The Great Moments in Vinyl blog put out two great posts in June last year.
Astral Weeks and the People Who Helped Create It
producer Lewis Merenstein and guitarist Jay Berliner recounted the magic of those particular sessions. Just three dates in the studio was all it took. And of those dates, one of them only yielded one song. Considering how revered the album Astral Weeks has become, it’s amazing that it was put together in just 12 or 13 hours.
LEWIS MERENSTEIN: Van’s manager Bob Schwaid and I were friends. Van had signed to Warners but no producer wanted to touch him, so I went to Boston at Bob’s request to hear him. He sat on a stool in Ace studios and played Astral Weeks, and it took me 30 seconds to know. I understood. The lyric went straight to my soul, it was immediately clear to me that he was being born again.
I don’t know what transpired between Bang Records and Van coming to Boston, but he had obviously gone through a rebirth. I knew I needed people who could pick up that feeling. Richard Davis was a highly renowned bass player, Connie Kay drummed with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jay Berliner was a fine guitarist. They were all super pros, but also open souls who played from the heart.
We went into Century Sound. It was a union date. There was nothing sacred about it, but right away it was magical. It was so beautiful, it was hard to take. They would run through the first few minutes of a song, never the whole thing, and then do it. Everybody got the sense of what was being said musically, even if they didn’t get what was being sung by Van. Everybody was into it. I remember Richard bent over his bass with his eyes closed, tuning into Van. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.
JAY BERLINER: This little guy comes in and goes straight into the vocal booth. He doesn’t have any contact with anyone. We could hardly see him. He must have been smoking something, because all you could see was white smoke in there! He sang and played in the booth, we followed, and these things just… happened.
The first session was 7:00 to 11:00 PM on September 25, 1968. We cut Cyprus Avenue, Madame George, Beside You and Astral Weeks in four hours. It was totally off the cuff. We couldn’t make eye contact, but we were hearing each other through headphones and playing off of each other. Van said nothing. Lew did all the communicating, and he seemed to be very happy. “Keep going, it sounds great!”
There was another session the following week, but I wasn’t available. They brought in Barry Kornfeld, but that didn’t work out. He didn’t have a jazz background. (Only The Way Young Lovers Do was recorded at this session).
The final date was October 15, from 7:00 to 11:45 PM. We did Sweet Thing, Ballerina, Slim Slow Slider and a song called Royalty that didn’t make the final cut. And that was it. It was special, but back in those days you were running from day to day. I did a soap commercial the next day!
LEWIS MERENSTEIN: You know, I don’t think Van had a clue how special it was. He was given the gift, as we all were. The album was like an ending. From there he was flying away, and out of that came a happier person, which was (Morrison’s next album) Moondance.
On the Origin of Astral Weeks
In 1967, Van Morrison relocated from Ireland to the U. S. to devote himself to a career as a solo artist. But his relationship with his first record company quickly soured. Morrison discovered he had unwittingly signed away ownership of his music. He was unhappy with how his career was being packaged. And he found himself penniless, living in a fleabag hotel in New York City as his first solo single, Brown Eyed Girl, was reaching the top of the charts. It was situation that Morrison began to challenge quite heatedly.
But before he could attempt to work out a solution with his employer, Bert Berns died of a heart attack, and Morrison found himself in the clutches of the owner’s wise guy business partners, men who were even less skilled at dealing with an artistic temperament. Infamously, one of them responded to an angry, drunken tirade from Morrison by threatening to kill him and breaking his guitar over his head.
Morrison took the threat seriously, and immediately relocated to Boston where he and his girlfriend crashed for a time in the apartment of WBCN DJ Peter Wolf. Morrison used the time away to rethink his musical direction. He lined up gigs in the Boston area playing stripped down versions of the new songs he was writing, just himself on guitar and vocals accompanied by an upright bass and another guitarist and sometimes a flutist for added colour.
Lin Brehmer of WXRT tells a story he heard Peter Wolf tell on the air when he was guest on the station. Back in the day, Wolf and Morrison used to like to hang out. “And by hang out,” Brehmer explains, “I mean they used to go out and drink to excess every single night. And after one of these incredible drinking bouts where they stumbled home at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, Peter Wolf went home to bed and woke up early in the afternoon to meet Van Morrison for a cup of coffee or something. And Van Morrison said, (affects northern Irish accent) ‘Hey. I wrote a song last night.’
“Peter Wolf said, ‘You wrote a song last night? You could barely stand last night. You didn’t write a song last night!’
“Van Morrison says, ‘No! I wrote a song last night!’
“Wolf said, ‘You barely could find the keys in your pocket to open the door to get into your apartment. What do you mean you wrote a song last night?’
“And Van goes, ‘Yeah. No, I got home. I wrote a song last night.’