Thursday, January 14, 2010

Van Morrison- Astral Weeks

Assuming I had the time and money, I would probably become a wine snob. I really enjoy all of the almost ritualistic steps that go into tasting and enjoying wine. At least in this country, wine isn't really the drink of the common man; it's not something where you get home from work and think "I'll have a glass or two of wine." Nah, you reach for the cheap, domestic cans of beer. Wine, though....that's something that you have to take your time with, and savor. In my mind, then, wine is analogous to tea or novels or books of poetry in that same way. Likewise, an album such as Astral Weeks calls for close attention and a relaxed mood. Loose and jazzy, impressionistic and poetic, it's music that would make a fine companion for an evening with a bottle of wine.

Astral Weeks is yet one more reason why I would argue that the 60s remain the definitive decade for music, and the 'album' as a general concept. Obviously since I spend the majority of my time with current bands and releases, I'm always tempted to point out all the equally good music from the 90s and 00s. But there's just no getting around the groundbreaking work of The Beatles, not to mention lesser known, still-to-this-day-unique works like Astral Weeks that I feel compelled to write about. Why? Because I think most people, specifically younger people, don't always get around to this kind of stuff. They should, dagnabbit, because good music is good forever. Moreover, there's simply no other album in history that sounds quite like this; jazzy but not jazz, folky/singer songwriter-y without being folk/singer-songwriter, soulful but not soul, loose and improvised but sounding strictly composed and tightly played...yes, dagnabbit, good stuff all around...why in my day, we had to go to stores and ask if they had a copy and when it might be back in stock...hmmm...yes, the album...very good...excellent music and well played...and then there's the poetic lyrics and impassioned vocal performances of Van Morrison, including that moment on the lengthy 'Madam George' where he twists into a lyrical cyclone of "the love to loves the love that loves to love..." (or something to that effect).

I understand why people wouldn't dig this music. It's not immediate and forceful in the way that, say, Led Zeppelin's 'Heartbreaker' is. You play that for any young man and he's ready to get in a bar fight even if he doesn't know what a bar is yet. But for those of us who also nurture a gentler side, a predisposition to certain things that aren't traditonally considered masculine...we are capable of enjoying this kind of music as much as the 'Heartbreakers' of the world, finding just as much energy and power in the soulful, poetic white boy if Astral Weeks, backed as he is by flutes, strings, classical-style acoustic guitar, double-bass, and understated drums.

There's a line in The Rock Snob's Dictionary about Nick Drake, that he is "discovered each year by college freshpersons of delicate constitution." This is supposed to be a joke at the expense of either Drake or his fans (maybe both), but I take it to heart. Just as Led Zeppelin were able to bring in some sensitivity and English folk into their music, not all young men need to constantly worship paint peelingly, grass killingly loud electric guitars and teeth rattling bass lines from club anthems to be "tough." Elvis Costello titled an album Mighty Like A Rose; Van Morrison dedicates seven minutes of Astal Weeks to the song 'Ballerina', and if you know anything about ballet, you know that it requires an equal mix of grace and strength. Don't football players sometimes study ballet to be better at the game, or did TV lie to me again? Anyway, though I'm not expert on the subject, and I can't speak to Morrison's views, I can't help but see the parallel to this kind of music. As he puts it:

But if it gets to you
And you feel like you can't go on
All you gotta do
is ring a bell
and step right up
just like a ballerina

Like a ballerina, the music of Astral Weeks seems frail and delicate on the surface; it moves too easily and seemingly pushed around by outside forces. Yet underneath it all is a restrained power that sometimes lashes out, whether it's a jazzy exclamation from the bass or Morrison putting some extra oomph into his delivery.

But, I get it. Some people will never want to read a book of poetry, or savor a bottle of wine, or lay on the floor with some couch cushions listening to vinyl records. Or think of ballet as something other than fruity and lame. Or, you know...fall in love with Astral Weeks. But I do. Er, did. Even today, the album remains a powerful and unique work.

One only wishes it was as well known as Morrison's hit song 'Brown Eyed Girl.'

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