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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mapping Astral Weeks' genes

If there was an Astral Weeks Genome Project, an extensive research undertaking that identified and mapped the "genes" of Van Morrison's landmark album, a section—albeit a small one—would undoubtedly be dedicated to King Pleasure (nee Clarence Beeks).

Born in Tennessee in 1922, Beeks was an early master of vocalese, a style in which lyrics are written and sung to the recorded solos of jazz musicians. Beeks had a pair of hits—"Moody's Mood for Love," in which he recorded lyrics (written by the man credited with inventing vocalese, Eddie Jefferson) to James Moody's solo in the standard "I'm in the Mood for Love"; and "Parker's Mood," which featured his own lyrics—but was neither renowned nor prolific. He made few personal appearances and refrained from recording any new material during the final two decades of his life (he died at age 58). That Morrison was even aware of Beeks and his rather limited catalogue is further testament to his father, his much-celebrated record collection, and his appetite for arcane music produced by African-Americans.

In interviews, Morrison has cited Beeks' influence upon the vocal blueprint he created for Astral Weeks, a schematic developed in Belfast and Boston that placed equal emphasis on language and delivery. For Morrison, songs grew out of the detail and depth of the words he chose, but also out of how these words were sung. He mixed in repetition, changed tempos on a dime, tinkered with volume. It's how Morrison stretched the sinew of quote/unquote rock singing and gave Astral Weeks one of its most distinctive traits.

Listen to 1954's King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings and you hear that same stretching, that same inventiveness—a pure vocal bliss that Morrison came to adore. A word is repeated and each time it's said, new meaning is given to that word—or, at least, a different inflection of meaning. Words are packed into cramped spaces so that songs merrily inflate and soar like helium-swelled balloons. Words become playthings. At particular moments, I was reminded of a child making paper airplanes and how getting creative and folding the paper in different ways can affect how the plane flies.

King Pleasure introduced Morrison to vocalese, but more importantly, he opened the Northern Irishman's ears to the extensive capabilities of the human voice—opened his mind to the idea that the human voice is not just an instrument, but an infinite field of possibilities.