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."
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.