Sunday, 8 September 2019

Van Music for Choirs?



Here’s an article by Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun in 1992.


When Van Morrison was an orange-haired lad of 18, he punched out one of the era’s biggest pop hits, Gloria, with an Irish band called Them, thus helping to lead the British rock invasion. More than two decades later, Van (The Man) Morrison has proven his staying power, turning out albums that consistently make the charts. He’s won a bunch of Grammy awards and appeared on stage with performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Lee Hooker and Neil Diamond.


Despite his spiritual inclinations, Morrison is not the kind of guy you’d expect to hear in a church. But an innovative little congregation on Quadra Island that doesn’t chain itself to tradition recently made Morrison the focus of an entire service. Quadra Island United, a tiny, picturesque sanctuary on an Indian reserve, follows the beat of a different drum. Where most churches place crosses behind the altar, it commissioned a carving of two salmon, created by Bill Reid, the great Haida sculptor. The blue stained-glass window features fishboats, illustrating both Christian themes and the working lives of the people.


Financially, the church has always struggled. And a few years ago a budget crunch forced the congregation to say goodbye to its minister. A handful of dedicated church members took over, organising a monthly service. Juaneva Smith, a kindergarten teacher, helped out. And she’d always thought it would be inspiring to create a service based on the religious explorations of Morrison’s songs. It seemed like a natural. It turned out to be a spiritual hit. Would that it were the beginning of a trend.


Morrison was born into a Jehovah’s Witness family. But his spiritual journey took him far afield. He studied Eastern, European and romantic philosophy, practised meditation and spent a brief time examining Scientology. All the while, he considered himself a Christian.

“I’m into all of it, orthodox or otherwise. I don’t accept or reject any of it. I’m not searching for anything in particular. I’m just groping in the dark for a bit more light,” the reclusive composer said in a rare interview, one of several which Smith unearthed for her service.


Morrison sounds like many spiritual people in this pluralistic age. “His entire catalogue of songs,” said one music analyst, “represents a creative struggle to unite many different influences: the mythical world of his Celtic ancestors; the inherent beauty of nature; the expressive musical freedom of jazz, blues and soul music; the inspiration of the great visionary poets and the intimate truths hidden in the teachings of the Christian mystery schools.”


Unlike the Paula Abduls, George Michaels and MC Hammers of music, Morrison has long been admired by music critics for standing outside the mass-market pop scene, treating it with sublime indifference. “His passion for music and his bemusement with the contradictions inherent in being famous,” one music critic said, “have led him to deeply question many of the underlying attitudes of our age.”

Morrison wonders why most musicians fail to explore the spiritual. “Contemporary musicians never seemed to attempt to communicate on that deeper level,” he has said. “Maybe gospel music does, but most musicians are very egocentric. You know – stars. I had to dig my way out of all that and get into real forms of music.”


The mystically coloured poetry of Wordsworth, Yeats and Blake touched him deeply. “Blake was a big one. He seemed to perceive, in a direct way, some form of reality outside the ordinary one. He could put the indescribable into words.”

While most musicians desperately look for high-powered agents and catchy musical hooks to claw their way into the top 40, Smith told the congregation that Morrison searches for transcendence while creating music, a process in which Morrison says he tries not to think, but lets himself go.


“Transcendent can mean a number of things really, but in my case it’s where you switch off the mechanism, switch off what’s referred to as the constant voice. That’s what meditation is supposed to do – turn off the constant voice, all those thoughts you have. The refrigerator hum. Did I leave the lights on? What about my tax problems? When you switch off that, that’s what I mean by transcendence.”


Music is Morrison’s form of prayer, of shared devotion. Boldly setting himself apart from most pop entertainers, Morrison has said his music is “not meant to be exciting. It’s not meant to be rock and roll. It’s meant to be a meditative experience.” Between playing recordings of Morrison’s songs for the Quadra Island congregation, Smith talked about how she cherished Morrison’s healing blend of biblical images, unashamed spirituality and “celebration of the sacred in a culture which ignores and dishonours it.”


Although Morrison considers himself a Christian, many churches might not judge his music appropriate. Some aren’t comfortable with a person whose religious quest seems so open-ended. But Morrison’s work seems to be stating the obvious: spiritual journeys never end. Although there is beauty in some centuries-old hymns, their often-dour tones and authoritarian lyrics can be a turn-off to those both inside and outside the church. Many congregations have already grown weary of most standard hymn books and look elsewhere for musical inspiration.


Morrison isn’t the only name artist whose tunes could be adapted by choirs. Dylan, U2, Sting, Bruce Cockburn, Sam Phillips, T-Bone Burnett, John Lennon, the Neville Brothers, John Hiatt, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Hank Williams have all put out songs that lean heavily on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Church people, and anyone else, searching for new musical ways to express spirituality are on a worth-while mission. Why restrict them?

Church-music directors of the world: Let yourself go.

Reader Comments

Diotima   -   One thing I’d love to find out is, in Van Morrison’s darkest moments, what pulled him through? I have a feeling that his hesitancy to express his faith with conviction is a way of aesthetically distancing himself from religious/political circles. Yes, I’d love to know, in his darkest hours, what it was that spoke to him. What pulled him through? I think what makes him brilliant is that he doesn’t name it. Into the Mystic is a song that encompasses all forms of religion/spirituality. And for that it is truly brilliant.

Jonn Mick   -   VAN MORRISON is a genuine musician right from GLORIA all the way through to today. One of my favourites. I listen to him in my own church almost daily. He’s the only hippie musician I never tire of. All the rest of ’em have gone by the board in my opinion. But Sam’s right. Van Morrison was never a star live performer. But I prefer to hear music rather than see music. I wish Van Morrison a long musical life.


Sam Lockhart   -   I have come out of The Search retirement in the interests of issuing a Word of Caution to fans of the Van Man. Enjoy him off Astral Weeks and Into The Mystic. But do NOT — I repeat, do NOT — spend hard-earned after-tax dollars to see him “live”. I put the word in quotes because of his show a year or so back at The Garage. His performance range now spans the gamut from moribund to comatose. Try to imagine Gloria or Bright Side of the Road sung an octave lower than the original. OMG. Now in his 65th year, no question the Van Man is an icon who deserves musical apotheosis. But do NOT — I repeat, do NOT — spend hard-earned after-tax dollars to see him “live”. You have way better ways to blow $150 (per ticket) than to see such disappointment.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Who Was Poor Old Johnnie Ray?


Here's a great post on the Chimes of Freedom blog


Poor old Johnnie Ray,
Sounded sad upon the radio;
He moved a million hearts in Mono.
Our mothers cried;
Sang along, who’d blame them.

The opening of the 1982 hit song Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners mentions a person named Johnnie Ray. So does the first line of Billy Joel’s 1989 song We Didn’t Start the Fire (Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray).

In each of the songs, the songwriters refer to Johnnie Ray in the context of remembering their childhoods. During the period they evoke, Johnnie Ray was a big star. But by the 1980s, when these songs were released, and today, many ask, “Who was poor old Johnnie Ray?”

Who was Johnnie RayJohnnie Ray, who passed away on February 24, 1990, was born in Oregon on January 10, 1927. He rose to stardom as a singer in the early 1950s. Some, like Tony Bennett, have credited Ray’s work to being an important precursor to rock and roll. One of Ray’s biggest hits was Cry.


Bob Dylan once noted that Ray was the “first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with.”  Ringo Starr explained that in the early days, he and the other Beatles listened to “Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnnie Ray.” The Rolling Stones’s Bill Wyman, among others, has commented how Ray opened up his ears even before Elvis Presley began recording.


And when Elvis Presley got out of the army, he covered a song he knew from Ray, Such a Night. Elvis’s version appeared on his 1960 album Elvis is Back.  
But as rock and roll took off in the late 1950s, Ray’s popularity declined in the U.S. even as he remained popular in other countries. Ray never disappeared and continued to perform until 1989.

Ray even had some fun with Presley’s music in the following comedy bit, where Ray explains he is not declaring war with Elvis. The clip is from a 1957 live episode of the CBS variety show Shower of Stars.


Ray had a great voice and made some wonderful music despite being deaf in one ear from a childhood injury. It is interesting to speculate why he could not maintain his popularity as rock and roll took off.

Maybe his style still was stuck in the 1940s era for rock and roll listeners. Maybe rumors about his sexual orientation hurt him (which also included two arrests for lewd conduct), or maybe it was not cool to be in a movie like There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) with Ethel Merman. (Still, that film also starred Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley’s career would survive being in far worse movies.) Ray also appeared on What’s My Line? on June 9, 1957. Other songs have mentioned Ray too. In 1986, Ray appeared in Billy Idol’s Don’t Need a Gun video and was mentioned in the lyrics of the song.


More recently, Van Morrison dropped Ray’s name in his song Sometimes We Cry on his 1997 album The Healing Game.  In the song, Van Morrison exclaims, “I’m not gonna fake it like Johnnie Ray.”

Van Morrison’s reference is not a criticism of Ray but a tribute.  He invokes his memory of Ray’s own songs about crying such as Cry, along with Ray’s ability to fake cry on cue for his performances. Like the other singers who have invoked Ray’s name, Morrison remembers Ray as a major presence in his childhood.  In a 2006 interview, Van Morrison noted that in his childhood home, “Johnnie Ray was like the backdrop, hearing his music on the radio during that period.”


Ray clearly made an impact on those who heard him during his prime.  And it is great that the name checks by Van Morrison and Billy Joel will lead others to discover Ray’s music. Ray of course can also thank the writers of Come On Eileen (Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams) for his presence in one of the most iconic opening lines of a 1980s pop song.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Veedon Fleece (1974)



The following review of and comments about the great Veedon Fleece album was first posted on Charlie’s Nerd Litter blog on this day in 2007.  It has been slightly edited for brevity's sake. Click on the link for the full version.

There’ve been a few albums this decade that have retained their mystery for me. But the work that's most successful at enchanting me endlessly is Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece from 1974. No matter how closely I listen to it, or what I read about it, it only seems to take on more folds. The more I admire its simplicity, the more complex it paradoxically grows.

Veedon Fleece was a back-to-basics reboot for an artist who never hewed too closely to genre specifications anyway. After his divorce and disbanding his orchestra, Morrison returned to his hometown of Belfast for the first time in eight years. There and upon his return to America, he wrote Veedon Fleece in a few weeks, infusing a healthy gulp of Ireland into the subjects, lyrics and music. Closest stylistically to his classic Astral Weeks, the album also relies on a stream-of-consciousness and is largely acoustic. But unlike that other work, critics mostly dismissed it and the record-buying public shunned it.

Now for the more intangible: Morrison’s always been a leading figure in blue-eyed soul, but on Veedon Fleece, his voice sounds weirder and more idiosyncratic. The soul is still very much there, but his impassioned phrasings and ethereal falsetto are all his own. It’s hard to forget his anguished howl at the end of Cul de Sac, his guttural, throat-clearing guffaws on Bulbs. His tendency vocally to adapt and elongate at will fit the lyrics perfectly, which also tend to meander and drift like a backcountry river. Every song, even the largely straightforward Comfort You, bends and twists on repeated listens, stripped-down and cryptic and multifaceted all at once.


Along the way, Morrison cites Poe, Thoreau, Wilde, and Blake and his Eternals. That set of influences gives us a sense of just how poetic, natural, supernatural, and mystical his own work is. On the longest song, the sprawling eight-minute-fifty-second You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River, he details a homecoming to the fluttering strands of flute: We're goin' out in the country to get down to the real soul,/ I mean, the real soul people,/ We're goin' out in the country, get down to the real soul/ We're gettin' out to the west coast/ Shining our light into the days of bloomin' wonder/ Goin' as much with the river as not. Those issues of authenticity and self-discovery in nature seem especially Wordsworth-Romantic and Thoreau-transcendalist, with Ireland, "God's green land," standing in for Tintern Abbey or Walden. From there, specifically alluding to Blake, he sings of a search for the titular Veedon Fleece. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s a mythical object of Morrison’s own invention, his own Holy Grail much in the way Blake dreamed up his Beulah.
Led by a sullen piano intro, Linden Arden Stole The Highlights is the tale of an Irish man adrift in San Francisco. In just a few lines, Arden’s memorably described: “Loved the morning sun and whiskey ran just like water in his veins/ Loved to go to church on Sunday, even though he was a drinking man.” But the apparent peace is quickly undercut when some neighbourhood toughs threaten Arden, and he cuts their heads open with a hatchet. It’s a rare and stunning intrusion of violence on the otherwise peaceable album. Its closing lines are even more powerful when Morrison sings, “He said, ‘Someday, it may get lonely.’/ Now he’s livin’, livin’ with a gun.” The song is just as much an outcast on Veedon Fleece as Arden is in America, and among references to Killarney lake and Arklow streets, the mention of San Francisco can be jarring. And yet it also fits beautifully in an album indelibly defined by struggle and searching, of people looking for home and existing in flux.


There remain moments on Veedon Fleece that I wish I understood better. Sometimes, I can’t help wishing I knew which references are directly autobiographical, which are simply fantastic, and which are a redolent mash of the two. But I have a feeling, even if it were just being released today, that Veedon Fleece still wouldn’t unravel or surrender its knots of mysteries. It wouldn't be any less of a soothing antidote or a roving puzzle. After all, even after ten years of having it in my collection, it’s still just as alluring and affecting and incredible as it’s ever been.



 Reader Comments

The Sanity Inspector   -   I read Van's interview in Rolling Stone in the late 80s, wherein he said that fans asked him if he still had the dogs from that photo. "Listen, an album cover is not real life!" he said.

Ekko   -   I love that album, haven't listened to it in ages. Forgot how good it was. Great post.
Anonymous   -   I remember acquiring my 2nd copy Veedon Fleece back in the mid-70's out of the cut-out bin. Already I was sure that the album was by far the best Van had ever produced. And now years later I am glad someone has the same attachment to this truly excellent album that still sounds new today.
Anonymous   -   Van Morrison is a lifetime project, indeed. A mystic. A searcher. I love Van. I hope I never meet him! I just want to hear him sing.

Anonymous   -  I find Fair Play to you particulary affecting and I can't explain why. This album takes several listens to get into for the first time listener but once you do this you can be hooked!



Anonymous   -   Veedon Fleece is among my alltime favorite records, alternately revelatory and enigmatic, and definately best savored late at night or early in the morning, with no distractions. The only other artists that affect me in a similar way are Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt, putting This record in rarified company.
David   -   I listened to Linden Arden several times today and the first two times tears came to my eyes. I don't know why. I'm a 52 year old lawyer and crying is not what I do (last time was when my mother died on Christmas Day 2006). I've heard the song described, I think accurately, as "ferociously mournful."
Anonymous   -   Same thing here David. I’m a 54 year old watching sport and my dog noted my sudden sobbing and jumped up for a drink of tears. Most unusual.

Anonymous   -   I too am in the company of being singularly effected by this album. Who is Linden Arden?  Where is the Veedon Fleece? It is shrouded in mystery.

Anonymous   -   Re: demystifying the lyrics in Veedon Fleece. I could reveal a lot, but I don't get any pleasure in bursting bubbles. It's usually a lot less "mystical" than folks want to imagine.For one example, Van sings on Fair Play that "there's only one Meadows Way to go, and you say GERONIMO." The truth is that he was deciding where to live and begin his new life. His fiancee wanted to move to the bucolic West Marin town of San Geronimo, on Meadow Way. They lived there happily for several years. Pop! What's that sound?! (Bubbles bursting?)

Pinup Nights   -  I am crazy about Van Morrison and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights must be one of his best ever songs. Its a very mysterious tune but in a few sentences Van conjures the sunlight and slopes of San Francisco. I would describe the piano as "beautiful" rather than "sullen". That small grumble aside this is a fantastic review, thank you!!

Plush   -   Pulled out my original copy of Veedon Fleece today after more than 10 years and listened and was stunned again. Linden Arden is surely a masterpiece and more so of one since it is so short in length. The poetry and expression is far beyond what I remembered and the depth of emotion is mindblowing.

Anonymous   -   How is it possible that this masterpiece is out of print?


Custom paper writer   -   Besides that much of Morrison's music is structured around the conventions of soul music and R&B, such as the popular singles Brown Eyed Girl, Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile), Domino and Wild Night.
Richard   -   I always seem to come across people telling me that Astral Weeks is the greatest album by Van Morrison. Not for me. Veedon Fleece is like taking a seat in an old Irish tavern with the fire roaring in the corner, and listening as a wise old travelling man sings you the story of his life; all the people he's met, all the adventures he's had, all the questions he's pondered and all the places he's gone. It's an incredible album. Astral Weeks is very good but, it's not like this.
Anonymous   -   Fair Play is absolutely haunting. He heard it for the first time on a visit to Paris and ever since when I hear this song I think of that City.
David Garfinkel   -   I love this record and it makes me emotional as well. Aside from the lyrics, the looseness of the music and the airiness of the production feel so live. It feels like you're right there in the studio and I think what it speaks to is a way of recording that may not exist anymore as well. Not only are Van's lyrics dreamy, but so is the flute and the piano and the whole thing, but it's also a combination of sad and wistful. Country Fair always makes me long for youth and innocence. Veedon Fleece has real soul to it and that's rare.

Anonymous   -   The piano intro to Linden Arden is sullen? Melancholic, yes, and tender, reflective, but positive too. As Jonathan Cott said once, that intro is like a prayer. Veedon Fleece is about getting in the zone, the music gives you more information than the lyrics. Walk away from the lyrics....

Tangledblue3   -   This is such a truly brilliant collection of songs, with excellent production and Van's deft and affecting vocals. All soul, poetry, melancholy, spirits and endless melodicism.

Michael Taylor   -   Veedon Fleece is like eating olives when you are young. Never liked it for years. Now it is my favourite hands down. Fair Play is just so amazing as is Cul de Sac. Don't know how Bulbs fits into all the navel gazing, but it does! Along with Astral weeks and King Creosote's Diamond Mine, it is essential go to bed and chill music for me!


Vaughn Abbott   -   Without pause, anytime a discussion of Van's body of work comes up I will always volunteer Veedon Fleece as my most favourite album of his. I'm a huge fan of his work but that album never fails to transport me into the mystic.

Anonymous   -   An incredible record. I have a signed LP from Van and it is the treasure of my collection. Fair Play was also my wedding song. I'm not into meditation, but this entire album lulls me into a trance that is intoxicating. My favourite Van record by far.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

To Go or Not to Go


Here’s a post from John Atkinson at  Stereophile.com about Van's You're Drving Me Crazy album and his live efforts:

The dingy green-and-ochre poster on the subway-station wall, advertising events at Queen's Forest Hills Stadium, didn't draw attention to itself. But what else is there to do on a subway platform but look at posters? I looked at it. There, near the bottom of the left column, I read: 

SEPT 12: VAN MORRISON AND WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY

Van Morrison. In concert. In QueensI was torn. Van Morrison has released four of the best live albums evah! He also headlined what was perhaps the worst concert I have ever experienced. And Queens? Since 2000, when we left Santa Fe, I have grown to love my adopted city of Brooklyn. It has neighbourhoods. Parks. History. Atmosphere. Culture. Four landmark bridges. Herb Reichert's Bed-Stuy bothy. But in Queens there's nothing but the dead and dying of Paul Simon's "little town." And Queens neighbourhoods? Plop me down in Middle Village or Maspeth or Glendale or Jackson Heights or Long Island City and I'd have no idea where I was—they all look the same.

All four live CDs—It's Too Late to Stop Now (1974), Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984), A Night in San Francisco (1994), and Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)—have been in constant rotation since I bought them, as has How Long Has This Been Going On, his 1996 collaboration with the great English Hammond organist and singer Georgie Fame. Like Jimmy Webb's, Van's lyrics tell stories, and I'm a sucker for stories. When I hear the very first words of Astral Weeks' Madame George—"Down on Cypress Avenue / with a childlike vision leaping into view / click and clacking of the high-heeled shoe / Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George"—I need to know what's next to come.

The blue-eyed soul singer has always had great bands of A-list sidemen. His breakout hit album, Astral Weeks (1968), had Jay Berliner on guitar and the Modern Jazz Quartet's Connie Kay on drums; the Belfast Opera House album featured Peter van Hooke on drums, Mark Isham on trumpet and synths, and David Hayes on bass. As well as Georgie Fame, the guest artists on the San Francisco album include John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and Jimmy Witherspoon. How Long Has This Been Going On features two great sax players, Pee Wee Ellis and Alan Skidmore. (I was privileged to jam with Skidmore one magic night in 1970, during which I learned a lesson: It's best always to play with musicians who are better than you—they'll drag you up closer to their level.)

But it was the Belfast Cowboy's 39th and most recent album, You're Driving Me Crazy, a collaboration with soprano sax player and Hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco, that triggered this prose poem. I'd been visiting Michael Fremer in deepest, darkest New Jersey - as I leave Brooklyn on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge I hold my breath, and I don't inhale again until I'm safely back in God's Own Borough—and as I was about to leave, I mentioned that I'd just read Mikey's review of the LP. He pressed on me the CD.

Recorded live in a Sausalito studio in just two days with DeFrancesco's quartet—Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar, Troy Roberts on soprano and tenor saxophones—every track laid down to Pro Tools at 24-bit/96kHz in one or two takes, this is the best live Van Morrison gig that never was.

Every track shines, but even though the tempi are virtually identical, the reworking of The Way Young Lovers Do on Crazy is less frenetic than the original on Astral Weeks, more laid-back and open-sounding than the Hollywood Bowl re-creation. The key in all three versions is A minor, but the half-century-older Van sings in a lower register, digging deep into the lyric in a way that wasn't possible for either his callow 1968 self or his mature 2009 persona. The ostinato on twin soprano saxes is so right—and while this bass guitarist resents a Hammond's bass pedals being used to lay down the music's foundation, DeFrancesco's left foot gloriously swings the 12/8 time signature. Only musicians at the top of their game and supremely sure of themselves can play this loosely individually yet keep their ensemble tight as a nut.


So shall I venture into Queens in September for Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE,'s gig at Forest Hills Stadium? I just don't know if it will be worth it. Possibly the worst concert I ever attended was when Morrison played in Brighton, England in the early 1980s. I remember, perhaps incorrectly, him being backed by what turned out to be the superb Belfast Opera House album band, but whatever: the main man sat noodling at a keyboard while a guitarist sang the songs. 


Even the first time I saw Van Morrison live, in London, England, in 1965, on a tour to promote the first single from Van's band Them, Baby Please Don't Go b/w Gloria, was embarrassingly bad. The bass player had too short a lead—every time he moved to the front of the stage, he unplugged himself from his amp.

Brooklyn's motto is "Fuhgedaboudit!" Perhaps not: It's gonna be a coin toss, Sir Van!

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Outsize Influence of Astral Weeks (1968)


Here’s a condensed version of a post from the 'high brow' Literary Hub site. Please read the full article at the Hub


Van Morrison, Unlikeliest of Literary Muses

On the Outsize Influence of Astral Weeks


By Tobias Carroll

While certain artists have inspired works that could fill bookshelves—Dylan, The Beatles, James Brown—Morrison’s literary footprint is less massive, but has had just as much impact. For the right writers, Morrison’s work—particularly the music he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and specifically Astral Weeks—is an absolutely transformational muse. There’s something about Van Morrison’s music that pushes writers in unexpected directions, turning essays on his own sound into places where writers can push their own prose towards the heartfelt and ecstatic. What quality, then, has made Morrison’s music so vital for a certain strain of writer?


As a quick primer: the album Astral Weeks was recorded in New York in 1968, during a time when the Irish-born singer was living in Massachusetts. It sits in a strange and indescribable place in Morrison’s discography: at times sweeping and at times intimate, not quite as soul-influenced as what came before or as forceful as what came later. It’s a gloriously contradictory album, and while other works of Morrison’s have certainly drawn their admirers Astral Weeks has a particularly massive literary influence.

In the 1979 anthology Stranded, Lester Bangs wrote about Astral Weeks. It has the blend of discomfiting personal detail and meticulous analysis that characterises the best of Bangs’s work.


Ryan Walsh, in his book Astral Weeks, also declares his love for the album in question; in his prologue, he cites it as “my favourite record of all time.” Immediately thereafter, he goes on to echo a take on it that by the time of his writing of it had reached canonical levels—to wit, Lester Bangs’s 1979 essay on the album. Bangs is cited several times over the course of Walsh’s book, and by the time Walsh reaches the end of his narrative, Bangs comes back around, this time as evidence of how Astral Weeks has gone from a misunderstood album to a bona fide classic.

One particular quote from Lester Bangs’ essay may explain Morrison’s particular appeal to a certain subset of writers. “Van Morrison is interested, obsessed, with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture,” Bangs writes. That sort of precision with regards to evocation sounds not unlike the struggles of any writer who’s paid careful attention to their craft: not simply seeking the right words, but the right structure, the right balance; prose that doesn’t stint on any level.


At the same time, if Morrison can be seen in this sense as a musician who’s more of a literary stylist than the literary stylists who adore his work, there’s another aspect in which he sharply differs. Both Walsh and Bangs note that Morrison has, since the release of Astral Weeks, been loathe to comment much about the album—or to offer interpretations of his songs that satisfied anyone.

In Lester Bangs’ essay, Morrison’s album is a means by which Bangs can analyse his own feelings of depression and gradually move towards an overarching theory of the contradictions that emerge when one attempts to engage with the outside world with any kind of empathy, and the world’s potential to utterly devastate that person in return. Walsh’s book, by contrast, uses Morrison’s presence in the Boston music scene of 1968 and the breadth of his music to pull in disparate threads, some of them only tenuously connected to Morrison—including organised crime’s ties to the music industry and a commune headed by an increasingly megalo-maniacal figure.


Lester Bangs’s essay ends with “a juxtaposition of poets,” placing Morrison’s lyrics beside the poetry of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca and letting that comparison highlight areas of overlap. Bangs demonstrates just how Morrison’s lyrical evocations function as poetry, even as he also argues that exploring one aspects of these songs is to the detriment of their other components. But there’s also a pretty direct line from Morrison to Bangs to a generation of writers whose work took some sort of cue from Bangs. All of that, then, means that a certain literary take on Van Morrison’s music has more than a little in common with the numerous permutations of a folk song over the years, with a deftly chosen sample, with jazz improvisation—itself a motif of Walsh’s Morrison-inspired book—around a central theme.

Put more succinctly: on one hand you have music that you can read like literature; on the other, you have a chain of literary works that connect like music. For an album as hard to pin down as Astral Weeks, and an artist as infamously oblique as Van Morrison, that seems entirely fitting.