Wednesday, March 18, 2009

40 Years Later, Van Morrison Tackles the Sacred "Astral Weeks" All Over Again

Whether you believe it was for lucrative reasons or for artistic reasons is irrelevant because Van Morrison is reviving Astral Weeks, a landmark album in the lexicon of Twentieth Century music. One of the few rock era works that can stand on par artistically with the best jazz and classical have offered us, Astral Weeks has received another round of revisiting thanks to the recent actions of Van Morrison, the legendary Celtic soul poet-singer. 2008 marked its 40th anniversary and Van felt that was a good, ripe number for getting back at the immortal song cycle in concert. While he has played selections from the 1968 album in concert for years, this is the first time the entire thing has been performed live in its entirety and with all the necessary parts to replicate the album, or at least what Van intended it to sound like. Currently undergoing a tour with the album as the drawing card, Van kicked it off commercially by releasing Astral Weeks- Live at the Hollywood Bowl early in February. It's always a risk to revisit the past so openly but in rare cases it works such as with this venture by Van and Brian Wilson's live adaptation of Pet Sounds and studio release of Smile, his aborted 1967 masterwork. And considering Van hasn't quite taken listeners by storm these past 15 years the way he used to, it also seems like a smart career move.

Van Morrison will continue to put out new work practically per annum, being the prolific spirit he is. 2008's Keep it Simple was his latest studio record and while okay, it was like his previous half dozen albums or so, not counting his collaborations with Linda Gail Lewis and Lonnie Donegan. Not since 1998's Back on Top has a Morrison album sounded even remotely like you haven't heard some of it before. Morrison might just be better off sticking to more projects out of his expected fare like perhaps more purely jazz and Celtic oriented material (the latter of which has been sorely lacking from his work for the past 15 years). There hasn't been a truly impressive album from Van the Man since 1997's The Healing Game or if you're less charitable 1993's Too Long in Exile. Nothing about those two solid works was that challenging or mined fertile artistic ground it should be noted, like 1991's streaky yet incredibly spiritual and personal double-disc Hymns to the Silence. 1989's Avalon Sunset still stands as the last great combination of that deep artistic drive and excellent songwriting, while the last indispensable masterpiece of Van's career was 1979's glorious Into the Music

As great as Into the Music was, it still did not quite touch Astral Weeks, Morrison's unanimously recognized best album (athough some huge fans of Moondance may disagree). It all depends on the ear of the listener rather than irrefutable evidence but what can't be denied is that Astral Weeks has endured as the most groundbreaking and critically adored thing Morrison has ever been associated with and he has been a critics' darling for much of his 45 years in the music industry. Perspective behind the album is needed. After years of playing around his native Belfast, North Ireland, George Ivan Morrison's teenage years of experience paid off when his band Them hit the charts in 1964. Van had cut his teeth since age 11 on R&B, blues, jazz and country music absorbed from his musical family and a childhood diet of listening to music greats in those genres. Though he played no instrumental outstandingly well, he was able to provide guitar, saxophone and harmonica and became perhaps the most original, soulful white singer of the rock era. He seemed just another young snot in the British Invasion scene, partially due to unfair representation by record company advertising that labeled Them as "The Angry Young Them."

While Morrison with Them generated plenty of vital covers of his heroes songs, such as Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Turn on Your Lovelight") and T-Bone Walker ("Stormy Monday Blues"), it only seemed like he was at the top of the heap in a parade of white kids from the UK singing black music. As a songwriter, he did provide classic hits like "Gloria," "Here Comes the Night" and "Mystic Eyes," but it wasn't as if these songs were outside the realm of most blues-based music out of the whole British Invasion. Them's biggest hits closely resembled groups like the Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things too much for them to be considered pioneers or originators like the Beatles or the Who were. But Morrison's less raw R&B work showed a true artist bubbling beneath the surface. This is confirmed with listens to his unique approach for instrumental arrangements plus his own penned works like "My Lonely Sad Eyes" or "Don't Look Back" as well as a surreal, earthly cover of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (complete with reverby piano arpeggios sampled years later by Beck's "Jack-Ass" in 1996). This was no ordinary three-chord rock flash-in-the-pan, which "Gloria" might have given some people the impression he was. 

When, by 1966, Them splintered after several lineup changes that practically left Van the only true member (for example he had session men like Jimmy Page fill in when needed), he embarked on the inevitable solo career. Getting to where he wanted was held up by an uneasy experience at Bang Records, a label owned by renowned hitmaker Bert Berns. Berns oversaw Van's work through 1967, which was distinguished by one of his few top 1o hits, the oldies staple "Brown Eyed Girl." As typically the random tastes of the public go, this enjoyable, breezy love tune is still his most popular even though it is far from one of his best. It prompted the release of an album of similar party-goer R&B, Blowin' Your Mind. The album did not yield a chart showing nor any hit single followup to "Brown Eyed Girl" even though it tried for further chart gold with "Ro Ro Rosey" and "Spanish Rose" (no word on whether he planned "La Vie en Rose" as a followup... I kid, I kid). Still, there's a streak of brilliance even with the off-hand, demo-like nature of the LP- and indeed it was culled from what Morrison intended to be demos for what he truly wanted to do. The way Berns culled an LP from these sessions was a slight that soured his relationship with Berns, who wanted more pop hits. 

The jarringly intriguing and meditative R&B of Blowin' Your Mind, best represented by "T.B. Sheets" and "He Ain't Giving You None," was a precursor to his glory days as a soul renaissance man, yet even these stellar songs did not hint at the direction Astral Weeks would take him in. After Berns died of a sudden heart attack in December of '67, Morrison's career was nearly torpedoed by a legal battle with Berns' widow Ilene. Ilene Berns inherited contracts including Morrison's and vowed to keep him tied to the label as an asset, still upset and believing her husband's death to be brought about mainly by the stressful relationship with the steel-headed Irish rogue Morrison. She attempted deportation when she realized he had not achieved U.S. citizenship due to unfinished documents by her husband but this was overcome when Van's American girlfriend Janet "Planet" Rigsbee agreed to marry him. Van was contractually obligated for a certain number of recorded songs for Bang Records and Berns' publishing company Web IV so a session in which he brazenly reeled off thirty-six nonsense tunes for it. Thanks to managerial work, he only needed to do this plus release a single and include two compositions from Web IV publishing for his next album. 

Ultimately, there was no single, but 1967's "Madame George" (nee "Madame Joy") and "Beside You" would be the ones attributed to Web IV publishing, although revamped beyond recognition from their early, bare bones demos. With a new contract from Warner Bros. plus a new producer to work with in Lewis Merenstein, Van felt freer to explore his desired territory, often performing live in the Boston area (where he now lived) with college student musicians while he strummed on acoustic guitar. He had been doing this even without a contract, going from the high profile of top 40 AM radio and appearances on shows like American Bandstand to small club gigs with little to no fanfare. A famous tale involves him being asked at a live show to come to the stage alongside an early version of future party R&B luminaries the J. Geils to sing "Gloria"- then less closely associated with Van and Them than with another Morrison in the late 60s, Jim from the Doors. Not to mention the top 10 hit carbon copy by American garage rockers The Shadows of the Knight. Van was being booed because nobody recognized him, prompting lead singer Peter Wolf to indignantly question "Don't you know who this is? This is the man who wrote the song!"

Eventually, after all the hardships of being married with a child (daughter Shana born in 1968) and nearly penniless thanks to the usual industry screw jobs, Van secured appearances as part of a trio setting with flautist John Payne and bassist Tom Kielbana. This is likely where his unique sort of folk-jazz muse found its genesis. But Lewis Merenstein practically replaced this trio for the recording sessions, although Payne dropped in on some tracks with flute and soprano sax on "Slim Slow Slider." Merenstein, steeped in jazz, decided to get musicians with a similar background by providing top notch sidemen in guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay (future member of the Modern Jazz Quartet), bassist Richard Davis and percussionist Warren Smith Jr. These musicians formed the basis of the instrumentation with some string and horn parts overdubbed onto the live-in-the-studio tracks. Conflicting reports on the way the sessions were conducted have come up throughout the years but it seems that Van certainly did stay rather laissez-fare and quiet with his hired hands. He did not mingle so much as he gave basic, hazy instructions. 

What occurred was that there were lead sheets handed to the musicians and they were allowed to improvise throughout. Leading along was Morrison strumming the chords on his acoustic guitar, not always in a separate booth as previously mentioned, and usually providing guide vocals that were of course wiped out when he overdubbed the exquisite vocals heard on the final cut. Now, a combination of elements need to go together and mesh extremely well for an album to achieve that classic moniker and Astral Weeks scores a 10 on practically every approach, from lyrics to musicianship to production to arrangement to vocals. It's been called a song cycle over the years, so if you're sick of hearing that phrase then too bad. Better get used to it because it really is a song cycle. Let me preach to ya... The songs, for the most part, are one atmosphere, one narrative, all linked by Morrison's allusions to a romantic-era notion of love and growing up, all rife with imagery not unlike that of an impressionist painting. Van talks of feelings but does just as much describing of events and sights around him. Never again would Van's lyrics be so evocative or poetic, even when the music behind the words was as mesmerizing as ever.

The phrasing around the vocals Van the Man provides is apparent from the very first track, the title song "Astral Weeks." Van's way with words is breathtaking as he even adds on syllables for a novel effect (e.g. "Would you kiss-a my eyes?"). "Astral Weeks" sets the stage for what's to come by looking at the concept or rebirth or reincarnation. Van's lyrics would often be a little indulgent in the future but it's hard to top the Dylan-esque visionary work from Astral Weeks. Images like "Viaducts of your dream," "Where immobile steel rims crack" and "Talkin' to Huddie Leadbetter" are evocative ones at the very least. The song hushes toward the end with the string section oscillating and the bass bending notes behind Van's gentle crooning about being "In another time" and "In another place/In another face." Jay Berliner's guitar work borders on the classical throughout this LP and nowhere is that more effective or even Spanish-sounding than on the next tune, "Beside You," a song with practically no chorus, bridge or semblance of arrangement that one hears in a more standard pop song. It's not a masterpiece composition but it makes up for its lack of melodic ideas and structure wholeheartedly through the swirling, inhaling pulse of the instrumentation and Van's improvisatory vocal command. 

It's startling to hear how he can turn a seemingly one-note song into such a brilliant showpiece of jazzy folk. How phrases are repeated- take a listen to "Six bell chime/Six bell chime" or the captivating "You breathe in, you breathe out/You breathe in, you breathe out"- is further proof that Morrison was already a master at his craft and an artistic emoter of the pains and anguishes of life, all by the age of 23 as well. It's a rambling, ruminating collection of lyrics, matched by its musical approach. The possibly of it being a random, difficult-to-follow, stream-of-consciousness aside, "Beside You" is an innovative, majestic entry for Astral Weeks. It's one of the few tracks devoid of strings and for good reason as strings would only clutter the sound too much. It's fine the way its. Furthermore, "Beside You" combines poetic descriptions with what could be excerpts of conversation, juxtapositions lyrically that this album manages to pull off effortlessly where any mortal album might fail. The most everlasting classic from the album is the third one, "Sweet Thing." Bringing back in the strings while going even more up-tempo, "Sweet Thing" has been pointed to as the definitive example of Van's Celtic folk leanings. 

Once again, the imagery in a song from this landmark work is as vivid as any song in the rock era or under any 20th century medium of music. It's the closest that audial art has ever gotten to impressionist paintings. On "Sweet Thing" in particular, the urgency in the lyrics is at its highest. We have Van's trusty allusions to "Gardens all misty wet with rain" and a girl with "The champagne eyes" that reoccur throughout Astral Weeks. Also interesting is how he describes his intentions by beginning thought fragments with the word "and" (e.g. "And I shall drive my chariots down your street and cry"). It rolls off like more stream-of-consciousness brilliance and you'd think Van was channeling James Joyce, Artur Rimbaud or Dylan Thomas, just a few of his many poet idols. Van is one of the few artists who pulls off such heady work without sounding too indulgent or pretentious. The darting, dramatic string arrangement only increases the longing and emotion put forth by all involved on "Sweet Thing." With his incredible oeuvre, a few people may get lost and give up along the way, but the ones Morrison does entice with his music will forever be given pleasure by his greatest work. That's the rub on his legend. 

Of course, there are the dividing lines with his best stuff because one who appreciates Moondance might find Astral Weeks too artsy, acoustic, high-minded and not nearly as catchy. "Sweet Thing" is one of the pivotal compositions in an already stellar songbook. More blues-based, yet this is cancelled out by adding in violin, flute and harpsichord touches, would be the torch song "Cyprus Avenue," one of the few Astral Weeks tunes Van saw fit to put in his set lists for years to come. When he went in a direction more geared to R&B/soul with horns and rhythmic drums becoming much more pronounced than on Astral Weeks, "Cyprus Avenue" found new life as a set closing extravaganza. Another of the coming-of-age tales, "Cyprus Avenue" captures the youthful angst and exuberance straight from the streets, as if it's a re-imagining of Van's youth in Belfast. Think of the way Bruce Springsteen weaved stories from the street in his early days, namely on 1973's The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (still Bruce's most honest masterpiece in this author's opinion because it never needed a cinematic, grandiose, Phil Spector layout to hit the spot like Born to Run needed). 

Like that early Springsteen before Jon Landau and socio-political concerns turned Springsteen's music tighter and more regimented, Van presents himself like a street poet. Unlike Bruce's wholly charged-up American-cum-New Jersey viewpoint, Van has a definite different, literally foreign background to offer, reflected all the more by the dichotomy from being raised in North Ireland to now residing, as a young, married man, in the New World (New England to be exact). Whatever the musical differences, the lyrics and vocal ingenuity suggests the song cycle concept is indeed a valid point because it's almost interchangeable with "Astral Weeks" and "Sweet Thing." Now, that's not a negative point at all, only an observation on just how thematically linked the tracks here tend to get. A total break from the acoustic-based arrangements of the first four tracks, and the last three, comes with the jazz-steeped "The Way Young Lovers Do." In this up-tempo, big band setting, Van's lyrics about young love sound more celebratory than melancholy or unnerved, which the previous four songs do sound by comparison. Nonetheless, Van demonstrates he can also sing magnificently in a blustery, swinging rhythm while still using his range to its fullest.

Some people, critics and fans alike, found the abrupt difference of "Young Lovers" to be a cheesy step in the vein of a Chicago or Blood, Sweet and Tears who were around by then but ahd yet to experience their highest commercial acceptance. But it's a welcome change since it breaks the mood a little without disrupting the flow. A mediocre jazzy tune and all of a sudden, Astral Weeks loses momentum. Good thing "Young Lovers" isn't. It offers acoustic guitars as per usual with this album, but this is overshadowed by the fact the drums are pushing the beat rather than complimenting with light fills. Add in strings, which are thrown in with authority, leading to fantastic staccato bursts and some descending licks during the chord progression. Kudos to the string arranger because nowhere else on Astral Weeks are the use of strings more noticeable or more enjoyable. This is a prelude to Van's (sans strings) modern jazz classic "Moondance," only not as cool and breezy. If slowed down a little, one could picture "Young Lovers" as a fine piece for Sinatra. It's followed by the most bittersweet track, "Madame George," long believed to be written about a drag queen despite Van's insistence it was not written about that at all. It's early title "Madame Joy" would also lead one to that conclusion. 

"Madame George" is like the sad farewell for the album, though it is only the third-to-last track, in comparison to the rather open-ended musings of the other tracks. It's like a foreshadowing to all the great Morrison tracks that run several minutes but use the lengthy running time to build up the drama ("And the Healing Has Begun," "Listen to the Lion," "It's All in the Game/You Know What They're Writing About," live versions of "Caravan" all have this same tactic used to wonderful effect). While few of the songs go under 5 minutes (indeed the average running time being just under 6 minutes), "Madame George" takes the length right under the 10 minute mark and every second is worth savouring. Rather than go for more grand statements, Van uses the final two tracks for a bit more modest purposes, though "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider" are excellent in their own right. "Ballerina," the oldest composition of any here as it reportedly was started in 1965, finds Van writing the most conventional chorus of the album. Few if any of the choruses beforehand this one on Astral Weeks stand out from the verses but on "Ballerina," there's no mistaking it as the chorus when Van sings "All you gotta do/Is ring the bell/And step right up/Step right up/Step right up/Just like a ballerina." 

This chorus part is given many variations vocally as Van uses his trademark stuttering, repetition and melisma abilities very well, as expected if you're used to Van's style. If you haven't heard any of the singing I describe, well surely you have heard "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and if you've ever sporadically listened to classic rock radio you have. If so, you'll understand. If not, just take a listen to it, put up next to Van's singing work on Astral Weeks, especially "Ballerina." Randy Bachman's humourous stuttering and repetition may seem like a harkening back to the days where doo-wop acts used onomatopoeia or gibberish wordplay but it has much more to do in common with the signature style of Mr. Van Morrison in fact. So whether Randy Bachman did it on purpose or without actually attempting to ape/parody Van, he managed to make "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" the most Van Morrison-like vocal that the actual Van Morrison never actually sang. As for "Ballerina" itself, the song works the way many of the other songs do on the LP as pertains to free-form singing and lyrics. 

There's plenty of variety in the way Morrison employs syllables in a line too, much like Dylan could have a song where some lines were short and terse while others went for busy wordplay (similarly attempted to the already referenced Springsteen, though not always to great effect, on his debut Greetings from Asbury Park). On "Ballerina," some lines are as simple as "Spread your wings" while others have syllables packed like sardines in a tin can, e.g. "But something deep in my heart tells me I'm right and I don't think so." That very line is also a great example of the way Van can transition from one line in a lower register to the very next in a range an octave or so higher. He'll even leave pauses at times before adding in more of the words which leads one to believe a lot of the musical ideas were generated after the lyrics, and it wouldn't be surprising knowing Van's love for poetry. Sometimes Morrison hangs on a word with his vocal flourishes, turning the word "right" in the final "Step right up" of the chorus into a nine or ten syllable word! "Writing" in "You know I saw the writing on the wall" gets twelve or thirteen syllables. It's like he took a linguistics course, the way he can exploit syllables, phrases and whole words.

Van's way with vocalized words was unprecedented at the time for a pop singer. His use of repeating or stuttering over them was much like the scatting jazz's vocal greats made popular (More proof of Louis Armstrong's contributions to 20th Century Music!). Yet this was even before Van had become truly immersed in emulating jazz greats, tending to be more influenced by singers like Big Bill Broozny, Hank Williams, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ray Charles. Van hadn't made these vocal quirks so clear in his work as part of Them, but starting with Astral Weeks he became the most inventive and soulful white singer around in the rock and roll world. As mentioned, Morrison, according to Lewis Merenstein, wasn't so well versed on jazz at this point, although certainly along the line in his career he became more intrigued by it based on the way he infused jazz into later songs and how he has used it in recent years- even cutting a decent, jazz record (falling more to the bluesier jazz side, where Van is more at home) with Georgie Fame in 1996 entitled How Long Has This Been Going on? No song is more enhanced by Van's strong vocal performance than "Ballerina" it must be said. 

The instruments on "Ballerina" are more locked into the rhythm than usual, save for Richard Davis' twangy bends on the double bass, so Van's singing takes centre stage and does not fall short of the mark whatsoever. So with material this strong, singing should be a piece of cake you ask? Well, Van attempted a similarly active vocal attack for the so-called "spiritual follow-up" to this one, 1974's much misunderstood Veedon Fleece. But on Veedon Fleece, a fine album itself even if it's not Astral Weeks part 2, there are issues with pitch and timbre that hamper things a tad. In the grand scheme of things, Van has scaled back the urgency in his vocals over the years, going for a more relaxed thing since the early 90s. This change came after pretty much a period of similarly styled vocals from 1980 (the start of his rather spiritual awakening, an uncommercial religious journey so to speak) to 1991 (the end of that exotic phase and the beginning of his era as a jack-of-all-trades nostalgic cultivator of his all-time favourite musics). Age and a nicotene habit- that has likely been put to an end resulting in his warm, smooth vocals of recent years- are probably the main factors for Van's 1964-1974 period being unparalleled by anything afterward. 

1975-1979 found Van's vocals getting gruffer and, while less urgent and reliant on his upper register, he was still very powerful as a singer. The declining excellence of his vocals proves that in 1968 his dexterity, range and versatility as a vocalist was likely at its all-time peak. So with Astral Weeks, namely with "Ballerina," it is an opportunity to see an always great singer at his greatest vocally. Musically, "Ballerina" also uses aspects quite appropriate for such thematic material with flute and vibraphone. The strings hardly make their presence known and rightly so as they're more fluid and soaring than intense and fortissimo, if you will, like at other times on Astral WeeksWithout some of these incredibly spot-on instrumental quirks, Astral Weeks likely isn't the near-perfect record it turned out to be. Lewis Merenstein eternally deserves credit for his enlistment of players, the same core of which Van turned down when sessions began a year later for his awaited follow-up Moondance. And of course that also turned out to be the proper move for Van's move onto a purer R&B path, like a continuation of what he started in Them. But for Astral Weeks, this group of musicians used were the perfect choice. 

The final song here is the oddly calm "Slim Slow Slider," which features just light acoustic guitar, bass and a soprano sax part that shows how that instrument was quite underrated and overlooked, at least that's before Kenny G smashed its reputation into a million multi-platinum, odorous elevator muzak pieces. "Slim Slow Slider" could be adapted into a jazz piece by the right person and made even more resonant but we're left to wait and wonder I suppose. The song is rather brief in light of all the long-winding pieces, clocking in at just 3:16. There's a reason for this as the song segued into a freak-out sort of avant-garde breakdown with the soprano sax trilling and wildly tooting away dissonantly, sort of in the style of an Ornette Coleman free jazz jam. Merenstein reportedly felt the free jazz segment to be too long and too distracting to keep in the master cut, so it received a good, healthy edit down from somewhere around 8-9 minutes to just around three and a half. Actually, that probably made it more fitting to be the final track. It's difficult to end an album with as many climaxing moments as Astral Weeks so why not end it with an unexpectedly weird moment? It's not as if other tracks didn't get edits but "Slim Slow Slider" received the most impactful one. 

What is heard on the finished product is a snippet of that "freak out" with echoes emanating from the slapping of the acoustic guitar to give it that "lost in the distance" vibe. It's only a few seconds of this bizarre stuff before the fadeout puts a stop to it. An abrupt, strange finish indeed but perhaps when an album is like Astral Weeks, the best way to end it is in classic anticlimactic fashion. Well, like practically everything attempted here, the ending does its job and "Slim Slow Slider" is a fitting salute for the 8-track, 47 minute journey. Every single song is capable of being someone's favourite from the album and how rare is that we can say that about any album? Sure there's only eight but not a moment wasted. Astral Weeks is getting a whole new crowd and attention with Van dragging the songs from the songbook for live adaptations, a sort of wrinkle that he claims is truer to the real thing he wanted. This is mostly because of his long-held belief that the studio is constricting and puts limits on performance. With this post, I have attempted to sort through the hype and glare in order to look at the album itself and analyze just what makes it arguably one of the top 10 albums ever made. 

Sure, Astral Weeks is a song cycle but it also deserves some praise for pulling off what it did without really relying on a clear concept (you know, like The Wall's, er, "Wall" or Tommy's "Deaf, dumb and blind kid 'Pinball Wizard'".... or Styx's Mr. Roboto). Far too many albums have looked for a concept to artificially raise the quality or artistic achievement. Too many have thought that their album needed that. Far too many albums have been rated much higher than they deserve due to this, so I suppose it can work in the artists' favour after all. But still, a concept-less work once in a while will suffice, believe it or not all you philosophically-minded Pink Floyd fans. Sometimes a concept can make an album weighed down by its own adherence to plot details, or lack of for that matter (parts of The Wall I just don't get, not to mention I find it overrated overall). After all, Pete Towshend had done nothing but attempt story lines to the Who's work from 1968-1973 and even he resorted to an album that's concept was in the thematic material with the sobering, depressed The Who by the Numbers. Van adding an actual story to Astral Weeks or any of his albums would be a giant risk. 

Van may have created what they call a song cycle, but Astral Weeks just stands as an exemplary piece of art and a reminder of how the Long-Player had evolved to become the dominant form of musical expression after years of the tide shifting (Indeed, Astral Weeks came out in November of 1968, a year where sales of LPs finally outstripped those of 45s, aka singles). It also signaled the start of a vital, classic solo artist who would become one of the rock era's true standout singers and songwriters. It must have been a bit of a shock to those that only knew the name Van Morrison because of the Top 10 success of "Brown Eyed Girl" just over a year earlier, a success that for any mere mortal would force them to bear the burden of having "Flash in the pan" and/or "One Hit Wonder" written all over them. For Van, "Brown Eyed Girl" was a shot in the dark hit and certainly not a sign of where he was headed and surely did not foreshadow the stunning arrival of Astral Weeks. I'm not griping with people who go to a Van concert only to hear "Gloria" and "Brown Eyed Girl" (and many seemingly were there for that when I saw the man live in concert several months ago). Let them have their preoccupation with those songs. 

Really, as long as "Brown Eyed Girl" is earning Van royalties, he's free to do whatever he wants and be financially secure. I suppose not incredibly secure or satisfied because why else would he be attempting a retrospective look at his opus LP some four decades down the road. All the power to him! But whatever preconceptions people had of him in 1968, Van Morrison erased the element of surprise from his future work for good once he put out Astral Weeks in the late autumn of '68. Too popular to be a cult artist, not popular enough to be a superstar, Van's career has taken many twists and turns as anybody's will over 45 years. But he has had such a minimal amount of dead-end moments for that length of time in the business- a business he has made no bones about reminding us he can hardly stand, sometimes to the point of tedium or boredom. And he never has had a "washed up" moment like a Dylan or even Neil Young despite being prolific. Perhaps the past 15 years have not been a source of constant magic like his 70s prime, but that's asking a hell of a lot from a guy who brought us Astral Weeks, one masterful LP among several. No matter what, Astral Weeks will be the crowned jewel in his repertoire of albums.

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