Part of the reason why T-Sides has been so quiet these past few weeks is that, until about two weeks ago, I was busying myself with a Cultural Criticism class taken through NYU. As part of this, we of course read Lester Bangs’ now rather infamous diatribe on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and just a few weeks later, my friend Vincent Rendoni wrote some rather fabulous words about it, as well, capturing the album just as provocatively and intensely, without the confusion and pedophilia talk (no disrespect to Bangs here, but let’s face it, he’s not everyone’s thing), so I asked Vincent to expand it for T-Sides. He said he’d never written about music before, but after reading this, I have a feeling that, like me, you’ll urge him to continue.
A friend of mine was once a big fan of the Everclear cover of “Brown-Eyed Girl.” When I told him I liked the original more, he scoffed, saying it sounded like any other rock-and-roll single from the 1970’s. I would like to attribute this to the fact that we were teenagers and that we did’ know better. But that argument isn’t solid, I was sixteen and I knew Van Morrison deserved a lot more than being thought of as some seventies’ single-dispenser when my parents were in high school. But I think this is true of a lot of people. My mother and I, (before I begin, I should like to remind my mother, should she ever read this that I love her so very much and then when I come home for Turkey we will listen to the record I’m about to verbally bludgeon the rest of your heads with) the week before my father’s wake, were making a list of what songs we should play at the service. Well, she chose “Moondance,” as that was the song they probably drove around Seattle listening to on the radio when they were my age. My choice was the song “Astral Weeks” as that’s the music I would imagine hearing in the ambient background when they would hold hands or kiss. We went with the former as often the real overtakes the imagined, but it did make me think that when most people think of Van Morrison and call themselves fans of Van Morrison, they often don’t go beyond the aforementioned songs, “Gloria,” “Have I Told You Lately?” and “Bright Side of the Road.”
I bring this up now as Van Morrison is still in fact active (also something most people forget), having recently released a subtle, appropriately titled album called Keep It Simple. Having released this record, some of the responses and criticisms of it have been that it’s not but parody and on some levels insignificant. This piece, however, isn’t about the argument if artists can or cannot betray fans for having a catalog of breathtaking, life-affirming work then release something that we’re not used to (I for one, never really made a decision about that) or is outright awful by comparison. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be about that, as according to Metacritic, Keep It Simple seems to maintain average to favorable reviews. Yes, it is not Astral Weeks. But the point is that he made Astral Weeks, so it’s okay. He’s hardly used up his allotment of free passes that making Astral Weeks warrants. This piece is about how something is still largely getting overlooked and how strange it is that someone as fucking famous as Van Morrison is underestimated.
You’re probably thinking, hey crazy guy, we know Van Morrison. You also forgot to mention “Into The Mystic” and “Domino,” so what kind of fan are you? Maybe you’re the one that’s out of touch. Lester Bangs said everything that needed to be said about Astral Weeks so shut the hell up. Well, that infamous review was written in 1979. I’m bringing this up as Astral Weeks didn’t even hit gold until 2001 — thirty-three years after its release. I’m not asking you to give it a listen. Fuck that. I’m demanding that you listen to it and rise up to the challenge I’m making — you’re not at a fan of music, willfully ignorant if you’ve never listened to Astral Weeks. What did you accomplish at around 22, 23 years old? Well, I’ll tell you what you didn’t fucking make — Astral Weeks. When you were making Frappuccinos and spilling half of it on your apron, Van Morrison was singing you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out in rapid, sensual succession on “Besides You.” When you were unwrapping the lunch you brought from home to work on your thirty-minute lunch break, he had visions of the future with his Janet Planet in “Sweet Thing.” When you thought about how sweet Kanye West was going to be at Sasquatch that year, Van Morrison was summoning abrupt white death in “Slim, Slow Slider” by slapping on his guitar. When you thought you’d find yourself teaching English in a foreign country after college, Van Morrison was making fucking Astral Weeks. That should make you sad. It makes me sad because I will never make Astral Weeks. It’s not because Astral Weeks was good for his age. It’s because Astral Weeks is one of the best albums ever made. You will never make Astral Weeks, either. Van Morrison already did and it should make you feel bad, too. Even the lyrics alone leave me completely confused as to why Jim Morrison is romanticized as an American poet by most people my age while Van Morrison is known as that guy who did that-moondance-song-or-something so many eons ago. If you ask me, the wrong fucking Morrison was tagged as a poet.
If I ventured into the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back road stops
Could you find me
Would you kiss-a my eyes
Lay me down in silence easy
To be born again
You need to go no farther than the damn opening, self-titled song to see what’s so blatantly obvious to anyone who has ever heard it. Fuck folks, do you not understand this album is the outer limits, nothing short of the celestial and interstellar? It is plants growing where they shouldn’t. It’s Istanbul where you can feel the sea surging through the middle. It’s fried potatoes and coffee in the morning. There is no description that absolutely suits it and the only thing I can do is tell you to listen. So you may not have about forty-seven minutes to spare, that’s fine. You only need ten. What makes this album ultimately satisfying and terribly interesting is that it can be summed up in simple one song: “Madame George” (download). There’s nothing I could say about it that Lester Bangs put so well, so I’ll just tell you what I hear when I listen to the last two minutes of the song. When Van the Man is singing “Say goodbye, goodbye, hey to Madame George” with the slow hurricane of strings and that Belfast moan, I swear I hear my father’s laughter, so full and rich. I hear the flutter of birds. I remember my first dog and how I breathed in his smell when we first got him. I remember what was sweet about every girl I ever loved. I remember my cousin Ricky and I, sixteen years ago, sitting on the concrete steps of our family’s beloved place by the lake, begging him to take a bite of my cherry popsicle and he’s telling me Vinnie, shut, just shut up. I become nauseated because I’ll never hear anything this beautiful again. I’m nauseated because it makes all other music, even the other parts of the album seem asinine, irrelevant. I’m nauseated because it makes me feel like I did when my father died, that stage in my life where clarity was ever-abundant, feeling I could repel anything from my skin that was asinine, irrelevant. If you don’t hear anything, then yes, I seriously believe you don’t have a soul.
Yes, Van Morrison was a singles machine and he’s kind of fucking weird, but that doesn’t make him any less revolutionary or powerful. His voice is inimitable, never dared to be replicated. He deserves your respect. I want to give you this album and watch your mouth drop when you realize that this was the same man who was probably playing in the background when your father was feeling up your mother in his Trans-Am. But don’t dismiss him if you had only ever heard the latter. If you’re my age, it is the greatest album you’ve probably never heard and probably never expected to hear. You will never make fucking Astral Weeks, but you can at least be a fan of music, having been a greater person for just touching the album sleeve.