march 2009

And Van Transcended…What?

By Christopher Hill

The songs of Astral Weeks are incantations and prayers from a man brought closer than he wants to be to the mysterium tremendum.

Van Morrison
Listen To The Lion Records

Let’s say David Lean is (was) your uncle. One afternoon he drops in on you with a funny look in his eye. He announces that he has decided to re-make Lawrence of Arabia because now he knows “how to do it right.” What to do? First, check the old guy’s meds and up them if necessary. Then, just try to gently distract him. But sometimes with these grande auteurs it’s not that easy.

Beware of aging artists when the itch seizes them to revisit one of their early works because now they know how to do it right.

Here are some words from recent interviews with Van Morrison about his decision to perform the entirety of his reputation-making 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, for the first time ever before a live audience, at the Hollywood Bowl on November 7 and 8, 2008, some 40 years after the release of the original.
About the original recording: "I didn't do exactly what I wanted to, because I didn't have the support, and I didn't have any money….I had bad management, a bad record company….Those sessions were produced by someone else, so it wasn't my musical vision; it was someone else's musical vision which didn't fit the material. So this (the live performance) was the first time I could address the material, working with people who had enough vision and could actually do it.”

About the new performances: "We did the songs and took them somewhere else. Transcended the originals… I could sort of do it the way I wanted to do it with the orchestration. Because like I said, originally, I couldn't afford the orchestration.”

And finally, about his motivation: “Why should all these other people be getting all this kind of mileage out of (the original recording)? I need to be doing this myself. ... For instance, there's been a lot of requests to use the material in movies, so if I can give them my version, my production, rather than Warner Brothers, then that's obviously better for me, you know?"

Well, there goes that cat, screeching from the bag.

I would contest just about every sentence of these remarks if I had world enough and time. But let me make a few points.

If he really thinks that Astral Weeks suffered because Warner Brothers wouldn’t buy him an orchestra, then he is seriously alienated from his own art. I know artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work, but this complicates any idea we might have about how Van Morrison sees his career. The Modern Jazz Quartet, who backed Morrison on the 1968 recording, were not suffering from a paucity of musicians. There were ideas at work, a positive vision of what they wanted to do, that was not dictated primarily by budget. And let me take leave to doubt that, of all artists, the 23-year-old Van Morison wanted a full string section and formal orchestration for his record. The musicians, the producer, and presumably Morrison, were going for an intimate sound for this most personal of records, a dreamlike jazz chamber orchestra, intimate enough to respond with astounding intuition to every shift of feeling from Morrison. An orchestra would have sunk the Astral Weeks sessions faster than the Andrea Doria.

It didn’t matter if he was on a tight budget. Lots of musicans have worked on tight budgets.

I mean, the man has spent his whole life in search of the transcendent and on this album, he got there. The songs of Astral Weeks are incantations and prayers from a man brought closer than he wants to be to the mysterium tremendum. The Holy Ghost howled through those sessions, and Van should be the first one to know it, or he’s not the man I took him for. I guess that’s the tragedy of the artist, that in a way you really don’t understand your work.

Another thing that makes remaking Astral Weeks 40 years later a bad idea is that very few pieces of rock and roll art are so rooted in what feels like a specific set of circumstances. What those circumstances were I can’t say with any certainty (though, like most Astral Weeks devotees, I’ve developed my own private narrative to link the songs together). But everyone who really knows this record knows that the singer is telling a story, a story that continues from song to song. A story in which you feel sure the man who sings the songs played a part, if not the central part. It’s a story (okay, here’s my two cents) whose central theme is loss and grief, a grief so irreconcilable with life so that it forces the narrator into an extreme state of consciousness, where pain opens the door to vision.

The reason that the music of Astral Weeks is so alive is that the whole thing trembles on the edge of the abyss. The central drama of the songs is will he make it back from this place he’s singing from, where the words themselves that he wants to express himself with shatter and stick in his throat? Well, the thing is—and you can’t fault Van for this—40 years later, we know how it ends. He lives. Takes some of the drama out of it.

Age may have given him some new insights into some of the songs, but the fact remains that the man who sang “Madame George” at the Hollywood Bowl is forty years away from the crisis that eventuated in Astral Weeks.

Astral Weeks is not “material.” The songs of Astral Weeks have never become standards in 40 years and there’s a reason why. Singers know that these are not quite songs, as self-contained units, they’re pieces of a rather fearful whole; and unless you can bring to them something more than singing, something more than “interpretation,” you’d best not try.

But to play Astral Weeks now says it’s just “material,” hardy perennials to be interpreted by whatever crackerjack set of sidemen you can assemble.

Given the inherent flaws in the idea, how does it sound? It sounds fine. Van is in great voice. He gives himself honestly to the songs. Though I’ve heard him sing with more passion, he seems freer than in his recent work, maybe relaxed by singing songs that are so beloved. He and this band, which includes original Astral Weeks guitarist Jay Berliner, manage to recapture something of Astral Week’s signature groove. Mostly the songs are respectfully allowed to speak for themselves. If it were possible to make these songs susceptible to interpretation, this band would do it.

Yet there is a certain flatness of spirit here. You reach the end of the record without feeling that anything of consequence has happened. You realize with a start what Astral Weeks could have become had it fallen into the wrong hands—the predecessor of a decade-long glut of confessional singer-songwriter records with cool L.A. jazz backing—in fact, a Joni Mitchell record. That’s a realization we could have done without. The emotional highpoints of Astral Weeks like “Madame George” or “Ballerina” have their highs and lows sheared off so that they come and go with you barely being aware of it. Much of Van’s musical soul comes through in the way he plays with words, working a phrase like a chant or mantra, to crack open the latent power in the language. On the original, “The love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves to love,” from “Madam George,” feels like Dante, like Van’s momentarily pulled aside the curtains of the universe. There’s not much of that on the new recording—only when he starts repeating “And again and again you fall” (again in “Madam George”) does it feel like anything momentous might be opening up.

Then there’s the attitude toward silence on this record. There’s not a lot of it. Van’s band tends to fall back on generic jazz-rock vamping when they’ve got spaces to fill. The original Astral Weeks musicians were never afraid of letting empty spaces just be. In fact, one of the things that paradoxically made the original Astral Weeks jump off the record was the profound silence that the disc contained, in the midst of the sustained roar of late ‘60s rock and roll.

Despite the powerful array of talent Van’s assembled here, the thread that held these songs in taut tension has been cut somewhere in the last forty years. In the original Astral Weeks, at the fadeout of “Cypress Avenue,” Van, the obsessed stalker trapped in his parked car on Cypress Avenue watching his love walk home from school, slips in the observation that she’s “so young and bold/Fourteen year old.” Yes, it’s startling, troubling, repellent. It’s also part of the truth of Astral Weeks, a rough edge that doesn’t make it into the new performance.

And then, at the end of the title song that invites us into this theater of sorrow and beauty, Van now appends a coda called “I Believe I’ve Transcended,” which consists, Van-like, of the title phrase repeated in a litany. Transcended what? Well, in the context of performing Astral Weeks, we can only assume he’s transcended something in or about this work. Does he mean that he’s transcended the darkness and the peril of The Astral Weeks vision? Then I’m really surprised and kind of sad because it means that after all these years of spiritual seeking, Van has missed a big lesson—even the 40-year-old lesson of Astral Weeks. You don’t transcend an experience like this. If you’re lucky you find a way to accept it and let it be part of you. It’s like a tree growing around a barbed wire fence—it eventually incorporates the barbed wire and grows around it—but the fence is always there. I’m not unsympathetic—everyone has things they wish they could transcend. It’s just that if Van thinks he’s transcended the Astral Weeks vision, maybe he should write a new piece of music about that, and not offer us Hamlet with a happy ending, Astral Weeks with a smile painted on.

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