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 ...