This year marks fifty years since the release of Van Morrison’s seminal work Astral Weeks. Works by Vanilla Fudge and Supertramp have perhaps not travelled so well through time and are long forgotten, but not so Astral Weeks. It is as refreshing today as it was when I first heard it around fifty years ago. When I poll myself and try and ascertain what is my all-time favourite album, on five days out of seven, it will be Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It is as equally hard to allocate a genre now as it was on its release.
It opens with the title track and in true Morrison fashion it is filled with rock, poetry and jazz. Of course, this assertion must be seen in hindsight. This magnificent album, universally viewed by the critics as a masterpiece, was constructed when Morison was just setting out on his journey as a solo artist and still in his twenties. Morrison had shown, in writing pop songs, such as Gloria and Brown Eyed Girl, that he had the knack to produce the perfect pop tune, the equal of anything that came out of the Brill Building. Also, it was still the sixties but paradoxically he was moving in the opposite direction to the big sounds of supergroups and rock operas so characteristic of late sixties music.
In the beginning:
”If I ventured in the slipstream,
Between the viaducts of your dreams” ….
So, begins Astral Weeks with its powerful acoustic music low on percussion, but high on bass sounds. and acoustic guitar. One starts to hear harpsichord strings and flutes as the tracks unfold. It comes from a time when Morrison was reduced to playing small clubs with a couple of acoustic players, unimaginatively called the Van Morrison Controversy.
The lyrics wash over you tenderly like a warm tropical ebb tide. This is a work about love, about love from afar, love not yet requited. In several tracks Morrison is trying to get into the conscious of his loved one to put his case, to explain his love, to get into the viaducts of [her] dreams.
Looking down on the suppliant lover
This is the lover disempowered; the loved one is always up on high literally and figuratively. In Cypress Avenue she is “way up there on Cypress Avenue.’; in ‘that mansion way up on the hill” but the singer is powerless:
“And I’m conquered in a car seat
Nothing that I can do”
Again, in Ballerina the protagonist is on the twenty second story of an apartment block. Even in the ubiquitous Madame George she sits at a second story window watching out for the police, primed at first sighting, to throw away her stash.
Producer Lewis Merenstein brought in a talented array of acoustic session musicians to augment this work. Morrison let them ad lib, perhaps, just for once, overawed by the company. Merenstein overlooked Morrison’s band and went for elite musicians, who, for example, had backed artists like Harry Belafonte or played with Oscar Peterson. Morrisons light touch with the musicians is part of the genius of this work. This is of course in stark contrast to Van’s later reputation as difficult to work with and setting exacting standards for his backing musicians. It must be mentioned the strings were put in later without Morrison’s permission, much to his chagrin.
Unique voice devices:
Another instrument is Morrison’s voice itself. Morrison had started to experiment with scat vocals in Them. Now his phrasing, assonance, alliteration, consonance internal rhyming, repetitive phrasing is used to take us on a journey about love rebirth and transformation.
In Madame George the interplay between the words love and glove with the wonderful soft L sound are combined by Morrison from a starting proposition
“Hey, love you forgot your glove”
into a word play on love and glove that gracefully extends from this, weaving these words delicately around the listener. It’s also a reminder that in love lost we often trawl around for a keepsake - a glove, handkerchief or an earring left behind, part of the stranded treasure of a lost love; a gentle reminder of what once was. As Morrison continuously twists love and glove around our senses -we are never to forget that lost glove.
Or as in Cypress Avenue
‘My tongue gets tied
Every, every time I try to speak”
- the lines are delivered with the very fear and stuttering of a person humbled and afraid of his feelings.
Consider the beautiful interplay between alliteration and onomatopoeia in Madame George:
‘The clicking clacking of the high heeled shoe’
Solitude and isolation:
The work also reminds us of the universal loneliness not just of love but of life itself
As Morrison describes a lonely railroad station lonely and bleak like a de Chirico painting, “where ‘the lonesome Indian drivers pine”
The railway analogy is a key device used in the Blues. The train is always leaving, mostly it’s for fleeing. The blues train is never about arrival, or reunion. Even the enigmatic Madame George is told to “get on the train” As with most trains in the blues-country genre it’s almost certainly the Midnight Train, almost inevitably outward bound.
The loneliness of the lover is on display, one is reminded of one’s youth when the inability to convey feelings, the fear of failure sees one walk or linger outside the home of the loved one. It’s perhaps is really an unconscious form of stalking or the folly of youthful love and sub pubescence, which hopefully, is eventually overcome with personal growth and maturity. In Slim Slow Slider the closest he can get to his loved one is
“Saw you walking
Down by the Ladbroke Road this morning’
Of course, we find out subsequently they have a new boy with a new car and are about to disappear physically from his life. I must concede I see echoes of income or class inequality in many of the songs in this work. The inaccessibility could be explained by humble origins versus well to do dichotomy. I suspect it dates to his childhood in Belfast, ridden at the time with every social or religious division that could be conjured up.
The other element in the work is clearly that of rebirth and in the title song he says
“to be born again, to be born again”
Or in Sweet Thing
“And I will never grow so old again.
And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain”
I find the simple analogy of rain bringing renewal as compelling evidence of the themes of rebirth and renewal in Astral Weeks. You can, however, as Van has often said, interpret any way you want. I have taken the licence he has offered.
For me the work is a masterful exposition of how love was once so powerful that it robs us of our ability to communicate it any further than our own internal euphoria. That for most of us was a long time ago or as Morrison so eloquently put it in Beside You:
“Every scrapbook stuck with glue”
Tracks as they appear on the original vinyl album WS 1768 released by Warner Bros. in 1968. *
Side One: In the Beginning
Astral Weeks 7:00
Beside You 5:10
Sweet Thing 4:10
Side Two: Afterwards
The Way Young Lovers Do 3:10
Madame George 9:25
Slim Slow Slider
*All tracks written by Van Morrison and all quotes in this article are from lyrics that have been written by Van Morrison.
*Greg Cure was educated in the Classics at the University of Tasmania. He was a senior strategic manager for many years in the Australian government. He was awarded an Australia Day Award (Australian Government division). He is an author, social critic, poet and freelance management consultant. He has spent a good portion of the past decade working as a teacher of both English and Business in China. He is the author of “Where did all the good times go” an examination of the 1960’s R&B musical revolution in the UK and this work has also been translated into Chinese. He has contributed articles to magazines in China. In his early years, he worked in the mining industry on the West Coast of Tasmania as well as spending several years as a builder’s laborer. His hometown is Strahan and his maternal grandfather was a Huon Piner.