Van Morrison: Astral Weeks / His Band and the Street Choir

These new re-releases of Morrison's mystical masterwork and its unheralded little brother are especially welcome.
Van Morrison
Astral Weeks

In a way it’s weirdly fitting that 1968’s Astral Weeks and 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, released before and after Morrison’s biggest commercial triumph Moondance, are being reissued together. They are both better than their middle sibling; Moondance, at its best, offers as close as possible to a synthesis of the strengths of these two, but like most such hybrids, it can’t go as far as either. Which makes special sense in this case, as these two are almost opposites in Morrison’s long, rich catalogue of work. Astral Weeks is the unrepeatable, mystical masterwork, while His Band and the Street Choir is the grittier, more unassuming showcase for Morrison’s love of R&B in its most ingratiating form.

Astral Weeks is one of those albums where the story of its creation is as nearly well known as the music itself; recorded under semi-mysterious circumstances, with spotty credits and John Cale (working next door) reporting, possibly accurately, that much of the album was Morrison recording on his own and the rest of the band assembled for the sessions doing overdubs. It can certainly be interesting to consider how these songs were put together, but the interplay between Morrison and the band doesn’t become amazing if it was created simultaneously or was the result of the band working to his recorded voice and guitar; it’s just different kinds of amazing. And the record’s oft-discussed but never really duplicated mix of folk, jazz, and blue-eyed soul was clearly planned out by Morrison (in sessions in Boston, among other things) and was probably crystallized in the studio by the band. Finding definitive answers to these questions, if it’s even possible (Morrison has long seemed to have roughly zero interest in discussing his work) would be of some interest, but it’s hard to imagine an answer that would make Astral Weeks any less (or more) than it is.

And what that is can be hard to discuss, for two major reasons. The first is just that the record’s reputation as mystical is, for once, completely on the nose, and like any mystical experience, it resists being nailed down in the quantitative. People have written brilliantly about Morrison’s vocal performance, the structure of these songs (only “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Ballerina” really approach verse/chorus/verse), the album as a song cycle/overall work, the band’s interplay (as amazing as Morrison can be, and he’s one of the best singers of his generation, an instrumental version would still be an amazing record), and more. But the real power of Astral Weeks isn’t reducible to any of those things, or to bits of information like the fact that “Beside You” and “Madame George” were originally recorded in 1967 (and thus the whole record didn’t just spring in one inspired moment from Morrison’s forehead like Athena). With, however serendipitously, one of the most sympathetic backing bands of his entire career, Morrison was here, just 23, trying to go further into… himself? The music? Some sort of poetic realm, inhabited by his literary heroes? All of the above? What distinguishes Astral Weeks, on an album almost obsessively concerned with human relationships, is how close he comes to getting there.

But like many mystics, Morrison can be so focused on that moment of mystery unfolding that he’s willing to ignore anything else to get there, and that leads to another reason Astral Weeks can be hard to grapple with, the flaw running down the spine of this record. It is very hard, especially in 2015, to not notice that this is an album that ends one of its standout songs, ends its first side, with an adult singing, with passion, the lines “Nobody, no, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby / So young and bold, 14-year-old”. Interestingly enough, two of the best essays you can read on Astral Weeks approach this moment from opposite angles. Lester Bangs’ famous piece on this record, a partially excellent but sometimes weirdly “off” bit of writing, does its level best to justify the moment by making “Cyprus Avenue” into a song about an adult “in love” with a child who is tormented precisely because he knows he cannot do anything about it. Bangs ties this in with his thesis that this is an album partially about a kind of radical, almost paralyzing empathy — not that Morrison is necessarily agreeing with the narrator here so much as making you feel that particular pain.

On the other hand, Mike Powell’s excellent personal remembrance of the record mentions almost in passing that “Cyprus Avenue” is clearly about the narrator himself being 14 and in love. There isn’t an elaborate argument for this take on the song, and one isn’t necessary; there’s no “proof” in the text of the song either way, and it’s clear that this is just the way Powell has always heard the song. I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity of Powell’s and Bangs’s interpretation of “Cyprus Avenue”, and there are certainly other explanation and mitigations you might be tempted to make on the song’s behalf; because by any other estimation “Cyprus Avenue” is an amazing song, a towering performance of huge emotional impact. But none of these versions and explanations change that in the world we live in it is just straight-up creepy to hear an adult sing with genuinely romantic/lustful intentions about a child. And it does spread a little throughout the album; yes, love songs in popular music have traditionally resorted to infantilizing descriptions of their female subjects, but when “little angel child” shows up on “Ballerina” the end of “Cyprus Avenue” gives it an extra queasiness.

Making this point isn’t about engaging in close readings of “Cyprus Avenue” for clues as to whether the narrator is intended to be young or not (and hell, Morrison has freely admitted that at least some of his lyrics are mysterious even to him) or about whether or not it’s acceptable to love that song or that album. The point is, Astral Weeks is one of the greatest albums in the Western tradition of pop music of all time, and it has a song about lusting after a child. That will, understandably, render it unpalatable to some people, but not all people; that’s purely a personal decision. But for those that do love the song, the point is that you can talk about how great the album and even “Cyprus Avenue” is and still find that moment eternally beyond the pale. As listeners, the problem here isn’t whether or not we like “Cyprus Avenue”; the real pitfall, one that Bangs arguably falls into, is loving the song in a way that makes us feel like we have to rationalize away those last few lines, as if loving Astral Weeks means you have to defend pedophilia. Putting those lines on this album is not the dumbest thing a 23-year-old could do, and in 1968 maybe people didn’t care. But if you like your heroes with a tragic flaw, that’s the one that keeps Astral Weeks from fully being what it could be and so fervently wants to.

Whereas for all of the potential problems with, say, “Madame George,” that is ultimately a song about which it’s hard to say much of anything but it’s ambiguous. It’s clearly a song of great empathy but also maybe of great cruelty; of great love but also of great fear. Morrison has pinned down, there, the war between our instincts for self-preservation (of our lives but also of our health, our public reputation, our self-image, our respectability, and so on, getting less and less defensible and laudable) and our instincts to care for each other. And the band reacts with extraordinary sensitivity; if this was recorded in pieces, whoever made the decision that the end of “Madame George” could support those strings without ever turning lugubrious was in that moment a genius. At its best — the title track, “Sweet Thing” (which is far more ‘about’ mortality than romance), “Madame George” — Astral Weeks, like all mystical experiences, somehow encompasses and distills our whole existence into a moment.

To say 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir is less fraught than Astral Weeks is to risk understatement so severe it beggars belief. Morrison was working with a band he’d assembled (including several musicians from Moondance) and clearly felt comfortable with, and when the opening strains of “Domino” burst out of the speakers the feeling is immediately different. The average song length, just to take one statistical example, is just under three and a half minutes; on Astral Weeks it’s just under six. While there are some slower, calmer moments on His Band and the Street Choir like the intimate “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” and the warm, lovely “Virgo Queens”, much of it is dominated by punchy R&B workouts like “I’ve Been Working” and “Blue Money”. While it can’t reach as high or even in the same direction as Astral Weeks, it’s maybe the most purely fun record Morrison has ever released, and a great showcase for him as a craftsman and entertainer rather than poetic champion.

And it’s not as if His Band and the Street Choir lacks the emotional impact of Moondance. Even a narrative as gnomic as “Crazy Face” gives the listener a vivid sense of place and situation, and unsurprisingly the love songs here are both plentiful and heartfelt; during the period where he was recording the record Morrison was in love with his first wife, Janet “Planet” Rigsbee and she gave birth to their daughter. It’s an ebullient record that fosters ebullience throughout, whether the gospel charged “If I Ever Needed Someone” or the puckish “Give Me a Kiss.” And it ends, in the semi-title track “Street Choir”, on a stirring but slightly discordant note. The loveliest group vocals on the album accompany a chorus that’s both one of the catchiest here but also the most negative; the album ends on the lines “you know I just can’t free you now/that’s not my job at all”. It wasn’t, maybe surprisingly, a sign of things to come; Morrison’s next album, Tupelo Honey was a portrait of domestic bliss that it’s easy to be happy for but sometimes a bit trying to listen to.

His Band and the Street Choir seems doomed to be overshadowed by its two older siblings, although in Moondance’s case that seems more like a case of familiarity; they’re both excellent, accessible albums, although Moondance is a bit more determinedly mid-tempo. But compared to Astral Weeks there just does seem genuinely like there’s less to talk about, the same way most people writing about Talk Talk these days are likely to spend the bulk of their time on their work from Spirit of Eden (one of the few albums to actually seem to belong to the same tradition as Astral Weeks, albeit 1. from a totally different origin 2. even better) on. But that doesn’t mean that It’s My Life or His Band and the Street Choir are any less incredible. It’s a weird inverse of the “my kid could paint that” reaction to abstract art (and equally incorrect); just because both artists were capable of something more ‘difficult’ than ‘just’ an album chock full of great songs, that somehow makes us treat the more conventional effort as less worthy. History has plenty of examples of albums that are trying to do what His Band and the Street Choir does and failing miserably, whereas Morrison’s record feels, if anything, effortless.

Of course, it wasn’t, especially after recording was complete; Morrison kept tinkering with things up until the last minute, and then when he was on the other side of the country, someone else changed the title (it was originally going to be Virgo’s Fool) picked a cover image Morrison absolutely hated (it’s not great, being both awkward and misleading for the contents of the record) and generally mucking up the release. Unsurprisingly, despite the quality of the music within, once Morrison felt he’d lost control of His Band and the Street Choir he practically disowned it. To quote Morrison from Ritchie Yorke’s Van Morrison: Into the Music: “the album didn’t sell very well and I’m glad.” Given how long he’d saved some of these songs (the effervescent “Domino,” which is somehow still Morrison’s highest charting single, and rightly so, had been in the works since before Astral Weeks, for example) his reaction may have partly been a defensive one, but it’s still a sad end for a joyous, vivid record that then and now deserves much wider listening.

Both reissues here include bonus tracks, all of which, while of interest, mostly confirm that Morrison and company were right to choose the versions they did. Astral Weeks has alternate takes of “Beside You” and “Madame George” and longer versions of “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider”. The take of “Madame George” lacks most of the instrumentation, especially near the end, of the album version, relying more on a vibraphone; it’s a fine performance, but mostly just emphasizes how much the impact of that album version is a full-band affair. The most heavily talked-about outtake is the longer “Slim Slow Slider”, seeing as the comparably sudden/mid-stream ending of the album did seem like something cut off. The extra 93 seconds included here sees the song go from its closing flutter into some very nice improvised interplay, with Morrison eventually repeating the line “glory be to Him”. It’s an interesting version, but it doesn’t feel like the album was missing anything.

His Band and the Street Choir also includes only alternate takes and versions; given that Morrison has ranged from indifferent to hostile about most reissues of his work, if there were any fully unreleased songs in the vaults he may have blocked them from inclusion. The most striking differences are a lovely “Call Me Up in Dreamland” with more prominent backing vocals on the verses, an even less laid-back (if that’s possible), organ-assisted version of “I’ve Been Working”, and a less obviously produced version of “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too”. Even more so than the Astral Weeks bonuses, these are great versions; it’s hard to say that any of them are better than the originally released versions (“Call Me Up in Dreamland” maybe excepted) but if spots were swapped you could likely say the same thing.

However, those bonus tracks are secondary to both of these albums, like most of Morrison’s catalogue ones that haven’t already been reissued to death. Ultimately it makes sense to put them together because they present the full range of, if not Morrison’s work overall, his extraordinarily fertile ’60s and ’70s. The true magnitude of Van Morrison as an artist might be impossible to fully express (I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way) but either of these excellent albums would have been the pinnacle of a career for many musicians; it’s hard to think of anyone else who could have produced both.

RATING 9 / 10