Van Morrison and Astral Weeks: LA Weekly Snags a Rare One-on-One Interview with the Elusive Singer
When it was announced that Van Morrison would close out the Hollywood Bowl’s fall season with two nights of concerts at which he would perform his seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks from cover to cover, some longtime Morrison fans might have wondered if the mercurial Irish singer-songwriter was taking the piss out of them. It was barely a decade ago, when, in a storied appearance at New York’s intimate Supper Club venue, Morrison had virulently berated the audience for demanding material from his ’60s and ’70s repertoire (which he dubbed “ancient history”) after he opened the floor to requests. And as anyone who has seen Morrison live in the past decade can attest, the set list, while almost never the same twice, consists predominately of songs from Morrison’s two or three most recent albums, with a few token crowd-pleasers (“Moondance” and the rousing R&B anthem “Gloria,” from Morrison’s days fronting the Irish band Them) sprinkled in for good measure. Even the much-loved sing-along ditty “Brown Eyed Girl” returned to regular rotation earlier this decade following a long hiatus, if only to satisfy the fair-weather Morrison fans who had taken to loudly requesting it an nearly every concert. Yet, in the nearly two dozen times I’ve seen Morrison play live since his 1997 triple-header with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the Astral Weeks material has rarely been given an airing.
Indeed, the only thing seemingly more certain than his ironclad resistance to doing any sort of “greatest hits” show or “nostalgia tour” is the fact that, where Morrison is concerned, you can never predict what he’ll do next — from one measure to the next, one song to the next, one album to the next. Pay close attention during one of his concerts — and there is little reason to suspect the atmosphere is much different in the recording studio — and you can frequently catch sight of Morrison’s band members scurrying to keep apace with their leader as he calls out sudden tempo changes, uses hand gestures to take a swelling crescendo down to a muted whisper and back again, and routinely throws curve balls into the set list. So it comes as no real surprise to hear that Morrison doesn’t view his two upcoming Bowl shows as an exhumation of the past at all but rather as something entirely new.
“I’ve never done any live gigs with those people,” says Morrison, who will perform the Astral Weeks song cycle with the support of two key collaborators from the original recordings: veteran Charles Mingus guitarist Jay Berliner and legendary bass player Richard Davis, now 78. Like many of the Astral Weeks session musicians (including the late drummer Connie Kaye), Berliner and Davis were recruited by Morrison and album producer Lewis Merenstein because of their background in jazz. “It was recorded like a jazz session, which is the way I like to do it,” Morrison recalls. “There was a lot of work put into the songs previously, when I rehearsed them, and I had done some of them live with a trio. So, the basic arrangements I had worked out then, and the rest was added to that. But the whole thing was not just that; it was more the spontaneity of what was going on [in the studio], and the reading of the material by the other people.”
But at the time, Morrison adds, there was no money to organize a proper tour — and so, despite its enduring critical acclaim (it frequently places near the top in critic and reader surveys of the greatest all-time albums: Lester Bangs famously cited it as his favorite record), Astral Weeks remains, along with 1974’s masterful, defiantly uncommercial Veedon Fleece, one of Morrison’s least-performed albums. “It’s never really been done live, and that’s kind of what my music is all about,” he says. “I just wanted to check it out for myself and re-explore it.”
The fact that I’m talking to Morrison, face to face, is nearly as rare a happening as the upcoming concerts, the singer having famously spent much of his career dodging — and, occasionally, confronting head-on — the media. During an interview for Rolling Stone in the early ’90s, he allegedly walked out of a Boston restaurant midway through, leaving the reporter to tail him down the street, while in recent songs like “New Biography” and “Too Many Myths,” Morrison has been harshly critical of the various Web sites and unauthorized pseudo-biographies that have peddled purportedly authoritative accounts of his life and work. Such incidents, coupled with his recalcitrant onstage demeanor, have earned Morrison a reputation for being “difficult,” when in fact they may merely be the telltale signs of a performer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, pay lip service to sycophants, or buy into the conventional wisdom that someone who suffers the pain of artistic creation is obliged to be “nice” when discussing his craft.
Whatever the case, on this particular Sunday afternoon, Morrison is cordial and forthcoming, as he saunters into his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a dark blue, large-buttoned coat and one of his signature porkpie hats and proceeds to talk for most of the next hour about his music, musical influences and longstanding bête noire: the music industry. He describes the original Astral Weeks recording sessions, held in late September and early October 1968, as “an alchemical kind of situation, where the people involved could read the situation and come up with stuff spontaneously, and not belabor it, not overproduce or overthink it. Everybody on the sessions was like that, which was uncanny. That’s the way it worked out.”
It has not, however, always been so easy for Morrison to find musicians tuned into his wavelength. “It’s difficult to get them to do ... to go where I’m going,” he says. “That’s what you have to work on. It doesn’t have anything to do with technical ability. Well, it has something to do with it, because they need the technical ability to start with, but then they need to drop that and follow me and break it down into something that’s less complicated than that, so they can follow where I’m going.”
Where he’s going is, as often as not, into a stream-of-consciousness reverie where a single cut from a Morrison album is deconstructed and reassembled by the singer as a trancelike epic lasting as much as a quarter-hour or more. In the ’70s, songs like “Caravan” and “Cyprus Avenue” were regularly subject to such reinvention, while more recently, Morrison has favored the likes of “In the Afternoon” (from the 1995 Days Like This album) and “Burning Ground” (from the 1997 TheHealing Game album). These are the moments — the bedrock of any Morrison gig — in which he seems, per the title of his own 1979 album, to be going deeper “into the music.” Audience members similarly inclined (i.e., not the ones asking for “Brown Eyed Girl”) are invited to follow. It is then that the “healing” about which Morrison has so often sung really begins.
Simply put, it would be anathema for Morrison to appear on a stage and merely re-create a given song — note for note and beat for beat — exactly as it sounded on the album. Which is why those with tickets to see Morrison at the Bowl can be assured that, while they will hear Astral Weeks, they’ll hear it as they’ve likely never heard it before.
“I need change,” Morrison says. “In order to actually do it, it has to evolve for me. Otherwise, I don’t really want to do it; I’ll lose interest.”
The course that any one of his concerts takes, Morrison says, depends on a couple factors. “One is, if you feel like the audience can go with you, then I can stretch out more. [The other is] finding key songs where I can get these particular musicians to go along with me, because every band combination is quite different. A lot of times, you can get musicians, but they don’t have a rapport, so you have to build the set around where we can go. Some bands I’ve had can do anything, go anywhere, you know? Other bands can only do certain songs in a certain way. It just depends.”
With that in mind, for his Hollywood Bowl appearances, Morrison has built two different sets of music around two different groups of musicians. Each night, in addition to the Astral Weeks material, he will also play an introductory set of songs drawn from the breadth of his career, backed by a different band consisting of longtime Morrison accompanists John Platania and David Hayes on guitar and bass. “The first set is going to be more like the kind of band that was on Into the Music or It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” Morrison says, referencing his legendary 1974 live album recorded, in part, at the Troubador and Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. “Then the second set will be Astral Weeks. There’ll be two different bands. I haven’t done that for ... well, I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
Although I must have heard “Brown Eyed Girl” on the radio as a kid and at any number of high school dances, it was only as a college student in the mid-’90s that I seriously discovered Morrison, my rather telescoped musical horizons up to that point having been limited to heavy metal, Top 40 and the saccharine, easy-listening dreck favored by my mother. Quite by chance, I picked up used copies of 1995’s Days Like This and 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — neither of them considered by critics or aficionados to be among Morrison’s best albums — and began playing them obsessively, enraptured by their dense networks of interconnected images and allusions, struggling to make some mental geography out of the mystical yet entirely tangible places Morrison was singing about: an ancient highway; a factory on a street called Bread in East Belfast; a town called Paradise. Only later would I realize that many of these tropes dated all the way back to a 1968 Rosetta stone called Astral Weeks, which began with its first-person narrator venturing into the slipstream, detoured through the parlor room of an enigmatic figure named Madame George, and ended some eight tracks later with the funereal assertion: “I know you’re dying/And I know you know it to/Everytime I see you/I just don’t know what to do.”
Whether Morrison was describing the real Belfast he knew as a child or building an imagined, Joycean universe of private meanings upon its foundations, the yearning for a distant, irrecoverable past is profoundly felt, and something that continues to resonate throughout Morrison’s music of the subsequent 40 years, up to and including the epic album-closer “Behind the Ritual,” from the recent Keep It Simple release, where Morrison sings of “drinking wine in the alley ... in the days gone by.” Indeed, if Morrison has rarely seemed eager to look back over the course of his own discography, his music itself is very much about conjuring a personal and collective past, which seems to be quite alive for Morrison, hovering just out of reach, threatening to displace the present. It’s a feeling that extends to the myriad cover/tribute albums Morrison has produced in the past 15 years (including the traditional country Pay the Devil and the jazz How Long Has This Been Going On?), on which he has tipped his porkpie hat to some of the styles and artists (including Mose Allison, Lonnie Donegan, John Lee Hooker and Solomon Burke) who influenced him during his own musical education. It is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay those albums to say that Morrison’s original compositions for them are frequently indistinguishable from the “period” originals written decades earlier.
“Well, if you take it as a river, then it’s got offshoots — this stream and that stream, north stream, south stream, slipstream. All sorts of streams, you know?” Morrison says. “But it’s all connected to the source. All that stuff that I picked up in the formative years is what I’ve been able to put together as my own thing, so to speak. For me, it’s [about] going back to the source. That’s where I first got the word, or heard that sound. You can’t really say it is ‘X,’ because it just ends up being another word or a cliché. But that initial energy was turned on in me, and I was lucky enough to get to know some of the people — like John Lee Hooker, who was a very good friend over the years — and connect with whatever that is, I don’t know, some kind of energy.”
Since Astral Weeks, Morrison has issued more than 30 albums of new material, penned hundreds of songs for himself and other artists, and managed to put an enviable distance between himself and the record-company executives who have been a regular (and hardly undeserved) object of scorn and derision in such Morrison songs as “St. Dominic’s Preview,” “Drumshanbo Hustle” and “Showbusiness.” Having recently parted ways with his latest label, Universal, which he says did little to promote Keep It Simple despite the fact that the album became the highest-charting domestic release of his career, Morrison is poised to start his own label, Listen to the Lion Records, whose first release will be the live recording of Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet, Morrison remains characteristically circumspect “not so much about the business” itself but “about the kind of people that the business and fame sometimes attract.”
For the man who once sang that “my job is turning lead into gold,” his own celebrity and its attendant pressures seem as much of a double-edged sword as ever. “I never bargained on fame; it’s just something I’ve had to deal with that came along with doing the music,” Morrson tells me. “It’s like I’ve got these scars,” he says, pointing at his back, “and why do I have to keep showing people the scars all the time? You know what I mean? It’s in the songs somewhere there. I still have to turn myself inside-out to do this. It’s still got a price; it’s not free. Doing these gigs — that’s got a price. I have to act. I have to perform.”
“But you still love it, don’t you?” I ask.
“The only thing I love is the music,” he says without missing a beat. “The rest of it is pure shit. The kind of shit that fame attracts is very dark. It’s very dark. I like the music, but that’s it.”
Van Morrison performs Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl on Fri.-Sat., November 7-8.
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