This week, Van Morrison released a new concert recording of his classic album, "Astral Weeks." The CD captures a couple of shows from last November. He performed in the Hollywood Bowl. It was the first time that he'd performed the entire record. He'll do it again next month in New York. "Astral Weeks" was originally released in 1968. It is routinely named in music polls as one of the best records of all time.
Josh Gleason explores why.
JOSH GLEASON: When Joe Levy, the editor-in-chief of Blender magazine, was in his early teens, he and his friends were on a mission to buy all the five-star albums in the original Rolling Stone Record Guide. "Astral Weeks" was one of them, and so he bought it. And for his first listen he decided to take it to the band room at his high school, where there was a massive stereo.
Mr. JOE LEVY (Blender Magazine): The thing was huge. And I thought, big speakers, new record, this will be great.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LEVY: The music was unusual — not what I was used to. And not what I was expecting.
(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")
Mr. VAN MORRISON (Singer): (Singing) If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream…
Mr. LEVY: I was like, what the hell is going on here? Where are the songs? And what is this dude talking about? Which I still often ask when listening to this record.
(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) Could you find me? Would you kiss-a my eyes? To lay me down in silence easy. To be born again.
GLEASON: Levy didn't like the record — at least not at first - but he had paid hard-earned cash for it, so he wasn't about to give up. And before long, "Astral Weeks" got to him.
Mr. LEVY: What I loved out of a Rolling Stones song or even a Bruce Springsteen song was how tightly constructed they were. They follow a set of rules. Not "Astral Weeks." "Astral Weeks" is about a different way of organizing thought, a different way of organizing music. It's otherworldly.
(Soundbite of song, "Ballerina Move on Up")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) Spread your wings. Come on, fly away. Straight to my arms, oh, little angel child…
GLEASON: Needless to say, the songs on "Astral Weeks" were a far cry from the blissful pop of Van Morrison's hit single, "Brown Eyed Girl," which was released the previous year. "Astral Weeks" was spare, sprawling and lyrically demanding. Still, to hear Morrison tell it, the record wasn't necessarily the result of some inspired vision.
Mr. MORRISON: The songs were worked on for probably a few years before that, and worked and reworked. But you know, I wanted to do it around the singing, and it had to fit in with the lyrics and it had to be kind of jazzy, because that's the way I'm singing it. Had to be spontaneous.
(Soundbite of song, "Ballerina Move On Up")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) All right. Well, it's getting late…
GLEASON: And so Morrison took the fairly unorthodox step of bringing in a cast of accomplished jazz musicians - people like drummer Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and bassist Richard Davis, who had played with the likes of Eric Dolphy. But perhaps more importantly, Morrison gave his session players a tremendous amount of creative freedom.
Mr. MORRISON: The approach was spontaneity. That was the whole point of having this particular group of people and doing it that way. And that's what we got on tape. Another performance might have been totally different. That was that performance on those days.
(Soundbite of song, "The Way Young Lovers Do")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) We strolled through fields all wet with rain, and back along the lane again. There in the sunshine, in the sweet summertime. The way that young lovers do.
GLEASON: Recording engineer Brooks Arthur says it was clear from very early on that this was going to be a memorable session. He recalls feeling lucky just to have his hands on the mixing board.
Mr. BROOKS ARTHUR (Recording Engineer): And this is not an exaggeration, this is not just trying to be poetic. A cloud came along. It was called the Van Morrison sessions. We all hopped upon that cloud, and the cloud took us away for a while. And we made this album, and we landed when it was done.
GLEASON: Morrison's own recollections are not nearly as vivid.
Mr. MORRISON: You have to understand something, that a lot of this was like there was no choice. You know, I was totally broke, so I didn't have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. It was hard and I was young and I was broke and I did what I had to do. And that's what I did.
GLEASON: Still, "Astral Weeks" inspires a profound feeling of freedom in Glen Hansard, singer of the rock band the Frames. He started out busking songs from the album on the streets of Dublin, and he distinctly remembers the first time he heard it.
Mr. GLEN HANSARD (Singer): And it made me realize that so much of what makes music great is courage. Up to that I thought that what made music great was practice and study. And I think "Astral Weeks" was the first album that I heard that introduced me to the idea of you just have to be good and then just go for it.
GLEASON: This album says there's more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply, with a greater sense of fear and desire than you ever imagined.
Veteran music writer Greil Marcus has listened to a lot of records. But he can confidently say he's listened to "Astral Weeks" more than any other.
Mr. GREIL MARCUS (Music Writer): You can hear these moments of invention and grasping for air. And you reach your hand and you close your fist and when you open your fist there's a butterfly in it. There really was something there, but you couldn't have seen it. You couldn't have known.
(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Thing")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) And I would raise my hand into the nighttime sky. And count the stars that shine in your eye. Not just to dig it all and not to wonder, that's just fine. And I'll be satisfied not to read in between the lines…
GLEASON: With a record as evocative as "Astral Weeks," there's a nagging desire to understand what in Morrison's life inspired it — to know where the songs come from, what they mean.
Mr. MORRISON: No, no, no, because it's not about me. It's totally fictional. These are short stories in musical form. Put together of composites, of conversations I heard, things I saw in movies, newspapers, books, whatever, and comes out as stories. That's it. There's no more.
(Soundbite of song, "Madame George")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) Down on Cypress Avenue with the child-like visions leaping into view. The clicking clacking of the high-heeled shoe, Ford and Fitzroy and Madame George…
GLEASON: Perhaps it's better that way — better that "Astral Weeks" is up for grabs, unburdened by biographical details, better that it remains what Greil Marcus calls a common language.
Mr. MARCUS: I was so shocked when I was teaching a seminar at Princeton just a couple of years ago, and out of 16 students, four of them, their favorite album was "Astral Weeks." Now, how did it enter their lives? We're talking about an album recorded well before they were born, and yet it spoke to them. They understood its language as soon as they heard it.
GLEASON: Despite the importance "Astral Weeks" continues to have for listeners, both young and old, its meaning to Morrison seems far different.
Mr. MORRISON: I don't know how I felt at the time 'cause it's a long time ago. But I felt it was a good piece of work and it was a good piece of music, and that's how I felt about it. I think.
GLEASON: Of course, for the people who love "Astral Weeks," none of this really matters. Morrison's relationship to the album has very little to do with their own.
For NPR News, I'm Josh Gleason.
(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")
Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) In another time, in another place, in another time, in another place, in another face.
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