Monday, June 30, 2014


Over the course of Astral Weeks' eight tracks, Van Morrison sings a grand total of 2,335 words. (That's our best estimate. We may be off by a half dozen or so. Or more. We are most definitely not counting again. Too many men were lost.) Not surprisingly, the album's longest song, "Madame George," features the most words: 454. The least? That would be "Slim Slow Slider" with 126. We won't bore you with the word counts for the rest of the tracks.

Anyway ... What if those 2,335 words had to be represented by just one? What would that one word be? Is it even possible to have one specific word stand in for 2,335 others? And what if the rules were bent a tad and that one word was not truly a word, but an amalgam of two or three words—something that's quite Joycean in how it's delightfully nonsensical yet alltogether accurate. (From Ulysses: "The ghost walks, professor MacHugh murmured softly, biscuitfully to the dusty windowpane." Biscuitfully. Say that out loud. Isn't it fantastic?) What about something like, "nostalgianess?" Or "memorydrunk?" Or "daysgoneby"—as in, "The album's tracks are not rich in the artist's personal history, but rich in something more specific, more particular: the artist's daysgoneby."

Too pretentious?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Listen my children and you shall hear

Astral Weeks Listen No. 438

The final stretch of the evening trek home: crumbling brick smokestacks dawdle by the river; small planes, on their way to the nearby airport, dangle overhead like a child's mobile; parked cars queue at the prison for visiting hours, children sitting on drivers' laps, inmates waiting at picnic tables.

As we leave the office, a co-worker says, "Doesn't matter how the day goes as long as I get through that door," as he gestures to the exit. And then another co-worker responds, "And the next one you go through is that door at home." And now I'm almost home, almost through that door, when Van Morrison sings, "And I stand with my arms behind me / And I'm pushin' on that door." Astral Weeks: Making shitty daily commutes significantly less shitty.

"My whole being was vibrating"

I've previously written about two significant Boston-area settings in the Astral Weeks narrative: Green Street in Cambridge and the old Catacombs club. A third is Ace Recording Studio, once located at 1 Boylston Place.

It was here that Lewis Merenstein, who would produce Morrison's second album, first met Van Morrison and heard him play. The song Morrison performed was "Astral Weeks"—in its primordial, unadorned, acoustic form. This is from an interview music writer Hank Shteamer conducted with Merenstein several years ago:
Warner Brothers had contacted Bob Schwaid [Morrison's manager at the time], and he contacted me. And they had sent some producers, and they didn't know what he was talking about; people went up expecting to hear "Brown Eyed Girl," because the year before he had had "Brown Eyed Girl" on Bang Records and that's what he was last known for. So Joe Smith and Mo Ostin asked me to go up [to Boston] and listen to him. And I went up and it was at Ace Recording Studio at One Boylston Place, and there was Van Morrison, very timidly sitting on a stool and I came in very timidly sitting on a stool and he played! And the first tune he played was "Astral Weeks." Thirty seconds into it, my whole being was vibrating, because having spent all that time with jazz players, when he was playing, I could hear hear—the lyric I got right away; I knew he was being reborn. I heard 30 seconds, a minute and it went right through me, and I got the poetry of it. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.
According to this link, the Boston Repertory Theatre (BRT) purchased the building that housed the studio in 1974. The BRT then transformed the space into a 200-seat theatre, which opened in '75 with Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano." The building later housed a variety of nightclubs.

Trivia that may only interest readers who hail from the Boston area: "Charlie on the M.T.A." (officially titled "M.T.A.")—a ditty that most anyone who grew up in or around the Hub knows the words to—was first recorded at Ace in 1949. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes cut the record for Progressive Party mayoral candidate Walter A. O'Brien.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Just before the Sunday six-bells chime"

Trowel in my hands, digging deeper, always digging deeper ... In an effort to accurately determine the location of the bells referenced in "Beside You" (read here), I emailed a trio of churches near Van Morrison's childhood home on Hyndford Street: St. Donard's, Bloomfield Methodist, and Bloomfield Presbyterian.

The first response was from Rev. Frank Sellar, minister at Bloomfield Presbyterian. He informed me that neither his church nor Bloomfield Methodist has bells.
Hello Ryan; good to hear from you and thank you for your question.

Reading your blog, I think you are right. The bells in Van's songs belong to St Donard's Church of Ireland Church. While Bloomfield Presbyterian has a bell tower, sadly there are no bells in it and Bloomfield Methodist do not have bells either.

I imagine the 'Sunday 6 bells' would not be the Angelus (as the C of I would not observe Catholic practice) but more likely to be the bells calling people to evening service (but I might be wrong, so will Cc this to the rector of St Donards Rev Ken Higgins). Also Ken might be able to tell you if there are 6 bells in the tower?

Every good wish Ryan in your creative genius.

Soon after, a response arrived from the rector at St. Donard's, Rev. Ken Higgins.
Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your query about the bells @ St Donard's church. Frank forwarded it on to me. I agree with his thoughts that it is most probably St Donard's bells that is being referred to - as we are the only church with bells that still ring out - although they ring at 6.30pm calling people to worship at 7pm - although this may have been different in Van Morrison's time here.

Ken Higgins
More information to follow ...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The exiled son of the city

This is a profile of Paul Charles, a man of many hats: talent agent, tour promoter, novelist. Charles, who hails from Magherafelt, Co. Derry, is currently promoting his latest book, The Lonesome Heart is Angry. Set in 1960s Northern Ireland, it's a story about the age-old tradition of matchmaking. I emailed Charles after reading his mammoth blog post on Astral Weeks, which opens with him reprinting his concise 17-word review of the album:
The beauty and the magic of Astral Weeks

Like all things pertaining to love, will last forever.

The above was the two-line review I wrote in 1968 for City Week, a Belfast newspaper, of Van Morrison's groundbreaking album, Astral Weeks. The Editor, Chris Moore—who was more used to wielding his red pen on my double page reviews (as with the triple-disc Woodstock Album)—said, politely, "And would you like to expand even just a little on that?"

"No, I think that covers it for me," I replied, not even realising that it was then, and still is now, an impossible album to review.
In his email to me, Charles contended that an album that exudes so much "place-ness" had to be written by an emigrant: "I grew up in a wee village called Magherafelt which is just outside of Belfast. Over the years I've spent a good bit of time in and around Belfast and to me (a personal view) Belfast is certainly ever present in the words and music of Astral Weeks. However, I've often felt that the vision and the soul could only have been created by an exiled son of the city."

In the article I linked above, Charles casually mentioned our small exchange before further expounding on his original point: "I was asked recently how much I thought Belfast influenced Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and I replied that I thought there was a lot of Belfast in the record, but it was a Belfast that only an exile would see. I don't think Van would have created a work like that had he still been living in Belfast. When you are away from home, you see it in a different way—sometimes through rose-tinted glasses. I think I'm the same. Certainly with regard to Magherafelt and Castlemartin, I can't remember those places being anything other than wonderful and great fun. And very happy times."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Decoding more lyrics

When it comes to pure, rich, Belfastian imagery, "Madame George" takes the prize. ("Cyprus Avenue" would be a not-too-distance second.) One of the track's most illustrative and memorable couplets comes 78 seconds in: "The kids out in the street collecting bottle tops / Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops."

A passage from John Collis' Inarticulate Speech of the Heart provides a bit of backstory on these lyrics. Rod Demick—a member of the Wheels, one of Them's contemporaries in the Belfast rhythm and blues scene of the mid-1960s—purportedly knew Van Morrison, back when they were just two fiendishly curious children scurrying around Belfast's sullied, post-war landscape. Morrison, according to Demick, idled away his adolescent hours behind the now-defunct Ambassador Cinema on Cregagh Road.

"There was a pub there," Demick remembered, "and they stacked the bottles out the back. The bottle tops were bright colors, I remember, like green and yellow. You would sneak in and steal some empty bottles, then run round to the front of the pub and get the money back for the empties in the off-sales. You'd buy those cigarettes one at a time, joysticks, about nine inches long, smoke a bit and dib them out."

Nicking bottles, earning some undeserved coin, savoring a redwood-sized smoke ... What would today's parents think?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Our eyes are ever turned / Inward"

Approaching the front door, she doesn't hear his voice or his acoustic guitar. She enters, closes the door, calls his name. A pinch of silence, then she does it a second time, more abrupt, a whisker louder. In the stillness of the front hall, there's the hard realization that she did not fancy coming home to his tinkering—the start-stops and stop-starts, the repeated phrases and tuneful humming and strummed chords—the songwriting, his work, until this very moment, when it's unexpectedly muted.

Still, she feels his presence, in the hallway and in the kitchen, where she places her umbrella and coat on a hook. His presence, all through the house, a consequence of the prolonged spells of hermitic behavior, when his craving for wide-open, natural landscapes is turned on its head and he requires the cramped security of four walls, a low ceiling, tight spaces. Days at a time spent cloistered inside, laughing, brooding, playing, writing—never exiting the house until his electric, manic spell of creativity comes to an unceremonious conclusion. As of late, that presence has twisted into a frustrating dichotomy: when he's here, he is often not, consciousness replaced by a sort of artist's hypnotism, the songwriting process endlessly whirring inside his head. And when he's not physically here, he stills feels here.

She leaves the kitchen, pushes open the door to his bedroom—and touches her chest, slightly startled, surprised at being slightly startled. Beneath an unadorned light bulb, he sits on the floor, next to the only window, his back to the unpapered wall, a cigarette glowing in an ashtray on the sill. His guitar occupies the bed; pencils and dogged sheets of paper garnish the nightstand. As she takes in this scene, words leap to her. Poet Patrick Kavanagh's vision of the Irish race: "We are a dark people / Our eyes are ever turned / Inward."

He is done writing. Tomorrow he will go outside.

"Pantomimic transformation scenes"

Sitting quietly, feet comfortably up, idly reflecting on recent posts regarding Astral Weeks and its "placeness"—or, to put it less cleverly, how it exhibits such a strong sense of place ... This quote is from Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice. It was lifted from a study of W.B. Yeats published in 1941 and remains one of my favorite observations regarding Ireland and its natural wonders:

"An Irish landscape is capable of pantomimic transformation scenes; one moment it will be desolate, dead, unrelieved monotone, the next it will be an indescribably shifting pattern of prismatic light. The light effects of Ireland make other landscapes seem stodgy; on the other hand, few countries can produce anything more depressing than Ireland in her grey moments."