This week, Van Morrison released Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a recording that captures a couple of shows from November in which the singer performed his classic album in its entirety for the first time ever. Originally released in 1968, Astral Weeks has routinely been named in music polls as one of the best records of all time.
When Joe Levy, 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 records in the original Rolling Stone Record Guide. Astral Weeks was one of them, so he bought it. For his first listen, he says he decided to bring it to the band room at his high school, where there was a massive stereo.
"The thing was huge," Levy says. "And I thought, 'Big speakers, new record. This will be great.' The music was unusual — not what I was used to. And not what I was expecting.
"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."
Levy says he 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 it wasn't long before long Astral Weeks got to him.
"What I loved out of a Rolling Stones song, or even a Bruce Springsteen song, was how tightly constructed they were," Levy says. "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."
The songs on Astral Weeks were a far cry from the blissful pop of the hit single "Brown Eyed Girl," which had been released the previous year. Astral Weeks was spare, sprawling and lyrically demanding. Still, to hear Morrison tell it, the final outcome wasn't necessarily the result of some inspired vision.
"I wanted to do it around the singing, and it had to be kind of jazzy, because that's the way I'm singing it," Morrison says.
Morrison took the unorthodox step of bringing in a cast of accomplished jazz musicians to play on what was ostensibly a pop record — 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 important, Morrison gave his session players a tremendous amount of creative freedom.
"The approach was spontaneity," Morrison says. "That was the whole point of having this particular group of people. That was that performance on those days."
The album's sound engineer, Brooks Arthur, says it was clear from very early on that this was going to be a memorable recording. He recalls feeling lucky just to have his hands on the mixing board.
"This is not an exaggeration," Arthur says. "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."
Morrison's own recollections are not nearly as vivid.
"You have to understand something," he says. "A lot of this ... there was no choice. 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. I did what I had to do."
Still, Astral Weeks inspires a profound feeling of freedom. Glen Hansard, singer of the rock band The Frames, got his start performing songs from Astral Weeks on the streets of Dublin. He says that the feeling of freedom in particular is what captivated him when he first started listening to the record.
"It made me realize that so much of what makes music great is courage, and up to that, what I thought made music great was practice and study," Hansard says. "I think Astral Weeks was the first album that I'd heard that introduced me to the idea of, 'You just have to be good and just go for it.'
"This album says there's more to life than you thought," Hansard says. "Life can be lived more deeply, with a greater sense of fear and horror 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.
"You can hear these moments of invention and gasping for air, and you reach your hand and you close your fist and when you open your fist there's a butterfly in it," Marcus says. "There really was something there, but you couldn't have seen it. You couldn't have known."
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.
"It's not about me," Morrison says. "It's totally fictional. It's put together of composites, of conversations I heard — you know, things I saw in movies, newspapers, books, whatever. It comes out as stories. That's it. There's no more."
A New Audience
Perhaps it's better that way — better that Astral Weeks remains up for grabs, unburdened by biographical details. It's better that it remains what Greil Marcus calls a common language.
"I was so shocked when I was teaching a seminar at Princeton just a couple years ago, and out of 16 students, four of them said their favorite album was Astral Weeks," Marcus says. "Now, how did it enter their lives? We're talking about an album that was recorded well before they were born, and yet it spoke to them. They understood its language as soon as they heard it."
Despite the importance Astral Weeks continues to have for listeners, both young and old, its meaning to Morrison is far different. For him, it's as if it's just another record in a long career.
"I don't know how I felt at the time ... 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," Morrison says.
Of course, for the people who love Astral Weeks, none of this really matters. Morrison's relationship to the album has little to do with their own.