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.