Thursday, November 28, 2013

astral weeks

Van Morrison ventured in the slipstream and found revelation and redemption in the free form transcendental jazz poetry of this magical confessional vision quest.  Having seen none of the money from his big hit 'Brown Eyed Girl', Morrison grew increasingly discouraged with Bert Berns and Bang Records and sought more freedom in the studio.  Things got worse for Morrison after Berns died from a heart attack and his wife, who inherited the contract, blamed Morrison for his death.   She contacted the office of  Immigration and Naturalization Services and refused to let him go into the studio.  New York clubs would not book him out of fear that they would be sued.  Morrison escaped deportation by marrying his girlfriend  Janet (Planet) Rigsbee and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he found work in local clubs.  He began experimenting with a more acoustic sound with Berklee School of Music student Tom Kielbania on upright bass.  Kielbania invited jazz-trained flautist John Payne to join their jam sessions; and Morrison invited Payne to play on his new album.  Warner Brother Records offered him a record deal; but they had to buy out his contract with Bang.  

Bob Schwaid secured an arrangement with Bang that included:  1) Morrison had to submit three new songs per month during the next year (he banged out thirty six nonsense songs in one session); 2) Morrison had to give half of the copyright for any single released over the next year (Warner did not release any singles during that time); and 3) Morrison had to include two song on his next album that were controlled by their publishing company (he recorded versions of  "Madame George" and "Beside You" that were completely different from the versions he had been pressured to make for Bang).  Schwaid's partner Lewis Merenstein was not the first producer sent to see Morrison; but he was the first to connect with how much his sound had developed from his big hit single.  When he first heard Morrison  playing the title track at Ace Recording studio, Merenstein says:  "I started crying. It just vibrated in my soul, and I knew that I wanted to work with that sound."

'Astral Weeks' was recorded at Century Sound Studios in New York City with Van Morrison on vocals and acoustic guitar; Jay Berliner on classical and steel-string acoustic guitars; Richard Davis on double bass; Larry Fallon on harpsichord on "Cyprus Avenue"; Connie Kay on drums; Barry Kornfeld on acoustic guitar on "The Way Young Lovers Do"; and John Payne on flute and soprano saxophone on "Slim Slow Slider";  Warren Smith, Jr. on percussion and vibraphone;   and contributions from arranger and conductor Larry Fallon.

Morrison looked back in a recent interview: "Well, first, I think I have probably always been more advanced in my head, in my thinking, than the calendar age of 22. My thinking musically has always been more advanced -- it is difficult to get it down onto paper sometimes, even now. And the Music on 'Astral Weeks' required these great musicians because no one else could have pulled it off like they did. There is another reason, too, and that is the fact I did not settle for anyone other than these guys -- they were the ones I insisted on...I had been with Bert Berns’ Bang Records label, and I didn’t get paid, so I was living on a shoestring -- a very hand-to-mouth existence at that time -- in Boston and for a long time after that too. I went down to New York and this is when I got the offer from Warner Brothers. They had told me they had to buy out the Bang deal. Then I got involved with [producer Lewis] Merenstein, et al. The real reason I made 'Astral Weeks' recordings in New York is because I was literally broke and they kept me stranded there...I had already written “Ballerina,” in 1966!, if this tells you anything, and the poetry written on the backside of the 'Astral Weeks' album [cover] was an excerpt from something else I had written prior to that! Matter of fact, thinking back, I had previously recorded “Madame George” and “Beside You” well before the '68 Warner release, for Bang Records. But the arrangements were nothing like what I had in mind for those songs. I had also previously played versions of a few of the songs Live at the Catacombs [club] in Boston well before going in and making what became the 'Astral Weeks' recordings that ended up as the record. We made that record straight through finally like I wanted them, without stopping. We did it my way in the studio that day...So, yes it took a very long time and a lot of thinking and arranging and hard work to structure these songs like I wanted them, like I envisioned them in my head. That was the hardest work, but then I found out I then had to work through the people in the music business, and then the people that come around as a result that you are in the music business, and that was even harder, but in a different way. All for the sake of making my music, my song...Merenstein came about when my back was against the wall. I did not have a choice at the time. I was all the way on the ground. People only have a choice when they have money -- I did not have either, they made sure of that. Then I found out when you have success, then come the sharks in disguise -- and those [were] quite obvious. I did most of the [production] work myself, though, if the truth be told. I wrote it all, put it all where it needed to be... 'Astral Weeks' songs were written over a period of time -– some early 1966 -- and evolved musically. They are timeless works that were from another sort of place -- not what is at all obvious. They are poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination...The songs are poetic stories, so the meaning is the same as always -- timeless and unchanging. The songs are works of fiction that will inherently have a different meaning for different people. People take from it whatever their disposition to take from it is. It is like Tolkien’s “Hobbit” -- the hobbit is what it is. I doubt he would change what the stories [are] just because time went by... 'Astral Weeks' are little poetic stories I made up and set to music. The album is about song craft for me -- making things up and making them fit to a tune I have arranged. The songs were somewhat channeled works -- that is why I called it 'Astral Weeks'. As my songwriting has gone on I tend to do the same channeling, so it’s sort of like 'Astral Decades', I guess...I am about the arrangements and the layers of depth in the music. So, no, I do not see it any differently than it is -- it just is whatever it is...Now that I really think about it, this, like all of my work, comes from the collective unconscious, I suppose. That is why it speaks different things to different people. All of my records are unique unto themselves and this one is no different. It is just part of what I do as a songwriter. These are just another set of stories and poetry, like all of them."

 'Astral Weeks'
full album:

All songs written by Van Morrison

Part One: In The Beginning
1. "Astral Weeks"   7:06
2. "Beside You"   5:16
3. "Sweet Thing"   4:25
4. "Cyprus Avenue"   7:00

Part Two: Afterwards
1. "The Way Young Lovers Do"   3:18
2. "Madame George"   9:45
3. "Ballerina"   7:03
4. "Slim Slow Slider"   3:17

live at the Hollywood Bowl

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