The Grouchy Transcendentalist
As he revives ‘Astral Weeks’ on the road, Van Morrison looks back
Van Morrison sits in a chair, sipping water, in a New York hotel room. He’s the picture of well-dressed calm in a dark-grey suit, a cream-colour shirt and a black ascot, with ginger-red hair peeking out from under his fedora. But there is no mistaking the challenge in his eyes, even through his brown-tinted sunglasses or in his gritty Irish brogue. “It wasn’t pop or rock,” he says flatly. “The record was anti-pop and -rock.” Morrison sighs with irritation. “I don’t get the part about it being classic rock. I never got that.”
Morrison, 63, is talking about his 1968 album Astral Weeks, an acoustic-soul masterpiece that is his most universally acclaimed record and, until recently, his most neglected in concert. Four decades later, the singer has returned to Astral Weeks with a passion. He performed the album in its entirety last November in LA (captured on the new Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl) and recreated the record again at four recent New York shows. A tour is in the works.
Born George Ivan Morrison in Belfast, Morrison recorded Astral Weeks in two eight-hour sessions in New York in the fall of 1968. The eight songs are a hushed balance of spidery improvisation and lyric mystery, with Morrison citing places, faces and blurred memories in deep-blues growls, trancelike chanting, and ascending, almost wordless release. In fact, Morrison, then 23, made the LP at the lowest ebb of his singing life: after the collapse of his electric-R&B band Them and the success of his 1967 single ”˜Brown Eyed Girl,’ in the midst of frustrating recording and production deals. But in Astral Weeks songs such as ”˜Cyprus Avenue,’ ”˜Beside You’ and the epic ”˜Madame George,’ Morrison achieved a creative breakthrough that combined the elemental fury of his Them classics ”˜Gloria’ and ”˜Mystic Eyes’ with the higher powers of American jazz and gospel.
Morrison is now fiercely possessive of his triumph, claiming he’s heard other artists cover Astral Weeks tracks but has stayed unimpressed. “They couldn’t do it,” he says. “That’s another reason why I’m doing this now. I’m the only person who can.”
Astral Weeks is considered a quiet, delicate masterpiece. Are you surprised that the songs have proven so sturdy in performance?
I don’t think it was the songs ”“ it was me doing the songs. Performing songs always changes them. See, I’m not working in the rock idiom. I know people put me in that box because they don’t know what other box to put me in. But I’m coming from a whole different place.
It’s soul music, for want of a better word. And there are other elements in there. If you go back to ”˜Astral Weeks’ ”“ “I got a home on high/In another land so far away” ”“ that is coming from pure black gospel music. Growing up, I heard Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Rev James Cleveland, all mixed with blues, Leadbelly and cowboy songs. But the elements have been transcended, and something else comes out that is totally unique.
And what is soul music? It is music coming from the soul. It can be black or white. Who are you? And what were your ancestors playing? My ancestors weren’t playing pop music. And they weren’t singing rock music, that’s for sure. I mean, how many people in rock are singers who can’t really sing? They’re being drowned out by loud guitar music because they can’t sing. This has got fuck-all to do with that, baby.
Who were your earliest influences as a singer?
Right out of the box, it was Leadbelly. He lit the spark. There was another guy who has been completely written out of musical history in the UK. His name was Rory McEwan. He was Scottish, part of the McEwan’s Ale family. He was on a TV programme when I was a kid, In Town Tonight. He used to compose songs virtually on the spot, topical folk songs. He was also the only person I’ve heard who played 12-string guitar the same as Leadbelly, who could get there for real.
Then Lonnie Donegan came along. He recorded a bunch of Leadbelly songs and made it possible for guys my age to start skiffle groups. I started one. My first gig was at school ”“ that’s where I started playing live. After that, it was John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins. And Ray Charles, of course. He was totally unique, because Ray Charles did it all ”“ writing, singing, playing. No one, until him, did everything.
You toured Germany with the Monarchs in the early Sixties. What do you remember?
You had to go for an audition, and you shipped out to various places ”“ Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Cologne. Most of the places we were sent to were American bases. A lot of black GIs used to come into the clubs, and they would bring 45s with them. That’s where I first heard Bobby “Blue” Bland. This guy brought a 45, ”˜Stormy Monday Blues.’ The B side was ”˜Your Friends.’ That was a big awakening. And I’ll tell you, man, there were GIs in the audience that used to come up and sing. They were better than most of the singers getting paid for it.
You recorded the original Astral Weeks album in New York. But nearly all of the songs make reference to Belfast. When and where were the songs written?
The songs were worked on over a couple of years. I didn’t write them in America. ”˜The Way Young Lovers Do’ ”“ I wrote that in New York. The rest of them were written in Belfast, about a specific feeling and time period, before the Troubles. There was a lot of creativity there ”“ and hope as well.
There were different versions of these songs because they had been worked on while I was doing my records for Bang. [Morrison recorded ”˜Beside You’ and ”˜Madame George,’ with different arrangements and altered lyrics, for the label in 1967.] I actually started working on these songs way before that, when I was in Them.
Did you play any Astral Weeks songs with Them?
Yeah. There are no recordings. But I remember I did at least one of them live ”“ ”˜Ballerina,’ somewhere in California in 1966. The second version of that band was more jazz-oriented. That was deliberate, so I was able to stretch out more. The guy who played keyboards also played flute.
How real are the places and images in the songs, like the kids on Cyprus Avenue, “out in the street collecting bottle tops,” in ”˜Madame George’?
That’s real, from when I was a kid. But that wouldn’t have happened on Cyprus Avenue. That happened where I was from, which was a working-class area. Cyprus Avenue was more upper-class. The song ”˜Cyprus Avenue’ is named after a real place, but it’s fictionalised. It’s nothing like in the song. It’s only real in the name.
They were song-slash-stories [makes air quotes with his fingers] ”“ basic creative writing. You pick up things from conversations. I might see something in a newspaper, in a book. People say things ”“ speech patterns. This was all stuff I was absorbing at the time, filtered through the subconscious.
The musicians on Astral Weeks were top-quality jazzmen, including bassist Richard Davis and Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay. What was it like to sing surrounded by that kind of precision and empathy?
It wasn’t being surrounded. They were following me. They needed to be where I was going, with my voice, and support that. If you listen to the previous [Bang] recordings, that didn’t happen. I was having to fit in with what was going on because it was so mechanical. I couldn’t take off, and the musicians didn’t have any direction. It was set up to lose, basically. That’s what didn’t happen with those other guys.
Astral Weeks has more to do with jazz phrasing, the way the thing is broken up. I can’t find that in any other music, of anybody’s. If you can find it, let me know. But I can’t.
You actually sing, “I believe I’ve transcended,” on Astral Weeks Live. Did you feel that way as you sang the songs in 1968?
I’m talking in terms of trance. But it’s always been there, even before that. Not many people actually heard what I was doing live then. But there has always been an element of the transcendent in the music, and it has continued throughout.
After making Astral Weeks, did you find it easier to find that freedom and space in more structured songs like ”˜Moondance,’ ”˜Caravan’ and ”˜Domino’?
”˜Domino’ was a throw-away song. They were telling me I needed a two-minute-48-
second single. I was desperate. I don’t even consider it a song. It got radio play because it was two and a half minutes.
Do you consider ”˜Tupelo Honey’ a song?
Yeah. You can take it somewhere. The thing is, you work hard for this stuff. I could break it down and explain it. But why should I? I did the work. Why give it away for free? Is anybody going to give away trade secrets? I don’t think so.
How much of an impact has performing the Astral Weeks album had on what you’re writing now or may write next? Where do you go from transcendence?
I haven’t a clue. That was a long time ago. I’m not going to write anything like that now. You have to see what comes up. You can’t legislate this kind of stuff. And when it comes around to recording, you see what the options are.
Have the Astral Weeks concerts made you think about performing other albums like Moondance or Tupelo Honey? Would they stand up to the same treatment?
I don’t know. I need to think it through. I probably just want to do something new after this. These were the least performed songs in my repertoire. All the other ones, when they came out, were done to death. I’d do the songs for years afterward. Astral Weeks is still fresh, which is amazing. I don’t know if there would be other albums that would be fresh. Probably not.