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.

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