Yup, its ma birfday.
To celebrate my 46th complete trip around the sun, I started my day in the projects watching an old Jamaican man patiently watch a large dog shit in the front yard of the building across the road.
Fortunately, my day has gotten much better since. I’ve enjoyed a nice 40k rip on the “old man’s” steel bike and now we’re baking up some beautiful salmon filets and sipping on a cold ‘Enlightenment‘* ale from Brimstone Brewing. To top it off, we’re enjoying all this birthday splendor to both a Desert Island album of mine, as well as the #1 seed for The Bible‘s (Mojo, August 1995) “Greatest Album of All Time”. I’m speaking of course about ‘Astral Weeks‘ by Van Morrison.
I owned this album once on vinyl.
I purchased it at the weekend market at Lancaster Gate in London, U.K. one weekend while walking around high and drunk because, hey, that’s what we did.
At the time we had an old record player at the cold water flat I shared with 6 other guys in a two bedroom apartment in West Ealing, but no records. So in a moment of semi-toxic profundity, it occurred to me at the time that this might be a fun thing to do later on and, low and behold, not long afterward I came home with this record.
Well, not this record.
That record was smashed not long afterwards in another weekend “Pig Pen Rager”; somebody tried to mold it into a hat.
Anyway, that was that and the record player went back to collecting dust in the corner of the room.
THIS record I acquired again today from a flea market vendor in return for some professional assistance.
And that’s what we’re listening to now and it’s a good ‘un.
And for good reason too!
‘Astral Weeks‘ is generally considered one of the best albums in pop music history, but for all that renown, it is anything but an archetypal rock & roll album. It it isn’t a rock & roll album at all. Van plays acoustic guitar and sings in his elastic, bluesy, soulful voice, accompanied by crack group of jazz studio players: guitarist Jay Berliner, upright bassist Richard Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, vibraphonist Warren Smith and soprano saxophonist John Payne (also credited on flute, though that’s debatable – some claim an anonymous flutist provided those parts). Producer Lewis Merenstein added chamber orchestrations later and divided the album into halves: “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards” with four tunes under each heading.
Morrison’s songs are an instinctive, organic mixture of Celtic folk, blues, and jazz. He fully enters the mystic here, more in the moment than he ever would be again in a recording studio. If his pop hit ‘Brown-Eyed Girl‘ was the first place he explored the “previous” – i.e., the depths of his memory – for inspiration and direction, he immerses himself in it here.
The freewheeling, loose feel adds to the intimacy and immediacy in the songs. They are, for the most part, extended, incantatory, loosely narrative, and poetic ruminations on his Belfast upbringing: its characters, shops, streets, alleys, and sidewalks, all framed by the innocence and passage of that era. Morrison seems hypnotized by his subjects; they comfort and haunt a present filled with inexhaustible longing and loneliness. He confesses as much in the title track: “If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream/Where immobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back roads stop/ Could you find me?/Would you kiss-a my eyes/…To be born again….”
That’s some deep, deep shit.
But Morrison doesn’t reach out to the listener, but goes deep inside himself to excavate and explore. The album’s centerpiece is ‘Madame George‘, a stream-of-consciousness narrative of personal psychological and spiritual archetypes deeply influenced by the road novels of Jack Kerouac.
He sings the word “dry” and then “your eye” twenty times in a twirling melodic arc so beautiful it steals your own breath, and then this occurs: “And the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves.”
That’s some serious dedication to the song-writing craft right there!
The climactic epiphany experienced on ‘Cyprus Avenue‘ paints a portrait of place and time so vividly, it fools listeners into the experience of shared — but mythical — memory. ‘The Way Young Lovers Do‘ is the most fully formed tune here. Its swinging jazz verses and tight rhythmic choruses underscore a simmering, passionate eroticism in Morrison’s lyric and delivery.
My favorite, however, is ‘Sweet Thing‘.
Serious … total boner inducer.
In summation, ‘Astral Weeks‘ is a justified entry in pop music’s pantheon. It is unlike any record before or since; it mixes together the very best of postwar popular music in an emotional outpouring cast in delicate, subtle musical structures.
Most importantly though, is that it’s a kick ass thing to be listening to on, this, my 46th birthday.
So kick ass, in fatc, it’s my choice for Day 4 of my ‘31 Day Record Challenge‘ (Part 2); ‘A “Desert Island” album (a record you couldn’t bear to live without)…‘