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.

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