Albums You Should Own By Now: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

Van Morrison has said that Astral Weeks was recorded in two eight-hour sessions, with a few hours of overdubs. For an album that has been heralded by every music publication you can name as one of the most influential albums of all time, that is pretty remarkable. As a musician, it’s nothing short of maddening.

In 1967 Morrison released his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind, on Bang Records. The album included the hit, “Brown Eyed Girl” and was originally to be released as a group of singles. Morrison later said that he wasn’t aware of the album’s existence until a friend of his called to say he’d purchased a copy. This is indicative of the relationship he and Bang Records had. At one point, Ilene Berns, wife of owner Bert Berns, used a clause in Morrison’s contract to try to have him deported. It’s said that after Bert’s untimely death in late ’67, Ilene blamed the tension between him and Morrison for his heart attack.

In early ’68 Morrison was being held out of the studio. Most club owners in New York wouldn’t book him for fear of retaliation from the record company. But after his girlfriend agreed to marry him, assuring he wouldn’t be deported, he moved to Massachusetts and began playing acoustic gigs in coffeehouses and bars. At first it was just Morrison on guitar and Tom Kielbania playing stand up bass (man I wish I could have seen that), and eventually he’d add a flautist. The down-scaled band freed Morrison to try a more improvised approach with his vocals.

In early ’68 Warner Bros. Records signed on to put out a Van Morrison record, likely imagining they’d be getting more pop hits like “Brown Eyed Girl.” But when a Warner Bros. producer went to one of the “coffeehouse” shows and heard Van playing what would later become the titular track from Astral Weeks, he said he literally broke down and cried. He completely identified with the direction Morrison was heading in and wanted very badly to record his next album.

If you look into it, you can find all sorts of stories about those two or three days of recording, of the people involved. Some of them say Van never even spoke to them and was unapproachable or shy. Others say he showed them the songs on his guitar and then said, “Just play what’s in your heart,” and that they’ve never since experienced that sort of trust or freedom in a recording session.

Astral Weeks has been described as a stream of consciousness and a masterpiece. For me, it feels like a truly amazing moment. As an artist, it’s those moments that you are forever searching for. You strive and work and hope your whole life, with every part of your soul for those moments. For a perfect day in the studio, where “jamming” turns into genius, rambling turns into prophecy and all of the freedom that you can afford your art falls into its perfect place. You just hope the tape is rolling.

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