Van Morrison Revisits His 1968 Classic In 1968, Van Morrison released what would become a seminal recording in the history of popular music: Astral Weeks. It is Van Morrison's most praised album — although it was almost shelved by his record label. This year, he's performing every song from the album in select cities, and host Guy Raz caught up with him during his stop in Washington, D.C.
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Van Morrison Revisits His 1968 Classic

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Van Morrison Revisits His 1968 Classic

Van Morrison Revisits His 1968 Classic

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

Van Morrison's 1967 debut solo album spawned the hit song "Brown Eyed Girl." His record label wanted 12 more "Brown Eyed Girls" for Van Morrison's next record, but instead it got "Astral Weeks."

(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")

Mr. VAN MORRISON (Singer): (Singing) 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.

RAZ: "Astral Weeks" is considered one of the greatest achievements in pop music history. It sits high up on lists of the greatest records of all time, from Time magazine to Rolling Stone, equal parts folk melancholy, jazz improvisation, and moments of almost spiritual surges, and of course there's that voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) To be born again. From the far side of the ocean, if I put the wheels in motion.

RAZ: At the time of its release, though, "Astral Weeks" was almost totally ignored. The label wanted hit songs, not a work of genius that critics loved. It would take more than 30 years for the record to reach gold status.

Last year, Van Morrison reclaimed that record from its painful past and took it on the road.

(Soundbite of song, "Astral Weeks")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) To lay me down. In silence easy to be born again.

RAZ: This is from Van Morrison's performance of "Astral Weeks" at the Hollywood Bowl back in November. He played every song from the record before rapt audiences. The shows were so successful that he extended the tour to select cities in the U.S., including Washington, D.C.

I caught up with him at his hotel, while he was here this past week, and I asked him why he decided to perform the record now.

Mr. MORRISON: It had never been performed as a piece live, and also it was the least-performed songs in my repertoire because when it came, it was what they call in the music business in those days buried.

RAZ: Your record label didn't back this album at all.

Mr. MORRISON: No, they didn't. They - basically all they did was release it, but this was more like it was being suppressed rather than just not promoted. It was actually being suppressed. This was going towards the end of a long series of rip-offs. But that was kind of the ardor of the day then. For most people, you just got ripped off. That's the way it was, and it stayed that way for a long time, and you were kind of controlled by record company and management and producers, and they were telling you what to do, you know?

RAZ: And you had no choice because you were so…

Mr. MORRISON: Well, you had no choice because it was either that or, okay, what do we, do you want to go back to this? So it was, like, there probably was a choice, but we didn't know what it was at the time.

RAZ: So this is sort of an opportunity for you to do this on your terms.

Mr. MORRISON: Well, it was when we did at the Hollywood Bowl, and that was successful, and then we decided to do more because it was in demand. It had always been in demand, but it was something that I actually didn't want to do because of the bad experience of the situations I was in, business-wise, that I didn't really want to actually do this, but it kept coming up. People kept asking for it, and I'd just say no, we don't do that anymore, and over the years, this album kept coming up. So it was more like, all right, let's check this out. Let's, like, see what is actually there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) You can walk out now (Unintelligible) the rain. You can (unintelligible) the sun shines through the trees. You can walk out now on a frosty morning. You can walk out now when the snow is on the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

RAZ: You know, when you hear young musicians talk about the greatest records, the seminal albums, everyone from, as you know, Glen Hansard, the Irish singer, with The Frames, who performs "Astral Weeks," to actor Johnny Depp, so many people talked about how this record changed their lives. People must say that to you a lot, this record changed my life.

Mr. MORRISON: People have said that to me, yeah.

RAZ: What do you say? I mean…

Mr. MORRISON: Well, I don't know what to say because it didn't change my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So I don't know. I really don't know what to say.

RAZ: And you did it in three sessions.

Mr. MORRISON: Yeah, probably over a period of, like, three days, yeah. I mean, three or four days.

RAZ: What do you remember about that time?

Mr. MORRISON: Well, I just remember, like, I had to do this, and I needed to do it quick. Plus, I needed the advance. Then there was no follow-up, so it was basically, like, yeah, that was a great session. Everybody agreed it was the best thing since sliced cheese. But there was, like, there wasn't any follow-up. There was no money to put it on the road. And basically, it was just like, oh, yeah, well that was that, and so let's move on. So that's what I did, I moved on.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Thing")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) And I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry. Hey, it's me, I'm dynamite, and I don't know why. And you shall take me strongly in your arms again. And I will not remember that I even felt the pain.

RAZ: What do you make of the - sort of the mythology around this album? Is it…

Mr. MORRISON: Well, I don't know what to make of it because, like, it's, you know, it's like any kind of art form or painting or whatever. It's whatever it means to you, you know what I mean? I mean, if you want to project a certain meaning onto it, then that's up to the listener, really.

I think that that was part of also the culture at that time. And we're going back to the old chestnut again of, like, Rolling Stone Magazine, who I think probably invented the sort of mythology that we're talking about. So I don't know.

Rock in itself was a mythology and is a mythology. It's the most kind of pretentious area in music. I mean, for instance, it's got singers who don't really sing, lots of them. It's like, oh, they're really good because they're famous, so they must be good. Rock is - it's a brainwash. And I think it has been, and I think it still is, maybe not as much as it was then, but I think that's where your mythology goes back to.

RAZ: Do you listen to it yourself?

Mr. MORRISON: No, I hadn't listened to it because I blanked it for a long time, and I only listened to it probably last October, when I was getting ready to do the shows in Hollywood. I listened to it probably a couple of times a month before that because for reasons I've just said, it was suppressed in my memory. It was just gone. As far as I was concerned, it didn't exist.

RAZ: When you heard it last fall, did you think I would have changed that, or I would have done something different?

Mr. MORRISON: Well, I mean, obviously. I'm not this sort of 21 or 22-year-old guy, and you know, you move on. I mean, someone said to me, like a fan said to me, like, that, well, I've got a live album and a DVD, you know, and I like it. But yeah, but it's not the same. It's not going to be the same because, see, when you do a recording session, that is what happened that day or those days or that week, that's what happened. When you perform live, stuff changes, lyrics changes, sometimes parts get stretched out, sometimes they get abbreviated. Performing is always change.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

RAZ: What you hear in your live performances, and even on this album, "Astral Weeks," is this amazingly prolonged scats.

Mr. MORRISON: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: How do you get to that place? I mean, how do you improvise? Where do you find that sort of inner rhythm?

Mr. MORRISON: It's just, you know, sort of what jazz improvisers do.

RAZ: It's just intuitive?

Mr. MORRISON: Well, it's also technical because you have to know where you are because if you're stretching it out in terms of bars, you have to know where you are also. So it's technical in that way.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. MORRISON: Also, my father had a lot of books, as well, on jazz. And I - one of the first things I read that, like, that made sense to me was Louis Armstrong's you never sing a song the same way twice. So that's basically where I'm coming from is that, you know, jazz approach to singing and like you say, intuitive.

RAZ: You said earlier that performing this album now, it's a different sound than it was when you were in your 20s, but I've got to say, "The Way Young Lovers Do," you're sounding better on that track than maybe ever.

Mr. MORRISON: Thanks.

(Soundbite of song, "The Way Young Lovers Do")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) Walked through fields all wet with rain, back along the lane again, there in the sunshine in the summertime, the way that lovers do.

RAZ: Van Morrison is performing his classic album, "Astral Weeks," in selected cities in the U.S. We met at the Four Seasons Hotel here in Washington, D.C. Mr. Morrison, thank you so much.

Mr. MORRISON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "The Way Young Lovers Do")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) To feel the way that young lovers do.

RAZ: And Van Morrison's next performance of "Astral Weeks" will be at the end of next month in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of song, "The Way Young Lovers Do")

Mr. MORRISON: (Singing) Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way I was for, and you were for me. Then we left and danced the night away, turning to each other, say I love you, the way that young lovers do.

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