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The Decline and Fall of Astral Weeks

How to explain the critical disgrace of George Ivan Morrison, aka Van the Man, aka the Belfast Cowboy and particularly of his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks? Poll after poll confirms that the reputation of Van Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness epic is in serious jeopardy. The NME, while no longer occupying the position it once held, as the leading music journal, is a useful barometer for measuring the album’s steep decline. In 1985, the authors of NME produced a list of the 100 greatest albums of all time. Morrison’s Astral Weeks was at No. 2, behind Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. In 1993, the NME repeated the exercise, this time Astral Weeks was ranked No. 15, Marvin Gaye had slipped to No. 4, while The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, ranked No. 20 in the previous poll, occupied the prestigious first place. In the 2003 survey, Astral Weeks had dropped to 83rd place! Pet Sounds held firm at No. 3, while What’s Going On had plunged to No. 27. The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut had, somewhat ridiculously, catapulted the band straight into the coveted No. 1 position.

By 2013, Astral Weeks had regained their position slightly, weighing just 68. The Roses had started to wilt and had fallen to No. 7, after being usurped by The Smiths (The Queen is Dead) and Marvin and The Beach Boys had become next. door neighbors at numbers 25 and 26. It wasn’t just the NME either, Q magazine’s 2006 poll placed Astral Weeks as low as 54.

Why all the fuss, I hear you ask? After all, declaring someone made the 54th greatest album of all time wouldn’t normally get them reaching for the dueling guns, would it? Well, that’s a bit like calling Pelé the 54th greatest footballer of all time or Orson Welles the 54th greatest Hollywood director; exception should, indeed, be taken. And what of Morrison’s sequel, 1970s Moondance, a gleefully romantic extravaganza, poles apart from the tortured soul of Astral Weeks, yes, but equally gorgeous? It’s like it never even existed!

This undeserved diminishment of Morrison’s legacy is evidenced, once again, in the treatment of him in Bob Stanley’s otherwise authoritative story of modern popular music, “Yeah Yeah Yeah.” While Stanley takes his hat off to Morrison for their role in the influential Sixties outfit, Them, calling them “the loudest, most restless band since Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio” and claiming that their song “Friday’s Child””virtually invented REM”, his later solo career is almost entirely dismissed. There is certainly no mention of Astral Weeks and oddly no mention either of Morrison’s best known composition, the acclaimed classic, “Brown Eyed Girl”.

The single, released in June 1967, reached a stratospheric level of popularity. It is one of ten songs recorded with the British music industry as having reached over 10,000 plays on American radio. As of 2015, “Brown Eyed Girl” remains the most downloaded and most played song of the entire 1960s decade! A glaring oversight on Mr Stanley’s part, then, but he almost saves the day with his excellent physical description of Morrison – “Their lead singer was Van Morrison, who had a blushing, spongy face and a mop of red hair”.

Of course, Van’s caused it to a large extent; he’s still here for one thing and about to turn 70. There was no “glamorous” rock ‘n’ roll death for the portly Protestant boy. He didn’t end up overdosing in a Parisian bathtub like his namesake Jim or disappearing into the snowy Iowa ether like Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Nor did he hang himself off the hanger of his mother, like the sick and discouraged wretch of Macclesfield, Ian Curtis. Not for him either, the life of a rock ‘n’ roll loner, like Syd Barrett or Grace Slick. If Van had really thought about it, he could have retired to Appalachia and become rock’s own JD Salinger, with Astral Weeks as his “Catcher in the Rye.” After all, he shared Salinger’s mystique and surly temper!

No doubt he’s dabbled in one weird religion too many, whining indulgently about sharp “music biz” practices once too often for his own good. In general, he overstayed his welcome, became the specter of the splendid feast of rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, he never had too many friends in the rock press, given his taste for reducing many to tears in no time! It may be a simple case of “revenge is best served cold”, but the critics were mean to him during the latter part of his career.

He fared better in the US, however, where his longtime champion, pioneering rock writer Greil Marcus, came to his defense again with 2010’s excellent book ‘Listening to Van Morrison’. . In the chapter devoted to Astral Weeks, he declares that the quality of the disc is such that it “leads people to take the album as a sort of talisman, to recognize others by the affection they have for it, to say “I’m going to my grave”. with her. I’ll never forget it.” Rolling Stone’s 2003 poll placed Astral Weeks just inside the top 20 at No. 19. Even the oft-overlooked Moondance, a record you might consider The Magnificent Ambersons to Astral Weeks’ Citizen Kane, made a rare appearance at No. 65. Incidentally, Pet Sounds and What’s Going On both charted in the US Top 10.

Ever since the ’90s, Van has continued to persevere, blindly following his rapidly retreating muse through all the twists and turns of popular music. Sadly, she led him down many dead ends of supper club soul, elevator jazz and Chelsea pensioner pop with depressing regularity. His last entirely satisfying album was 1990s Enlightenment, which boasted an outright soulful classic in “Real Real Gone,” a bizarre collaboration with Irish poet Paul Durcan on the utterly unique “The Days Before Rock.” ‘n’ Roll” and the title track itself, a richly witty number of the kind Morrison had laid down decades before. At this time, Van had some kind of ad hoc residence at the King’s Hotel, Newport, and it was not uncommon for him to play there two or three nights in a row. These were remarkable gigs, a far cry from the countless other times I’ve seen a half-hearted Van just do the moves in soulless venues. To see him winding up the clock at the King’s, there is no doubt that you were in the presence of genius.

The fire that once raged deep within him that made Astral Weeks such an incendiary record, that threatened, indeed, to burn down the Maritime Hotel, London’s R&B circuit and San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Club during its heyday, has long since been toned down. Each record seems to decrease the caption. He didn’t reinvent himself as a man of song and dance, à la Dylan, that’s true. Then again, he didn’t depreciate himself by advertising Victoria’s Secret Ladies underwear like Dylan did either. Van didn’t sell his soul, just his soulful music!

Sadly, there’s very little archival footage around Van taking on his legendary ’60s R&B combo, Them. A few mild-mannered studio performances of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and his all-time classic “Gloria,” which he wrote when he was 17, is about all he’s got. ‘There are. Therefore, we must rely on the script to prove what an emotionally charged performer the young Van Morrison was. Johnny Rogan’s definitive biography, No Surrender, details a number of incidents, particularly during the band’s residency at the Maritime Hotel. He also has an interesting account, however, of a Them concert on Boxing Day 1964 in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

“In Cookstown, waiting fans, eager to hear popular tunes of the day, were outraged when Them stubbornly ignored requests and persisted in playing R&B standards. A steady thud of slow handclaps greeted each number as Van prowled the stage apron, ogling menacingly at the onlookers. Morrison was often aggressive in his performances and became downright belligerent in the face of hostile audiences. As the show reached a tense climax and pennies began to land onstage, he yelled ‘Goodnight Pigs’ into the mic. The unrest quickly escalated into a near-riot with the group locked in their dressing room for four hours, as mobs ransacked the place.

It’s probably fair to say that a few moments like this, preserved on you tube, would have bolstered Van’s reputation with the teenagers who make up NME’s readers and writers today. Nevertheless, the rawness and venom of Morrison’s voice are still present on the vinyl. “Gloria” became a staple of many garage rock bands and, of course, appeared on punk poet Patti Smith’s seminal album, Horses, in 1975.

Time, of course, has taken its toll and Morrison’s voice these days is often referred to as “mouthful” or “bloated”, but for those looking for the vintage works of Them or, indeed, Astral Weeks himself- even, a different voice awaits. In his book, From a Whisper to a Scream (The Great Voices of Popular Music), Barney Hoskyns describes the voice of the Belfast Cowboy as “a sound both black and white, beautiful and barbaric, nostalgic and angry, which must be considered as the most thrilling punk-R&B voice of all time”.

Almost unclassifiable as a half-soul, half-folk, half-jazz record, Astral Weeks was clearly unparalleled when it was released in 1968, and it remains unparalleled almost fifty years later. Not only is Morrison a pure soul singer, with a shredded voice that can tear your heart out, but he also has the eye of a poet. Often he cannot quite express his desire, cannot bring his enchanted vision to the surface. Sometimes it falls back on repetition, as if retracting the words over and over somehow freezes them, sometimes it sings itself to the point of inanity (“Listen to the Lion”, “In the Garden and countless others) Rarely, however, in the history of rock ‘n’ roll has a singer sounded as bereft and brutalized as Morrison on the seemingly ecstatic “Beside You” as he frantically seeks redemption that could already be beyond him. Incredibly, he repeats this soul-sapping exorcism on the enigmatic “Madame George” and the excoriating “Ballerina” a few tracks later. And, I haven’t even mentioned the album’s best song, the revealing “Cypress Avenue” or perhaps its most romantic track, “Sweet Thing.”

Author and journalist, Paul Du Noyer, double-checking the following lines from “Sweet Thing” on a song lyrics site –

“And I’ll drive my chariot through your streets and I’ll shout: Hey! It’s me, I’m dynamite and I don’t know why”,

discovered that an avid reader had posted “I can’t wait for a boy to feel this for me”, directly below the couplet. Such is the power of a pop song, to blur the senses and make us all shudder!

One can only hope that in the future, a favorable wind will blow behind Morrison and that he will return to the safe harbor of critical acclaim. Until then, we can cling to Du Noyer’s words of consolation, as he presents Astral Weeks as a work of art that will truly stand the test of time, no matter the popularity contests –

“No one realized in 1968 how long this music would last, how many times it would be heard, and what weight of cultural commentary it would attract. What makes popular music special is not just the number of those who buy it, but the countless times they listen to it and define its meaning for themselves. Over the decades, so many lives have been repeatedly enriched by this masterpiece.”

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