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 ...