Saturday, 23 March 2013

Albums for Life: Joint 32: Van Morrison: Astral Weeks/Veedon Fleece

"A society which thinks, as ours thinks, that it has outlived the need for magic, is either mistaken in that opinion, or else it is a dying society, perishing for lack of interest in its own maintenance."
British philosopher R. G. Collingwood in 1937.

Christ only knows why this wonderful stuff is not in my top 10.
Maybe it's my stubbornness that's keeping it off the pedestal that it's normally afforded by others. There will surely be lesser achievements above it. Having just immersed myself in these spellbinding enchantments I need to loosen this rant now...

It's easy to dismiss Van as an old curmudgeon these days and, frankly, he doesn't help himself with the grumpy whinges and tiresome whines. But back in the day he was a maverick troubadour who'd turned his back on the pop charts and Them.
Back in the day, 1968 to be specific, Van was a man in search of magic.

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 

And you can hear that magic in the grooves of Astral Weeks as Morrison conjures, prompts and pushes the musicians, you can hear them listening more than you hear them playing. Apparently there were no chords charts, no predetermined arrangements, just a room full of brilliantly collaborative musicians. "What stood out in my mind was the fact that he allowed us to stretch out," recalled guitarist Jay Berliner. "We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what he felt." That, as much as the brilliance of the song cycle, is the genius of Astral Weeks; that gathering, overseen by Van and producer Lewis Merenstein, who said, upon first hearing the title track "I started crying. It just vibrated in my soul, and I knew that I wanted to work with that sound." And what a sound; the words seem almost secondary to meaning as The Man floats above the proceedings, transcending the form, in search of something that he must surely have wished to be spiritual. It's that spirit of almost existential ambition that makes the music so compelling. The album was apparently recorded in two eight-hour sessions, plus two overdub sessions, sessions that must have been as exhausting as they were inspired. The songs are elevated by the sublime, instinctive playing to something beyond themselves; it isn't always sustained, how could it be? There's rapture and rupture in equal amounts, but when the spell is broken it only serves to reinforce the thrilling intensity of what you have just experienced; it's a bit like Coleridge wakening from the dream that inspired 'Kubla Khan' only to desperately search for sleep again, that he might rejoin and complete the blissful reverie, if only to be born again. It's as though the singer is rejecting experience and praying to be innocent and vulnerable again. You hear Van hopefully reaching and stumbling, with spluttering and scatting that borders on the comical at times, but so free of self consciousness that you can't help but be taken and charmed by that fearless, blithe spirit. The ambition is admirable, what one smart critic called an "intangible narrative of unreachable worlds" And Van's  not just gasping, grasping, searching for himself, he's reaching out to us and for us. It seems inappropriate to focus on individual songs, these are impressionistic moments that come to us almost as communal prayers.
And did we get healed? 

There's what Lester Bangs called "the mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work".
It's an insubstantial yet spellbinding beauty that's as difficult to detail as it is to describe sea mist or the smell of freshly cut grass. I'll be posting no audio clips; you need to sit through the whole thing to taste the flavour and absorb the sense of wonder.

The same intensity resurfaced in 1974 on Veedon Fleece, an album that I always hear as an extension of Astral Weeks' tenuous template. The Veedon Fleece itself is seen as "the symbol of everything yearned for in the songs; spiritual enlightenment, wisdom, community, artistic vision and love. It's suggested that the Fleece might be Van's Irish version of The Holy Grail. Morrison himself explained the title with: "I haven't a clue about what the title means. It's actually a person's name. I have a whole set of characters in my head that I'm trying to fit into things. Veedon Fleece is one of them and I just suddenly started singing it in one of these songs, It's like a stream of consciousness thing."
Maybe this is where Van rediscovered the initial dream state that informed Astral Weeks with such otherworldly beauty.

And as we walked through the streets of Arklow
Oh the colours of the day warm
And our heads were filled with poetry
In the morning coming onto dawn

Here he was again, trying to harness something intangible, to bottle the sea mist, the essence of a time and a place, trying to reclaim the innocence lost.
And here he was again, trying to conjure something holy; something from nothing...
Call this wonderfully willful music what you will, I'm calling it 'magic'.
The only response to the listening of this is silence...


  1. Wow, that is some eloquent essay... I just wish I could get on board with you and the multitude of critics who have Astral Weeks ranked as an unequivocal masterpiece. I think it's that same reaching, stumbling, spluttering, scatting & repetition... the jazz improvisation element that thrills others, which kinda annoys me. Jazz is something I just don't "get". That being said, I absolutely swoon at much of his later (also magical) work where he tones down the stream of consciousness narratives. I'm gonna have to go back, go back, go way, way back and see if I can be healed of this blind spot.

  2. It's the same kind of improvisational sorcery that makes Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue' so special to me.
    So much music is rehearsed and perfected before recording. Some of it needs to be that way; you can tell that something like The Prefab's 'Steve McQueen' has been rubbed and rubbed until it shone just so, and it shines brightly. That process can squeeze the life out of things too. Can you polish something dull? I think that you can hear 'creation' here. It took me a while to recognize that. This is one that the sound sages proclaimed and therefore I resisted awhile; I didn't want guiding, I was more intent on discovering music that I could call 'mine'. This was someone else's recommendation. So it's not so much the songs (and you know that I'm a 'song' man TT) but more the spirit of adventure that I admire about these two recordings. I need to be in the mood for it though; I've got to admit that somedays it doesn't get past track one.
    So, I recommend late night, no expectations, just let it flow, don't brace yourself for it and... you won't feel a thing...

  3. Trev - nice piece on Astral Weeks - and the format of Astral Weeks plus one seems a good way to approach Van. I have to say Veedon Fleece never made my collection so I'm not very familiar with it. I have another favourite from him which I may introduce on a Astral Weeks plus one basis. Then there is always his supreme double live LP It's Too Late to Stop Now.
    And Them had some high points too - you can hear the birth of Astral Weeks in singles like Friday's Child and songs like The Story of Them. Here's some footage of a young Van!

  4. Seamus, agree on 'It's Too Late...'. It always makes me think of Bob Harris...
    Love the clip; it looks like Manfred Mann playing keyboards; it's either him or my old physics teacher Mr Malpass...

    1. Probably your old physics teacher. You'd have to have some connection. I can hear him now - "Yeah, yeah, I played keyboards with Van Morrison but let me tell you this - I taught that Trevor jones physics, believe it or not!"

  5. That sounds like Malpass; alway bragging. Claimed to have the biggest mustard seeds in North Yorkshire. Not sure if it was down to compost or bullshit...