I’ve been meaning to send this article by Dominic Green along. I didn’t mean to put in my 2 cents and then some, but that’s what happened.
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was conceived in the spring in Boston 50 years ago, and recorded that autumn in New York in 2 sessions!. I stumbled upon Dominic Green one night and proceeded to read about 7 or 8 of his pieces – interesting feller.
There was a cultish scene in Boston, Green reports, in 68 around a guy named Mel Lyman. I read about him and his scene in Crawdaddy Magazine. I don’t remember the details but I recall feeling disturbed by it and learning that the Jim Kweskin Jug Band was associated with him. In fact he was in the band, as were the Muldaur’s Geoff and Maria. I had thought jug band music, as the Spoonful declared, was the cure, not the disease: “and the doctor said give him jug band music it seems to make him feel just fine.” Crawdaddy was America’s first rock magazine.
Mentioned herein is Morrison’s rough time with the mob. Big Time Operators from 1993’s Too Long in Exile chronicles that experience.
And from the darkly incandescent Astral Weeks: Beside You
Green says Astral Weeks is the greatest pop album ever. Don’t know about that but it’s up there… I haven’t read yet the book under discussion, Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks, but it’s on my list.
I used to play the album a lot . As hard as it might be to imagine, for a woman of her background and generation, unless you knew that is, of the kind of ear and sensitivity she had for music and for art generally, my mother liked it too. She said Morrison sounded, with all his whirls, and as I assume she perceived, his high sense of drama and tragedy – like an opera singer. – She didn’t actually say whirls or whorls, but something like it. – She also remarked on the flowing melodicism of the guitars and voices of Younger than Yesterday, and once was literally taken aback by the riveting story telling ability of John Prine. She had been walking about attending to various chores and such when she suddenly sat down to better focus on the Prine performance I was watching and she overhearing – apparently with gathering interest.
Who knows, if she had been of our generation she might have sung in a folk or folk rock group.
OK, a quick stab: what does Astral Weeks mean? what’s it about? Best answer is we don’t quite know and even if we do in part, we also know or should, that we can’t fix the meaning of a true work of art. And Astral Weeks is a true work of art. As Dylan said, we should not attempt with dreams and poetry to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one what means. But generally, broadly, Astral Weeks is about being young and remembering and grappling as a young man, with the ancient mysterious world of childhood. It’s about being very young but feeling old, ancient in fact, almost timeless, almost lost in this world, and almost finding the way again in deepest memory . And it’s about always searching, remembering, feeling. Dreaming, of infinite love, infinite tenderness, dreaming and remembering with sadness and longing, beneath the halo of a street lamp, in Belfast, in Brooklyn or some other haloed/hallowed world, be it beneath the hallowed stars or floating on the holy river… All seen from the illuminated vantage of childhood, from that mysterious village at the edge of eternity which is childhood, which leads or might, to the adult realization, re realization, recollection, that our deepest longings – if we can even recall them – can only be realized by God – not nature, which is finite and contingent – but by and in the infinite God, the very infinite non contingent, self subsisting, source of those longings.
We possess irremediable desire for infinite and perfect truth, perfect beauty, perfect justice, perfect love, but as currently constituted, we and the world are finite and passing, which is why we are too long in exile and why there ain’t but one way out. It’s as simple as that. And yes Virginia there is a God.
Songs of innocence: Beside You; songs of experience: Slim Slow Slider.
Hmm a longer version with a revealing sung coda. First time I’ve heard it.
There is something true about Astral Weeks for all of us, whether we know it or not, or acknowledge it or not, and that includes Van Morrison – in the Green article he quotes Van saying that the album was written by a different person in another place and time. That’s not right! He’s the same person if differently situated, there’s transformation but within an essential continuity … And the biggest truth which all the smaller, contingent truths point to, is as Augustine says, that we are restless Lord till we rest in thee .
Morrison I’ve read, grew up as an evangelical protestant. I have no idea what he believes now – if anything. The man’s a bundle of intuitions, many profound, but he seems to lack any intellectual thrust and push. The mind and it’s right operations can get us a lot further along the way than the inarticulate speech of the heart he extols – to put a spin on Pascal – even knows – though in the end it is true, that love is all.
Pietism, faith alone, even Van’s funky faith, is not enough, at least for the believing community as a whole if not all its individuals.
For instance, via logos, we can prove by intellectual demonstration that God exists. The sceptical modes of argumentation that say we can’t, founder on their own performative contradictions, By their very deployment they undermine themselves and in very short order. Hume for one, an Anglophile favorite, says we can’t prove a first cause (God) but he also says that we can’t prove any cause, even the simplest, most embedded, most commonsensicle sorts commonly used to express universally observed reality . So he undermines, if taken strictly, not only all science, but more importantly, all causalities, and all explanatory endeavors, including the mental or intellectual causality of the very argument he is attempting to make. Similarly, Kant says we can’t know first causes but his epistemology declares that we can’t even ever know the thing in itself (the real). But if we can’t know the real, or the true, how then can we know that Kant’s presumably true dictums, about causality, about God, about anything, are themselves true? His statements about reality, purport to be true, but if we cannot really know truth, that danged, thing in itself, what pray tell, is the basis for his declaration? And for those extreme materialists who claim that the laws of physics are all, and that not only is God’s existence unprovable, but that he doesn’t even exist, what ever is the point of their arguments and books and such if in fact there can be no independent of physical reality arguments to be had?; if in fact, as their view strongly implies, that there is no mind, no logos – but just atoms and stuff – and hence no logically determined argument, and indeed no logically, non physically, determined or conditioned realms of discourse and being. And what then to make of a realm of thought that denies thought itself in its essence, and thus denies it’s own very validity, it’s very reality – thereby making itself utterly incomprehensible?? The word absurd suggests itself. And what kind of bizarre, absurd, incoherent, self negating, mind negating, self blinded, world do these folk inhabit anyway? As Lennon once said – unless drugged by their own ignorance and vanity, – how can they sleep?
We are a unity, a wholeness, though fractured by sin, of heart and mind, body and soul. The attempts to deny that unity, or any aspect of that unity – physics independent mental processes say – are and quite literally, insane.
glory be to him
Anyway here’s the article:
‘And this is good old Boston/, The home of the bean and the cod,’ John Collins Bossidy quipped in 1910, ‘Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots/, And the Cabots talk only to God.’ Also home, in 1968, to Mel Lyman, a folk musician turned LSD guru who believed he was God, and to Van Morrison.
The music business abounds with stories about Morrison being grumpy. In my experience, he’s perfectly reasonable. You’d be grumpy if your job obliged you to consort with thieves, liars and drummers who can’t keep time. You’d be especially irritated by people asking how you wrote Astral Weeks. Sensibly, Morrison explains that Astral Weeks was written by a different person living, as its title song says, ‘In another time/ In another place.’
That time was 1968, the place Cambridge, Boston’s university town. The circumstances were that Morrison and his girlfriend Janet Planet had decamped from New York following contractual difficulties involving the breaking of an acoustic guitar over Morrison’s head and the peppering of his hotel room door with bullets. In December 1967, Morrison’s producer, the Mob-friendly Bert Berns, had died of a heart attack. Morrison’s contract passed to Carmine ‘Wassel’ DeNoia, an associate of the Genovese crime family.
Morrison had split from Them and scored a solo hit with ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’ but he had visa troubles as well as business problems. The record labels were chasing psychedelic rock — heavy metal was slouching towards Donington — but Morrison was writing jazzy acoustic songs: ‘I’m nothing but a stranger in this world/Got a home on high.’
Cambridge is now a placid university town and hi-tech hub. In 1968, the whole of Boston seems to have been ankle-deep in LSD. The ‘secret history’ exhumed by Ryan H. Walsh is a forgotten freak scene. Researching this book, Walsh found himself inhabiting ‘an upside-down, hallucinogenic version of the metropolis’ he knows. Beacon Street, once a Jamesian parade of redbrick townhouses and now expensively dull, was a student ghetto. Roxbury, now a gentrified inner suburb, was so decayed that Mel Lyman’s acid-addled followers were able to buy up a whole street.
Lyman locked troublemakers in the basement and reprogrammed them with ‘guided’ LSD trips, but he never went the full Charles Manson. There was no killing spree, only a free sheet called Avatarand a music venue called the Boston Tea Party. The Velvet Underground became regulars.
In Cambridge, Morrison assembled a small acoustic group and created the template for Astral Weeks; his flautist, John Payne, was related to Robert Lowell. MGM tried to capitalise on the scene by hyping a ‘Boston Sound’. Walsh, tracking down a live tape from 1968, confirms that Astral Weeks was the real Boston Sound.
The 1960s were what Gershom Scholem would have called a ‘plastic hour’ in American history. The talking-to-God weirdness crystallised in California, but the countercultural reaction had begun in Boston in the days of the Cabots and Lowells. As Henry James’s satire of the table-tapping utopianism in The Bostonians suggests, Brahminic Boston pioneered ‘self-actualisation’. The first yoga studio in America was in Cambridge; William James discusses its teacher, the Hindu nationalist Swami Vivekananda, in Varieties of Religious Experience.
The local Blavatskyites identified Vivekananda’s akasha with their ‘astral plane’. Walsh notes Morrison’s interest in the third-generation Theosophist Alice Bailey, who inspired another record that broke the Pop mould, the Velvets’ White Light /White Heat. Has the protagonist of ‘Astral Weeks’, a dreamer recollecting experience in innocence, caught a whiff of Boston occultism?
Another time, another place: the real magic happened in New York. Joe Smith, the Warners executive who had signed the Grateful Dead, heard Morrison’s demos. He sprung Morrison from his contract by handing $20,000 in cash to some Italian American music lovers in an abandoned warehouse. In three sessions in October 1968, Morrison recorded a masterpiece, using hired New York jazzers and his Cambridge flautist, John Payne.
Walsh leads the Boston band Hallelujah the Hills. He has written a splendidly half-cracked cultural history, free of theoretical frottage and vivid with psychedelic colour. Great music speaks for itself, but Walsh’s findings confirm that Morrison was just passing through, nothing but a stranger in tripped-out Cambridge. It makes sense. Astral Weeks, the vinyl image of that plastic hour, is Pop’s greatest record because it isn’t Pop at all.
July 5 2018