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Astral Weeks

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I’ve been constructing Top Ten Albums of All Time lists for about 25 years now. It might seem odd that I can pinpoint my lists with such semi-accuracy, but the inspiration is clear, which is why I can place that date. In 1978, a man named Paul Gambaccini compiled a book called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. Gambaccini polled a cross section of American and British rock critics and DJs, from Loraine Alterman (worked at Rolling Stone, was friends with Yoko Ono, married Peter Boyle, #1 pick at the time John Lennon’s Mind Games) to Ritchie Yorke (“Canada’s best-known rock writer,” author of a Van Morrison bio in the mid-70s, #1 pick Supertramp’s Even in the Quietest Moments). It’s fascinating to see the names who submitted lists, a kind of late-70s Who’s Who of rock writers (and DJs) … the expected pioneers (Robert Christgau, Cameron Crowe, Chet Flippo, Ben Fong-Torres, Simon Frith, Charlie Gillett, Lenny Kaye, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Scott Muni, Ed Ward, Ellen Willis) along with a couple of emerging punk writers like Mark P. The consensus choice for best album ever, then as now apparently, was Sgt. Pepper. Bob Dylan grabbed the next two spots, and then, at #4, was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

Soon after buying this book, I got out a piece of paper and wrote down my own Top Ten list, dated it, and stuck it in the pages of the Gambaccini book. (The date was March 21, 1979, my #1 album was Born to Run, the weirdest pick in retrospect was Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal at #10.) Each year I’d go back and write a new list on the paper (in the time between my first and second lists, The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1, an Elvis bootleg of the “unplugged” part of the King’s ’68 TV special, had come out … it was my #1 pick until the music on it was finally released officially, at which time the official release became my #1). After a few years, I tired of the annual nature of the lists, plus I ran out of room on the piece of paper, so I added a second piece of paper and made my choices every several years instead of annually.

The most recent such list (August 2002) was inspired by Charlie Bertsch … the results were posted on my blog. Charlie’s criteria (“must have been conceived and released as an album”) forced me to relegate Elvis ’68 to the bench … if not for that, I’d still put it #1 … here’s what I wrote in 2002, betraying the same 60s orientation that plagues the Rolling Stone Top 500:

Top Four (these come before anything else):

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico

The RS 500 puts Astral Weeks at #19. This would seem representative … Acclaimed Music has it at #12, the All Music Guide gives it the top 5-star rating and claims it “is generally considered one of the best albums in pop music history.” And, of course, I seem to have placed it in my own Top Four only a couple of years ago. The high regard for Astral Weeks continues: in the mid-80s, the New Musical Express called it the #2 album of all time, in the mid-90s Mojo had it #2, and of course it ranked high in the recent RS500.

If the above seems to reduce Astral Weeks to a statistical summary, an explanation is in order. Mostly there’s an intimidation factor: it’s very difficult to write about Astral Weeks, in part because the odd transcendent beauty of the album renders me relatively speechless, in part because Lester Bangs, as idiosyncratic a writer as Van Morrison is a musician, already wrote the definitive piece on Astral Weeks, and there’s no way I’m up to the challenge of matching Lester. And so I’m left citing statistics.

And that’s patently unfair, because Astral Weeks has always defied any attempt to quantify it. On a basic level, you can’t ever be sure what the lyrics are “really” about. The album can barely be classified at all … as the AMG notes, “it isn’t a rock & roll album at all…. a mixture of folk, blues, jazz, and classical music … Unlike any record before or since.” Personally, I’ve always had trouble describing instrumental music … I need words, I don’t have the theoretical chops to explain why a particular guitar solo by Duane Allman gives me chills. Well, Van Morrison’s vocals and lyrics when he’s in his Astral Weeks mode is closer to instrumental music than to a poem. I can’t get it into words, I can only try to transcribe what he’s up to and hope you put the album on for yourself. “Madame George” sucks me into places I don’t often go … and it works just as well now, when I’m an aging fart trying desperately to cling to “reality,” as it did when I took psychedelics and spent trippy hours listening to Astral Weeks over and over. Do a web search for the lyrics to “Madame George” and you’ll get a sense of what I mean: people can’t even translate the damn thing, which won’t stop me from trying:

and as you’re about to leave
she jumps up and says
hey love,
you forgot your glove
the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love the glove

say goodbye to Madame George
dry your eye for Madame George
wonder why for Madame George
dry your eye for Madame George
say goodbye
in the wind and the rain
on the backstreet
in the backstreet, in the backstreet
say goodbye to madame george
down home
down home in the back street
gotta go
say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
dry your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye youreye youreye youreye youreye youreye youreyeyoureyeyoureyeyoureye
say goodbye to Madame George and the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves the love to love the love that loves to love
say goodbyegoodbyegoodbye

I have no idea what that “means,” or even if I’ve come close to transcribing it. How to write about such a work? Via anecdote? Some years ago, I had lithotripsy, where my body was pounded by sound waves to break up a kidney stone. They give you intravenous pain meds and put headphones over your ears … you can bring your own tunes … I brought Astral Weeks because I couldn’t think of a better album to get me to the place I imagined I’d need to be for such a procedure.

Van Morrison has one other album on the RS 500, Moondance at #65, and that about sums up Van the Man’s career: by the time he was 25, he’d already created his greatest work (let’s toss in “Gloria” while we’re at it) and established the two poles which would guide most of the next several decades of work. Morrison has had other excellent albums, some more pop-oriented like Moondance, some more, what, mystic/obscure?, like Astral Weeks. He remains a dynamic, if unpredictable and erratic, live performer (and the mid-70s live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now is classic). His career trajectory is typical of rock-based performers: the initial burst of brilliance, followed by slow decline interrupted on occasion by reminders of the brilliance (AMG never gave him another 5-star rating after Moondance, but there were plenty of 4 1/2 star albums throughout the 70s, and periodic 4-star albums since then). Van Morrison is one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll, and Moondance would be considered the crowning achievement for almost every artist who ever cut a record. But Astral Weeks exists on some other plane entirely.

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About Steven Rubio

  • Lawrence Weir

    All these years later, Astral weeks is still amazing. But I absolutelely agree with Rodney that Veedon Fleece comes close to capturing the same spirit and feeling. In fact I did not discover Van until Veedon Fleece and it remains for me the best. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would think it might be the beginning of the demise. He is unique.

  • In my opinion, Van Morrison did come close to recapturing the Astral Weeks fire on both Veedon Fleece and side two (CD tracks 7-10 for you youngsters) of Into the Music. In fact, “And the Healing Has Begun” on the latter disc returns to an image Morrison introduced on “Ballerina” –that of a young man at the end of a date, on the verge of seducing some young beauty, standing in her doorway and so entranced by her that he loses all sense of time and place. He isn’t seducing her at all; the moment itself is seducing him, overpowering him, just as some ethereal muse seems to be guiding his voice and his words.

    Still, no question this record is unique, both in his career and in the history of rock and roll. There’s nothing else like it — a truly spiritual, mystical record that begins with a song about going to heaven, and ends with the words “I know you’re dying, baby, and I know you know it too.” It’s a record that, like some strange Romantic poem, is as intensely aware of the richness of life as it is of its brevity, and all the sensual pleasures that span it, most of which are embodied in a variety of women; Madame George, certainly, but also thay girl in the doorway, the young mom helping her little boy put on his little red shoes and seeing that he’s got clean clothes, and the one wandering down the diamond-studded highway. This record is like the purest blast of clean air — you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out…

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    Alongside Miles “Kind Of Blue”,this may be the greatest make-out album ever.It’s
    mellow,tender,intimate & intricate.Plus the bass playing on here!Whoa daddy-o!!!
    What more could you really need on the deck during a tender bender??? Of course
    for music just to f**k to,ya can’t beat
    Jimmy Reed or Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch
    My Back”. Great Post,Classic LP.

  • the dude

    Thanks Steven. I never thought of what “Madame George,” or all of Astral Weeks for that matter, “means.” Then again, I can’t tell you what love means either. That’s the power of the album — it’s not a meaning, but a feeling, like the blues. It’s cannot be defined or put in a category, because the best art, like life itself, cannot be pinned down that easily. And I agree with you, but the best way to describe Astral Weeks is through anedotes — you with the pain meds; Lester Bangs with depression; a friend told me a story of being stuck in Alaska, and hearing “Cypress Ave.” for the first time. I remember one rainy evening, when feeling as lonely as a person can ever be, I gave the album one last chance (after hating the first 20 spins of it) and realizing that there was someone out there who felt as bad as I did.
    “Astral Weeks” is my favorite recording of all time.

  • Eric Olsen

    Great job Steven, thanks. I have to go in the more melodic direction and take Moondance as my Van fave, but your take is more common among the cognoscenti.