Behind the Masterpiece: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks at 50

The album was conceived in the milieu of Timothy Leary, recorded with session musicians fresh off commercial-jingle gigs, and only gradually recognized as something like magic.

by Conor Friedersdorf
April 3, 2018

Could you find me?
Would you kiss-a my eyes?
To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

So begins Astral Weeks, the sublime, eight-song album released in 1968 with little fanfare, though it endures 50 years later as Van Morrison's very finest achievement.

Why does it strike so many as almost perfect?

"Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend," the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote on the 10th anniversary of its release. "It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim ... one moment's knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt."

He sensed an artist "transfixed between pure rapture and anguish. Wondering if they may not be the same thing, or at least possessed of an intimate relationship."

And that is enough to know for enhanced listening.

But we revisit the album as part of an ongoing look at all things about the United States as it was in 1968. In what milieu was this singular, much beloved album born?

One of the most particular answers is offered in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a newly published book by Ryan H. Walsh that takes readers back to the beginning of that year, when Van Morrison began living and working near Boston. The Irish-born singer, then 22, had fled New York City with his new wife, Janet Rigsbee. He was frustrated at his failure to break though in its music scene - - he was mostly unknown despite recording his first hit, "Brown Eyed Girl" - - and eager to escape the mob-connected men who owned a bad record contract he had signed.

Boston was attractive in part because of its famous folk music scene, though that turned out to be a shadow of its former self by the time Morrison moved into his Cambridge apartment. One local favorite, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, wasn't the same once Mel Lyman quit and dedicated himself to leading an eccentric hippie commune. Other acts broke up or decided to try their luck in New York City or on the West Coast.

And rock and roll was ascendant.

The zeitgeist was arguably shaped most that year by events in San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. And yet, greater Boston was not insignificant.

Noam Chomsky of MIT and Howard Zinn of Boston University were outspoken participants in the movement against the Vietnam War. Timothy Leary had earlier embarked on his LSD experiments through the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and Boston remained a hotbed of attempts at psychedelic enlightenment. Richard Alpert had returned from a sojourn to India as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

And on local television, WGBH had given over its airwaves twice a week to an experimental program called What's Happening, Mr. Silver?, a show that "transformed home televisions into portals for a psychedelic fever dream," Walsh wrote, "uninterrupted by commercials or common sense." As he described one episode:

A swarm of inkblots. Cut to a circular logo bouncing across the screen. A child announces the title of the show, then looks confused. A Jim Kweskin song plays as the inkblots return. A half-second clip of a woman in a red dress, staring off into the distance. Edits happen without warning and truncate sentences throughout. Host David Silver sits on the floor and asks the woman a question, but her answer goes unheard - cut to stock footage of a man talking about producing high school yearbooks. Cut back to the woman telling Silver about a impending "cataclysmic event." Microcuts to old commercials.

Aretha Franklin's "Respect" starts to play.

Behind Silver and the lady in the red dress, a dozen young people dance wildly. Seated to their left and right are an extremely old man and woman, watching. Backward sequence of Silver eating a banana. Stock footage run through an effects module rendering it new in an array of psychedelic color patterns. Black-and-white scene of samurais fighting. The editing pace quickens. Four distinct audio tracks play at once, often at odds with one another. Silver, all in black, fences with a woman dressed all in white. Inkblots overlay the duel. A woozy pattern spins as we hear news reports on the Vietnam War. "You could be frozen for several hundred years," a woman in a floral-pattern dress tells Silver while the dancers clap in time behind them. "That would break up the monotony of eternity."

The elderly pair looks confused.

Many a viewer was as confused. In its writeup, the Boston Globe quoted a local woman who said, "I never miss it. I never can believe it makes me as mad as it does." And yet, the program was innovate and successful enough to attract Andy Warhol, Bill Cosby, William F. Buckley, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi among its guests.

Amid the tumult of that year in the Boston milieu, Van Morrison would sit in a Cambridge flat or backyard, strumming a guitar and working out what would become Astral Weeks, his personal history swirling in his head as world events swirled around him. Rigsbee relayed his creative method to Ryan Walsh, telling him that Morrison would leave a tape recorder running while he played guitar and improvised for 20 minutes at a time. Then they would listen back while he decided what to keep and refine. Would the results have differed without that bit of technology?

That summer, Morrison's band played small gigs around greater Boston. The singer was moody, threw tantrums, and walked off stage before completing sets. But his talent shone through enough to attract the attention of the record producer Lewis Merenstein, who eventually came to Boston and summoned him to a meeting at a recording studio, where the young singer-songwriter began playing his newest songs.

"My whole being was vibrating," the producer later recalled. "It was Van, alone with a guitar, and he played 'Astral Weeks' the song for me right then and there. I got the distinct feeling that he was going back in time, going back to be born again, and it moved me, spiritually, quite a bit ... It hit me right where I was at that period in my life."

But before Morrison could record any new music for Warner Bros., there was the obstacle of his old recording contract and the mob-connected folks who controlled it. A passage on resolving the problem shows how much fun Walsh's history can be and gives a then-executive credit that he never got in the liner notes:

At 6 p.m. on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, Joe Smith entered an abandoned warehouse with a sack containing $20,000 in cash. Smith remembers how it went down: "I had to walk up three flights of stairs, and there were four guys. Two tall and thin, and two built like buildings. There was no small talk. I got the signed contract and got the hell out of there, because I was afraid somebody would whack me in the head and take back the contract and I'd be out the money."

Did he ever hear from these people again?

"No," Smith deadpans, "They weren't in the music business."

Suddenly, Morrison was born again as a Warner Bros. artist. He went immediately to New York City to record the album with session musicians he'd never met.

Walsh writes as a partisan of Astral Weeks. He says the album "presented itself in a moment when I needed to hear it," and that "the music seemed to serve as some kind of protection for the part of me that held on to hope and the idea of real love." Later, he met a woman who surprised him by playing the album at the end of their first date - - it isn't hard to find moments on it that seem to fit such an occasion:

We strolled through fields all wet with rain
And back along the lane again
There in the sunshine
In the sweet summertime
The way that young lovers do

"Reader," Walsh writes, "I married her."

But sentiment doesn't stop him from probing the least romantic details of those recording sessions:

Consulting his work diary from that year, guitarist Jay Berliner notes he had just recorded jingles for both Noxzema and Pringles potato chips before showing up to start working on one of the most celebrated albums of all time. There was no project title yet; Berliner's gig diary merely says, "Van Morrison." None of the musicians had heard of him before.

During the sessions, Morrison himself disappeared into a booth to do vocals, uttering nary a word to the jazz ensemble outside, the members of which improvised their parts minutes later.

More Walsh:

That a group of players who had been knee-deep in ad-jingle-land hours before then pivoted to create the singularly beautiful music found on Astral Weeks seems incredible, but by all accounts this was actually the case. Guitarist Jay Berliner's schedule was so flanked by commercial work, in fact, he joked that he could have mistaken the session for another advertising job. "Astral Weeks, I mean, what a long jingle," he says, laughing. "And what are we selling here, exactly?"

Jingles are 30 seconds; pop songs, about three minutes. But Morrison's new compositions called for takes that could stretch beyond nine minutes ... That first night, they laid down "Beside You," "Cyprus Avenue," and the epic "Madame George," which hit the five-, seven-, and nine-minute mark in their final versions. Everyone was so pleased with the results that they started to talk about trying one more before calling it quits.

That was the title track, "Astral Weeks." The whole album was finished in just two more recording sessions of long takes, then masterfully shaped by Merenstein.

1968 produced no shortage of enduring albums: The White Album, Beggars Banquet, At Folsom Prison, Music From Big Pink, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. And nearly all of them sold better out of the gate than did Astral Weeks. On reviewing Morrison's next album, Moondance, a critic at Rolling Stone predicted that, "Unlike Van's masterful Astral Weeks, this one will be immensely popular."

And yet, the album that was not quite folk or rock or jazz or blues, arguably the most singular effort of that year, would go on to win critical and popular acclaim, even as it wielded influence in a surprising diversity of ways. "Bruce Springsteen's obsession with the record led him to tap Richard Davis to play bass on his 1973 debut and on Born to Run in 1975," Walsh writes. "Martin Scorsese claims the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver are based on it. Philip Seymour Hoffman quoted it in his Oscar acceptance speech. Elvis Costello called it 'the most adventurous record made in the rock medium'; part of the late Jeff Buckley's own myth is tied with his choice to cover 'The Way Young Lovers Do.' Joni Mitchell was so taken aback by the album that she badgered one of Van's guitarists for information about him."

Put another way, the album's influence was mostly felt long after its 1968 release. Looking back, it surely ranks among that year's most notable artistic accomplishments.

That same year, in The New York Review of Books, the classical music composer Ned Rorem published an essay on the Beatles, where he observed that many rising musical artists in the young generation were "unlike their 'grandparents,'" in that they would "write much of their own material, thus combining the traditions of 12th-century troubadours, 16th-century madrigalists, and 18th-century musical artisans, who were always composer-performers - in short, combining all sung expression (except opera) as it was before the 20th century."

He went on to praise the Beatles most of all, writing that their "superiority, of course, is finally as elusive as Mozart's to [Muzio] Clementi: Both spoke skillfully the same tonal language, but only Mozart spoke it with the added magic of genius. Who will define such magic?" We're still no closer to defining musical genius than we know it when we hear it. And 50 years after its release, listeners still hear magic in Astral Weeks.

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