Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let down and hanging around

Late last month, Rolling Stone premiered one of the four bonus tracks—the first take of "Beside You"—that will be featured on the upcoming reissue of Astral Weeks. Yesterday, Uncut offered an exclusive peek of the much-anticipated extended version of "Slim Slow Slider."

And my is it underwhelming. There's aimless instrumentation, Van flatly singing a few words from what may or may not be an old Protestant church ditty, and absolutely zero of the beautiful solemnity for which the original is renowned. Thank you, but no.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A first step

No future can be charted without a starting point. For Van Morrison, it was a song recorded in the spring of 1967. It was done in just two takes; even so, upon completion, the artist—the exile—abruptly collapsed in on himself. "He was just torn apart," said the session's sound engineer. "He was sitting on the floor in a heap like a wrung-out dishcloth, completely spent emotionally."

The song is a labyrinthine journey into the heart of what moves us, what sustains us, what remains with us, and, perhaps most crucial of all, what dies with us. There's an unparalleled desperation, a need to convey these feelings and emotions before they lose their purity and vitality, before they fade like a photograph left out in the sun. At nearly 10 minutes in length, the song conflates old genres and births new ones: Belfast Blues, Ginger-Haired Soul, Deathbed Folk. "T.B. Sheets" is the first step on the tangled path to Astral Weeks.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Strange days indeed

I listened to Quintet's Astral Weeks ~Strange Days From Another Star~. It delivered the same feeling I get when watching my children spend 10 hours climbing on furniture, cartwheeling down stairs, doing somersaults on the ceiling, swan-diving off top bunks, and perfecting the skill of sprinting full throttle while screaming at top volume: I was simultaneously jealous of and fatigued by their inexhaustible energy.

Upon the album's completion, I was overcome with this urge to complete an act both audacious and liberating. Like if it was a weekday afternoon and I was driving home from my place of employment, I would have taken off my socks and work shoes, flung them out the car window, and joyfully worked the pedals with my bare feet.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unrefined poetry

The phrases, the words, the repetition, the coarse blend of English and Irish—it all reads like unrefined poetry, like a timeworn incantation that when fervently chanted, rouses the ghosts of far-removed, long-forgotten places.

Beal Feirsde ... The mouth of, or approach to, the sandbank or crossing ...

Bealafarsad ... Hurdleford town or the mouth of the pool ...

Bela Fearsad ... A town at the mouth of a river ...

The Irish maintain an intimate connection with the natural features of their environment, a devotion that engenders a unique charitableness when it comes to place-naming. "They lavished names on the land," writes Kerby A. Miller in Emigrants and Exiles. "Every field, cleft, and hollow had a distinctive appellation which recalled some ancient owner or legendary occurrence." This rich appreciation for nature, this power to give even the most ordinary aspects of the landscape a certain permanence is present in the name of Northern Ireland's capital and most historically important city: Belfast.

A little taste

Last week, Rolling Stone whet the appetites of us Astral Weeks zealots when it premiered one of the four bonus tracks that will be featured on the album's upcoming reissue. The publication debuted the first take of "Beside You." The reissue will feature three other previously unreleased tracks: the fourth take of "Madame George" and longer versions of both "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." This new edition of Astral Weeks will be released Oct. 30.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

The city of superlatives

Belfast ... A large city in a little country—a place where no task is ever small, where determination is never modest and the triumphs are imposingly grand. "As Belfast-people, we proclaim a belief in big ideas," explains Belfast-born architect and urban designer Ciaran Mackel in his essay "Impact of the Conflict on Public Spaces and Architecture." "We are accustomed, perhaps even addicted to, a big sense of our place in the world." The city's history is laden with superlatives. Three times Harland & Wolff built a ship that was bestowed with the title of "largest ever": the Teutonic, the Oceanic, and the Titanic. Additionally, the shipyard possessed the world's biggest floating crane and graving dock. York Street Mill was the king of all linen manufactories (helping Belfast earn the moniker "Linenopolis"). The Belfast Rope Work Company and Gallaher's tobacco factory were titans of their prospective industries.

In the words of still another architect, Dennis O'D. Hanna, the city's numerous feats of wonder are attributable to a certain shared trait: "What Belfast sets its hand to it will ultimately do well, for we are an ambitious people." A restless desire to succeed, a civic embrace of the idea that everything can be done better—and again. Van Morrison articulated it with two plain and irrevocable words. Back in the mid-1960s, Morrison and fellow members of Them were profiled in Belfast's City Week; asked to list his ambitions, the singer/songwriter stated just one: "Make it."

Perhaps then, it's no accident of fortune that the rock canon's crowning achievement can trace its roots back to Belfast. After all, this is the city of superlatives.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Astral Weeks possesses the solid foundation that Belfast lacks. It's a juxtaposition that's altogether coincidental and at the same time, fun to tease out: The album that is constructed on the firm bedrock of Richard Davis' upright bass and Van Morrison's vocals and acoustic guitar pays homage to a city that is built on a soft, dense mixture of sand, gravel, and boulder clay. Locals call this mixture "sleech." (Engineers have coined a less colorful term: "reinforced water.") It lies underneath the central part of the city in varying thicknesses and is notorious for its poor weight-bearing capabilities. The Albert Memorial Clock, one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, subsided into the sleech and as result, developed a well-known tilt.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A brief poetic interlude

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
By Paul Muldoon

Not only had I lived on Fitzroy Avenue,
I'd lived there with Madame George Hyde Lees,
to whom I would rather shortly be wed.

Georgie would lose out to The George and El Vino's
when I "ran away to the BBC"
as poets did, so Dylan Thomas said.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The countdown continues

Last Friday, Ralph McLean wrapped up his countdown of the top 70 Van Morrison tunes. The tracks were selected by BBC Radio Ulster listeners.

Here's what made the top ten:
10. "Angelou" (Into the Music)
9. "Have I Told You Lately" (Avalon Sunset)
8. "Crazy Love" (Moondance)
7. "Listen to the Lion" (Saint Dominic's Preview)
6. "Saint Dominic's Preview” (Saint Dominic's Preview)
5. "Madame George" (Astral Weeks)
4. "Bright Side of the Road" (Into the Music)
3. "In the Garden" (No Guru, No Method, No Teacher)
2. "Tupelo Honey" (Tupelo Honey)
1. "Into the Mystic" (Moondance)
Overall, seven of Astral Weeks' eight tracks made the list (sorry, "Slim Slow Slider"). Of Morrison's 41 studio and live albums, Astral Weeks was the most well represented. In the runner-up spot was Moondance with six selections. (Though that album managed to place more tracks in the top 20; four to Astral Weeks' three. "Ballerina" and "Sweet Thing" ranked 11th and 13th respectively.) Three albums tied for third place with four tracks each: Saint Dominic's Preview, Avalon Sunset, and the U.S. edition of Them's The Angry Young Them.

All three episodes of McLean's countdown can be listened to here.

"It had just blown them away"

When I spoke with John Payne last August, here is what he had to say regarding the legendary extended ending of "Slim Slow Slider"—and ending we will now apparently get to hear thanks to Astral Weeks finally, finally, finally! getting the reissue treatment.
He's thumping and I'm playing weird outside jazz stuff. He fades it out. What actually happened—I don't know how long it was; I'd say three or five minutes—of instrumental improvisation went on with Richard and me, and Van was improvising single string on his guitar, which he never does. But he can apparently, because he did. Now we even got baroque for a little while. It was wild.

What happened with that tune ... We were all playing with the drums and this and that and the other thing. 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. It was a brilliant idea because everything else was dense with lots of stuff. And they put all this echo on the soprano sax so it doesn't even almost sound like a saxophone. It sounds like sort of a flute—or who in the hell knows. 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. We go into this whole thing—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 ... The ones who knew Van, probably because they didn't know Van could do that. He listened to jazz his whole life. But it was just this moment—just something happened.

The countdown begins

On August 26, BBC Radio Ulster began its countdown of the top 70 songs in Van Morrison's catalog. (The station also kicked off its week-long celebration of the singer-songwriter's birthday; check out my post here.) The 70 tracks were selected by the station's listeners.

So far, only one track from Astral Weeks has made an appearance: "Beside You." However, host Ralph McLean did tease listeners with the promise that more would be coming in the following days.

A good chunk of the 20-something tracks played consisted of Morrison's most popular downtempo numbers: "A Sense of Wonder," "Brand New Day," "Warm Love," and "Hymns to the Silence." Also, a trio of Them ditties made an appearance: "Don't Look Back," "One Two Brown Eyes," and "Here Comes the Night."

In between, McLean shared touching tweets and emails and missives from Morrison's fans. There was a widow who remembered his first dance with his new bride and how the song they spun and stepped to was "These Are the Days." There was a grieving parent who lost a teenage daughter and found solace in "Reminds Me of You." But perhaps my favorite share was from Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership, who said that the opening line to "Orangefield"—and I'm paraphrasing here—always makes him feel good about Belfast.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Happy Birthday, Van the Man

On Aug. 26, BBC Radio Ulster will kick off its week-long celebration of Van Morrison's 70th birthday. The numerous programs, features, and events are certain to leave the average Van enthusiast properly satiated. A full schedule can be found right here.

A few of the events yours truly is eagerly anticipating:

Ralph's Top 70 Van Tracks Countdown
Over the course of three days (Aug. 26-28, from 8 to 10 p.m.), Ralph McLean will count down the top songs from Morrison's five-decade-long career. The tracks were chosen by BBC Radio Ulster listeners.

Into the Music
On Aug. 29 at 6 p.m., McLean will host a special concert just one mile from where Morrison grew up. "Into the Music" will take place at the Park Avenue Hotel in East Belfast and will feature a number of local artists, including The 4 Of Us, The Clameens, Anthony Toner, Wookalilly, and Ronnie Greer.

The Story of Them
On Aug. 30 at 2 p.m., Dan Gordon presents "The Story of Them," a documentary tells the story of Morrison and his rhythm & blues band. The program will feature interviews with members and the group's most well-known songs.

Van Morrison: Live on Cyprus Avenue
And finally, on Aug. 31 at 2:45 p.m. (Morrison's birthday), BBC Radio Ulster will exclusively broadcast the artist's 70th birthday concert. The show will take place on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare he immortalized on Astral Weeks.

Two thumbs up

For sale right now on Amazon (price: $11.49; format: VHS cassette): Slipstream, a 1973 Canadian drama that not only takes its title from "Astral Weeks," but also includes the song in its soundtrack. Starring Luke Askew (of Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider fame; not too shabby), the movie won the Canadian Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1973.

Unsurprisingly, Van Morrison gave it two thumbs up—way up. From Ritchie Yorke's biography Van Morrison: Into the Music: "I think it's a great film. And I think that 'Astral Weeks' is in context with the film." Morrison also travelled to Toronto to be on hand for its official premiere.

The movie's plot, courtesy of IMDB: "A reclusive Albertan DJ runs his popular pirate radio station in a remote farmhouse, but begins to feel pressure from his romantic relationship with a fan and his producer, who wants more mainstream content.” In Yorke's biography, Morrison goes on to say that the flick was "banned in a lot of places" on account of it exposing "a lot of the corruption in the music business." Hmmm ... Sounds a little dubious.

At any rate, I believe this is the first instance of a song from Astral Weeks being featured in a movie. And other than the inclusion of "Sweet Thing" in a few motion pictures, I struggle to think of subsequent instances. I suppose that's the reason not a single track from Astral Weeks was included on this compilation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Place/Person/Album (thank you, Tim Robinson)

The opening words to something grand, something bold ...

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks

It begins: like a sudden gust from the sea, a melodious rush of upright bass and acoustic guitar, an opening lyric—"If I ventured in the slipstream"—touched with echo and distance, as if the artist's words are drifting through the narrow backstreets of his native Belfast, drifting down from the soft, heathery hills that horse-shoe this lonely, obstinate city. And it ends: a chaotic din not unlike the throb and stammer of Belfast's once great shipyards, a din that casually evokes Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney's assertion that "our island is full of comfortless noises"— shrieks of soprano saxophone, the heavy hammer of that upright bass, the dull thwack of human flesh pounding a hard surface.

Between these two moments the pop music medium is crushed and expanded. A new future is brought about through the past. The statement made by this groundbreaking collaboration of form and sound and feeling is immediate and irrevocable. Never before has a popular music artist examined with such power and grace all that being alive can mean.

The album is a space where contrasting elements—the old and the new, the conscious and the unconscious, reflection and action, individuality and collectivity, adolescence and maturity—land on common ground. The album, released in the fall of 1968, is the greatest ever recorded. It's a singular voice going out into the world, a voice that close to five decades later remains unanswered, unchallenged—unequalled. The album speaks its own language.

This self-sufficiency demands reverence and to present additional information on the album's subject matter and on its creator is not an attempt to buttress it, but to assemble a base on which to display its paramountcy.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A yawning gap

Astral Weeks confounded many upon its release. There is no better evidence of this than where the album topped out on the U.K. album charts: #140. No, that extra zero is not a typo. Yes, 140 on the album charts is blushingly low.

Some context: Today, the bottom quarter or so of the Billboard 200 is generally reserved for well-curated greatest hits packages, the original soundtracks to blockbuster films, and those classic albums with enduring cross-generational appeal. For example, at #140 in this week's Billboard charts is the two-year-old soundtrack to the movie Frozen. It's three spots below Michael Jackson's Bad (release date: Aug. 31, 1987) and 10 spots above AC/DC's Back in Black (which turned 35 this past July). This area of the charts is like interstellar space, a cosmic vastness well beyond the starry influence of those artists and albums nestled in the top 10.

And so I've long wondered ... Is Astral Weeks's yawning gap between critical acclaim and pure units moved (33 years passed before it went Gold) wider than any other iconic album's?

"He allowed us to stretch out"

A few fairly pertinent quotes I unearthed in my ever-growing Word document of Astral Weeks-related detritus. (This thing is massive; time to do some paring.) This one is from Bob Schwaid, Van Morrison's manager at the time of the album's recording. It's his reaction to Astral Weeks' overall sound.
At the time, I thought it was an avant-garde marriage of jazz and rock. Really it was a combination of Van's approach to what he thought to be jazz with folk, blues, gospel, and rock levels. At the time none of the us thought that it fitted into any category.
And this one is from Jay Berliner, the guitarist who appeared on half of Astral Weeks' eight tracks. Berliner discusses the album's much-discussed recording sessions.
In those days I was so busy that I had no idea what I was playing on. On the first session session I wasn't booked until 9 p.m. and so didn't play on "Cyprus Avenue" and "Madame George," which had been recorded earlier in the evening. I played a lot of classical guitar on those sessions and it was very unusual to play classical guitar in that context. What stood out in my mind was the fact that he allowed us to stretch out. We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt.

"Right back to the bards"

You discover them in sleeveless albums, forgotten songs, dusty tomes, dog-eared novels, late-night films. Astral Weeks' genes are scattered all over the cultural genome, in both anticipated and unexpected places, waiting to be uncovered by fervent, obsessed (and helpless?) listeners.

The following text was lifted from the preface (written by Anthony Burgess) to Modern Irish Short Stories, a 1980 anthology edited by Ben Forkner. This first passage helps listeners understand why Van Morrison was so skilled at world-building, how he could deftly construct a factual/fictitious Belfast from the bottom up.
It is the poetical element in the Irish which enables their writers to set up atmospheres in a few words ... Any of these stories you are about to read establishes places, season, historical moment with the minimum of words.
This second passage touches upon the Irish race's acute awareness of verbal tradition—a tradition Morrison carried on through his music.
When a word is used it carries not only its present meaning but a haze of harmonics derived from the long sounding of that word in the literature of the past ... Irish writers try to add to the literature they already know. They are serious craftsmen aware of the devotion to craft of their own predecessors, right back to the bards.
The third and final passage doesn't quite address the album's origins, but I included it anyway since it wonderfully speaks to the Astral Weeks listening experience. At least for me, anyway.
Each time you enter it you will be in the presence of Ireland, the most fantastic country in the world and perhaps the only country that can be regarded as a custodian of unchanging human truth.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Purity comes from that"

"The best education comes from knowing only one book," writes James Salter in Light Years. "Purity comes from that, and proportion, and the comfort of always having an example close at hand."

So what comes from knowing only one album? Repletion? Harmony? Vitality, maybe? Or perhaps ... Insanity?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see

Growing up, Van was a constant companion. In the car during trips to the White Mountains, in a beach chair by the ocean, at the picnic table on camping trips, in the backyard, on the front porch, in the living room. When I was there, Van was often there, too. There were no instances in which a rather unconventional pop moment caught my attention—say, the shout-spelling of a woman's name or a string of ebullient sha-la-la's followed by an aloof la-dee-da—and prompted me to ask Who is this? I knew who it was; I had always known. It was Van.

When I began to learn that Van was more than just Van—that he was, among other things, a Belfast native, a one-time Boston-area resident, an avid listener of American black music, a dabbler in Scientology, a saxophonist, a window washer, a husband, a father, etc., I began to work my way backward, from the present to the past, going album by album through his vast catalog.

I downloaded Astral Weeks on either IRC or Napster (the "old" Napster)—it's been so long I don't remember which. What I can recall is that the MP3s were tagged incorrectly, so when I spun the album on my beat-up Gateway, the tracks played in alphabetical order. Some songs were in their correct spots, such as the title track and "Cyprus Avenue"; the rest were woefully out of place; oh-so-perfect album closer "Slim Slow Slider," for example, was third from the end.

The final song on my jumbled track list was "The Way Young Lovers Do." For me, this was the only song on the album that made sense on initial listen, the only one that had immediate and familiar signifiers (jazz!), that communicated in a language I partially comprehended. It became an entry point of sorts, my passageway to deciphering the album's sonic and lyrical complexity. So I played it first, and often—and then I worked my way backward, always going backward, moving through the track list in reverse, arriving at "Astral Weeks" having taken the long way.

Today, many years and countless listens later, Astral Weeks has withstood my most intense scrutiny; each layer that's been peeled away has revealed even more extraordinary layers. Today, that backward approach feels like it was the correct one. Astral Weeks is a backward-looking album: in bringing bygone days to life, Morrison evokes the past to illuminate the present. He's capturing memories, the delicate and free-floating memories of his adolescence, with his pen and scratchpad, his voice and acoustic guitar. Looking backward often reveals something exhilarating and essential and unrealized. If the Astral Weeks listening experience has taught me anything, it's this.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Van is mightier than the sword

Van Morrison was recently knighted. Scanning the online coverage from Ireland and the U.K., I couldn't help but notice how the honor produced a bevy of poorly constructed puns. With each wince I lost more faith in creativity. "Sir Grumpyalot gets his due." "Van the Man now Van the Knight." And my favorite: "Here comes the knight." Which isn't a play on this eternal classic by Them, but instead, directly references a Morrison ditty from 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. "On the road with my sword," our hero sings. "And my shield in my hand / Pressing on to the new day." It's a song that sees Morrison at his most calamitous. Let's borrow the Queen's knighting sword; off with his head.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How many bridges do we have to cross before we get to meet the boss

"Pride of place is given to the graffiti that snaked between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park tube stations: 'SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINER [sic] – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – TUBE – WORK – HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE – ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP.'

"The messages themselves are not so much the territorial markers or the frantic assertion of self that we have become used to, but are anonymous, allusive, and cryptic, a window into the world of the culturally or socially dispossessed."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Double bass crimes

"It made such a pumping, breathing body sound, like running or hard work, like screwing, and he missing somebody so bad, yeah, made a sound like what a human being would make if it got turned into an instrument, that after a while he couldn't stand it."

Nicked this from Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes. She was describing a Sicilian-crafted, green button accordion, the novel's protagonist. But shit, it could be about Richard Davis' bass on Astral Weeks. His bass playing is a wonderful reminder that the finest songs, the finest albums, the best music not only gives you something that you never expected to hear, but something you never had. Something you always wanted, but never realized you wanted until it was breathlessly presented to you.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Creative thresholds

"I am into a completely different thing now. Now there is no limit to what I can do. I plan to use the type of instrumentation I like and be completely free. This is only the beginning for me."

I really dig this Van Morrison quote. It was allegedly uttered during an interview with a New York radio station. Morrison was in Belfast at the time, mired in a creative stasis of sorts, fresh off his debut album, disappointed with the overall results, eager to give it another go. There's all sorts of wonderful contradictions at work here. His words are vague and yet full of conviction. You get the sense he has possibly talked himself into believing a creative threshold has been crossed. At the same time, it all sounds so heartfelt, so authentic, so rabid.

I can pictures it now ... If Astral Weeks came packaged with a decorative promotional sticker on the shrink wrap, bearing campy words of praise for the album inside, it would include a snippet from the above quote: "This is Van's 'be-completely-free' album! Tune in—and get completely free with him!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Heavy, biological, metaphorical"

"During one of his early visits to [Cecil] McCartney's home, [Van] Morrison was intrigued by a book on display titled Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, a study of the importance of contemplative prayer, first published in 1911. But what really stuck in his memory was a sketch or poster on the wall which alluded to 'Astral' travel and would later inspire the title of his most famous album. 'It was a painting,' McCartney corrects. 'There were several paintings in the studio at that time. Van looked at the painting and it suggested astral traveling to him. I don't think I went into very deep explanation as to what the paintings were about. Most of my painting at that time, the misty stuff, was based on atmospheric effects like Turner would have painted, but it was also very heavy, biological, metaphorical shapes.'"

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A period of limbo

The Astral Weeks narrative is filled with bit characters, less-heralded folks who played small (albeit important) roles in the album's creation. One such individual is Van Morrison's mum, Violet. Two passages from Johnny Rogan's biography Van Morrison: No Surrender provide details on the elder Morrison's minor role during the writing process for Astral Weeks.

This first bit is from late '66/early '67, following Morrison's bitter departure from Them and his reluctant return to his hometown. Violet passes herself off as a reticent listener. However, one can't help but speculate that Morrison was playing his compositions for his mother (who was a musician herself) because he was hoping she would be an arbiter of sorts, someone willing to offer constructive feedback.
Back in Hyndford Street, his priority was to kick-start his career and get out of Belfast. His mother looked on patiently as he attempted to translate some ideas into song, filling up tape. "He'd usually start off by playing and just humming a note and then the words would come," she recalled at the time. "He'd play the chords at first, and he'd go on and on maybe for about an hour. He'd work on a basic idea ... Then he'd work on it the next day and it might have a different tempo and the words could change. It just flows."
This second passage is from the spring of '67, after Morrison recorded his debut album, Blowin' Your Mind!, with Bert Berns in New York City. Here, Violet plays a much more active part.
A period of limbo followed during which Morrison concentrated on writing more of the impressionistic prosopography that would dominate Astral Weeks. His mother occasionally offered some musical accompaniment, thereby risking the screaming rebukes of her snappy son. "I play harmonica and I used to play guitar and a bit of organ and piano," she explains. "I never pleased Van the way I played organ because it was too square. We always ended up having rows about it ... He always said I played organ like I was in a church."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"I don't think we did 20,000 copies"

Recently came across some interesting Astral Weeks-related quotes. Unearthed them in The Mojo Collection: 4th Edition, an extremely bloated tome that attempts to answer the burning question "What are the 1,000 greatest albums of all time?" (Answer: Who gives a shite.)

The book's review of Astral Weeks reveals that Jay Berliner didn't hear the album until a decade after its release—and that was only at the behest of friends. Said Berliner: "In those days I was so busy that I had no idea what I was playing on. I played classical guitar [which] was very unusual in that context. We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt."

There's also a quote from Bob Schwaid, Van Morrison's manager at the time of the album's recording. Schwaid disclosed who really was in charge during the sessions. "In all fairness to Van," Schwaid said, "he was the one who was directing the taping. Lew [Merenstein] and I were in the control room but Van was the real producer ... I thought it was a great record at the time, but initially it was a failure. I don't think we did 20,000 copies. It wasn't until years later that people started to come up to me and tell me that their lives had been changed by Astral Weeks."

Sunday, May 31, 2015


I shade my eyes and look at the morning sky. The sun is playing hide-and-seek with the mischievous clouds. Everything looks the same as back home. Though over there, across the rolling Atlantic, it's now in the throes of evening. I hope her upcoming sunrise will be as enjoyable as mine just was.

I arrive at the station and see my train pulling away in a cloud of dust. It's four hours until the next one departs. And there's not a soul in the station with me. I am alone with my thoughts and my regrets. You don't have to be Irish to know the world is going to break your heart sooner or later.

"Ye Must Be Born Again"

"In Presbyterian homes, no radio or television would be played and window blinds were firmly shut. Even Sunday dinner had to be prepared in advance of the Sabbath. 'Most of us went to the hall in the middle of Hyndford Street, The Brethren,' Gil Irvine recalls. Inscribed in glass above the entrance of the meeting hall were words that would later inspire the title track of Astral Weeks: 'Ye Must Be Born Again.'"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"If the American Dream is to be successful, the Irish Dream is give your head some peace."
Marcus Campbell

"A hanging out situation"

These two quotes you see below were lifted from the No. 20 issue (June, 1999) of Wavelength, the popular Van Morrison fanzine that Simon Gee edited for roughly 15 years. The words were spoken by guitarist Mick Cox, a one-time Van Morrison collaborator. Cox linked up with Morrison in 1967; the latter had just returned to Belfast following the recording of his debut album.

Cox touches upon the creative process for Astral Weeks, including how Morrison was tweaking and tinkering with its songs during the spring and summer months he spent in Belfast—nearly a year and a half before he recorded them in New York City. Check it out:
It was a hanging out situation and doing these gigs to keep the money coming in because the promoters would give you cash at the end of the night and that was it! So he came to Limestone [Road] and I went over to his folks place, and we started to work on stuff. He wanted to find out what I actually knew. I had flown over and straight into a gig—I knew all the changes for "Gloria" and the other material just from listening to it. But he wanted a much more comprehensive approach to music because he had so many more influences than the blues stuff. Then I started to realize exactly what the story was, and how much he is and always has been such an incredible force in music ...

Went up to see Van, and he was doing the tracks that were to become Astral Weeks. I stayed up for two or three days and recorded some stuff with him—just fantastic music. And he said that he would like me to join the band and play on the tracks. But I couldn't—they had paid for me to come over—and it was a choice of Hendrix or Van, but what swung it was the fact that the guys had paid for me, and they'd be completely lost—they couldn't find another guitarist.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"High walls make good neighbors"

"Belfast is finished," wrote Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn, "and Belfast is under construction." Seeing the word construction, I can't help but think of the city's penchant for erecting "peace lines"—those brick and steel walls that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Of the close to 100 in Belfast, an estimated one-third has gone up since the 1994 ceasefire.

"That is one of the ways we've managed those differences, by building high walls," Dominic Bryan, who directs the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast, told NPR. "You know, high walls make good neighbors." Bryan is being facetious, of course; he knows the walls are a monument to Northern Ireland's failure. In an essay titled "Impact of the Conflict on Public Space and Architecture," Belfast-born architect Ciaran Mackel is similarly critical of the peace lines, though not in the same cheeky manner: "They create unbearable enclosure ratios and a dismal urban experience. They are the crudest urban signatures, and the identity they portray engenders alienation and reinforces division."

I have seen the peace lines up close, softly touched their surfaces, walked in their shadows, driven slowly through their gates (the ones that are closed up at night). They are unsightly and pervasive and menacing. Even though efforts are being made to decorate the walls with non-political images, at no point while studying them do you forget their purpose: keeping one group of people out and another group of people in.

There's determination in Van Morrison's voice when he sings "Nobody can stop me from loving you, baby." But I also catch a tinge of shame—and so I consider those ugly peace lines and the centuries of sectarian bloodshed and the countless innocent lives lost and it comes to me that maybe, just possibly, he is not singing about a woman, but the place of his birth.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An ode to an ode

"Sweet Thing" is a love song, quite different from other love songs on Astral Weeks in that it's not communicating a love of Belfast or adolescence, but a love of another human being. In the Waterboys' cover version of the tune (which appeared on 1988's Fisherman's Blues), Mike Scott doesn't sound like he's emulating Van Morrison and expressing his deep love for a woman. No, his sweet thing is "Sweet Thing" itself. Scott's taking Morrison's art strongly in his arms again. An ode has become ... an ode to an ode.

Back in Larry Fallon's room

Awhile back, I likened Astral Weeks to a house: "You enter a room and stay there for a bit and explore how you like; you sit and stand, amble back and forth, touch the walls and furnishings, maybe stretch out on the hardwood floor. There are seven rooms in this house, each one occupied by one of the seven musicians who made significant contributions on Astral Weeks." I spent some time with the musicians residing in these rooms and then I stopped spending time with them. I got distracted; it happens quite frequently these days.

Well, it's time to reboot this little series. I will kick things off with Larry Fallon, who is not only the album's arranger and conductor, but is the musician behind the harpsichord on "Cyprus Avenue." (The quasi-call-and-response interplay between Van Morrison's wistful vocals and Fallon's elegiac melodies makes the top 10 list of my favorite things from Astral Weeks.)

Just like in previous entries, the goal is to acquaint myself with the work Fallon, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Jay Berliner, etc., did prior to Astral Weeks as well as any material recorded around the time of the album's 1968 release. Fallon handled the arrangements on Jimmy Cliff's 1969 LP Wonderful World, Beautiful People, the first album (as far as I can tell) that he worked on following his tenure with Morrison.

On Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Fallon's tactics run contrary to what he did on Nico's landmark Chelsea Girl two years earlier. (Read it about it here.) On that album, he was all about balance: some light here to offset a shadow there. Cliff's upbeat reggae anthems are the work of a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Fallon's arrangements take this into consideration; they enhance and expand Cliff's self-assuredness and compassion, his missives of positivity. They deliver light to a room already bathed in light. Cliff's music brings a smile to your face; Fallon's arrangements ensure that smile reaches your eyes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The hiss of tape

So it's pure laziness that compels me to reach for a mobile device and not the record in the tattered sleeve. Both are within arm's reach, mind you.

In some newfangled music streaming app, a favorite song is searched for and then selected. There is buffering, much buffering; the pops and crackles of a silently spinning record have been replaced by a progress bar and a percentage counter. (Try and guess which one is better at building anticipation.)

It's only karmic and fitting and whatnot that just as the song reaches its emotional apex and I have been whisked away to the distinctive place that only this song can bring me, the music suddenly stops. Streamus interruptus. A popup message stares back at me: my mobile device only has 20% battery left.

There are other ways, other formats, better outcomes. There is a cassette tape in my pocket—and it can go all night.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Lists suck

Readers of Northern Ireland's The Daily Mirror recently voted for the province's top 25 songs. A pair of Van Morrison tunes made the cut: "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Astral Weeks." Here is what the publication had to say about the latter, which came in at number 14:
Pretty much every track on Astral Weeks received a vote, and most would happily sit in this rundown. For the sake of convenience I've chosen the title track to represent the greatest album anyone from this island has ever created. Listening back to "Astral Weeks" (the song or the album), I'm reminded, as I always am, of the scope, the ambition, and the astonishing musicianship on what remains a jaw-dropping collection of songs. "Astral Weeks" was written when Van Morrison was 22.
It's certainly not my first choice if I'm selecting one song from Astral Weeks (and it probably wouldn't even make my top three). Nonetheless, it was satisfying to see the album recognized as a Northern Irish cultural milestone. The list also left me wondering what a top 25 LPs list would look like and where exactly Astral Weeks would rank.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"The city falling ruinous, slowly by weather"

Still got weather on my mind ... Perhaps it's because the curtain finally came down on the most merciless New England winter in recent memory.

A quick follow-up to my previous post: Van Morrison's lyrics about the Irish weather evoke the words of several of his countrymen. From the novel Watt, penned by Dublin-born writer Samuel Beckett: "And of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush." From British poet Carol Rumens: "'My' Belfast is a muse-city, a city of weather and uncertainty." And Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson: "The weather was then as the weather is now: a defiance of supposed seasonal norms."

Finally, there is this excerpt from John Hewitt's poem "Because I Paced My Thought." Hewitt, like Patterson, was born and raised in Belfast.
Because I paced my thought by the natural world,
the earth organic, renewed with the palpable seasons,
rather than the city falling ruinous, slowly
by weather and use, swiftly by bomb and argument
I found myself alone who had hoped for attention.

Days of grey weather

Grantland's Molly Lambert made the observation that Los Angeles is not a great "bar town" for one obvious reason—all the driving—and one not-so-obvious reason: "There is nothing," she writes, "that is not better in Los Angeles when done outside."

Ireland's natural beauty is simply invigorating. There is much to be enjoyed when outside. To stroll through Killarney National Park, to take in the Slieve League, to sit beside Clew Bay—it's like opening the windows for the first time in spring; the mind is cleared, the soul refreshed.

At the same time, the notorious Irish weather means there is much that is better when done inside. Like sipping a pint in a pub. Where, by the way, a frequent topic of conversation is the weather. I don't know if the Irish engage in more weather-related chit-chat than folks from other parts of the globe. They probably don't. But from my experiences, the Irish may possibly be the most unapologetically fickle about it.

Van Morrison has something neat and tidy to say about the Irish weather. From "Madame George": "And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow." And then later: "Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street." All the major elements of the Irish weather are mentioned. And when the song's central character departs, the weather adds a touch of melodrama. Morrison's lyrics also have something meaningful and personal to say about the residents of Belfast: Despite days of grey weather—the ashen cloud cover, the ever-changing precipitation, the stubborn winds—they still live lives of tremendous color.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This is an ellipsis

James Salter's Light Years is beautifully distressing. I don't know if that's possible, as it sounds oxymoronish to some degree. And I don't know if it's healthy to admire art that can be classified as such. "It's what turns you to powder," Salter writes in one passage, "being ground between what you can't do and what you must do. You just turn to dust." The novel has numerous passages such as this one—instances where I am shaken by how a character becomes utterly lost in the complexity of their life, yet at the same time, I am intensely moved by the lucidity and elegance of Salter's writing.

I read this once, but don't recall where or when: "Just like sentences have parentheses, so do lives." Light Years delivered the realization that lives can also have periods, full stops. That life can end, even as it continues. A sort of emotional paralysis takes hold. What is desperately coveted is always a teasing fraction out of reach. The world becomes a claustrophobic place—a place of inertia and perpetual disappointment and frustrating stalemates. One disappears into everything and nothingness. Eventually, the grindstone Salter alluded to stops spinning, the job completed. Then you are dust; then nothing.

Unless ... You press pen to paper and add two periods to the one already in place. Make it an ellipsis, a suspension point, a momentary pause. Live each day as if—to quote an essay on Salter—all "things seem urgent, profound, and necessary." When Madame George gets on that train, I like to believe it's not another everyday rail journey. No, this is an ellipsis, a new beginning, a crossing of the threshold. An individual stepping out of the fog and choosing to live more, to feel human again. It's a small drop that will create big ripples.

Another Cyprus Avenue gig for Van

So back in February, we posted about the granddaddy of all Van Morrison gigs: a birthday performance on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare immortalized on Astral Weeks. A crushing demand for tickets compelled Morrison to schedule a second show. Both will take place Aug. 31—his birthday; he will turn 70—during the annual EastSide Arts Festival. Tickets for this additional performance go on sale April 22 at Visit Belfast.

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Anything can happen"

One of Astral Weeks' most zealous and erudite supporters is writer Greil Marcus. Previous posts here have covered his observations on the album as well as his book, When That Rough God Goes Riding, which features a 20-page essay that examines Marcus' stint at Berkeley, Bob Beamon's record-shattering long jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics, and the legacy of Astral Weeks.

The below quote is from an interview Marcus did with Intelligent Life, the culture and lifestyle magazine for The Economist. He discusses Van Morrison's remarkable skills as a bandleader and how this ability to work exceptionally well with others—to partially surrender control to fellow artists, to get those fellow artists to wildly overachieve, to accept that if the music delivers immortality it will most definitely be shared—brought him to dazzling artistic heights.
I don't think there have been that many extraordinary people he's worked with. There's Pee Wee Ellis on The Healing Game, there's Toni Marcus on Into the Music [the violin player], there's Richard Davis and others on Astral Weeks. But I think what is really extraordinary about Morrison as a bandleader—and he's a great bandleader—is his ability to open up areas of emotional and musical freedom for other people who may not be remarkable musicians, who may be pretty ordinary, where they are doing work that they will never find working with a more conventional performer. And it's not just a matter of sparking them to live up to his example, it's a matter of opening up space in an arrangement or a song and saying "Anything can happen. What happens in this song is as much up to you as to me." And that challenge has brought out wonderful things from people who are themselves maybe not remarkable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The intersection of Bay and Green Streets

So Ryan Walsh's terrifically crafted story in Boston Magazine (see the post below) sheds a little light on the mystery of where Van Morrison lived in Cambridge, Mass. But first, let's back up a bit ...

Earlier this month, Alyssa Pacy, archivist at the Cambridge Public Library, was gracious enough to look through a copy of the 1968 city phone directory and see if any Van Morrisons were listed. (She even checked under his birth name, George Ivan Morrison. Now that is being thorough.) Sadly, the name didn't appear.

But I can't say I was entirely surprised. Peter Wolf's Rolling Stone piece on Morrison mentioned how the Irishman "would walk several blocks to my place to use the phone." Walsh's story included a quote from Wolf in which he essentially says the same: "He'd come over to use my telephone. It was all business. Calls to clubs, producers, and managers." Walsh also wrote about Morrison frequently hogging the family phone of local guitarist John Sheldon. So there's enough evidence to suggest that Morrison did not own a telephone. Which means the directory route is very likely a dead end.

Now about Walsh's piece shedding a little light ... The story's closing has a wistful little anecdote involving Morrison and Wolf returning to their Cambridge digs many years after they moved away. It mentions the intersection of Bay and Green Streets and how the Morrison homestead was located just past it. Walsh has an engrossing postscript to his story on Tumblr (the picture seen above is from his post). There, he mentions that the very building Morrison lived in may no longer exist.

So the search continues ...

Hopelessly obsessed

It's not often you find a long-form article—in this case, 3,900 words!—dedicated solely to Astral Weeks. But that is exactly what Ryan Walsh brilliantly pulled off in Boston Magazine. Check it out here.

Avid readers of the blog will remember I posted a photo of Walsh's back in March of 2014. It was a gorgeously orange night shot of Green St., which is where Van Morrison lived in Cambridge, Mass., during the late 1960s. I met with Walsh last fall when I explored the old Catacombs club for a second time. I can confidently say he is as hopelessly Astral Weeks-obsessed as I am.

Enjoy the read.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Feel your forehead flush with heaviness"

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, City Pages' Jerard Fagerburg wrote about an activity that I am sure many readers of this blog have partaken in: listening to Astral Weeks while enjoying a few adult beverages. The article, titled "The Drinker's Guide to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks," recommends a particular wine, beer, or spirit for each of the album's eight songs. For example, Fagerburg suggests that listeners sip a Pinot noir or Cabernet Sauvignon during the title track. "Hear the pastoral flutes as an extension of the wine's oaky vespers," he writes. "Feel your forehead flush with heaviness. Exhale."

The article is pretentious yet reverent—I don't know whether to giggle uncontrollably or nod repeatedly. Writing about your passion can turn your prose purple; writing about two of your passions can make your words sprout flowers. But in this case, I am cool with it. I may adore booze and Astral Weeks more than this particular dude.

So read, drink, listen. Slainte.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A horse in this race

When musicians pay homage to Astral Weeks—with an original song, a cover, or in this case, the actual name of their band—it's, you know, just part of the natural order of things. But what about when a beer takes its moniker from the album? Or a racehorse? Maybe it's more evidence of the LP's ever-growing allure.

So about that racehorse ... I was recently introduced to Astral Weeks, a four-year-old philly who has competed just three times. However, despite the lack of experience, she has already tasted victory: Back in January, she won at Lingfield Park Racecourse in Surrey, England. The horse is trained by Michael Bell, who, according to his web site, has amassed over £18 million worth of prize money during his 26-year career.

Astral Weeks' owner is listed as Christopher Wright, which appears to be the Christopher Wright who co-founded Chrysalis Record and once owned Queens Park Rangers. Wright has been a longtime breeder in the thoroughbred racing industry through his company Stratford Place Stud.

Those familiar with Astral Weeks' lyrics will point out that Van Morrison makes two references to white horses: one is in "Slim Slow Slider"; the other in "Cyprus Avenue." However, since thoroughbreds are not typically white, Astral Weeks the philly probably bears little resemblance to Morrison's horses.

(Not-so-quick aside: Those familiar with Celtic mythology will point out that Rhiannon rode a white horse. According to one web site, Rhiannon is the goddess of "the moon, fertility, rebirth, wisdom, magic, transformation, beauty, artistic inspiration, and is the patroness of poets." I seriously doubt Morrison had the Celtic goddess in mind when penning these lines. Nonetheless, when you consider some of Astral Weeks' overarching themes—rebirth, mysticism, personal growth, the relationship between man and nature—any subtle connections to Rhiannon, even if they are accidental, do seem fitting.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

His wheels are put in motion

As far as epiphanies go, this was a modest one. But for the sake of this blog, let's pretend it was quite consequential. One late summer afternoon, as I navigated the shadowed and serpentine Kancamagus Highway, it occurred to me that I fancy listening to Astral Weeks while on the move. There's nothing wrong with certain fixed settings: loafing in my den as it plays on the turntable; stretched out on the deck as it plays on small speakers. But if given the choice, I prefer an automobile, soft speeds, empty roads, sprawling landscapes, a not-too-distant destination.

It's because Astral Weeks is so heavily infused with movement. Van Morrison packs the songs with action verbs (venture, stroll, march). He lists various modes of transport (chariot, railroad, truck, ferry boat, carriage—even a Cadillac). He sings of wheels and footsteps, highways and lanes, avenues and train trips, back roads and back streets. His feet can't keep still, his wheels are put in motion.

In tracks like "Sweet Thing" and "Beside You," Morrison creates a sense of acceleration by rapidly repeating particular words ("my" in the former) and phrases ("You breathe in / you breathe out" in the latter). At these moments, the listener is pitched forward suddenly, heart-stoppingly (I'm reminded of the start of a roller coaster ride and the way the cars jerk into motion). Off the listener goes, hair streaming, eyes tearing, knuckles whitening, not caring about the journey's endpoint or duration, just exalting in the thrill of the journey itself.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"The heart of Ireland"

I have longed adored these two passages from Frank O'Connor's "In the Train." The short story appeared in a collection titled Bones of Contention, which was published in 1936. I want to tell you Van Morrison is channeling O'Connor in the track "Madame George," but I know that is impossible. Morrison's East Belfast classrooms would not have echoed with the words of O'Connor, an author who fought with the Free State forces during the Irish Civil War, served as director of the Abbey Theatre, spoke Irish, and palled around with William Butler Yeats.

Anyway, here are the two passages:
The engine shrieked; the porter slammed the door with a curse; somewhere another door opened and shut, and the row of watchers, frozen into effigies of farewell, now dark now bright, began to slide gently past the window, and the stale, smoky air was charged with the breath of open fields.
And while they talked the train dragged across a dark plain, the heart of Ireland, and in the moonless night tiny cottage windows blew past like sparks from a fire, and a pale simulacrum of the lighted carriage leaped and frolicked over hedges and fields.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Caught one more time on Green Street

This is from a Smithsonian Magazine piece on Edgar Allan Poe's house in the Bronx. (Quick aside: I am awestruck by the structure's out-of-placeness, the way its wooden clapboards and slate shingles contrast with the steel and concrete of its urban landscape. Check out the picture above.) It's a wonderfully-written passage that argues in favor of preserving the former residences of important artists:
"The home of an author or a poet, whose memory has been marked for the honors that posterity alone confers, becomes a magnet for men and women the world over ... The personal facts, the actual environment, the things he has touched and that have touched him are part of the great poet's wonder-work and to distort them or to neglect them is to destroy them entirely."
I have become consumed by the idea of locating and visiting the Cambridge, Mass., dwelling Van Morrison once called home. It has become a magnet, to nick a phrase from that Smithsonian piece, a place I'm drawn toward, where I can possibly gain a better understanding of both the Irishman and his work.

Here is what I do know: Morrison's one-time digs were located on Green Street. It's a one-mile street that runs parallel with Massachusetts Avenue, a well-trafficked thoroughfare that cuts through Cambridge's popular Central Square. When Rolling Stone compiled a list of the 100 greatest artists, former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf penned the entry on Morrison (he came in at No. 42). Here is what Wolf had to say about Morrison's place:
Van was living in a small, street-level apartment in an old wooden house on Green Street in Cambridge. He, his new wife, her young son. They were flat-out broke. The place was bleak and barren, with little more than a mattress on the floor, a refrigerator, an acoustic guitar and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. They had no phone and little food. It was hard times: He was in exile, with a family to feed, no money, no band, no recording contract, and no promise of any safe or legal way out. Even the reason he moved to Boston remained a mystery.
Then there's this, from a 1996 Boston Phoenix piece penned by Brett Milano:
And the memories go on. As we walk down Green Street, Wolf recalls the time in the late '60s when Van Morrison lived there. "He had a mattress on the floor, living on Green Street with his wife and kid, and absolutely no money. I remember him sitting there with an acoustic guitar, playing what would eventually become Astral Weeks. That's one of the great moments that comes to mind."
So we know it was Green Street. But what was the address? In a 2009 Boston Globe article, Steve Morse wrote this: "Van lovers will recall that he lived on Green Street in Cambridge (a block down from the Plough & Stars) when he completed the original Astral Weeks." Is Morse telling us the Irishman's home was one block down from the Plough and Stars (which would be the intersection of Green and Hancock Streets)? Or is he just helping readers better understand where the relatively unknown Green Street is located? Or am I totally over-thinking this?

Further digging unearthed a music board post that mentioned Morrison residing above Charlie's Tap, which is now the Greet Street Grill. The address of that establishment is 280 Green Street, approximately half a mile from the junction with Hancock. However, that information contradicts what Wolf wrote: that Morrison was holed up in a street-level apartment.

I've sent out a number of emails—to music journalists, to the Cambridge Historical Society, to folks with knowledge of the 1960s folk scene—and I'm still going through the responses. As always, stay tuned ...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Belfast is the angel

Novelist Glenn Patterson recently penned this piece for the Belfast Telegraph. In it, he offers a cultural road map for East Belfast, "a suggested itinerary," Patterson writes, "guided not so much by the street map as by the works—the 'wonders'—and the workers themselves."

As expected, a certain Van Morrison album is mentioned: "In terms of music and the east, it is hard to look past Astral Weeks, an appreciation of which is greatly enhanced by a walk from Hyndford Street, Morrison's birthplace, along the Beersbridge Road and up Cyprus Avenue." Patterson later classifies Astral Weeks as an "extraordinary example of environment acted on by imagination."

One of Patterson's most well-known novels is 1999's The International, which is set in Belfast on the eve of the Troubles. My version of the book contains an essay by Anne Enright and her words left me contemplating the parallels between Patterson's novel and Astral Weeks:
The International insists that Belfast existed before the Troubles and that it was owned by the people who walked its streets before those streets were taken from them ... "History is an angel being blown, backwards, into the future," said Walter Benjamin. We cannot see what is ahead of us. The International works strangely on our ideas of casualty and guilt. Belfast is the angel, and the bomb is what blasts her away from us, her face full of longing for what might have been. By returning to the moment before the blast, this novel insists that things might have been otherwise. It gives the city its humanity back.

Personal dispatch #16

This is a dispatch from Cyrus Hutchinson. He recorded a cover of "Beside You." It's spirited and expressive, moody and fitful, feisty and bold, devoid of any vocals, teeming with piano and electric guitar. Here is what Cyrus had to say about his background as well as what went into recording his cover.
I'm from Oakland, California. I started playing piano at 16; I'm 22 now. I think I was about 18 or 19 when we recorded that tune. It was recorded at Ex'pression College in Emeryville, California. I had no plan to go there or record it, but I slept over at my friend Roland's house who played guitar on it. He got involved with the college somehow; he would play/record stuff for the sound engineer/recording producer or students and I ended up going along with him that day. I met the drummer and bassist that same day I think. I showed them the progression for the song and we improvised it in one take. I don't know how long the mixing, etc., took. I think a few students did it that same day with the help of their mentor.

As for why I picked the song ... It was just something I had fresh in my head that day. I love Van and that album. I saw him in San Fran a year or so ago. It was amazing. I have performed live, but it's not something I do often. I play a lot of New Orleans-style blues nowadays (kind of like Dr. John, who also produced and played piano on Van's album A Period of Transition) and would love to play that kind of stuff live. Though it's tough to find people my age who want to play that sort of music.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A sweet goodbye

They are not false endings, not in the strictest sense of the term, since there is no point during these songs where the final whistle is blown, silence takes hold, remains for a heartbeat or two, and then the music kicks off again. I suppose they are more like literary false endings, moments when you feel like the narrative is heading to a vivid, satisfying conclusion, only you discover there is a bit more to the story.

They are the false endings of Astral Weeks ... In the title track, right around the 6:20 mark, Van Morrison sings in a delicate whisper, "Way up in heaven," and the words create a sense of imminent closure. A final destination is stated and the Irishman will now deliver the listener there. Only the song continues for another 45 wondrous seconds.

But for all its dramatic effect, the false ending in "Astral Weeks" can't compare with the one heard in "Madame George." Around the seven-minute mark, as Morrison repeatedly sings the phrase "dry your eye," the violinist—who nearly outshines Morrison and Richard Davis on this track; for a solid six minutes his playing is simply otherworldly; if you were to compile a list of the most "dominating" instrumental performances on Astral Weeks, he probably makes the top three—slowly slips into the ether and we are left with strummed chords on acoustic guitar, soft touches of upright bass, snippets of xylophone and flute. It's quiet, a quiet both satisfying and unnerving. And as Morrison mourns, the doleful "ooo's" and "hmm's" pouring out, the listener believes that this is the end, that a slow fade out is nigh.

But not yet. The sweetest goodbye one could ever hear is on the way.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The champion of 1968

There is an Astral Weeks T-shirt on CafePress. You can order one here. This isn't what I imagined an Astral Weeks T-shirt would look like. Then again, I haven't dedicated much thought to what an Astral Weeks T-shirt would look like. It's interesting that the year of the album's release was included. Doing so gives it the feel of a sports championship T-shirt. You know, that gray, short sleeve jersey you buy in bulk the week after your favorite team wins a title. So does that mean Astral Weeks won 1968?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The granddaddy of all Van gigs

When it comes to staging landmark concerts, Van Morrison continues to top himself. In the fall of 2013, after being presented the Freedom of Belfast Award, the Irishman held a free concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Last summer, he did three shows at his former secondary school, Orangefield High School (including one for ex-staff and students). Now comes the granddaddy of all Van gigs: a birthday performance on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare he immortalized on Astral Weeks.

The concert will take place Aug. 31, the day Morrison turns 70, and will be part of the annual EastSide Arts Festival. A stage will be erected at the bottom end of Cyprus Avenue, near the street's junction with Beersbridge Road. The crowd will gather in a space between the stage and Sunbury Avenue. Attendance has been capped at 1,500.

I reached out to Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership, the organization that oversees EastSide Arts. He promised to answer my questions and provide more information on an event that is quite possibly Morrison's most anticipated Belfast gig since his 1979 Whitla Hall shows, which ended his self-imposed, 12-year exile from the city. Stay tuned for more details ...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Personal dispatch #15

This is a dispatch from SarahJane Gembara. As you will see below, SarahJane was without the use of her D and A guitar strings when she performed this cover. Impressive! Equally arresting is how much fun she has with the vocals: She occasionally modifies Van Morrison's lyrics, inserts little theatrical pauses, gleefully stretches out particular words while repeating others machine gun-like. Here is what SarahJane had to say about her background as well as what went into recording her cover.
So my name is SarahJane Gembara (or SJ) and I'm from Brookfield, Illinois. I'm 20 years old and have been messing around with a guitar since seventh grade. When I went away to college, I left my brother my old guitar and got myself a little used children's guitar which did me well for a while. The D and A strings eventually broke and I didn't touch it for a while. One day I was dancing around my dorm to the song "Astral Weeks" (a common occurrence) and I suddenly had a strong desire to play it myself. So I made the most of the limited strings and the cover you happened upon is the product. There were a handful of songs I would play at the time using only the bottom three strings of my guitar. I used to play it on piano occasionally, but I rarely had a piano available so the guitar version ended up being stronger.

To record, I used a really nifty handheld audio recorder that I had checked out for a film class I was in at the time (I couldn't tell you exactly what it was.) I recorded it sitting at the desk in my dorm about a year and a half ago and just uploaded it to the Soundcloud account my friend convinced me to make awhile back.

I've done a little singing for friends who make music but I've never performed by myself. I truly love making music and have written a little, but I definitely do it for myself more than anything. I don't really know what drove me to record my version of "Astral Weeks." I hadn't recorded anything before and haven't since. I'm honestly shocked that it got any attention at all. I'm flattered!

I'm a huge Van Morrison fan! I was raised on Moondance and discovered the magic and wonder of Astral Weeks myself in high school. I absolutely love how visual his lyrics are. "Between the viaducts of your dreams." I don't even know how to explain how beautiful that line is to me. His soulful self is strong, yet the album is still light, wispy, and magical. Any mix I make for anyone, something off Astral Weeks will always make the cut.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Personal dispatch #14

This is a dispatch from Kate Riley. In her cover of "Sweet Thing," Kate sings and whistles, plays ukulele and tambourine. It's simple yet imaginative, like cutting intricate paper dolls from plain white paper. The original "Sweet Thing" is an old-time ode; Kate's cover is a newfangled, sprightly anthem, a throw-your-hands-in-the-air celebration of love's pomp and grandeur. Here is what Kate had to say about her background as well as what went into recording her cover.
I live in Columbus, Ohio, born in Cleveland, Ohio. I'm 29. I've been a musician since a young age. I'm classically trained on the trumpet, but just picked up the ukulele and started singing only two years ago.

I'm very goofy, I play for my family and friends, but I do not perform live or "play out," as almost everyone asks me. I make music mostly for myself, as a hobby, a creative outlet. I'm not looking to be a rock star. I guess you could categorize me as a song writer, if anything, but definitely not a performer.

It's sad to say, the first time I heard "Sweet Thing" was only a few years ago. To put things in perspective, my first memory of music was singing to Huey Lewis and the News on my Playskool cassette recorder. (Funny, I've never attempted a cover of Huey's.) I grew up listening to the ever-expanding genres of pop, rock, alternative, and hip hop. But music from the 60's and 70's really fascinates me; it's something I've had to take the time to discover on my own. I didn't grow up with it. I'd never heard a Van Morrison song other than "Brown Eyed Girl."

When I heard "Sweet Thing", I thought, this is powerful. The emotions of the song are very clear to me, and I like music that has the ability to do that. I listened to the whole Astral Weeks album and was just astounded. The whole album speaks to me in flowing emotions, uncanny simplicity, and amazing musicality. It is very expressive. I wanted other people my age, even just a few, to discover Van Morrison, so I knew I had to do a cover.

I always start creating covers by trying to replicate the original. And since I'm super creative, replicating frustrates me beyond belief. I build on that frustration and I think that's when something beautiful comes out: my own version, what the original means to me, how it naturally flows through me. Everyone hears and interprets music differently. I think a cover should be an expression or interpretation of how you feel about the original. I've had a lot of people tell me how much they enjoyed my covers, but never necessarily liked the originals. I think it helps to hear a different voice or interpretation. It helps the original live on and be understood especially in a new day and age.

I record all of my music on my phone. "Sweet Thing" I used an app called GarageBand for help with some light percussion. I recorded it last spring, around a time when "the gardens were all wet with rain". (Lol.) I sat on the song for months and just "thought" about it. But creating the cover probably only took me a couple of hours. I changed quite a bit in the song, but I think the feeling and emotion speak to the original. I'm very rhythmic. I tend to enhance that in anything I play. I think Van Morrison is a genius because he doesn't have to do that. His music flows and you feel the rhythm without it necessarily being in your face. A true Asrtal Weeks fan and musician may notice I even changed the time signature! (I actually imagined someone being quite displeased about that when I did it.)

I love the song because it's very magical. It simplifies the feeling of love and in reality, that is what falling in love is all about. It's easy, simple, innocent, and child-like. Your senses change. You notice things you hadn't before, all because your feelings for this one person unlocked your mind to new possibilities.