Earle Hitchner’s sterling review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks recreation launched many trains of thought as I rattled around in the back of a van some weeks back.
What’s so special about the original album? Suffice it to say that although it is decidedly of a time and place, Astral Weeks is timeless.
Interestingly enough, Van had already attempted to record some of the songs a short while earlier in 1968 and failed to capture their haunting essence - although many artists would give their eyeteeth to have these “failures” on their resume.
But luckily for us, the man from East Belfast persisted and his producers, sensing that the songs needed more than the R&B setting of the “failures,” hired four jazz musicians including the bassist, Richard Davis.
Davis, a giant of modern jazz, is still flummoxed that he is best known for his work on Astral Weeks. He recalled that back in ’68 he and his three comrades typically did a couple of sessions in the course of a day, then broke for dinner, and often a drink and a joint, before heading back to the studio for the night session.
On one such occasion, the artist had already locked himself in the vocalist booth with an acoustic guitar. When Davis asked what kind of music was required, he replied in a thick, almost unintelligible Belfast accent, “play whatever you like.”
And therein lies the magic. Without further ado Morrison let forth, leaving the band to catch his vibe. A number of the songs are slightly out of sync until Davis finds the pocket of Van’s strummed guitar and incandescent vocals. It’s a joy to hear the musicians search for each other then actually gel together, for nowadays such “imperfections” would be fixed digitally. There are times too when Davis exuberantly overplays his hand but this only serves to drive Morrison to stretch and slide along and in between the tones and tempos of his lyrics and melodies. But no matter where Van strays, this band of adventurous New York session heads is right there with him in a way that you’ll recognize from the best albums of Miles and Coltrane.
To be honest, I was relieved that I couldn’t attend the Madison Square Garden concerts. I’m sure they were great but it wasn’t hard to predict what Van would do. And he did it marvelously, if the CD “Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” is any indicator.
I’m sure the man himself feels liberated. For a true artist refuses to get stuck in time but blazes on regardless; and Van has perennially been measured by this beautiful and ephemeral work he created back in ‘68.
Oh God, is it that long ago? And was my old buddy, the legendary rock critic, Lester Bangs, who Earle quotes liberally, a mere 34 when he so stupidly passed away? Bouncing around in the back of a van, I recalled many of our booze-fueled conversations at the Bells of Hell in those golden days before people began to take Ronald Reagan seriously.
Was there something intrinsically Irish about Astral Weeks, Lester would often ask.
Yes, there was, Lester. Joyce is there in spades: “The love that loves to love the love…” along with the Calvinist repression of East Belfast’s rainy back streets. You can almost touch the sexual longing of the shy, but purposeful, exile lately arrived in New York City. At twenty-three, Van already had ten years of hymns and blues and soul and showbands and beat groups under his belt and it all came streaming to the surface on those two magical nights.
And that’s why I didn’t want to see Van in the Garden. It would have been like coming face to face with your first love. After the initial hug and the inevitable catching up, what would you talk about? Better leave the past where it belongs – in a different country.
On the new CD Van is his powerful, brilliant self, controlling every note and tempo, but the jittery genius of Davis’ bass playing is missing. Van knows what he wants nowadays – and he always gets it!
All well and good, Astral Weeks will forever capture those two extraordinary nights when jazz and poetry, blues and folk, love and longing came “slim slow sliding” together.
More power to you, Van! You created a timeless moment and you’ve finally liberated yourself from it. Your best days may yet be ahead. Rave on, indeed, a chara.