Album #12: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

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.

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The wonderfulness of “Astral Weeks”

I was excited about the new live version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” until I saw this video of him mumbling through “Sweet Thing” at the Hollywood Bowl. The huge band he’s assembled is terrific. Morrison, not so much. Nor does this New York Times review hold out much hope.

Though I’m not a big Morrison fan and have never seen him live, I love “Astral Weeks.” As I suspect is the case with many people, I came to it well into adulthood — it was never on the radio, either then or now, and Morrison’s numerous top-40 hits didn’t appeal to me all that much. When I finally decided to find out why critics had been raving about it for all those years, I was mesmerized.

Last Friday I listened to it straight through while driving home, the first time I’d done that in a while. What a strange, wonderful piece of work. Morrison is at his peak, both in his singing and his writing. Is it possible that he was just 23 when he recorded it? I’d listen to it just for Richard Davis’ otherworldly bass-playing. Pressed to name a favorite song (not that these are really songs), I’d probably say “Cypress Avenue.” But that’s subject to change.

Trouble is, Morrison has had a reputation for years — maybe decades? — of indifference when it comes to performing live. Don Imus scored a rare interview with Morrison last week, but didn’t succeed in drawing him out of his shell. Far better is this NPR piece, broadcast on Saturday, on the significance of “Astral Weeks.”

Bob Dylan is often lumped with Morrison in delivering uninspired, even belligerently awful live performances. But when Dylan’s engaged, he is as compelling as he’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, check out this riveting video of Bob and the boys performing the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (Steve Greenlee will have to take my word for it, I guess.)

Does Morrison ever rise to such heights anymore? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that if you don’t have “Astral Weeks” in your collection, you should rectify that as quickly as possible. You will be entranced and amazed.