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.