Welcome to Radio Baxter, a tribute to the FM tradition of the classic album hour. The only difference is you bring your own music. We’re kicking off this occasional series with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. The following was originally live-tweeted on Saturday 25 January at #RadioBaxter and on my Facebook page. Thanks to everyone who joined me.
From its opening notes this album always makes me want to put on something white and flowing and waft around the house lighting candles because, really, I guess I’m just a hippie at heart. As well as wafting I’ll be pulling quotes and fun facts from a range of sources. Full links at the end.
If you prefer to ignore my twitterings and just enjoy the music, nothing could make me happier. Astral Weeks is well worth your undivided attention. I want to introduce newbies to a great album and remind oldies of a classic you might not have listened to for a while.
And now, if we’re all sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
Side One In the Beginning
00:00 S1T1 Astral Weeks
If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams… would you find me?
In the beginning… there was this amazing title track: seven minutes of bliss.
Astral Weeks was released in 1968 although your Girl Reporter came to it much later, because not that old actually. I’d heard it described as the hippie’s rolling surface of choice but I presume that referred to the days of vinyl when there was more room to spread out.
Its cult reputation meant I was expecting something a lot more noodlesome and frankly dull but no, this time the hippies were really on to something.
“From the moment Van hit the first note I knew we were involved in something special” – Arthur Brooks, sound engineer
Your Girl Reporter wasn’t the only one to be surprised by Astral Weeks. Warner Brothers, Morrison’s new record label, was expecting a rerun of Brown Eyed Girl. Instead they got this – seven minutes about rebirth with an acoustic bass and not an electric guitar to be heard.
“They just didn’t know what to do with it so they did nothing” – Lewis Merenstein, producer
Maybe that’s why initial sales were disappointing and for a while there Astral Weeks seemed destined to remain a cult album, fiercely beloved by some and completely ignored by others.
“It speaks different things to different people. Maybe it spoke ‘Don’t buy me’ to some –- not sure. I have always been quite sure it is not Top 40 material” – Van Morrison
It took awhile but Astral Weeks is now acknowledged as one of the best albums of all time, check any list you like.
Could you find me? Would you kiss-a-my eyes? Lay me down in silence easy… to be born again
If there’s a key to enjoying this album it’s to just sit back and let it wash over you. Don’t try and understand it. Apparently Morrison didn’t understand it either, so we’re in fine company.
He told Rolling Stone there were times he was mystified by his songs too. “I don’t want to give the impression I know what everything means because I don’t,” he said.
Ain’t nothing but a stranger in this world
00:07 S1T2 Beside You
If the title track set you up for a smooth spiritual hippie ride, Beside You changes the tone. Psychologist and Astral Weeks fan Adam Phillips called it the most dense and tortured song on the album.
“He sounds traumatised – though by what one never knows” – Adam Phillips, psychologist
Astral Weeks is full of what Lester Bangs called ‘verbal tics’ – lucky for us, he went to the trouble of counting them so we don’t have to. In Beside You he counted four rushed repeats of “you breathe in, you breathe out” and “you turn around.”
One of the best known ‘facts’ about Astral Weeks is probably that Morrison was impossible to work with and barely spoke to anyone during the three short sessions in New York. John Cale was recording in the studio next door and he remembered it this way:
Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes – John Cale
Richard Davis, who played bass on the album, couldn’t remember exchanging one word with Morrison. “We just listened to his songs one time, and then we started playing.” He said Morrison seemed aloof, possibly moody, and definitely caught up in his own thing. “He communicated through his singing.”
It seems impossible to square these accounts with the perfect melding of the musicians which you hear on this album, so it’s no surprise to learn that each of them was highly regarded in their home field of jazz.
I asked him what he wanted me to play, and he said to play whatever I felt like playing – Connie Kay, drummer
Let the last word be Morrison’s: “We made that record straight through finally like I wanted, without stopping. We did it my way in the studio that day.”
00:13 S1T3 Sweet Thing
Change of mood from despair to the wonder of Sweet Thing. For me, Astral Weeks captures the rollercoaster moods of adolescence and this song swings us back to bliss.
And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first and I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst
I’m not alone. In researching this album I discovered many people who feel Astral Weeks is about the pain and confusion of leaving childhood behind for the uncertainties of adulthood.
Sweet Thing, with all its simple joys and certainties, is a gorgeous escapist moment and one of my favourites on the album. Do we ever grow so old again as on the day we realise we have to leave all this behind?
And I will never grow so old again
00:17 S1T4 Cyprus Avenue
More counting from Lester Bangs: “In Cyprus Avenue 12 ‘way up on’s’ and ‘baby’ sung 13 times in a row like someone running ecstatically downhill towards one’s love.”
Our first visit to Cyprus Avenue and we’re back to adolescent despair, with a 14-year-old Morrison conquered in a car seat at the sight of the unattainable object of his desire. Of course, that’s just my view and, as Morrison said, everyone can put their own meaning on these songs.
We’ll be returning to Cyprus Avenue a little later with its companion Madame George, to my mind the two most important tracks on the album. But first, a short break while the hipsters flip their vinyl.
Side Two – Afterwards
00:00 S2T1 The Way Young Lovers Do
Ah yes, afterwards, when the tongue-tied finally blurt out their affections and find them returned, don’t the floodgates open?
And then we danced the night away and turned to each other, sayin’ “I love you, I love you” the way that young lovers do
This one has me dancing round my kitchen. Dance with me, Twitter, the way young lovers do.
Another track that Morrison claims he doesn’t know the meaning of, but then goes on to say, “What 90-year-old doesn’t want to feel like young lovers do? Most probably would — it is as simple as that.”
00:04 S2T2 Madame George
If only love was always that simple. We’re back on Cyprus Avenue for the most bewitching track on Astral Weeks for me, the glorious tragedy of Madame George.
Down on Cyprus Avenue with a childlike vision leaping into view clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
There’s so much hurt inflicted on the lovelorn title character and it’s so casually delivered, the way the worst hurts often are.
Morrison claimed the song wasn’t about a transvestite (“as far as he knows”) but I’m with Lester Bangs, who called bullshit on that. Madame George is mercilessly exploited by the young boys of the neighbourhood who abandon her as soon as the party ends.
It’s never explicitly stated but, to me at least, it’s as if the roles of Cypress Avenue have been reversed. Morrison, who knows all too well what it is to be conquered in a car seat, is now himself the object of unrequited love.
He reacts like any callous adolescent but records the moments with merciless precision, right down to a goodbye reduced to a reminder to take his gloves, because it’s cold out there.
Lester Bangs heard a “beautiful horror” in Cyprus Avenue and Madame George – the supreme pain of being imprisoned forever a spectator. He also called the latter one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made.
He’s right, in the end, to go with Morrison and agree that it’s not about a transvestite, it’s about a person. It’s about anyone who has ever had to live with the supreme alienation of love unreturned and unacknowledged.
If it takes an adult to recognise when you’ve hurt someone, it’s Van the Man who gets on the train out of Dublin, thinking he can leave the boy behind.
Say goodbye to Madame George dry your eye for Madame George wonder why for Madame George
To me, this album is a long goodbye to the streets of childhood, encapsulated in the changing seasons on Cypress Avenue. Or, as Morrison put it, “Going away and coming back, those are the themes of all Irish writing.”
00:13 S2T3 Ballerina
Morrison wrote the soothing, uplifting, lovely Ballerina in 1966, well before it found a home on Astral Weeks. His vocals are breathtakingly beautiful, so that I’m dancing around again – like a clumsy ballerina.
“His voice has so much integrity and conviction, it’s as if he has sung the whole album into being just by his conviction, his absolute self-belief” – Beth Orton, singer
After leaving those childhood streets, the wild, emotional swings of youth settle down into something approaching a balance – just like a ballerina, we’re stepping lightly and in seemingly perfect control.
00:20 S2T4 Slim Slow Slider
You’ll be pleased to hear I’m safely back on the couch for Slim Slow Slider, last and shortest song on the album.
I adore the flute and sax here – they weave all the themes of Astral Weeks together in a short, perfect coda to an extraordinary musical work.
We’ve covered the ups and downs of discovering what it’s like to love and be loved, we’ve been reborn into the world as grown-ups, carrying ourselves with as much grace as we can muster, and now Morrison takes us home with one final truth:
And I know you wont be back I know you’re dying baby and I know you know it too
I know you’re dying and I know you know it too everytime I see you I just don’t know what to do
ROLL CREDITS –
Van Morrison – composer, vocals, guitar, keyboards, sax, Jay Berliner – classical guitar, Richard Davis – double bass, John Payne – flute, sax, Warren Smith, Jr. – percussion, vibraphone, Connie Kay, drums, Larry Fallon – string arrangements, Lewis Merenstein, producer, Arthur Brooks, engineer.
Astral Weeks — Lester Bangs
Is this the best album ever made? – Sean O’Hagan
Astral Years – Mike Powell
A 2008 Q&A with Van Morrison – LA Times (note the famously curmudgeonly Morrison’s use of the smiley emoticon in one of his emailed answers)
Throwing Pennies at the Bridges Down Below – an entire blog devoted to Astral Weeks with some truly beautiful insights by Ryan Foley
Thanks to everyone who played-along-a with the tweet-along-a. Stay tuned for more Radio Baxter in 2014. If you’ve got any suggestions for future listening, drop me a note in the comments. It’ll be fun. – Sally