourite album, Astral Weeks.

Throwing Pennies: What was the impetus behind starting a Van Morrison blog? What keeps you going?

Corley: I started my blog because I like to write reviews. What keeps me going is every time I go to a concert I write a review.

Throwing Pennies: In a few words, tell me why you find Van's music so compelling?

Corley: I find Van's music compelling because it is timeless. The albums never date.

Throwing Pennies: Where would you rank Astral Weeks in Van's vast, rather immense discography?

Corley: I would rate Astral Weeks not only as Van's best album, but one of the greatest albums by anyone.

Throwing Pennies: How do you think Van will be remembered by history? What do you think his music legacy will be?

Corley: I think Van's music will be listened to in hundreds of years time. He will be remembered as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th/21st centuries.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"On the way back home from school"

Was recently in touch with John Martin, who works for the Belfast Education and Library Board. Like many of the Northern Irish folks I have contacted over the past two years, Martin was quick to respond to my query and more than willing to assist in my research efforts.

The following couplet, repeated twice by Van Morrison in the track "Cyprus Avenue," has long been a favorite of mine: "And all the little girls rhyme something / On the way back home from school." Martin is in the process of helping me narrow down the list of schools that are located, or were once located, near Cyprus Avenue.

In the meantime, there's this: The self-guided Mystic of the East trail, which gives Morrison fans the opportunity to visit the East Belfast places mentioned in his songs, starts at Elmgrove Primary School. Elmgrove, which opened in 1932 and is still in use, sits on the Beersbridge Road, a 10-minute walk from Cyprus Avenue. Morrison attended in the 1950s—a fact that makes Elmgrove the heavy favorite to be the school from the aforementioned couplet. More to come ...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Train train, comin' down, down the line

A brief follow-up to a post I wrote back in September ... In an effort to unravel Astral Weeks' railway-related lyrics, I reached out to Mark Kennedy, curator of road and rail transport at National Museums Northern Ireland. Kennedy confirmed that "Madame George"'s "Dublin up to Sandy Row" train was the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise, which departed and arrived at Belfast's Great Victoria Street station, located near the Sandy Row neighborhood.

The rail mention in "Cyprus Avenue" ("If I pass the rumbling station / Where the lonesome engine drivers pine") has proven more difficult to decode; it could be another allusion to the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line or a reference to the Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR), which ran through Van Morrison's Bloomfield neighborhood and is now the Comber Greenway, a 13-kilometer linear park for walking and bicycling.

The BCDR station closest to Morrison's home was Bloomfield (it would have been a 10-minute walk). Recently, I unearthed a bit more information on the station. According to this link, it opened in May of 1879 and closed in April of 1950. Also, I came across this little tidbit in the map for the recently launched Mystic of the East, a self-guided trail that gives Morrison fans the opportunity to visit the East Belfast places mentioned in his songs: "Bloomfield Railway Station and level crossing (both now gone) were situated at the Cyprus Avenue end of the Beersbridge Road. The station platform stood near its junction with Evelyn Avenue."

Lastly, I found two passages on Bloomfield Station on a website dedicated to the history of East Belfast. The site is run by Aidan Campbell, a retired business consultant who has published several books on the history of East Belfast. The two passages are posted here:
In the East Belfast Historical Society Journal Vol. 1 No. 3, Louis Gilbert talks about his early life in an article entitled 'Love in the Black Lagan Valley': In 1924 when I was a wee lad, I lived off Ravenscroft Avenue not far from the Holywood Arches. There was an electricity sub-station at one end of the street and a school across the road. At the other end, on a high bank, trains from the Belfast and County Down Railway Company's Queen's Quay station chugged and puffed on their way to Newtownards, Donaghadee, Downpatrick and Newcastle. There was a level crossing on the Beersbridge Road and the signalman at Bloomfield Station closed the gates and stopped all traffic every time there was a train.
Bloomfield station in the early 1900s [pictured above] which the Belfast & County Down Railway opened in May 1879 and it looks like cattle are being herded along the Beersbridge Road towards the level crossing. The station was designed by engineer Berkeley Dean Wise (who lived nearby at Knock Road). This portion of the railway line had been opened in 1850 with the aim of eventually providing a service to Donaghadee and the connecting mail-packet ship to Portpatrick. However the route from Larne to Stranraer was favoured, which meant that the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway gained the benefit via their route to Larne Harbour.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted"

Last week, I shared some Astral Weeks-inspired worship from Canadian writer Sean Michaels. The 32-year-old Montreal resident, who recently won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada's most prestigious literary award), took a few moments to answer my questions via email.

Throwing Pennies: I read one of your posts from awhile back in which you were critical of pretty much everything Van Morrison has done other than Astral Weeks. In your mind, what is it that makes Astral Weeks the outlier? What is it that sets this album apart—way apart—from the rest of the music in his catalog?

Michaels: Maybe it was the fight in him, maybe the insecurity, maybe the improvisational element or just dumb luck: But Astral Weeks doesn't sound like any other Van Morrison album. The production, the arrangements, the singing: for all its filigree, it's barer. It's truer and barer, unguarded. Morrison so often indulges himself, or drowns his singing in cheeseball arrangements. Here the stakes feel high. Here, nothing's syrupy. Neither too posed nor poised, over-pretty. This is just folk music, or jazz; it's musicians finding out as they go.

Throwing Pennies: What's your favorite track on Astral Weeks?

Michaels: "Sweet Thing" is it for me. I've never heard another song that's so in love and still so searching—trembling, swooning, certain, cresting. That bassline and the high, high, hidden strings: I'm absolutely somewhere else, and absolutely alive.

Throwing Pennies: Did you hear the Astral Weeks live album that was released in 2009?

Michaels: What a shit-show. Take this music and gussy it up, fix its gait, electroshock the damn heart. Turn a perfect house into a crummy cathedral.

Throwing Pennies: I cringe when I hear Van mentioned as a "poet" and that his name should be placed alongside Ireland's great writers. At the same time, I occasionally bring up James Joyce when writing about Astral Weeks, specifically because of how both Joyce and Morrison created art with a really powerful "consciousness of place." Do you think there's any sort of literary value, for lack of a better term, to Astral Weeks' lyrics?

Michaels: I prefer Astral Weeks' lines sung to when I see them on the page. You're right about his capacity to conjure placeness, timeness, but he also has the admirable rare [ability] to make ten-dollar words feel like ha'penny ones. Which is to say—some of these lyrics that look prim or over-reaching, written down, feel so musical as they're recorded. Reading Astral Weeks' verses, it can seem like slightly purple poetry, stuffed with stuff—but on record the lines land so lightly, for me. It's lyric poetry, sparrowfooted.

Throwing Pennies: Bear with me for this last one ... Awhile back, I had a discussion with fellow Astral Weekers on the album's "molecules." The album is so dense, grandiose, boundless, etc., yet at the same time, filled with an endless amount of these small and specific moments—a couplet, a string of notes from Richard Davis' bass, a Van Morrison yelp, a brief interplay between two instruments, etc.—wonderful little moments that you reach up and grab, and hold onto to and repeatedly examine and find some meaning in. So my question is: Do you have a favorite moment, a favorite molecule, from Astral Weeks?

Michaels: In "Madame George," there is a moment near the end when the drums appear. (Or really, essentially, a single cymbal.) Every time it is astonishing; every time it is as if a secret door is opening, a sign toward some hopeful progress. And "Madame George" feels suddenly like a useful goodbye, or a young beginning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Worship worthy of worship

In the two years I've served as caretaker of this blog, I've resisted sharing any of the countless Astral Weeks-inspired treatises I've encountered on the Internet. The reasons are varied: writers perpetuate cheap myths, stuff their essays with mundane personal details, or fail to "rearrange the furniture," as I once saw it written—meaning, analyze the album in such a manner that the listener experiences it in a whole new way. (I know, I know—I'm being quite hypercritical. Because all the bloviating and blogging [blogiating?] is ultimately about writing something insightful about these eight songs and then having the courage to share it with others.)

Anyway, I am about to break my personal rule of not reposting any pieces of Astral Weeks worship. And I am doing so because: 1.) the worship is deserving of its own bit of worship; and 2.) the writer, 32-year-old Sean Michaels, recently won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize—only Canada's most prestigious literary award—yet still took a moment to answer a few questions from little ole' me.

Michaels' post is blockquoted below. It originally ran in September of 2004 on Said the Gramophone, an mp3 blog he had founded one year earlier. I will post Michaels' responses later in the week. You can purchase his novel here.
Astral Weeks, released in 1968, is one of the greatest works of music ever recorded. I first heard it when we were crowded around my house’s living-room, on one of those first nights in Montreal. We had a discman on the floor, two little computer speakers beside it. These were people I had only just met—sudden friends drawn from Ottawa and Italy and Montreal and Virginia. Every moment felt new, felt special. A hormone high ("home on high"?) as we played records for each other, trying to explain the stars we saw in our special songs, trying to describe the magic of Gomez's dock smoke, the majesty of a Puccini aria.

Maya put on "Astral Weeks." None of us were thrilled at the idea of Van "Moon Dance" Morrison, nor by the CD's goofy 1960s cover. But it opened as it does, like we're coming into something a few seconds late, and as soon as the strings shivered to life—well, I was struck. My desperate desire to play more for my friends, to share more of my favourite songs, disappeared. All I wanted to hear was the rough lilt of Van Morrison's maniac voice, the other instruments' crazy swooning seriousness. Van sings like a maniac, like a poet who's so excited he can hardly talk—he can only sing. The spirit of it is big and bold and brave and loud, and good! "Standing in your sad arrest / trying to do my very best."

Reading the finest bits of James Joyce, I think only of Astral Weeks—the "slipstream" of words and the breathless wonder of life, the yeses that close Ulysses and the epiphanies of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And the other musicians! I was in such awe when I learned J's step-dad is Warren Smith, percussionist. Listen to that jazz, the wistful humanity of it. The bass, violin, flute, guitar and percussion are separate but united, amazing talents, fluttering brilliant accidents that make you believe in god or humanity—marvels of coincidence and human fellowship. How can something like Astral Weeks happen? How can it just happen!? Who could compose this? Who could improvise it? It's like a sky that grabs you at that perfect moment, the synchronicity of senses that makes you catch your breath. A song that takes "the dust of familiarity off ... [that makes] it feel new, rich, full of possibility, like I could walk up it and do something different for a change." Most of the album is like this—beautiful words painted in smokeplumes across an enormous sky, messages you look up and notice and which make your day something different.

"Astral Weeks" is a joy, "Madame George" is a wonder, and "Sweet Thing" is something so special you don't give it to just everyone. Astral Weeks is an album for when feeling conclusions become breathless beginnings, for when the world blinks and we're "born again" and all roads lie open. "And I'm pushin' on the door."

Friday, November 21, 2014

You can be a winner at the game of Astral Weeks

Belfast City Hall, looking like it's part of a toy playset. That gives me an idea ... Astral Weeks: The Board Game! Doesn't that sound fun? "Players try to be the first to visit five locations on the Belfast map. All the spots mentioned or alluded to on Astral Weeks are here! Cyprus Avenue, Sandy Row, St. Donard's Church, the Great Victoria Street railway station. The game features cardboard and plastic standees of well-known Belfast landmarks. Ages six and up."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Van Morrison feting

London's Lyric Theatre was the scene for a feting of Van Morrison, Poet Laureate. Titled "Van Morrison Presents an Evening of Words & Music," the Nov. 17 event celebrated the release of Lit Up Inside, a new book featuring the Irishman's song lyrics. The Telegraph has a write-up here.

A few of the evening's highlights: writer Edna O'Brien reciting the words to "Madame George" (all 454 of them); a presentation from senior lecturer and Van aficionado Dr. Eamonn Hughes (who contributed to Throwing Pennies not too long ago); an appearance by a real and proper Belfast poet, Michael Longley; conversations about music legends (Lightnin' Hopkins, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles); and a 60-minute concert from Surly Boorish Van's lesser-known brother: Slightly Less Surly Boorish Van.

I briefly covered the release of Lit Up Inside back in August. I will add this: Long before this book's release (and thanks to countless visits to lyric sites like SongMeanings), it became evident to me that Morrison's words are substantially more emotive and evocative when they are flying forth from his lips. They belong in the ether, in the infinite expanse between artist and audience. They feel impermanent that way—fragile, human, beautiful. Capturing his lyrics on a page or a computer screen only saps them of their power.

"If there was a point to the evening, and to the book," The Telegraph piece says, "it seemed to be to place Morrison among the literary figures of Ireland." The island boasts four Nobel Prize winners in literature, plus some pretty nifty non-winners named Joyce, Swift, Wilde, O'Brien, Synge, Russell, and Bowen. These are Morrison's superiors, not his equals. Theirs is a party he will never crash.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Trumpeting the role of Joe Smith

There are books you purchase simply because the cover art is so delightfully enticing. Howard A. Dewitt's Van Morrison: The Mystic's Music is not one of those books. (Yes, that's the cover on the right, in all its eye-wateringly grotesque glory. Yes, Van Morrison bears a slight likeness to Gene Simmons. Yes, his ensemble could be classified as "neighborhood thrift shop." No, we are not taking the picture down.)

Of course, it's what's inside a book that counts and while on the thin side (114 pages), Van Morrison: The Mystic's Music does offer new angles on Astral Weeks. For example, Dewitt trumpets the role Joe Smith played during the album's genesis. Smith, a legendary record executive who headed up three major labels, manned the position of national promotion director at Warner Bros. in the late 1960s. According to Dewitt, Smith was not only influential in getting Warner Bros. to sign Morrison, but also persuaded the label to permit the Irishman to partake in some "creative experimentation in the recording studio."

There was this from Dewitt:
When Warner Brothers signed Van Morrison it was due to Joe Smith, who eventually became president of Elektra Records. It was Smith who convinced skeptical corporate executives that Van had a unique style tailored for the musical tastes of the late 1960s. One of Smith's strongest arguments was that FM radio stations like San Francisco's KSAN were creating a demand for long-playing albums. The day of heavy 45 record sales was not over, but the increasingly sophisticated rock music purchaser demanded quality albums. The concept or rock opera album was developing and Van Morrison was to become one of the earliest artists to record a classic rock opera. Had it not been for Joe Smith's encouragement and support, Van's first project with Warner Brothers, Astral Weeks, might not have been completed.
And then this:
There was also a business revolution in the recording industry. No longer were most artists forced to negotiate for each 45 record release or album contract. Warner Brothers began to sign a large number of artists to long-term contracts. RCA had only one or two significant rock acts. In 1956 RCA's president was a classical music buff and he believed that Elvis Presley was the only rock singer necessary to the label's success. It was not until 1965 that RCA signed its second rock group, Jefferson Airplane. But Warner Brothers realized that the rock and roll market was extremely lucrative. As a result they signed artists like Van Morrison to long-term contracts. Since many songwriters make a large portion of their income from publishing rights, it was essential to guarantee ASCAP and BMI royalties. Many composers referred to these payments as "old age money." It was Joe Smith who convinced Warner Brothers to guarantee Van Morrison the type of contract which made the label an artist-oriented one. That is, a contract which provided for comfortable living as well as money for creative experimentation in the recording studio.

In a reflective interview, Joe Smith recalled his early meetings with Van Morrison in a small Boston club in 1967. Smith remembered that Van had immigration problems and that he believed that Bang Records was merchandising his records in the wrong market. When Astral Weeks was completed, Smith realized that it would not be an immediate best seller. However, he convinced skeptical Warner Brothers management that the album's sales would be steady for a number of years. The first year Astral Weeks sold only 15,000 copies but 10,000 of those were merchandised in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was five years before Astral Weeks sold more than a 100,000 copies but the album continues to sell well into the 1980s.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Several cuts above Hyndford Street"

Checked in with Dr. Eamonn Hughes, senior lecturer at Queen's University Belfast and the assistant director of that school's Institute of Irish Studies. A colleague of Dr. Hughes' classified him as a knowledgeable authority on all things Van Morrison—just the type of individual we love to connect with here at Throwing Pennies.

Dr. Hughes offered me a little background on the origins of Cyprus Avenue's name:
To the best of my knowledge, Cyprus Avenue has always had that name. Earliest reference in the Belfast Street directory is 1892. A lot of streets in Belfast are named for places around the world (usually with British Empire connections), so this may be one of them. Or it's possible that it took its name from a house.

(I've come across a reference to a Cyprus Cottage which seems to predate it ... Afraid I'm not sure about the location of Cyprus Cottage. Street directories don't always have the whole story. There was one on the North Road—near current Cyprus Avenue—but I think there may well have been more than one cottage with the name.)

Regardless of name, the people who lived there from the outset would have been professionals or merchants. Nowadays you'd need about half a million to buy a house there. (Ian Paisley's family moved there in the 1970s.) It's several cuts above Hyndford Street in socio-economic terms.

Physically, the big difference between the two is that where most houses on Cyprus Avenue are detached and set in quite large gardens, the houses on Hyndford Street are terraced and while not the back-to-back terraces of the classic slum, built on a much smaller scale. These days Cyprus Avenue is also lined with mature trees and that would have been a noticeable difference between the two places, even back in the 1950s.
The "British Empire connection" is an obvious one: the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In fact, the island would have occupied a small place in the British public consciousness during the late 19th century. As part of the Cyprus Convention of 1878, the Ottoman Empire ceded control of the island to Britain. In exchange, Britain gave assurances that it would use the island as a base to protect the Ottoman Empire against possible Russian aggression.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Astral Weeks v. Astral Weeks

Last August, I wrote about Cecil McCartney, the flaky, boastful, quote/unquote Renaissance man who has a rather prominent—yet largely unknown—role in the Astral Weeks narrative. McCartney, who attended the Belfast School of Art, palled around with Van Morrison during the summer of 1966. As the story goes, Morrison was so enamored with one of McCartney's paintings—"It suggested astral traveling to him," the artist remembered—he was inspired to name his second solo release Astral Weeks.

What I've long been curious about is whether or not Morrison's album was the inspiration for the title of the Charles Mingus bootleg Astral Weeks. Its two tracks, "Meditations" and "Fables of Faubus," were taped in Copenhagen during Mingus' 1964 European tour. The LP was released on the long-defunct Moon label. A post on a jazz message board described Moon as "an old fashioned bootleg label that concentrated on privately recorded live concerts and hopelessly out-of-print material."

(First quick aside: Other posts cast Moon in a more unfavorable light: The folks at the label were purveyors of "stolen music" and responsible for trotting out some "pretty stupid covers." Gasp!) (Second quick aside: Astral Weeks is listed in the "unauthorized recordings" section of Mingus' web site. If you possess a copy, the jazz composer's widow has made it her mission to find you and kick your Mingus-loving ass. You have been warned.) (Third quick aside: A bit of minutiae for those who dig the little details ... Jay Berliner is the direct connection between Mingus and Morrison; the guitarist appeared on albums by both artists.)

When Mingus' Astral Weeks came out remains a mystery. A release in late 1968 or after and the moniker was possibly a homage to Morrison's LP. A release prior and the name-sharing was likely a blind accident, one of those little coincidences the music world oftentimes presents us. Then again, it could also be a little from a column A and a little from column B—as in, the bootleg was issued post-'68, its name-giver was unaware of Morrison's record, and he or she coined the phrase on their own (a distinct possibility since album sales were so poor).

Personally, I subscribe to theory #1. Not because a cursory listen to the bootleg revealed switchbacks and unexpected turns and titillating cliffhangers and dramatic climaxes that suggest Morrison's Astral Weeks. (I had the Irishman lurking in the back of my head for obvious reasons; listening in a vacuum, Mingus' Astral Weeks would not evoke the Irishman's work.) I subscribe to theory #1 because there's something about the appellation "astral weeks" that feels like it could have only been invented by Morrison. It exudes his trademark amateur mysticism. Like later song and album titles (i.e., "Haunts of Ancient Peace"), it's beautiful and inscrutable all while sounding puerile and meaningless. It's just too damn Van-esque.

Friday, October 31, 2014

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

James Joyce once wrote to his brother Stanislaus that he wished to "give people a kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own." What middle age has taught me is that sometimes the bread is stale, mottled with mold, punctured with worms. Or consumed entire—or fed to the ducks.

Try telling a therapist that. Shrink: "How are you feeling?" Patient: "Like the bread of my everyday life was fed to the ducks." (Or, in a way that's more succinct and dramatic—Shrink: "How are you feeling?" Patient, after a deep, protracted sigh: "Fed to the ducks.") It's slightly clever and childish and a little self-deprecating, but perhaps that's the key to getting through all this—this as in this, the tedious existence that stretches out dully in front of us. Adulthood descends on you like an enormous, inky cloud; the darkness thickens and thickens until one day you are idly fantasizing about a way out—imagining different versions of yourself in different situations and in different places—which only leaves you feeling more trapped.

Returning to Joyce ... Last month I re-read Dubliners and the collection's core theme of paralysis resonated with me. From what I understand, Joyce was greatly affected by turn-of-the-century Ireland's persistent stagnation—a cultural, economic, and political paralysis brought on by years of English and Catholic rule. In Dubliners, characters have been essentially cornered, backed into lives by forces and conditions they can control as well as those beyond their control. The inertia is inescapable; Joyce's men and women struggle to live purposely, to find their place, to do more than merely survive.

To move forward is a challenge—a challenge with which I have become recently acquainted. Fortunately, there are forward-thinkers who help usher us along. They are the architects of those bits of art that win our eternal affection. The artists who—to quote an essay on the James Joyce Museum's website—"took the bread of everyday life and consecrated it into art." Their work sustains us, enriches us, enlivens us, releases us. It draws us out from those corners and frees us of our gripping paralysis.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Halloween 1969 was a bad day for Van"

Barry Schneier snapped a number of now-iconic pictures during his many years as a rock photographer. Back in September, many of his photos were part of an exhibit at Monmouth University's Pollak Gallery. One of Schneier's most recognizable photographs is the one posted above. ("People have really gravitated to that image," he recently told The photo was taken in May of 1974 at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass, during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's opening set for Bonnie Raitt. (Quick aside: Springsteen and crew were allegedly massive fans of Astral Weeks. The album compelled Springsteen to ask Richard Davis to play double bass on "Meeting Across the River." Said guitarist Steven Van Zandt: "Astral Weeks was like a religion to us.")

The Monmouth exhibit also showcased photos of a Van Morrison gig in March of 1974 at the same venue. It was one of several concerts Morrison did in the Boston area in the years following Astral Weeks' release. Touted as a dramatic homecoming for the Irishman, the show was, according to Schneier, notably void of any sentimentalism. This is what the photographer emailed me:
Van didn't say much of anything to anyone if I recall. I know he did acknowledge that he was glad to play again in the area. He originally wasn't scheduled to play in Boston. The promoters saw he was scheduled for a show in Providence and saw an open date between that one and I think a show in New York. They contacted his manager and tried to get him interested in adding the Cambridge date. His manager wasn't sure at first. The promoters got him agree to play by selling him on the idea they were going to showcase him in a smaller venue, a movie theater in Cambridge.
Schneier also attended a Halloween gig in 1969, when Morrison opened for the Band at Boston's Symphony Hall. According to a story in The Heights, the independent student newspaper for Boston College, Morrison and his backing band "appeared out of nowhere as an unbilled 'warm-up group.'" The writer then takes the Irishman to task for his boorish behavior.
Perhaps it would be kinder to say that Halloween 1969 was a bad day for Van; perhaps it would be kinder to say that he was stoned out of his mind. In both concerts Friday night he came across a performer who was miles distant from his audience and who simply didn't care. For someone whose only appeal lies in a voice that connotes, rather than denotes, emotions, it was an illusion-destroying show. Van Morrison appeared nervous, distant, and singularly unemotional. The show was so bad that he ended his second set lying flat on the stage in frustration.
Adds Schneier: "What I remember is he said very little. Just came on stage after the band did an opening instrumental and started his show. That was it."

The kneejerk reaction is to say this was simply more barbarousness from the notorious Morrison the Mad, that grotesque gig monster who demolished countless live shows with his belligerence and propensity for tantrums. I wonder if it was something more complex. Maybe this return to the Boston area left Morrison pondering the album he partially wrote there and released the previous fall, the second consecutive LP of his to be labeled a commercial flop. Maybe Boston drew out buried feelings of irritation and resentment and self doubt. Maybe all the artistic and personal defeats compelled him to orchestrate his own defeat, right there on stage for thousands to see, since doing so temporarily eased those feelings of powerlessness.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tiny scraps of info

A follow-up to Monday's post, which detailed some information I stumbled across on a site named AllMusicBooks. In an entry dedicated to Astral Weeks, writer Pat Thomas revealed this: "A good friend of mine recently reviewed the [Astral Weeks] multi-track master tapes."

Highly intrigued, I fired off an email to the folks at AllMusicBooks—and received this response from Thomas:
My friend works at Warner Bros. Records (Van's record company back in the day). As you know, last year they released a four-CD Moondance box set. They went back to the Astral Weeks tapes to see if there was very much "unreleased" material and as I said, there's not much.
Thomas also wrote this:
I work closely with and for Warner Brothers. (I live in L.A. and work in the music biz.) Sadly, nobody from Warners will speak with you, either on or off the record on Van. I've been lucky to get the tiny scraps of info that I've gotten and that's always been in the most casual of settings. I was lucky enough to touch the master tapes of His Band and the Street Choir, but even that was beyond lucky.
Hmmm ... Looks like my quest to get in touch with an individual from Warner Bros. to answer those Astral Weeks-related questions that have gnawed at me for years (who is the album's anonymous flautist; where were the club's overdubbed strings and horns done: Mastertone Studios or Century Sound Studio; etc., etc.) just got more arduous. At the same time, never count out a persistent, stubborn Mick.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A few links

Two interesting links to share ... Harvard Magazine ran an 800-word feature on flautist/saxophonist John Payne. I particularly enjoyed this passage:
In an essay, "Reversing the Dwindling Spiral of Musical Enjoyment" (see his entry under "Teachers" at, and at his school in Brookline, Massachusetts, Payne rejects what he calls "the tyranny of competence," noting that the first question people often ask when they learn that someone plays an instrument is, "Is she any good?" Payne suggests that "Is she having fun with it?" might be more appropriate.
Also, I recently stumbled across a site known as AllMusicBooks. An undated entry by an individual named Pat Thomas included this interesting tidbit:
I've never understood why people feel the need to expand the tale (and myth) of Astral Weeks. It’s perfect just the way it is. And yet, some people aren't satisfied. Amongst the things I've heard thru the years include, "The album could have been a double LP; every song was twice as long and was edited down." Uh, no. A good friend of mine recently reviewed the multi-track master tapes, his report stated, "There's not much extra there."
Reviewed the multi-track master tapes? You don't say ... Efforts have been made to get in touch with Mr. Thomas. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sitting down with John Payne, part 2

More from my chat with flautist/saxophonist John Payne, who gigged with Van Morrison at the Catacombs and then later appeared on Astral Weeks.

Payne on playing with Morrison and bassist Richard Davis during the recording of "Slim Slow Slider" ...
Then the producer said, "Okay, I want everyone in the control room except for Richard and John and Van." He just got the idea it should be sparse. And they put all this echo on the soprano sax so it doesn't even sound like a saxophone. It sounds like it's coming over the mountains. I don't know whose idea that was. And at the end, we just keep playing, instrumentally playing. It's about three or five minutes long. Just something at the end where we started going crazy. And then I can remember we walked back into the session, to the control room, the three of us, and there was dead silence, like no one said a word. Because it just had blown them away. It was just this moment, just something happened.
On what made Astral Weeks so unique ...
First of all, I don't know of anything where they got a bunch of jazzers and put them with a rock guy. But the rock guy was the guy who knew jazz and studied jazz and listened to jazz all his life. And he's a guy who phrases like a jazz musician. He never sings anything the same way twice. He improvises his rhythms and how he sings. So he could respond to it, yet it was still him. And none of these guys [the session musicians] ever played this stuff before. So there was that first moment of discovery.
On guitarist Jay Berliner and "Beside You" ...
That opening to "Beside You" ... They were fooling with it and he [Jay Berliner] said, "Wait a minute. I think I got an idea for the opening." He just made up that intro. And no one decided to play that with no rhythm. Notice there's no time, no one keeping time. They're just playing free through the whole thing and it just rolls around. That wasn't decided, it wasn't discussed. That's the one that drove me crazy in the control room. It just flipped me out it was so gorgeous. I just wanted to be out there so bad I could practically scream. It would have been so much fun.
On his flute playing in "Astral Weeks" ...
I don't want to sound egotistical, but I'm actually very proud of what I did on "Astral Weeks." I look at it now and I go, how did I have the maturity to play like that at 22? All I know, it's just instinct. I'm just way in the background, but if you listen to the lines and how I build in the stuff ... If you listen to the little lines, they all work. They work and they're all simple. I couldn't play that any better. I'm as proud of that as anything I've ever done—just artistically. Not just because it's a famous album.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sitting down with John Payne

A few choice quotes from the conversation I had with flautist/saxophonist John Payne, who gigged with Van Morrison at the Catacombs and then later appeared on Astral Weeks.

From what Payne heard, here is why Morrison settled in the Boston area ...
He already had "Brown-Eyed Girl," but he was playing there [the Catacombs] for 20 people. You know the rumor of why that happened? I don't know if this is true, but he was playing a club somewhere and had a freak-out and started smashing the club's PA equipment and then no one would hire him. He came up to Boston and got a local agent ... He got a bunch of Berklee College kids together and started playing high school dances. A guy who had a Top 40 hit two years before. And then he got sick of it all and fired everybody but the bass player [Tom Kielbania].
According to Payne, the run of shows at the Catacombs didn't last for weeks, as various stories and books have previously stated, but very likely took place over a weekend, right before Morrison left the Boston area to record Astral Weeks ...
He was about to go to New York at the time. And I went in and sat in with him. After the first night they said, "Do you want to come back tomorrow?" I said, "Sure." And after the second night they said, "Do you want to join the group?" I said, "Sure." And I think I played three nights, four nights, and that's it. That's all I ever played with him. And then he went down to New York very soon thereafter.
After making the trek down to New York with Morrison, Payne and Kielbania were essentially told that while they would be paid as session musicians, their services were not needed. However, Payne was eventually allowed to play. The first song he contributed to was "Astral Weeks" ...
Which I believe, but I'm not sure, was the first time I ever played it. He might have played it once and I wouldn't notice. See he would never tell me what to do. He'd just start playing. And I was a good faker. My biggest thing is I can fake. I could figure out how to get in and play something appropriate by ear. I have a lot of weaknesses as a musician but that's not one of them. And the producer [Lewis Merenstein] just turned and said, "John, why don't you play on this." And I wasn't even supposed to be on the album. That might be one of reasons he was so willing because I was bugging him and I was frustrated. He could probably feel the frustration. Great music is happening and I want to be there!
And here's Payne discussing how he borrowed a flute from the album's much-discussed anonymous flautist ...
So I didn't have a flute with me. I asked the flute player if I could borrow his flute and he goes, "Oh man, I want to go home." This guy is being paid time-and-a-half, because it's overtime, to stay there. This guy's a studio musician—he probably did three other sessions today ... He just wanted to go home. I don't want to go home. I just begged him and begged him and begged him—"Please, please!"—and he finally let me use his flute.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"This colossal work"

Back in January of 2008, music journalist Stuart Bailie celebrated the 40th anniversary of Astral Weeks with a pair of live shows in Van Morrison's native Belfast. Bailie, chief executive of the Oh Yeah Music Centre and a BBC Radio Ulster presenter, gathered Irish artists to cover the album's eight tracks. In between songs, Bailie spent time, to quote his own words, "sketching out the history of the record, celebrating the references to Belfast and the amazing cultural confidence that had led a 23-year-old artist to write this colossal work." The "Astral Weeks Revisited" shows, as they came to be called, were held at Oh Yeah and the Black Box.

The video posted above is from one of the gigs. This is Matt McGinn playing "Cyprus Avenue." I'm in the process of tracking down more video or at the very least, some audio files. Stay tuned ...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mystery train

Astral Weeks has a pair of strikingly vivid lyrical moments that involve trains: the first is found in "Cyprus Avenue": "If I pass the rumbling station / Where the lonesome engine drivers pine"; the second (which gives this blog its name) is from "Madame George": "And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below."

Because of its proximity to Sandy Row, I had long suspected that in "Madame George" Van Morrison was referring to a train pulling into Belfast's Great Victoria Street railway station. I contacted Mark Kennedy, curator of road and rail transport at National Museums Northern Ireland, and he confirmed as much via email:
The train to Sandy Row is indeed the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise train, which would have departed and arrived at Belfast Great Victoria Street station when Van wrote the song and when he was a child. It was closed for many years, from the mid-1970s, but is now open again. Great Victoria Street station is very close to Sandy Row.
Kennedy then offered this interesting tidbit:
I have always assumed that the line "throwing pennies at the bridges down below" refers to the old custom of throwing a penny out of the railway carriage window whilst crossing the River Boyne at Drogheda and making a wish. It is no longer possible as you can't open the railway carriage windows anymore because the train is air-conditioned.
The rail mention in "Cyprus Avenue" is a bit trickier to unravel. It may be another reference to the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line. There's also the possibility it's an allusion to the Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR), which ran through Morrison's Bloomfield neighborhood in East Belfast.

At its peak, the BCDR covered 80 miles, all within County Down. Desmond Coakham's book on the railway states that during its heyday the BCDR carried the heaviest passenger traffic in Ireland. According to a link Kennedy provided, the station closest to Morrison's home was Bloomfield. However, based on information from that same link, the BCDR's Belfast-Comber-Donaghadee line closed in April of 1950. Morrison turned five that August, so any memories of Bloomfield Station, the BCDR, and the lonesome and pining engine drivers would likely be murky at best.

Today, a linear park known as the Comber Greenway follows the path of the former BCDR. It's about a 10-minute walk from Morrison’s former home on Hyndford Street; a portion of it runs between Martinez Avenue and Cyprus Avenue. A pamphlet describing the greenway urges visitors to look for the remains of former railway platforms.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I'm reading James Joyce's Ulysses. Then again, my sense is—300-something pages in now—that one doesn't merely read Ulysses. Instead, you fall prey to Ulysses; you are submerged in its abyssal waters, lost within its labyrinthine passages. Ulysses breaks you into tiny pieces and then puts you back together in a totally new form.

Like Astral Weeks, Ulysses draws you into its vivid settings, its narrative spaces. These are the works of artists liberating themselves from the conventional bonds of form, style, and content; artists expressing the grandiose idea that, to quote John Lingan's piece on Ulysses, "the entirety of existence, even a seemingly inconsequential midsummer day, is suffused with just such an ocean of memories, emotions, and history."

For Ulysses, that "seemingly inconsequential" day is June 16, 1904. On Astral Weeks, Van Morrison is similarly determined to wring out the memories and emotions and history from everyday, ordinary events. And while there's never been any indication that the Irishman was replicating the approach of Joyce and earnestly detailing the events of a particular day in Belfast, recent listens of Astral Weeks are steering me toward some adventurous fantasizing.

"Astral Weeks" and "Slim Slow Slider" are beginning to feel like bookends, like a starting point and a finishing line, a sunrise and a sundown. The opener overflows with optimism; curtains are pulled back, light floods a room. The song's abrupt start is like rousing in the morning, that moment when you are suddenly thrust into wakefulness. Morrison sounds like an individual with his whole day in front of him, someone with tasks to perform and places to visit and opportunities to seize. He sings of venturing and finding, of pushing on doors, of back roads, of being born again. He sings of a boy being dressed (possibly before he's shuttled off to school or to play or to church), delivered kisses, wheels put in motion. "Astral Weeks" is the bright, sunny promise of a new day.

"Slim Slow Slider" is a moment of evening contemplation, when all the day's pluses and minutes are tallied. The song captures the dusky, muted vibe of the evening; it's sluggish in tempo, stripped down to just acoustic guitar, bass, and flute. Morrison sounds fatigued, resigned, quite mournful. "I know you're dying," he sings. "And I know you know it, too / Every time I see you / I just don't know what to do." Sometimes a new day doesn't deliver a remedy to what ails us; that's what tomorrows are for.

So if Astral Weeks does depict a "seemingly inconsequential" day in Belfast, what day is it? (Please; just play along.) I thought it was essential to: find a day of some historic importance; find a day that took place during a period of considerable transition, both for Morrison and Northern Ireland; find a day from before the province descended into sectarian violence (because Astral Weeks is about the Belfast from before the fall); find a day from Morrison's adolescence (to match the album's themes of youthful innocence and imagination).

So after researching this (not thoroughly, of course), I settled on the following date: Sunday, April 7, 1963. (Again, please play along.) Spring that year was preceded by the Big Freeze of '63, a winter still discussed in Northern Ireland. Snowdrifts reached 10 feet in height, schools closed, buses and trains came to a standstill, emergency supplies were delivered by helicopter to isolated rural families, Lough Erne froze. The cold and snow didn't let up until March.

On the 25th of that month, 1st Viscount Brookeborough, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, stepped down after two decades in office. His successor was Terence O'Neill, whose proposed social and economic reforms—designed to modernize Northern Ireland in such a way that sectarian bloodshed would be relegated to antiquity—helped usher in a period of optimism. The March evictions of Catholics in Dungannon aside, there was no hint of the horrific violence to come.

That spring was also a time of cultural progression. The Beatles were roughly a week away from making their first national television appearance (on April 13, they recorded three songs for BBC-TV's "The 625 Show")—an appearance the music-obsessed Morrison was likely aware of. At the time, the 17-year-old Irishman was performing with the Monarchs, headlining gigs in Carrickfergus and Lurgan as well as a favorite Belfast haunt of theirs, Thompson's Restaurant on Arthur Street. That spring, the Monarchs were on the precipice of something bigger; in the summer, they toured Scotland and then Germany.

Finally, April 7 is a day of minor importance in Irish history. Over the years, this date has seen its share of tragedy (in 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed Belfast for the first time), its share of innovation (in 1927, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company made the first successful demonstration of a television transmission; the demonstration included a performance by a vaudeville comedian named A. Dolan, who appeared as an Irishman), and its share of utter absurdity (in 1926, Dublin's Violet Gibson attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini; Gibson shot him three times, twice hitting him in the nose).

April 7, 1963: In my over-imaginative mind, it's an ordinary yet extraordinary day in Belfast—a day of immobile steel rims, Sunday six-bells, ferry boats, cherry wine, fields all wet with rain, games of chance, ballerinas, and Cadillacs.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Astral Weeks II: The Revenge

Van Morrison was notorious for distancing himself from his work. In fact, he often took to disparaging an album immediately after its release. Morrison did it with His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, Hard Nose the Highway, A Period of Transition. Not even Astral Weeks was spared.

In the years following its release, Morrison feigned apathy ("I didn't really get into it as much as I thought I would"), lobbed accusations that he was handcuffed during the album's recording sessions ("I was kind of restricted, because it wasn't really understood what I really wanted"), and forced the idea that his label, Warner Bros., or his producer, Lewis Merenstein—or both!—were responsible for sabotaging his work.

Said pal and collaborator John Gershen: "There is a reoccurring theme in a lot of conversations I had with him [Morrison] ... That [Astral Weeks] as it came out, as it was released, was not the album he intended it to be. That was a consistent theme: 'They ruined it for me. They added the strings. And when they sent it to me, it was all changed. That's not Astral Weeks.'"

Morrison was so steely and steadfast in his decision not to cut a follow-up in the vein of Astral Weeks that when Merenstein brought in three of the album's key musicians—bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner, and drummer Warren Smith—for the initial Moondance sessions, the Irishman quickly dismissed them. There would be no quote/unquote sequel—leave that shit to Neil Diamond, Meat Loaf, and Kiss.

Or to us fans ... Time for a little bit of speculative fun. I decided to come up with my own Astral Weeks postscript, a collection of tracks that best emulates that album's style, tone, and mood. I selected songs from the most imaginative and compelling period of Morrison's solo career: the six years following Astral Weeks, from 1970's Moondance to 1974's Veedon Fleece. Potential titles for this fictitious release include, Astral Weeks II: Still Venturing in the Slipstream, Astral Weeks II: It's a Long Way to Belfast City, and Astral Weeks II: Double Back to a Cul De Sac. Equally pretentious suggestions are welcome. And away we go ...

Track 1: "Saint Dominic's Preview" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
"Saint Dominic's Preview" ranks as one of the most Belfast-centric songs of Morrison's early catalog (he even mentions the city by name, something he never did on Astral Weeks). It's also possibly a response to those criticizing his staunch refusal to discuss the Troubles. The song's lyrics allude to Protestantism's most cherished color, the symbols of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide ("All the chains, badges, flags, and emblems"; this lyric may have been a direct reference to one of the province's most controversial pieces of legislation), and the negative physical and psychological consequences of the endless violence ("No one's making no commitments / To anybody but themselves / Hidin' behind closed doorways / Tryin' to get outside, outside of empty shells").

Track 2: "Cul de Sac" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
Similar to Astral Weeks, our sequel opens with a rousing and elevating opener followed by a slow-burning, deliberately-paced number. "Cul de Sac," for all its specific nostalgia, is also wonderfully vague when it comes to eulogizing the past. Astral Weeks achieved a similarly delightful balance.

Track 3: "Tupelo Honey" (from Tupelo Honey, 1971)
An achingly pretty love song in the same vein as "Sweet Thing." But while the couple in that track sound like they're blissfully caught up in the physical components of their relationship (physical, as in strolling, jumping, and walking; and physical as in bumpin' uglies), "Tupelo Honey" is less active, more meditative, more about the emotional completeness that a partner brings. Also, a bit of trivia: Astral Weeks alum Connie Kay handles the drums on this track.

Track 4: "Listen to the Lion" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Next, we have an 11-minute odyssey built on a foundation of Morrison's otherworldly vocals. Very Astral Weeks-like, no? "Listen to the Lion" features growls, incantations, whispers, sudden changes in tempo—it's the Irishman at his improvisational best. (Kay is also again behind the kit.)

Track 5: "And It Stoned Me" (from Moondance, 1970)
A sonic change in pace and a palette cleanser, "And It Stoned Me" is a chance to catch your breath before you dive into another mammoth track. ("The Way Young Lovers Do" serves an identical role.) The song mimics Astral Weeks' enthusiastic devotion to the natural world while overflowing with imagery from Morrison's adolescence.

Track 6: "Almost Independence Day" (from Saint Dominic's Preview, 1972)
Pay particularly close attention to Morrison's vocals at the 1:45 mark of "Almost Independence Day." One of the most Astral Weeks-y moments that's not found on Astral Weeks.

Track 7: "Streets of Arklow" (from Veedon Fleece, 1974)
An album finale in the mold of "Slim Slow Slider." "Streets of Arklow" slowly unfurls, taking its time to stretch and loosen up and unleash its charms. But like the greatest Morrison compositions, it rewards the listener for their patience. It's vulnerable, it's dense, it's a beautiful memory—it's the perfect way to close our imaginary sequel.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake"

You Can't Go Home Again is a novel by Thomas Wolfe. The title has become a neat and tidy response to those expressing the magnetic pull one's home can exert. The idiom enjoys widespread appeal: It says a lot with few words; it simply wrenches at the heart. However, this excerpt from You Can't Go Home Again, while a bit cumbersome, is far more potent, far more devastating. Wolfe informs us that the journey to "return home" is an absolute dead end.
You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of “the artist” and the all-sufficiency of "art" and "beauty" and "love," back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
I've long wrestled with whether or not Van Morrison shares such a belief on Astral Weeks. Does he also accept that one can't go home again, back to that place that was lived in and loved, back to that most sacred of settings, "back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting?" I blow hot and cold; I'm certain and uncertain. And then I hear Morrison's otherworldly chant from "Madame George"—"In the backstreet, in the backstreet, in the backstreet / Down home, down home in the backstreet"—and the conjured images of Belfast are so vibrant and sharp it's like the Irishman is there, on Hyndford, the backstreet, his home before he even knew what a home was.

And it's then that I believe Morrison is telling us that you can search the world over for what you truly need, but you will only find it when you return to the old forms, the old systems of things, to where you cataloged the most delicate and enduring moments. You will only find it when you go back home again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doodling doodles

There was a piece in yesterday's Guardian on how Google celebrated Leo Tolstoy's 186th birthday with a doodle that cartoonized three of the Russian writer's most well-known works. The delightfully vibrant images were created by artist Roman Muradov (who also designed and illustrated the graphic deluxe edition of James Joyce's Dubliners; I purchased a copy today—just look at that cover).

Muradov's illustrations—depicting notables scenes from Tolstoy's War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich—got me wondering: Could an artist do the same for Astral Weeks? Could moments from Van Morrison's masterpiece be illustrated to—I'm directly quoting Muradov here, from a piece he wrote on Google to accompany today's doodles—"evoke the atmosphere of the stories without giving away too much of the narrative or details." If an artist were to attempt this, what would those moments be?

Perhaps one from "Cyprus Avenue," slightly embellished ... The narrator with a vessel of cherry wine tucked in a pocket, a deserted train station, a vacant locomotive idling, an engine driver smoking idly. This scene highlights Astral Weeks crisp and distinct "consciousness of place." Our wine-quaffing narrator and our brooding conductor unwittingly meet at the train station, a place one visits to visit other places. They are both preoccupied with escape: one doggedly pursues it while the other actively facilitates it. Then there are the splendid parallels between the locomotive and the wine, each a means of attaining freedom from others and ourselves.

Where are the Muradovs who read this blog? I need one of you to get cracking on this illustration ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Slainte, part 2

A few weeks back, I wrote about an American Pale Ale named Astral Weeks. Two days ago, I had it confirmed that the beer is indeed inspired by the Van Morrison album. Nathan Zeender, head brewer at the company responsible for Astral Weeks, Right Proper Brewing, emailed me this: "The beer was brewed with Galaxy and Equinox hops, which was the 'astral' part. And it was fermented for three weeks, which is the 'weeks' part. We have a fresh batch of it that should be on tap sometime next week."

Zeender, of course, is a massive fan of the album—and quite possibly one of the more dedicated and expressive ones I've come across. His love for Astral Weeks compelled him to create an entirely new thing from scratch, a complicated and time-absorbing thing that never existed before. I just run a poorly read blog; I feel insignificant.

Anyway, this is what Zeender had to say about Astral Weeks: "I've had the record for several years. I don't really think of it as an album of songs, so much as an overly romantic young man's rambling through his hometown."

Right Proper Brewing is located in Washington, D.C. I smell a road trip.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The pitiless city

Mike Gibson, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, recently penned a nice piece on Van Morrison and his reconnection with the place of his birth. Several years ago, when writing about the track "Orangefield," I referred to Belfast as "a pitiless city that wasn't ready to love back." Well, perhaps it finally is loving back—and that's why Morrison's relationship with his home has never been stronger. This is from Gibson's story:
We begin to forgive home for the sins we attached to it, recognise that in our impetuous, grab-at-life youth we were partially to blame for our acrimonious separation and start to make our peace. And perhaps Van has now turned this life journey into one of the most artistically poignant performances we are likely to witness.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"The knocker on the door was rusted red"

Astral Weeks' renowned opening stanza is undeniably wondrous; it's a tingly tumble down the rabbit hole, four lines of labyrinthine wordplay and complex imagery. But I have to be honest: It's the album's sharp simplicity that I have long favored. Those moments when Van Morrison creates the same air of mysterious excitement found in "Astral Weeks," only with language that's crisp and clean. Like these lines from "The Way Young Lovers Do": "We strolled through fields all wet with rain / And back along the lane again / There in the sunshine / In the sweet summertime."

Morrison's lyrics are reminiscent of two recent literary passages I stumbled across, two passages by Irish writers that are beautiful in their straightforwardness. From Colum McCann's 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin: "Dublin Bay was a slow heaving thing, like the city it horseshoed, but it could turn without warning. Every now and then the water smashed up against the wall in a storm. The sea, having arrived, stayed. Salt crusted the windows of our house. The knocker on the door was rusted red."

And from Aidan Higgins' 1966 novel Langrishe, Go Down: "The autumn came and went and winter began, damp and cold. The saturated trunks of the trees turned dark in the rain and the house appeared through the thinning plantation. An ash tree was sold and felled near the ring pump. From the house Imogen had heard it fall."

Mystic of the East

A bit of recent news that's semi-related to Astral Weeks ... The Connswater Community Greenway project, aimed at creating attractive and safe parkland for East Belfast's visitors and residents, has launched Mystic of the East, a self-guided trail that gives Van Morrison fans the opportunity to visit the Belfast locations the Irishman mentions in his songs. From the new story linked about:
The trail points fans to many of the places which are referenced in his lyrics and the accompanying map lets visitors listen to 12 song extracts at various key places thanks to the miracle of modern technology.

Using what's known as a QR Reader, which can be downloaded free from an app store to a phone or tablet, the visitor can play the segments of the 12 songs at the relevant locations.
The Mystic of the East trail, which was fully authorized by Morrison, officially welcomed its first visitors this past weekend. The trail's opening neatly coincided with Morrison's trio of performances at his former secondary school. As part of the EastSide Arts Festival, Morrison played at Orangefield High School, including one concert for former students and staff. Orangefield will officially close its doors at the end of the summer.

The Orangefield gigs and the Mystic of the East trail are two more examples of the dramatic change in Morrison's relationship with his native land. Once estranged from Northern Ireland for 12 years, Morrison has recently made Belfast a home base of sorts, a decision many attribute to the fact that his mother, Violet, still lives in the area. The Northern Irish Tourism Board is hoping "Van-related" tourism will help raise the country's profile—much like the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and the Titanic Museum.

And for those who are interested, the Mystic of the East trail (see the map above) features three stops with ties to Astral Weeks: the Belfast & County Down Railway, St. Donard's, and of course, Cyprus Avenue.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Oh tease of teases!

Some time ago (not sure when; don't care enough to look it up), Rolling Stone issued its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf penned the entry on Van Morrison, who checked in at No. 42. In his piece, Wolf claims to have made reel-to-reel recordings of Astral Weeks in its most nascent form:
Eventually, Van managed to assemble a two-piece acoustic band and booked himself at a coffeehouse/jazz club that could only be described as subterranean. It was located three stories below a pool parlor and was deep, damp and dark. Egyptian motifs were painted on its yellow smoke-stained walls. The club justly deserved its name, the Catacombs. I borrowed a tape machine to capture the evening's music. What he performed that night later turned out to be the song cycle that made up the groundbreaking Astral Weeks. Though only a handful showed up, when Van finished playing, there was no doubt that the few present had witnessed something extraordinary.
These lost Astral Weeks tapes were also mentioned in a 2002 Boston Phoenix feature on Wolf, though it was in a paragraph simply cataloging all the detritus in the singer's Boston apartment: "Walls of music and books, art, antiques (he has a 1955 Seeburg jukebox in mint condition, for one). Mementos everywhere, some more obvious than others: zebra shoes from J. Geils's 'Sanctuary' tour; a tape reel sitting on a stack of books with the first recorded version of songs that would end up on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks."

Reading this leaves me teary-eyed. To be that close to a recording of Morrison (and presumably John Payne and Tom Kielbania) performing at the Catacombs and to not hear it—oh tease of teases! Maybe the writer asked and Wolf denied the request. Maybe the writer never asked, having been too preoccupied with Wolf's shiny jukebox. Or maybe Wolf is just a skilled fibber, an opportunist looking to exaggerate his role in the Astral Weeks narrative and the tapes don't exist at all.

Hiding in his own shadow

On Oct. 2, City Light Publishers is releasing Lit Up Inside, a new book featuring selected song lyrics from Van Morrison's exceptionally prodigious career. According to press information, the tome will contain approximately one-third of all material the Irishman has ever written. What will be included? What will be rejected? Let the speculation commence.

Please take note, because here is what definitely won't be in Lit Up Inside: a glowing foreword by music critic Johnny Rogan. This is what Rogan wrote about Morrison's approach to lyric writing in his 2006 biography, Van Morrison: No Surrender: "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."

A tad harsh and unforgiving? Probably, but Rogan's assessment does address Morrison's propensity for "over"-ness in his lyrics. How he frequently overindulges, overreaches, overstates, etc. How excess is often the rule, not the exception. At his worst, Morrison gets the color schemes right, but then applies five coats of each. The Irishman's finest lyrical moments are when he sets restrictions and then enthusiastically fights against them, when he hides in his own shadow and injects his art with more magic and mystery.

"The lyrics in this book span 50 years of writing and as such are representative of my creative journey," Morrison said in a statement. I'm curious to see which songs from Astral Weeks made the cut. My guesses: "Cyprus Avenue," "Madame George," and "Ballerina."

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Recently, I stumbled upon a Beer Advocate review for an American Pale Ale named Astral Weeks. Right Proper Brewing Company of Washington, D.C., was responsible for its creation.

However, my sweet, dizzying glee turned to soul-crushing disappointment when a quick perusal of Right Proper's online beer listing revealed no beverage bearing the Astral Weeks moniker. (I did see beers called The Duke and Ornette, after Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman, so there's clearly some cross-pollination between craft brewing and pop music going on at Right Proper.) Disappointed, I fired off an email to the company's general inquiry address. I shall report back when I get a response. This is tremendously important, mind you, for I fancy beer just as much as I fancy Astral Weeks.

Quick aside: The lone review for Astral Weeks featured this comment: "Pours a very pale yellow, like an unfiltered saison with some sticky white head." I've heard Astral Weeks described in much the same manner.