Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Listen to the lion

And all.
Like water flow...
I'm sitting here listening to the finest album ever recorded by an Irishman. In fact there are days when I think it's the finest album ever recorded by anyone. It's fitting so, that perhaps the finest piece of writing about music should have this album as it's subject... the late great Lester Bangs had this to say about it.

For my own part, I first encountered Astral Weeks in a record shop in Greece. It was a few weeks before my 16th birthday and I had only very recently gotten into music. So with absolutely no reference points in my search for the good stuff, I was reduced to buying albums that looked interesting.

This is why my first encounter with Astral Weeks involved mentally weighing it up against Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and deciding upon the latter.

Seventeen years passed. A Momentary Lapse of Reason still sticks in my mind as the first time I'd ever heard film samples in a song. But aside from that, it is memorable only for the blown opportunity it represents; it was another seventeen years before Astral Weeks crossed my path once more.

Seventeen wasted years.

There are only a handful of albums about which it's possible to say "this is perfect in every way... even the imperfections are all exactly right... it could not sound any better were choirs of angels singing on it... because, for all intents and purposes, there are choirs of angels singing on it". A Momentary Lapse of Reason is not one of them. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, on the other hand, is.
Then we sat on our own star
and dreamed of the way that we were...
and the way that we wanted to be
Then we sat on our own star
and dreamed of the way that I was for you...
and that you were for me
Astral Weeks is impossible to describe if you've not heard it because the whole is so much more than the sum of it's parts. The strings soar, as the best strings do. And the band sounds like a symphony orchestra. One moment you're listening to harpsichords and violins dancing around the strange dreamy lyrics... next moment it's bass and guitars and piano... and there didn't seem to be a point where one became the other. And oh those horns! I'm a big fan of Philly soul... but I can't think of anything by The Delfonics or The O'Jays that can hold a candle to the breathtaking arrangement of horns and strings on The Way Young Lovers Do. And yet it's not the music that makes Astral Weeks so special. Leastways, it's not the music alone.
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop...
Could you find me...?
Would you, kiss my eyes?
Lay me down... in silence. Easy...
To be born again... to be born again... to be born again........
Because for all the musical riches held within; it's how that music weaves itself throughout the sad, languid world painted by Van's lyrics that takes Astral Weeks into a place beyond the mundane. A place that transcends fashion or artform or time.
Art has a thousand functions. A thousand reasons for existing. One of those reasons is to show the cold, unnoticing universe that we, small humans, contain within us a divine spark. And however hard we work at destroying that spark; however much suffering we're responsible for; the great works of art stand alongside all of humanity's great achievements as concrete proof that we have the potential for so much more than our sorry world would appear to suggest.
- Johann Rissle
(p11: Art, Value and the Avant-Garde)
The world of Astral Weeks is a place of lost love, and of terrible longing. A place of dark lonely shadows... of unfulfilled - and unfulfillable - desire. Throughout much of the album, Van sounds in real, harrowing pain. And though your heart breaks with every line; still you can't leave... still you're transfixed by the tender beauty of his sadness. And though it's got this terrible, aching, lonely pain; still you want to be part of this strange half-lit world, because when you glimpse redemption through Van's eyes - like on the sublime Sweet Thing - you feel truly transported beyond the mundane. Truly liberated. You find yourself there with him. A depth of emotion that just takes your breath away. And every time you listen, your breath is taken anew. Astral Weeks is everything music should be.

And though the lyrics don't always make linear sense, and though - on paper - it may not mean much to repeat the words "your eye" (from "dry your eye") twenty times in a row, rolling back and forward with the melody... or to obsessively moan "baby baby baby..." a dozen or more times, or on Madame George; gloriously...
the love that loves
the love that loves
the love that loves
the love that loves
to love the love
that loves to love the love that loves
Still on Astral Weeks emotion and meaning swell together in these whispered and moaned phrases. And if you've never sat down and listened to this album, then can I point out that this blog entry is your Momentary Lapse of Reason. You should not be reading about Astral Weeks right now, you should be listening to it. Go.

Go Listen. Now!
And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they'll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow's sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain
Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
My, my, my, my, my sweet thing
And I shall drive my chariot
Down your streets and cry
'Hey, it's me, I'm dynamite
And I don't know why'
And you shall take me strongly
In your arms again
And I will not remember
That I even felt the pain.
We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain
And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.
Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
My, my, my, my, my sweet thing
And I will raise my hand up
Into the night time sky
And count the stars
That's shining in your eye
Just to dig it all an' not to wonder
That's just fine
And I'll be satisfied
Not to read in between the lines
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain
And I will never, ever, ever, ever
Grow so old again.
Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
Sugar-baby with your champagne eyes
And your saint-like smile....

- Van Morrison
(Sweet Thing, Astral Weeks)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaah, beautiful. I love Bangs' comments on Madame George - about the *compassion* that fills the song. In fact, that's exactly what the whole album is all about, like you point out - defying the great divide that our lives are increasingly premised upon.


2/2/05 15:43  
Blogger Patsy Magee said...

Excellent! i really enjoyed reading that.It made me put on Astral Weeks.
I have written several stories inspired by Van songs, you can read them here if you like-

Cheers, All the best,

15/6/05 17:47  

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