Van Morrison: Astral Weeks Reissue Review

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To say that Astral Weeks was released with little promotion is an understatement. I vividly remember my local NYC FM rock stations playing Van Morrison’s Gloria and TB Sheets often during 1968 – 1969, yet, I never heard anything from Astral Weeks until I saw Van perform a killer version of Cypress Avenue for the PBS program Welcome to the Fillmore East on October 10, 1970, a full eight months after the release of Moondance. If Astral Weeks received any radio play it must have been on a day that I wasn’t listening. Actually, I listened to the radio every day during that period. It was not until 1972 that I heard the songs Astral Weeks and Madame George played on WNEW FM.

I later learned that Warner Bros. may have demurred on promotion due to Morrison’s contractual problems with Bert Berns’ widow. Berns wrote such great songs as Twist and Shout (Iseley Brothers, Beatles), Here Comes the Night (Van Morrison and Them), Cry to Me and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (Solomon Burke, Rolling Stones), Baby Please Come Home (Led Zeppelin) as well as Cry Baby and Piece of My Heart (Janis Joplin). He also had a philosophy that all songs should sound like La Bamba and made Van change his lyrics from brown-skinned girl to brown eyed girl. Van had been involved with Berns since his time (at 16 years old) with the group Them and was contractually bound to Berns’ Bang record label. It seems that Bert’s widow may have blamed her husband’s sudden heart attack on Morrison’s artistic differences with the producer and therefore, she was determined to make Van’s life difficult – even trying to get him deported.

Van’s new producer worked things out legally yet Warner Bros. was henceforth precluded from releasing a single from the album and the rights to two of the tracks (Madame George and Beside You) reverted back to Berns’ publishing company. Since Astral Weeks sold poorly Morrison would become like an indentured servant to Warner Brothers. Even though his next albums were big hits, it would take quite a while to pay back the costs of recording, etc. (at least according to the record company’s accountants) and even longer before Van started making money.

When I finally heard Astral Weeks it was a revelation. About the only parallels I could draw lyrically with these songs were with those of Dylan and Lennon/ McCartney. There is a surreal stream of consciousness that reminds me of Mr. Tambourine Man and I Am the Walrus along with the strong sense of reminiscence and of place that comes from Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. Musically, it reminds me in places of Tim Hardin, who also fused folk with soul and jazz. However, the song Ballerina reminds me strongly of the Drifters and the kind of rock and roll operas that Lieber and Stoller or Phil Spector used to create.

Morrison was out there, on his own plane. You can hear him on the title track strumming guitar rhythmically to his own muse and singing soulfully as the other musicians follow him. On other tracks he reminds me of John Lee Hooker in that he plays a blues-like rhythm and lead that is idiosyncratic yet wholly authentic. He was in his own vocal isolation booth and gave the band no direction other than to play what they felt, according to drummer Connie Kay (of the Modern Jazz Quartet). Some of the players, like guitarist Jay Berliner (who had previously worked with Charles Mingus and later played on my favorite George Benson album) appreciated this freedom while others such as bassist Richard Davis were put off by “no prep, no meeting” and felt that Morrison was “remote”. Nevertheless, Davis, who had worked previously with Eric Dolphy, anchored and led the sessions – just listen to his driving bass on The Way Young Lovers Do, or really on any track. The result was divine. Recorded like an early Beatles album in about two evening sessions you couldn’t ask for anything more.

The album is a song cycle of universal themes about youth: Astral Weeks – a yearning for spirituality and transcendence, Beside You – a desire for escape and belonging, Sweet Thing – exultation over youthful love, Cypress Avenue – An impressionistic remembrance of a first crush with the added barrier of class difference (Van’s imagining his girlfriend with six white horses and a carriage), The Way That Young Lovers Do – again, an intense description of feelings you will only have at a certain time in life, Madame George – Coming of age ( in this case about a young man’s first involvement with an older woman and a scene of partying and drugs.) Ballerina – a young woman who just needs to “step right up” and take the initiative, and Slim Slow Slider – mortality, even of the young.

This reissue is long overdue, not at all gratuitous like some albums that are remastered every time a new revenue stream is desired. The original CD doesn’t sound bad and the difference here is very subtle. The instruments simply sound better. You can hear this, for example, in Beside You at around 3:44 to 3:51 in Jay Berliner’s classical guitar. In the original it sounds a bit harsh yet here it sounds very natural. The instruments now seem to surround and caress Van’s vocals while in the original issue the vocals, at times, seem to dominate. This is a release you will want to listen to with headphones, if possible.

The bonus tracks are Beside You (take 1), Madame George (take 4), Ballerina (long version), and Slim Slow Slider (long version). Most of you are probably interested in the long version of Slim Slow Slider. At about 3:24 (which would correspond to the ending at 3:17 of the original) there is a coda of chamber music like guitar, bass and soprano sax with Van singing a doxology of “Glory be to Him”. This was likely meant to be an elegy to the subject of the song. His producer, Lewis Merenstein, cut this because he felt that it was incongruent with the rest of the album.

If you are still wondering – yes, you should get this.

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