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 García 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.

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