In the annals of rock music albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of a kind. In an earthy medium, it’s a masterpiece of abstraction. Indecipherable. Irresistible. Influential. Accidental, it seemed, from the first licks in a Boston studio, in the crisis year of 1968. It comes back 50 years later from an imagination beyond time or place: murky fables of love confronting death, lyrics unlinked from the riotous news of its day. Built on misty memories of Belfast, Van Morrison’s home town in Northern Ireland, Astral Weeks was one 23-year-old castaway’s field day with jazz men, a brave stab at a soulful pop hit. It rings today with the authority of high art and the passions that make music.
The making of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album is the story of a mystical document from the realm of the miraculous. Van Morrison was a young Irishman on the loose and impatient in Boston and Cambridge 50 years ago. He had the full catalog of Irish tenors and black American blues singers in his head, John McCormack to Lead Belly. Then suddenly in March, 1968, he was live in a studio, not with a band really but with jazz players who barely knew one another, or their leader. Morrison had no tunes or harmonies written down, no instructions for his players. But then “a cloud came along,” said the recording engineer, “and we all hopped on… and we landed when it was done.” This is a cult classic of art being born, or made, when nobody knew quite what was happening. The story is wonderfully retold in book form, with a Boston accent, by the writer Ryan Walsh
Ryan Walsh—author of the new book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968—got hooked on Van Morrison’s poetry, then his chords, then the puzzle of why he couldn’t stop listening. This winter, he took us on a tour of Morrison’s Boston. We began at Ace Recording Studios, just off Boston Common on Boylston Place, were the birthpangs of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks were first heard in demo form.
John Payne was one of the sidemen on Astral Weeks—the flute player who’d just dropped out of Harvard in 1968. He brought his flute and soprano sax over and shared his memories of playing with Van. In the decades since, he’s been a band leader and sideman for many headlining acts, including Bonnie Raitt and Phoebe Snow. Today, he’s a music teacher in Boston—you can find his own John Payne Music Center in Brookline Village, where he teaches the rising generation of horn players.
The late Lester Bangs was a champion of underdogs in the music market. He established himself as the soul of rock criticism with a essay on Van Morrison that sounds a bit like Harold Bloom on Shakespeare. The actor Erik Jensen, who plays Lester Bangs in a one-man show off Broadway, gave us the force of Bangs’s appreciation:
The Irish poet Paul Muldoon is also a lifelong fan of Astral Weeks. He grew up in the decade after Van Morrison, on the streets of Belfast that turn up in the lyrics of Morrison’s “Madame George”.