The earthly days of 'Astral Weeks'

With a two-night Bowl stand next week, Van Morrison discusses the 'poetry and mythical musings' of a classic.

November 01, 2008|Randy Lewis | Lewis is a Times staff writer.
  • Van Morrison was ?broke and depressed? in 1968.
Van Morrison was ?broke and depressed? in 1968. (Daniel Cardona / Reuters )

If necessity is the mother of invention, it might follow that desperation is the father of inspiration. That was certainly the case 40 years ago, when Belfast-bred blue-eyed soul singer Van Morrison found himself broke and stranded on the East Coast despite coming off his first hit as a solo artist, the Top 10 single "Brown Eyed Girl."

"I call that 'The Money Song' -- because they got all the money, and I got none," Morrison, 63, told The Times recently from his home in Northern Ireland in a rare interview. "I was broke and depressed and remained that way for many years after that, and I just decided to make a stand for myself and do things my way, not theirs."

The result of doing things his way was "Astral Weeks," Morrison's widely revered 1968 release. Four decades later it is regularly cited as one of the greatest albums of the rock era, though it never sold enough copies to show up on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart.

So, despite the awe the album inspired among music aficionados for its remarkable depth -- Morrison was only 22 when he made it -- he was never able to go on tour and play the songs live the way he wanted. He'll realize that long-standing wish on Friday and next Saturday when he performs "Astral Weeks" live in its entirety over two nights at the Hollywood Bowl backed by an orchestra and two of the key musicians, bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, who accompanied him so many years ago.

"I am not 'revisiting' it really, as this is a totally different project," Morrison said, responding by e-mail so he could consider each question put to him. "I had always wanted to do these songs fully orchestrated and live, [but] I never got around to it. Then I thought, well, we have lost the great [drummer] Connie Kay already and Larry Fallon the original arranger, so I thought I should probably get to it now."

He plans to record the Bowl concerts and release them on his own label on vinyl, CD and DVD around the first of the year. Despite its vast size, seating almost 18,000 -- he's usually played indoor theaters with anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 seats on recent U.S. tours -- the Bowl appealed to Morrison for this event "because it is outdoors and live sound dynamics can be interesting outdoors in the cool fall breeze. And the Hollywood Bowl has a lot of interesting history."

KCRW-FM (89.9) will have its inaugural international live webcast from Friday's show, the first time Morrison has ever allowed one of his shows to be broadcast live.

"They are timeless works that were from another sort of place -- not what is at all obvious," he said of the songs on "Astral Weeks." "They are poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination. The songs are poetic stories, so the meaning is the same as always -- timeless and unchanging. The songs are works of fiction that will inherently have a different meaning for different people. People take from it whatever their disposition to take from it is."

In the intervening years, Morrison crafted an astoundingly rich body of work. It encompasses some of the catchiest singles of the rock era ("Moondance," "Domino," "Wild Night," "Jackie Wilson Said," "Bright Side of the Road") as well as some of its deepest musical and spiritual pilgrimages ("Listen to the Lion," "In the Garden," "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God"). Like Bob Dylan, he's periodically delved into the various strains that have most influenced him: British skiffle, American country music, blues and jazz. Inevitably he finds his way back to his signature amalgam of soul, rock, R&B and Celtic folk.


A seminal album

"Astral Weeks" revealed further-flung connections with the free-form song structures of medieval balladry and postwar jazz. In fact, it is one of the earliest albums from a rock-era musician to draw on jazz in a big way. The arrangements featured earthy upright bass, yearning fiddle, gentle flute, colorfulpercolating harpsichord and insistent acoustic guitar, with occasional overdubbed string and horn accents. Morrison's youthfully pliant, athletic voice could have induced a pang of jealousy in Ray Charles.

With him in that studio were Davis, already a repeat winner of Downbeat magazine's jazz bassist of the year title, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Kay (who played on many of Charles' recordings in the 1950s) and guitarist Berliner, one of Charles Mingus' associates. Impressive company for a musician most fans knew only as the voice of British Invasion band Them ("Here Comes the Night," "Gloria").

"I think I have probably always been more advanced in my head, in my thinking" Morrison responded. "My thinking musically has always been more advanced. It is difficult to get it down onto paper sometimes, even now. The music on 'Astral Weeks' required these great musicians because no one else could have pulled it off like they did. They were the ones I insisted on."

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