Counterbalance No. 15: Van Morrison – ‘Astral Weeks’

Van Morrison ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams with his 1968 LP Astral Weeks and made it to Number 15 on the List. Klinger and Mendelsohn recount the journey in this latest installment of Counterbalance.
Astral Weeks
Van Morrison
Warner Bros.
29 November 1968

Mendelsohn: I’m completely confounded by Astral Weeks’ place on The Great List. Don’t get me wrong, I like Van Morrison, and I’m not above singing “Brown Eyed Girl” to Mrs. Mendelsohn (because she has brown eyes and she thinks it’s sweet). But Astral Weeks sounds like a couple of beatniks, a folk band, and a gaggle of hippies were involved in some freak transporter accident that left them fused into some seething, ugly mass that still has enough dexterity to play the flute. What am I missing?

Klinger: That’s a beautiful story about you and Mrs. Mendelsohn. It gives me helpful insight into your marriage. But I have no idea where to begin as far as what you’re missing because this is quite simply one of the finest albums of the 1960s. Achingly beautiful. I ache.

To help explain the critical acclaim for this album, it’s worth remembering that Van Morrison had previously been the pint-sized head thug for the ruffian R&B combo Them. That was followed by an abortive stint as a top 40 pop singer (the aforementioned “Brown Eyed Girl” era). The leap from all that to a delicate, graceful musing on romanticism is unprecedented. It’s as if Lost in Translation had starred Tony Danza.

Mendelsohn: I get the whole transformative thing (and maybe if Danza had starred in Lost In Translation it might have actually won one of those Oscars). Transformation is powerful—it’s helped anchor a couple of albums on this list. I completely understand why the Flower Generation would have been loving all over it, but Astral Weeks is pretty much a jazz record disguised as a rock record. That kind of stuff isn’t supposed to be popular.

Klinger: Oh, it wasn’t popular. Astral Weeks more or less sank without a trace upon its release. It’s mostly through the critical rehabilitation of guys like Lester Bangs that this album achieved its widespread standing.

And it probably sounds like a jazz album because it’s mostly jazz guys playing on it. Drummer Connie Kay played with the ever-stately Modern Jazz Quartet, bassist Richard Davis was on Eric Dolphy’s brilliant 1964 Blue Note LP Out to Lunch, and guitarist Jay Berliner had worked with Charles Mingus, among others.

Is it the flute that’s bugging you? Is it giving you too much of a Jethro Tull vibe? Because even the jazzy flutes (never a favorite of mine outside this record) can’t deter me from aching when I listen to this record. And the older I get, the more I hear.

img-4537Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

Mendelsohn: It’s the flute. Flutes have no business in rock music. The only place flutes should be allowed are in marching bands and only because they can be effectively drowned out by more substantial instruments. Van Morrison’s pining does a poor job of blocking them from coming through loud and clear.

I also feel a bit conflicted about Lester Bangs and Co. campaigning for this album after the fact. I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve the accolades, but Astral Weeks (and I feel a bit silly saying this) may be the least accessible record we’ve talked about thus far. Never Mind the Bollocks would be ahead of this record if I didn’t refuse to acknowledge its mere existence.

Astral Weeks is a rambling record with a heavy jazz influence, lyrics that rival beat poets, and the average track goes on for seven minutes. It’s no wonder no one cared when it came out. There is a lot to climb through before you get to the meat of this record.

Klinger: See, now this is one of those times where you and I can say the same sentence and mean the exact opposite. After all, Astral Weeks is a rambling record with a heavy jazz influence, lyrics that rival beat poets—and the average track goes on for seven minutes! What’s not to love?

But you’re right; it’s not a very accessible record. It might be the closest rock music has ever gotten to literature (You hear that, Warner Bros. publicists from 1968? That’s a pull quote!).

So I certainly have my theories, but in your opinion, what is the meat of the record?

Mendelsohn: I think it’s Van Morrison’s ability to draw together some very disparate influences and mold, as you put it, an “achingly beautiful” record. There are elements of jazz and folk coupled with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that paint pictures more than they tell stories, all stitched together with Van’s gravely, mumbly delivery. It’s almost too much until you start pulling it apart and examining it piece by piece.

But once you’ve done that, it’s kind of like looking over the pieces of a motorcycle spread across a garage floor. Only gear heads find that kind of thing exciting, and in this analogy, I’m not a gear head. I’m just some regular dude who wants to see someone jump said motorcycle (fully-assembled or not) over a ravine or a line of burning cars or something. Listening to Van ride this album down Broken Heart Lane just isn’t doing it for me.

Klinger: Call me an incurable sad sack, but I find Broken Heart Lane to be a most enchanting place, especially as Van cruises slowly up and down, wistfully weeping. But your analogy hits on something that struck me as I listened to Astral Weeks for this. Lyrically, Morrison constantly shifts between high-falutin’ romantic poetry and the mundane realities of that same romance, often within the same song. The title track, for instance, takes us from slipstreams and viaducts of your dreams to his lady-love doing her kid’s laundry, possibly while our hero is slumped on the couch watching Green Acres.

Van has continued to do this throughout his career, jumping from mystical evocations of Caledonia to how he can’t get his phone to work, but it’s never been quite as seamless as it is on Astral Weeks.

Mendelsohn: I’d find Broken Heart Lane more enchanting if Van set himself ablaze and popped a wheelie.

Having spent some time entrenched in literary academia, I can appreciate Van’s juxtaposition between the ethereal and the mundane in the same way that I appreciate an author like, say, Charlotte Bronte. Both Van and Bronte do what they do very well, their works are undeniably solid, they both have a strong following (for a good reason), and if I had to, I could bust out a ten-page paper on either without blinking. But, and the is the big BUT, they both make me want to gouge out my eyes/cut off my ears due to the excessive amount of moping found in their respective works.

I would have enjoyed Jane Eyre a whole lot more if Jane would have whored it up a little bit and I’d definitely enjoy Astral Weeks more if Van were to act a bit more like a rock star and a little less like a lovesick puppy. Not to take anything away from these two talented artists, but seriously, suck it up and move on.

Klinger: For Van Morrison getting his rock star ya-ya’s out, I’ll refer you to his turn in The Last Waltz—that man can rock a skintight jumpsuit. And he did seem to get his mopery out of his system in time for his next album, Moondance (1970), which replaced the jazz and the flutes with R&B and horns. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was his commercial breakthrough and possibly showed which side of the bread the butter is on. He never made another record quite like Astral Weeks again.

But say what you will about his, uh, pensiveness on this record, but you can’t fault his band on this one. Connie Kay and Richard Davis, in particular, push what are pretty simple songs with an empathy that’s seldom seen outside jazz. It’s what makes the nearly ten-minute “Madame George” hypnotic and compelling instead of a three-chord drone. It’s not so much a motorcycle leaping a flaming ravine as it is a motorcycle levitating gracefully over a flaming ravine.

Mendelsohn: Van wouldn’t get so much as a front tire off the ground if it weren’t for his crack band.

I’m still bothered by where this record is on the list. Thus far, each album we’ve gone through seems to hold a deserved place. They were iconic. They represented a significant change for the artist, they helped start or end a musical revolution, and all of them have been monumentally influential to the artists that followed. I don’t see that with this record. Sure, we see a turn of character from Van, but I think that’s where it ends. I don’t see this record having the reach that the rest of its predecessors have had.

Klinger: Well, a young Bruce Springsteen brought in Richard Davis to play on his debut album, which seems like an homage of sorts. And I’ve recently learned that Astral Weeks inspired Martin Scorsese as he was making Taxi Driver—does that help? Actually, Van’s strange poesy amid the mundane may not be so far removed from Travis Bickle’s, apart from the shooty bits, I suppose.

But as I did with our old friend Pet Sounds, I’m going to have to play the rock-critics-are-actually-very-sad-people card. Beneath their wrinkled flannel and pit-stained Bad Brains shirts beat the heart of a navel-gazing romantic. Add in the fact that Van Morrison is, shall we say, not conventionally attractive, and it’s easier to see how this album appeals to the dumpy and the chinless within us all.

Mendelsohn: You must have a huge stack of those cards over there. And just for the record, you didn’t have to be pretty to make records in the 1960s—I’m pretty sure that didn’t start until the 1980s, although I’m not sure how Steve Perry slipped by that directive unnoticed.

Klinger: But Steve Perry at least bears the markings of the pop star—the feathery hair, the tight trousers, even the schnoz. Van Morrison, on a good day, looked like a hydrant; the critics couldn’t resist.

But we could spend all day rating the celebrity super hunks. Are we at an impasse regarding Astral Weeks? Has the immovable force met the unstoppable object?

Mendelsohn: If the immovable force (you) were to meet the unstoppable object (me), the resulting cataclysmic explosion would decimate the universe, returning our infinite energies to our surroundings and thus negating all of existence. Let’s just agree to disagree—it would be safer.

Klinger: I couldn’t agree to disagree more.

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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.

This article was originally published on 7 January 2011.