As far as I was concerned, Van Morrison was just a voice on the radio. I liked some of his stuff, not all of it. I wasn’t motivated to buy any of his albums. If I had to describe him, I’d have said he was, well, OK.
But I’d heard about an album he’d made near the beginning of his career that never got played on the radio and that supposedly established him as a genius on the order of Bob Dylan or the Beatles. So on the same day in 1990 that I was picking up Tom Waits’ “Franks Wild Years” in the used-CD bin at Tower Records, I decided to take a chance on Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.”
Released in 1968, “Astral Weeks” is mostly acoustic jazz/folk/rock with a first-rate band anchored by the bassist Richard Davis. It is an intensely spiritual record, explicitly on the title track, implicitly on the rest. The melodies are simple and repetitive, giving Morrison’s singing — improvisational and heartfelt — plenty room to stretch out. Morrison supposedly didn’t like the strings that were added later, but I disagree.
I’m nothing but a stranger in this world
I got a home on high
In another land
So far away
So far away
Way up in the heaven
The most fully realized songs on “Astral Weeks” are the title track, “Cypress Avenue” and “Madame George,” which transport you — as Morrison sings — to “another time, in another place.” Overall, “Astral Weeks” is so much better than anything else Morrison recorded that you are left in awe, wondering where it came from. And we’re talking about a musician who’s recorded many fine albums over the years.
There’s a wild backstory to it as well. Morrison wrote and rehearsed much of the album while in Cambridge and Boston while in hiding amid a nasty dispute over the rights to his recordings following his big 1967 hit, “Brown Eyed Girl.” Ryan Hamilton Walsh wrote it up for Boston magazine in 2015; he later expanded it into a book.
“Astral Weeks” is a gift from above.