I can still remember walking up the hill from the station in Tunbridge Wells after a hard day’s silent learning at school, muttering to myself “Van Johnson – Van Morrison – Van Johnson – Van Morrison” because I had trouble remembering the name of the artist who had just received a glowing review for his first solo album in Melody Maker. I have this memory that it was Richard Williams who had written the review but I can’t find any evidence to support this. I’ve just been up to the loft to retrieve my scrapbooks in which I kept reviews of my favourite artists for several years in the early seventies. However, no luck and as the album was released in November 1968, maybe it was too early for me to cut out and keep it, with one eye on my future sixty five year old self wallowing in the nostalgia of reading such seminal articles as Bud Scoppa’s review of the first Jackson Browne album.
A teenager in the sixties must have had a lot of fun, right? Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. It didn’t quite work out for me. Certainly, the first two were out of the question and I never learned to play an instrument. But when I think that I was 12 when I first listened to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Sgt. Pepper” and I was 14 when I first listened to “Astral Weeks” I realise that I was simply devoting my energies to listening to music rather than trying to pluck up the courage to talk to a girl, assuming I could ever come across one. Anyway, when I went into “The Spinning Disc” in Calverley Road, Tunbridge Wells, I genuinely got an admiring look from the guy behind the desk when I asked if he had “Astral Weeks.” Genuinely. I can still see the look on his face as he realised he was talking to someone who really knew his stuff. No, he didn’t have it but yes, he had heard of it and yes, he would order it for me.
If ever asked for my favourite albums, I always say “Astral Weeks” is Number One and “Starsailor” by Tim Buckley is Number Two. Although, when I listen to this album, there’s only two tracks that I have ever really liked and they are “Astral Weeks” and “Madame George.” I mean, they are incredible but I don’t really think that I’m allowed to only like two songs on my favourite album. “Beside You” is interesting but a bit too free form for me. “Sweet Thing” is a nice tune but, frankly, The Waterboys’ version was better. “Cyprus Avenue” is obviously good but that harpsichord is a bit overwhelming. It was much better live on “It’s Too Late To Stop Now.” “The Way Young Lovers Do” is a nice change of tempo but unremarkable. “Ballerina” is, whisper it, boring (although once, live, when Van Morrison sung it, the whole of the Dominion Theatre transcended onto a higher plane) and “Slim Slow Slider” is a bit odd and seems to come from the same place as “T. B. Sheets” on his first album (“Blowin’ Your Mind” which I never knew about for a few years to come).
On the other hand “Madame George” and “Astral Weeks” are sensational. Andy Gill wrote that the conclusion of “Madame George” “with Morrison’s wistful humming echoed by the yearning strings as he waves ‘goodbye, goodbye, goodbye’ is endlessly, eternally moving.” Interestingly, in one interview, Van Morrison says that he actually sang “Madame Joy”, not “Madame George” and although I just thought he was kidding when I read this, listen carefully! In 1973, he recorded an unrelated song called “Madame Joy” (but it wasn’t released until 1994 on “The Philosopher’s Stone.”)
Someone, I can’t remember who, was once forced by me into listening to the album at my parents house in 1969 and I had said to them beforehand that the bass playing was brilliant. The sneering reply had been that you could say that about any bass playing. Then he listened to it and agreed that the bass playing was, indeed, brilliant. The bassist is Richard Davis who, in an interview in 2008 claimed that “As far as I can recall, I don’t think I exchanged one word with the guy. We just listened to his songs one time and started playing.” As Paddy knows, my appreciation of the bass guitar is limited in the extreme. Except on this record. By the way, my Dad loved “Madame George” – he told me that the contrast between the sweet strings and the harsh voice was something he could appreciate. (I didn’t always appreciate my Dad’s comments on my music – he once told me that The Moody Blues music was pretentious! As if!)
My vinyl copy of “Astral Weeks” was fine except it jumped during “Madame George” – “You’re getting weaker and the knees begin to sag/In a cor-drag.” It was only the advent of the first of my CD copies that I heard the full version “You’re getting weaker and the knees begin to sag/In a corner playing dominoes in drag.” Don’t tell me that vinyl is better than a CD. That record was like that when I got it. Yes, I should have taken it back but I was 14 and that bloke in “The Spinning Disc” might have changed his mind about me.
Talking of being 14, does anyone find it a bit strange when Van Morrison sings “And I’m conquered in a car seat/And I’m looking straight at you/Way up on, way up on, way up on, way up on, way up on, way up on, way up on/The avenue of trees/Keep walking down/In the wind and rain, darling/You keep walking down when the sun shone through the trees/Nobody, no, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby/So young and bold, fourteen-year old/Baby, baby, baby” So Van Morrison is old enough to drive a car and he is lusting after a 14 year old girl. Is this legal?
When Roo and I got married, we had a family lunch and an evening gathering in the “Ad Astra Hall” in Hassocks. Around 4:00, I walked from home to the Hall to get the tables and music ready. I had several cassettes of music ready. I also had a cassette of test music to make sure the whole sound system was working. The first song was “Astral Weeks.” I fiddled around with the wires, the speakers, the cassette player, pressed play and the song started booming out of the speakers. There I was, three hours married, something I never imagined would happen, in an empty hall in Hassocks, by myself, listening to the most sublime magical mystical uplifting music. “I got a home on high/In another land/So far away/So far away/Way up in the heaven/Way up in the heaven/Way up in the heaven/Way up in the heaven/In another time/In another place/In another time/In another place/Way up in the heaven/Way up in the heaven/We are goin’ up to heaven/We are goin’ to heaven/In another time/In another place/In another time/In another place/In another face”
15 thoughts on “Astral Weeks by Van Morrison”
Great stuff, thanks Mick. I’ve got two key memories of Madame George – the first is from the mid-nineties when I was getting into sampling sound loops for the first time. I did a course on sampling at Bridgwater College and my first loop was the “this is the train, this is the train” section, just as the warm brass kicks in. I thought then, as I still think now, those were some of the most moving seconds of music I’ve ever known and now I could make them go on forever and ever. The second memory is of playing the track to my dad and Chris one evening about twenty years ago when Chris would have been about 15. I remember my dad (like yours) saying he really liked it and singling out the fiddle playing as his favourite part. But it’s Chris’ reaction that’s really stuck with me. He just said, “that’s absolutely amazing” and I could tell from the look on his face that he’d just realised (possibly for the first time) how truly inspirational music can be.
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That’s moved me to tears. Astonishing that our Dads had the same reaction.
Try this playlist of unreleased Van tracks recorded in 1973 between Hard Nose The Highway and Veedon Fleece
I listened to Astral Weeks twice today, all the way through (on a legitimately purchased cd I might add). I don’t do that often with ‘albums’, and haven’t for sometime.
AW reminded me that albums used to be designed specifically to be listened through in one sitting ( with a short break to turn the thing over of course). It’s got the striking but quite accessible Astral Weeks starting ‘side 1’ the longish lightly disguised 12 bar blues Cypress Avenue to fade the side out. A quick catchy ..Young Lovers… and then into the real drama, Madam George (sic) and Ballerina. Around 3.30 on Ballerina, the bass indicates something’s going to happen, then Van himself tells us, with his only spoken interjection on the album, ‘All right’. From there, it’s a great two minutes or so of extended climax, slowly descending, perfectly timed in relation to the whole album. Then the famous ‘last track on side two’, which does it’s job of bringing us gently back to earth.
This all might not have happened had I discovered ‘Murder Most Foul’ earlier in the day.
All power to your stylus arm wilfulsprinter.
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