Monday 10 December 2018

Born in Belfast, made in Boston - Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' is 50

When Van Morrison released 'Astral Weeks' 50 years ago this month, most people could scarcely believe that someone who had just turned 23 had written mysterious, poetic songs of rare complexity

Van the Man: a moody Morrison pictured in Woodstock, New York, in 1969 © Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc
Van the Man: a moody Morrison pictured in Woodstock, New York, in 1969 © Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc
Astral Weeks
John Meagher

John Meagher

Few albums have been subject to the sort of praise lavished on Astral Weeks. Van Morrison's second solo album, which was released 50 years ago this month, was described by Bruce Springsteen as possessing "a sense of the divine" while the late, influential and hard-living rock critic Lester Bangs said it was "a mystical document... a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk".

That other big-name US critic, Greil Marcus, reached for another 1968 milestone to capture its brilliance - that of Bob Beamon's history-making Olympics long jump - to suggest Astral Weeks was "way outside history".

Not only is it considered one of the greatest Irish albums ever made - Hot Press placed it top of the heap - but among the very best albums in the history of 20th century music.

It's remarkable considering the lofty place in which this concept album is held, that Astral Weeks was made following the most chaotic, distressing and downright crazy period in Van Morrison's life. That he was able to make an album at all, considering the strain he had been under in the summer of 1968 is notable enough, but to make something that would take its place among the all-time greats is something else.

Astral Weeks
Astral Weeks

In 1967, Morrison had enjoyed a huge hit with 'Brown Eyed Girl' - still one of his most emblematic songs - but his was no overnight success. He had cut his teeth in the Belfast garage rock band Them during his teens and his gifts were announced early thanks to such potent songs as 'Gloria' and 'Here Comes the Night'. It was clear to anyone at the tail end of the 1960s that the kid from Belfast was just a little bit special.

He moved to New York to record his first album - and sign a notoriously bad deal with the now long-defunct Bang Records. 'Brown Eyed Girl' was one of the songs he recorded there and although it was a Top 10 hit in the US, he barely saw a cent in royalties. And, unbeknownst to him, Bang rushed out an album -Morrison's debut - Blowin' Your Mind! He only learnt of its existence when a friend told him he had bought it in a record shop.

At the time, Morrison was living in Manhattan with his girlfriend and future wife, American singer Janet Rigsbee (aka Janet Planet) and despite having his songs on heavy rotation on radio, he had barely enough money to make ends meet. But that was perhaps the least of his troubles.

Following the death of Bang producer Bert Berns, with whom Morrison has worked since his Them days, the label came under the control of a mobster friend of Berns, Carmine 'Wassel' DeNoia, who had a reputation for dealing with problems in an unorthodox fashion.

One night, while Morrison was drunk, he got into an argument with DeNoia and had an acoustic guitar broken over his head for his trouble.

His fortunes changed when he moved to Boston. He played a series of gigs at The Catacombs jazz club, in which he debuted new material, including an embryonic version of Astral Weeks' title track, and he aroused the interest of Warner Bros, who were keen to buy him out of his disastrous contract. It's part of Morrison lore that a Warner executive had to meet an associate of Bang Records on the ninth floor of an abandoned warehouse and hand over $20,000 in cash in order to secure the musician.

After he had escaped Bang's clutches, Morrison's form and productivity rose spectacularly and he was ready to record the songs that had been circulating in his head for much of the year. Rather than use the musicians that he had played live shows with in Boston and nearby Cambridge, Warner were keen to partner him with crack session players Richard Davis, Jay Berliner, Warren Smith Jr and Connie Kay, and in September he went into New York's Century Sound studios.

Morrison, not perhaps the most talkative of figures even then, largely stayed in the vocal booth during the first day of recording. But as he could sense the admiration growing towards him from the musicians, he came out of his shell a little. Most could scarcely believe that someone who had just turned 23 had written mysterious, poetic songs of rare complexity. Even half a century on, the meaning of the eight songs on Astral Weeks is the subject of great conjecture. In his new book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, American author Ryan Walsh writes that many of the songs derived from feverish writing sessions motivated by dreams and reveries the musician had had. Morrison, he writes, was a student of the occult who believed in automatic writing.

Boston-based Walsh also makes the point that the most Irish-American city of the lot was, in 1968, one of the counter-culture centres of America and Morrison was drawn to a liberal, forward-thinking metropolis that could hardly be more different to the sometimes bleak and rigidly conservative place he had grown up in. But his childhood in Belfast played a prominent part in Morrison's thinking at the time, with a residential street in the city providing the title of one of the album's - and the singer's - most enduring tracks, 'Cyprus Avenue'.

As well as a book, the album was also the subject of a recent RTÉ radio documentary, The Summer of Astral Weeks, which featured interviews with Janet Planet, Jay Berliner and Joe Smith, the now 90-year-old ex-Warner Bros man who handed over that bag of cash to Bang Records.

Made by producer Alan Torney, it is available as a podcast and can be accessed through the Documentary on One page on the RTÉ website.

Astral Weeks was produced by Lewis Merenstein, who had been dispatched by Warner to Boston to talk ideas with Morrison. On hearing what would become the title song, he reportedly told the singer: "What are we wasting time for? Let's go make a record."

And it was Merenstein who hand-picked the musicians.

By any measure, the producer's role on the resulting album was seismic. He ensured that Morrison's freewheeling approach stay intact, but he also added horns and strings in post-production, apparently without the permission of Morrison. When the singer heard the result, he was not happy. Ever the contrarian, his assessment of the end result was stark: "They ruined it," he said years later. "They added strings. I didn't want the strings. And they sent it to me, it was all changed. That's not Astral Weeks."

If the album has long been regarded as a masterpiece, it's also true that it earned several poor reviews on release. One critic described it as monotonous and unoriginal, while the NME slammed the album for having indistinguishable compositions that "suffer from being stuck in the same groove throughout". The latter was penned by Nick Logan, who would go on to found the hugely influential magazine The Face in the early 1980s. Like all critics, he must hate to be reminded of the review he got so badly wrong.

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