Astral Weeks

 

 

 

 

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In my young twenties, shortly after I had moved to New York, I was listening one afternoon to a progressive rock radio station playing the type of music that everyone seemed to be listening to back then, at least all of the people my age, it seemed, who were into 60’s rock and had grown past a Top Forty mindset. I was into groups such as Cream, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Blind Faith, and several others, yet, while they were good, I feel, in retrospect, that the music of the 60’s was not as good as it seemed to me back then.

Anyway, the disc jockeys on such stations wouldn’t just spin platters with happy talk. Whatever station it was (I forget), the program host said, “I am now going to play for you what is simply the best rock song ever made.”

Whereupon he played the song “Madame George” from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album.

“Madame George” is very long for a rock song. It lasts nine minutes and 45 seconds.

I humbly submit — I am no rock expert — that Astral Weeks is, in my experience, one of the best rock albums ever.

 

 

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A Wikipedia entry contains the following:

Astral Weeks

Studio album by Van Morrison

Released November 1968

Astral Weeks is the 1968 second studio album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It was recorded at Century Sound Studios in New York City during three sessions in September and October 1968, although most participants and biographers agree that the eight songs were culled from the first and last early evening sessions. Except for John Payne, Morrison and the assembled jazz musicians had not played together before and the recordings commenced without rehearsals or lead sheets handed out.

The cover art, music and lyrics of the album portray the symbolism equating earthly love and heaven that would often be featured in Morrison’s work.

When Astral Weeks was released by Warner Bros. Records in November 1968, it did not receive promotion from the label and was not an immediate success with consumers or critics. Blending folk, blues, jazz, and classical music, the album’s songs signaled a radical departure from the sound of Morrison’s previous pop hits, such as “Brown Eyed Girl [a song I love].”

Astral Weeks’s critical standing eventually improved greatly, however, and it has since been viewed as one of rock music’s greatest and most important records. Sometimes referred to as a song cycle or concept album, critics laud the album’s arrangements and songwriting; Morrison’s lyrics are often described as impressionistic, hypnotic, and modernist. It was placed on numerous widely circulated lists of the best albums of all time and had an enduring effect on both listeners and musicians.

Forty years after the album’s release, Morrison performed all eight of its songs live for the first time during two Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008.

I went with my sister (who enthusiastically suggested it) to one of the two Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008. My sister later gave me the album of the live performance as a gift. It was a disappointment. I guess Morrison’s voice wasn’t the same. At any rate, the original album was far better.

 

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What is the album about? I always felt, intuitively, that it was about growing up in Morrison’s native Belfast, and about being an adolescent. The lyrics express this poignantly.

A couple of Wikipedia entries bear this out:

According to Roy Kane, who grew up with Morrison in Belfast, Cyprus Avenue “…was the street that we would all aspire to — the other side of the tracks … the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it; and our side of it was one side of the tracks and Cyprus Avenue was the other… there was an Italian shop up in Ballyhackamore, that’s where all the young ones used to go of a Sunday… we used to walk up to the Sky Beam for an ice cream or a cup of mushy peas and vinegar… We used to take a short cut up Cyprus Avenue…”

Morrison told biographer Ritchie Yorke that along with “Madame George” (which also references Cyprus Avenue), the song “Cypress Avenue” came to him in “a stream of consciousness thing”: “Both those songs just came right out. I didn’t even think about what I was writing.” As journalist Matthew Collin described the song: “Morrison reminisced about a more innocent time, recounting the sights and sounds of a bygone life while escaping into his imagination, an oasis of romantic reverie.”

The album contains a number of references to places and events in Cyprus Avenue is a tree lined, up-market residential street in east Belfast. Sandy Row is a working class staunchly Unionist/Protestant neighborhood in south Belfast. “Throwing pennies at the bridges down below” was a practice of Northern Irish Unionists as they travelled on the train from Dublin to Belfast where the train crossed the River Boyne.

And so on.

I must be psychic!

 

 

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Posted here are my five favorite songs from Astral Weeks:

“Astral Weeks”

“Sweet Thing”

“Cypress Avenue”

“The Way Young Lovers Do”

“Madame George”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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2 Responses to Astral Weeks

  1. Tom Riggio says:

    Thanks for all the info on Van Morrison and Astral Weeks. Makes me want to go back to that again…

  2. zsfmusicreviews says:

    One of my favorite albums to listen to. Probably my favorite! Awesome review.

    – Zach

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