Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' Turns 50: A Track-by-Track Look at Its Unearthly Beauty
To hear him tell it, the acclaimed singer Van Morrison has always been prone to out-of-body experiences. “I'll be lying down on the bed with my eyes closed and all of a sudden I get the feeling that I'm floating near the ceiling looking down,” he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “I couldn’t say whether that’s supposed to be astral projection.”
Half a century ago, Morrison channeled that mindset into one of his finest works, Astral Weeks. On tracks like “Sweet Thing,” “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George,” he spun folk, jazz, blues and classical music into an uncanny whole, and today (Nov. 29) marks the album’s 50th anniversary.
By 1968, Morrison had fame in his garage-R&B band, Them, and a solo hit with 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” Despite his success, he was virtually penniless. He had previously been under the thumb of Bang Records’ Bert Berns; Morrison had signed a shaky deal he couldn’t refuse at the time.
After Berns died in 1967, Morrison got tangled up with his replacement, a low-level mobster named Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. There was even an incident in which Wassel smashed a guitar over Morrison’s head at the King Edward Hotel during a dispute over a broken radio.
In the midst of all this acrimony, the singer fled from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his new American bride Janet Rigsbee, whom he nicknamed Janet Planet.
Morrison was more adrift in his career than ever at this point -- but on a songwriting roll. Given his circumstances, he could have easily fished for another hit, a “Brown Eyed Girl, Pt. 2,” perhaps. Instead, the 22-year-old dove thrillingly into freefall. He’d been developing new material around his and Janet’s Boston kitchen table. Over basic, first-position guitar progressions, Morrison wailed impressionistic poetry, in which he faced down grief, loss and dawning adulthood like he was staring into the sun.
When the singer headed to New York’s Century Sound Studios that fall, he wasn’t set up with pop or R&B session cats, but with jazz veterans. Drummer Connie Kay hailed from the East Coast bop legends Modern Jazz Quartet; upright bassist Richard Davis had made waves on Eric Dolphy’s 1964 free-jazz classic Out to Lunch!.
Like any Verve or Blue Note classic, Weeks was recorded almost completely live; it was tracked in only three days. The mostly unrehearsed musicians vamp together in strange, slippery timing. In its loose swirl of imperfections, the music seems to lift a few inches off the ground.
The results tanked commercially, and Morrison would find a way to split the difference between his experimental and commercial sides on future albums like 1970’s Moondance, 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher to much applause. He’d never fully return to the style of Astral Weeks.
Morrison still seems nonplussed and insecure about the album. Over the years, he’s strangely described it as a “rock opera,” denigrated the heavily improvised arrangements as “too samey,” and even declared the young man’s yearnings in the lyrics to be “totally fictional.” He’d come around to Weeks onstage, performing the album during a run of Hollywood Bowl concerts in 2008 -- but with the track sequence completely reshuffled.
Despite its cool reception in 1968 and Morrison’s waffling opinion in the 21st century, Astral Weeks continues to ensnare new listeners to this day. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, here’s a track-by-track retrospective of the original album.
Back in 1966, Morrison visited the Belfast, Ireland, home of his friend, painter Cecil McCartney. He’d been working on some paintings themed around astral projection, and they caught the singer’s eye; he’d go on to translate the visuals into a song.
When it came time to audition some material for producer Lewis Merenstein at Ace Recording Studio in Boston, Morrison pulled out a tune he’d written around that “astral” theme. “If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dreams,” he began.
“My whole being was vibrating,” Merenstein later remembered in 2008. “I knew he was being reborn. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him in that moment.”
On record, the song climbs and climbs, egged on by Richard Davis’ limbic, octave-leaping bass. By the end, Morrison’s finds the “other side”: “In another time / In another place,” he whispers from his cosmic destination.
Like Gustave Doré’s famous wood engraving The Saintly Throng in the Shape of a Rose, in which Dante and Beatrice behold a blinding vision of paradise, “Astral Weeks” is a gateway into a beatific zone, “way up in the heaven.”
After “Astral Weeks” throws open the Pearly Gates, “Beside You” seems to hang weightlessly. Like its musical cousin, Bobby Hutcherson’s 1965 ambient jazz gem, “Tranquillity,” the beat all but disappears, leaving the remaining instruments to hover in a vacuum. Using this empty canvas, Morrison spits evocative poetry. “You breathe in, you breathe out,” he chants over and over, until the listener is on the same “high-flying cloud” he’s reached.
“Beside You” evokes Gemini-like intertwinement and twinship, and the title could be literally defined, too: Morrison sounds completely up-front in the mix, singing in your ear, beckoning you personally.
“Sweet Thing” suggests an image focusing, the haze clearing and an earthbound scene coming into view. Morrison’s language becomes simpler; the music becomes grounded and driving. He scans this oasis he’s reached: the ferryboats, the greenery, the clear, clean water. “I will never, ever grow so old again,” Morrison insists, like he’s so smitten he’s unlocked the shackles of aging and time.
Then, a poetic K.O. punch: “I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry,” a love metaphor worthy of the Song of Solomon. More than any Astral Weeks cut, “Sweet Thing” exists in a world of lustful ideations, capturing the expectant spasms of an adolescent mind.
Written from the vantage point of a car seat-bound child, “Cyprus Avenue” captures perhaps the most magical Astral Weeks performance of them all. Ordinary sights from Morrison’s Belfast childhood are charged with emotional import: autumn leaves, engine drivers, a mansion on a hill. Then, the money line: Van seems to joyously scream “Hooray!"
He’s really singing “rainbow ribbons in her hair.” But what a spine-tingling note he hits; harpsichordist Larry Carlton seems to lose his place for an entire verse. “Ah, lord,” Morrison then sings, as if he’d momentarily lost himself. Then Carlton sweeps back into the song right on cue. This small moment, like so many on Astral Weeks, will make your hair stand on end.
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
This fine, Vegas-flavored cut should have waited for a more traditional Van album; he’d re-do it for 2018’s duet album with Joey DeFrancesco, You’re Driving Me Crazy. But it’s beneath such a lyrically evocative song cycle; Morrison sings of basking in “sunshine” and “sweet summertime” with his main squeeze. Schmaltzy horns stab at the song from the margins.
What “Lovers” does have going for it is a strangely dense, cacophonous atmosphere, like the Rat Pack is in a bar brawl with The Sun Ra Arkestra. Still, the inclusion of “Lovers” remains a frustrating choice: Astral Weeks is one song away from perfection.
“Madame George,” a tribute to a downcast street character, is full of mysteries. For one, there’s the title: Morrison actually sings “Madame Joy” on the recording, for whatever reason. And over time, lines about George’s “high-heeled shoes” and “playing dominoes in drag” codified the character in public imagination as a drag queen.
Morrison has pushed back on this easy designation. “If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it’s your trip,” he testily remarked to Rolling Stone. “I see it as a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that.”
Whatever the case, Morrison tenderly bestows dignity on George, even when she’s rolled by the cops. She’s not just anybody; she’s “the one and only.” Then, the song suddenly shifts from George to a generalized sense of leaving; just as soon as we’ve entered this “childlike vision,” we’re asked to “get on the train” and abandon it all.
Over a sad, hypnotic coda, Morrison waves “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” to this sad, triumphant character. Perhaps “Madame George” stands in for anywhere, or anyone, that we once called home.
The heady emotional trip of “Madame George” gives way to Astral Weeks’ simplest, loveliest song. Morrison wrote “Ballerina” on tour with Them; it’s about his future wife, Janet. Perhaps foreshadowing Weeks, he and his Them bandmates worked out the tune over flutes and acoustic guitars in stolen moments between tour stops.
“I was sitting in this hotel and all these things were going through my head,” he explained in Peter Mills’ 2008 book Hymns to the Silence. And the germ of the song came from a sudden vision. “I had a flash about an actress in an opera house appearing in a ballet,” he remembered.
On “Ballerina,” Morrison crucially takes a time-out from Astral Weeks’ angst and bravado; a beam of feminine light cuts through. His tone is supportive and sweet, encouraging a dancer to trust-fall into his embrace. All she’s gotta do is ring a bell, and step right up.
“Slim Slow Slider”
If “Ballerina” wraps up Astral Weeks’ overall arc by uniting Morrison with a feminine figure, “Slim Slow Slider” is the bitter epilogue. It’s a sparse, wintry sketch about observing a faraway girl on horseback.
“I know you’re dying, baby,” Morrison sings at the end. “And I know you know it too / Every time I see you / I just don’t know what to do.” In its last moments, he stops playing altogether, striking the body of his acoustic guitar like he’s slapping a dreamer awake.
When Morrison resurrected Weeks onstage in 2008, he reshuffled “Slim Slow Slider” as the third song, rather than the last. Perhaps even he was unnerved by its darkness and finality. Astral Weeks offers a vivid look at the emotional extremes of life, but on “Slim Slow Slider,” Morrison confronts the end.