Saturday, January 31, 2015

The best song about Belfast?

Last week, The Guardian ran a piece titled "the best songs about cities." "Madame George" was included—and was the first song featured. "Morrison is an exquisite painter of cities," writes Guardian staffer Laura Barton. (As a side note, I would like to be reminded of the other cities Morrison has painted as exquisitely as he did Belfast.) "Much of the joy of Astral Weeks," Barton continues, "lies in the way he captures the sensory impact of Belfast. Here on 'Madame George' he's mingling past and present, stirring memory with a bombardment of sights and scents and sounds."

Personally, I wonder if "Madame George" is the best song ever written about Belfast. I imagine the pool of candidates isn't that large. For those interested in answering such a question, check out this piece I did for Stylus way back in 2006. I included a few ditties about Belfast. (Notice how I went with "Cyprus Avenue" over "Madame George." I was clearly having an off day.)

For all the people who know

BBC Radio 2 is airing a four-part series titled "Too Late to Stop Now—The Van Morrison Story." You can catch the first two episodes here. The next one will air on Feb. 5.

Since Morrison's habitually and famously distrustful of anyone who comes bearing questions, the BBC managed to nab one of his former sideman, saxophonist Leo Green, to handle the interviewing. The second episode features Morrison and Green talking at length about Astral Weeks.

I particularly liked the below quote, which has Morrison touching upon the album's remarkable dichotomy. During the sessions, lyrics flowed stream-of-conscious-like and the assembled jazz musicians were instructed to play "whatever they felt like playing" (per drummer Connie Kay), yet at the same time, this was not an extemporaneous outpouring. Morrison had been refining this material for over a year, removing its impurities, like a craftsman sitting next to a crucible filled with molten gold, skimming off the dross that rises to the top. Here is the quote:
It just didn't happen out of the blue, you know? It was kind of an evolvement. And that's another thing. Years later I'm reading all this stuff about ... "Oh, Astral Weeks just happened" ... It didn't all happen. The material was like rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and worked and worked on live gigs and rehearsed more and re-written before I actually went in the studio to do it. So all this stuff about it just [snaps fingers] kinda happened. It didn't just happen. The songs had been worked on since, what? Sixty-seven?
The episode also offered up this wonderful little exchange regarding the giant gulf that exists between how Astral Weeks was received by critics and how it was received by the buying public.
Morrison: It still is not the biggest seller, actually. It's the biggest in terms of critical acclaim. Is that what they call it?

Green: Acclaim from who?

Morrison: Well, I suppose the people who know.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Apparently she was clairvoyant"

Sixteen times Van Morrison sings the words Madame George in the track of the same name. Okay, so the George isn't always a crystal clear George. Sometimes it sounds like Joy. On other occasions it might be a Joyrge. And then there's an instance or two where Van Morrison sings the first portion of George and then trails off, so it comes out as Jor.

Anyway, here is what Morrison had to say about the whole Madame George/Madame Joy puzzle. This quote is taken from John Collis' Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
The title of the song confuses one, I must say that. The original title was "Madame Joy" but the way I wrote it down was "Madame George." Don't ask me why I do this because I just don't know. The song is just a stream-of-consciousness thing, as is "Cyprus Avenue." Both those songs came right out. I didn't even think about what I was writing. There are some things that you write that just come out all at once, and there's other things that you think about and consider where you'll put each bit ... It may have something to do with my great aunt, whose name was Joy. Apparently she was clairvoyant ... That may have something to do with it. Aunt Joy lived around the area I mentioned in connection with Cyprus Avenue. She lived in a street just off Fitzroy Street which is quite near to Cyprus Avenue.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Down on Cyprus Avenue ...

So check this out ... East Side Arts—an organization that develops and delivers a wide variety of arts-related activities in East Belfast—just announced that its in discussion with Van Morrison's management to hold a concert on Cyprus Avenue. Imagine that ... Morrison rhapsodizing about the street he rambled up and down as an adolescent—and he's doing the rhapsodizing on that very street. Pretty nifty.

From the East Side Arts website: "Nothing has been confirmed. We are also in discussions with all relevant and appropriate parties to ensure the event can be staged safely, in a co-operative manner and, above all, with the least disruption possible to everyone, especially residents in the immediate area."

The concert would be part of the EastSide Arts Festival, which is scheduled to take place in late August. Will keep you all posted ...

Friday, January 16, 2015

High, holy stinks

Back in October, I checked in with writer Pat Thomas, who made the claim that an acquaintance of his had access to the master tapes for Astral Weeks. Thomas' pal worked at Warner Bros. Records and was reviewing the tapes to gauge how much unreleased material existed. (Apparently none.) From what I understand, the idea was to give Astral Weeks the deluxe edition treatment.

To those clamoring for such a release: Calm your tits. Nothing of the kind appears to be on the horizon. However, if you fancy believing in the improbable, there is this: According to a 2012 post from Thomas on the East Portland Blog, Van Morrison got back the rights to 11 of the 14 albums he recorded for Warner Bros. The three he didn't? His Band and the Street Choir, Moondance, and Astral Weeks.

Morrison is steadfastly anti-deluxe edition; the Irishman was none too pleased three years ago when Rhino released a deluxe edition of Moondance, featuring a remastered version of the original album and three discs' worth of unreleased demos, alternate takes, and unreleased tracks. So Astral Weeks' appearance on that aforementioned short list means Morrison would be powerless to prevent it from being all deluxed up and such. But we know he would raise a high, holy stink. Hell, that's reason enough to do it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Want another Danish?

And now the Bang Masters version of "Madame George" ... (Check out part one of this little venture here.) I will keep this brief simply because this song is so shockingly dreadful. The incessant background whoops and yelps give the impression that Van Morrison is playing to a near-empty barroom. The bluesy guitar lines are overwrought and sloppy. The backup vocals strive for gospel and end up sounding ghastly. There is even tambourine. Fucking tambourine.

There is absolutely zero here that points to the dramatic intensity of the Astral Weeks "Madame George"—a song that, let's be honest, is very possibly the greatest Morrison ever recorded. Hearing the Bang Masters "Madame George" is like seeing the first cut of Pulp Fiction and discovering it was originally a musical set during the Crimean War—and starred puppets.

Listen at your peril.

Want a Danish?

Any mention of Van Morrison's Bang Masters, released by Columbia's Legacy Records in 1991, almost inevitably leads to a telling of one of the most oft-repeated yarns involving the Irishman: when he hammered out 31 short, acoustic-based songs of utter foolishness, all to fulfill the contract he signed with Bert Berns and Bang Records. (My three favorite tracks from this session—if you can actually call studio time that involves an artist who doesn't give a rat's breath and personnel that would rather be somewhere else a session—"Want a Danish," "Chicken Coo," and "Dum Dum George.")

But we are not here to discuss those 31 middle-fingers to Bang. Perhaps another time. We are here to discuss Bang Masters, which is exactly what its title implies: an album featuring Morrison's studio masters from his short time with the label. The compilation is of interest to this blog because it features a pre-Astral Weeks, embryonic "Beside You" and "Madame George." We'll start with the former, since it's the more palatable of the pair ...

Unlike the hauntingly sparse Astral Weeks version, which is captained by Jay Berliner's classical guitar and the playing of an anonymous flautist (Morrison's acoustic guitar strumming and Richard Davis' labyrinthine bass, the hardened bedrock upon which the album is built, play secondary roles), the Bang Masters "Beside You" is weighed down with instrumentation: a skittish organ, a rudimentary melody on electric guitar, a lumbering rhythm section. There's nothing sonically imaginative here, nothing wholly fulfilling, nothing that pricks the ear and compels the listener to sit up and take notice. Say what you want about the Astral Weeks "Beside You," but Berliner's finger-picked playing accomplished exactly that. (In my recent interview with John Payne, he kept emphasizing how free the Astral Weeks version is—"They're just playing free through the whole thing and it just rolls around"—and I've come to realize there may not be a more precise adjective to describe the song.)

Morrison's vocals in the Bang Masters version are equally unsatisfying. He sounds rushed, disinterested, even flat at times. The brilliant "You breathe in/You breathe out" section is regrettably shorter. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison belts out the first syllable of the word "beside" and for a moment, just a moment, it feels like he's about to experience one of his trademark body-wracking vocal climaxes. But then he pulls out, lets his voice drop low, flatlines the chorus. It's the singing equivalent of coitus interruptus.

Give the Bang Masters version a spin, just so you can appreciate how much Morrison matured artistically between his time with Berns and the fall of 1968. On Bang Masters, he's in front of a mirror, singing to himself, testing how his words sound out in the open, a touch bashful at what he hears. On Astral Weeks, Morrison's atop a mountain, serenading the heavens, his voice emanating far and wide for all to savor, the voice of an artist fully confident in his abilities.