Van Morrison – 1968

My track of the day, “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison, needs little introduction. If, you’ve ever heard the album its off of, you’re more than likely already been shrouded with its all-encompassing feeling and uniqueness. No other folk song, or album, has ever had its kind of mystical worldliness. Most of us will probably never visit the Ireland that Van Morrison is iconizing, but we can hear and imagine the spiritual solipsism inherent in him, and that which he drew from his homeland. This song speaks to some kind of common folk language that transcends boundaries, and a music so deeply realized, that its creation was just a means to show different segments of a singular streaming thought, all of them intertwining towards the same folkloric vision directed to by Van.

Much has been written about the album’s creation. Many facts exist. One fact, that he was dead broke, having the money earned from his earlier hits “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” swindled away by a callous record label, Bang Records, is true. This fact set into motion what would lead to the creation of Astral Weeks. In 1968, he was nearly driven into destitution by the unscrupulous head of that same label, when she used her influence to either bar him from performing, or recording in any venue where she could and by blocking royalty payments owed to him. Things got so heavy that she tried to get him deported from the US. Only by Van marrying his American girlfriend did he avoid being sent back to Belfast.

Together with his new wife at hand, they went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This change of locale allowed him to explore his roots. Shifting from performing with an electric rock band, he’d attempt to use acoustic instruments as tools to improvise vocally and experiment with folk music. At that moment, he felt his previous label had wanted him to sing a certain way to keep a certain amount of control over him. Free from such restraints he could go wherever his mind took him.

No one outside a few clubs in Cambridge had heard the new, folk Van. A label head from Warner Brothers, had travelled down initially looking to hear the “Brown Eyed Girl” Van. What he heard, strummed through Van’s acoustic, was the first strums of “Astral Weeks”. By the time the song had finished, this same man, was crying, overcome by the sound he heard. This interaction spurred him to sign Van, untangle all his previous label problems, and make whatever Van had in mind work.

First, to free himself from a weird contractual obligation Van had with Bang Records he’d record around 36 “garbage” songs in an afternoon. With that done, Warner Bros. hooked Van up with some noted jazz musicians. These jazz musicians had no idea how Van wanted to sound like or what he wanted them to play. This is what would happen: Van would show up to the recording studio in New York, lay down his guitar track and some vocals, and quietly go home. If need be, he’d record his vocal separately in a booth while the other musicians would try to follow along. Van for some reason, would not provide them direction.

Led by bassist Richard Davis, who had recorded with visionary free-jazz artist Eric Dolphy, this group of extremely proficient jazz musicians was given free reigns, either by choice or happenstance to accompany Van’s skeletal folk tracks. Van appeared so introverted, that they would really attempt to feel what he was trying to capture than expect from him any kind of direction. Frequently, Davis’ groundbreaking upright bass work would point the way for the others in the group to follow. As much as he disapproved of this young man’s unprofessionalism, there was something special in his music.

Astral Weeks album cover.

In this track specifically, he is trying to symbolically wrap up what brought him some sense of home wherever that may be. Van said it was his way of stating that there was light at the end of the tunnel. In a way, as the track combines folk, jazz, electric, blues, aged and modern music you get a sense of what he’s talking about. For him, it was carrying around a poster of Leadbelly wherever he had to call home. Symbolically, it meant much more than that.

As a young man growing up in Ireland he had the luck of growing up in a family the inculcated in him a deep love of American blues and soul music. What brought him some semblance of peace was hearing those older, foreign records that informed his thoughts and music. Now thrust to make a statement showing his musical rebirth, he just went ahead and reiterated something profound about life, its one true truth: uncertainty. You’re born and you live, those are certain things, but you can’t plan what goes on from both of those points. In a way that’s freedom. For Astral Weeks, he wasn’t certain that he had a sound in mind, he just wanted one to be born, and go flow naturally.

Recorded in one take, there’s something about this type of musicality, that speaks about the immigrant experience. Can’t you hear it in the way these musicians who had no background in folk music found a way to make one the best folk albums ever? They had to venture somewhere unknown and lay some sonic roots in a foreign place. Rather than get rid of their own traditions they combined theirs with some communal lineage they could share with Van. They faced an uncertain path, and rather than deviate, they calmly kept going forward together. You might not quite know each other’s “language”, but you know you want find some place together to call home. In doing so, they created another column expanding a new Britannic folk musical style that was the fruit born of their labor.

Myself, when I hear this song it transports me to known places that feel uplifting and free. Sometimes, when life affords you the luxury, you can catch yourself playing this song in places that trigger some kind of hazy memory of that perfect time this song struck you deep down the first time, truly, with its genius. Then, when you’re there, can’t you just picture those open green hills and the crumbled Hadrian Walls of Van’s Caledonia? It seems, that sometimes the farther you are from home the more vivid your remembrance of some semblance of it is, wherever and however that may be, more of that tomorrow though…

bonus track time, my personal favorite, the beyond gorgeous Sweet Thing, which reminds me of Mexico’s Jarocho folk

and the equally joyous Ballerina…

don’t all of these songs still sound so fresh after all these years?