Van Morrison: 40 Years Later, 'Astral Weeks' Chills and Thrills

Many who profess to love the music of Van Morrison have no idea that he made a CD called Astral Weeks.

I can understand that. "Astral Weeks" was released in 1968, to zero fanfare and indifferent sales. Over the years, those who heard it became evangelists for it: Elvis Costello called it "the most adventurous record made in the rock medium," and Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen's band, said that "'Astral Weeks' was like a religion to us." Soon enough, it achieved cult status --- one of the most inventive and satisfying CDs ever recorded, known only to the in-crowd.

I'm not a music critic --- I don't even pretend to play one on the Internet --- but it bothers me that crap sells in the zillions while quality sits alone in the corner. In 2004, it seemed to me that a web site about The Best could bring overlooked gems like "Astral Weeks" to a larger audience. So when I launched, "Astral Weeks" was one of my first reviews --- and, soon enough, the CD became the site's poster child, its 25-words-or-less creation myth.

And now it's back.

Astral Weeks Live At the Hollywood Bowl was recorded in November of 2008 before a predictably rabid audience. Morrison did not attempt to replicate the CD. That would have been impossible, for in concert he makes Dylan seem predictable. He will suddenly change words and tempo, abandon himself to a groove, call an abrupt halt --- and expect the band to read his mind.

I have seen Morrison several times over the years, and each time I walk away blinking at the mystery. He looks like a squat, stout, Irish postman and acts like an ill-tempered dictator. He may not hate the audience; maybe he just likes to show us his back. But when he opens his mouth, none of that matters.

If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the back roads stop
Could you find me
Would you kiss my eyes
And lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

That's how the opening song begins, a love song set in urban decay. But the genius of Morrison --- the reason I see a line of connection from Blake to Wordsworth to Morrison --- is how quickly he reaches the exalted. In just a few verses, he's here:

Going up that Mountainside
Where the water runs crystal clear

And then, 40 years after the original, he adds this:

I believe I've transcended.

The rest of the performance is a demonstration of spiritual transcendence. This is not of great interest to many people who listen to music. They want a bouncy beat and a catchy lyric. So, a lot of the time, do I. But then I come to this:

Then you're high, on your high-flying cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud
As ecstasy surrounds you
This time it's found you.

It's not just the words that transcend. The band is open, loose, inventive; this music is subtle as jazz and heart-pounding as rock. And Morrison almost seems to be having a good time --- in his phrase, "stepping lightly, just like a ballerina."

What's in it for you? First, the message of the holy power of love: "You shall take me strongly in your arms again/And I will not remember that I ever felt pain." Then the esthetic pleasure of hearing something great becoming, perhaps, even greater. And, personally, in a darkened room, late at night, a trip to the most exalted part of yourself.

What a wonderful world, with two astral weeks in it.

[Cross-posted from]