It’s been a tough year for Van Morrison fans.
2008 started out promisingly enough. A new record deal resulted in Van having his own record company, Exile, to be distributed through Polydor/Universal, and to launch it they started releasing new remasters of his classic albums. The project was supposed to take in basically everything from Tupelo Honey through What’s Wrong With This Picture, plus Them. They were supposed to come out in four batches, and each remaster was supposed to include bonus tracks. So far so good, and the first two series came out on schedule. They were a bit stingy with the bonus tracks, but there were some definite gems in there.
We also got a new album, Keep It Simple, last March. Opinions vary about it (I find it pleasant but minor, with a couple of tracks excepted), but hey, any new Van is welcome.
Then things went wacky. Don’t know exactly what happened (why? see below), but something seems to have made the Exile/Polydor deal run aground. The third and fourth rounds of remasters never appeared, and next thing we know we’re hearing that Van has a new deal, with EMI, and a new vanity label, Listen To The Lion Records. One assumes this is why the remasters were canceled: they were part of the old deal, and when that fell through, so did they. One may also speculate that at some point the new regime is going to resume the remasters program: the work has already been done, one figures, so somebody’s going to try to recoup their investment. In the meantime, though, half of Van’s back catalog is out of print. If, like me, you thought this was the right time to fill in the gaps in your Van the Man collection, you just might be s.o.l. Used copies of the last remaster of Hard Nose The Highway are going for 35 bucks.
Why don’t we know more about this stuff? Because when the Exile deal started, Van seems to have decided it was time to declare war on his most loyal fans. He sicced his lawyers on the fan sites, hounding them right off the net. I’m talking a couple of seriously dedicated, informative, educational, and in every respect harmless sites, full of nothing but praise for Van, and run on an entirely non-profit basis. All gone. The only Van sites you can find now are a rudimentary fan shrine that looks like it was designed in 1995 and never updated, and a blog that pretends to be independent, but that’s obviously an official publicity arm of the Van organization. And now that Exile’s been banished, even the official Van Morrison website has been downgraded to an ad for the new live album. (Although it does look like they’re trying to bring a full-function website back, gradually.)
Like I say, it’s been a tough year to be a Van Morrison fan. You can hardly even talk about the guy online. I’ll probably get a cease-and-desist from his lawyers just for writing his name on this blog.
Where do things stand now? I mentioned a new album, and if you’re at all interested in Van you know he just released a disc called Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, from a series of shows he did there last fall at which he played that classic album in its entirety. He’s repeating the stunt in New York and London this spring.
I say stunt, and no matter how good the results, there’s something about this that smacks of the publicity grab. New record deal, new label, time to make some noise, do something to goose up demand for…whatever comes next.
None of which means that the music can’t be transcendent.
As with most Van releases, the artwork looks like it was slapped together in about ten minutes. Notice the close-but-no-cigar font they use to write "Astral Weeks." The handwritten “Van Morrison” cut’n’pasted from A Sense Of Wonder. The booklet is just as carelessly done. “Cypress” Avenue? A credit for John Densmore playing on a song that doesn’t appear on the CD?
Most of all dig the Listen To The Lion Records logo. Could it get more grandiose? Van’s the King of the Jungle! The Lion of Judah! Aslan! And not only is it a ridiculous logo, it’s huge – have you ever seen a record company logo take up a bigger proportion of the CD cover?
None of which means the music can’t be transcendent.
Let’s understand what we really have here. It’s not like Van hasn’t been performing songs from Astral Weeks. They’ve popped up from time to time throughout his career. What he hadn’t done is perform them as a set, at least not since before he actually released the album. And because there was no real Astral Weeks tour back in 1969, he had never performed these songs with something like the instrumentation you hear on the original album. So this is not really a long-awaited rediscovery of Astral Weeks, but an imitation of Brian Wilson: let’s perform the album as written, as a bloc, ‘cause that’s a very promotable thing. High concept, as they say.
And that’s what we have here: Astral Weeks in its entirety, performed by a band equipped to approximate the studio arrangements. Meaning: we have a harpsichord, a flute, cellos, violins, lots of acoustic guitars, a stand-up bass. And we have one guy (besides Van) who performed on the original album, Jay Berliner.
He changes the order. “Slim Slow Slider” is now third, and the proceedings end with “Madame George.” This makes a lot of sense in terms of the pacing of a live show: bring the bluesy number up nearer the front, and end with the longest, most climactic number. Right away this signals what Van’s up to here: turning Astral Weeks into something that makes sense as show business.
Like a lot of people, I love Astral Weeks. Maybe not as much as Lester Bangs did, but I do have a special affection for it. Every time I hear it I discover something new in it, and not just little nuances. The songs themselves, which at first seemed nearly unintelligible in their intensity, stand out clearer to me each time. I start to appreciate their careful structure, the planning that underlies their improvised feel. The key, it seems to me, is the intensity. Van’s singing with as much desperation as he ever would, wringing every drop of emotion out of every line, and the musicians are right there with him, sawing away, creating as much discord as harmony. It’s a beautiful record, but not usually a comforting or comfortable one.
The live version is both comforting and comfortable. He decides not to end the way the album does, with “Slim Slow Slider” slipping alarmingly quickly from mere depression into chaos. Instead we get the formal, lingering goodbye of “Madame George,” and its peaceful musical resolution. And even in its earlier position, “Slim Slow Slider” is approached much more as a conventional blues, with room for the players to stretch out; its disturbing overtones are smoothed out; there are hints of the free jazz of the original near the end, but only hints. And this is followed by “Sweet Thing,” which will heal anybody’s blues.
But “Sweet Thing,” too, is changed. On the original album, it’s a delicate hothouse flower. It’s enchanting, but it can leave you feeling like Sam Gamgee in Lothlorien, a little nervous in the presence of all that beauty. Here he brings it down to earth with a chuffing harmonica solo at the end. This kind of move happens throughout the album. A lot of details of the arrangements are recreated – you’ll pick out a distinctive harpsichord line here, a bass fill there. But a lot of the sharper corners are blunted, too. The performances, for all that they’re by a special band assembled for the occasion, partake of the smoothness that has characterized Van’s ensembles for the last thirty years or so.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Van’s singing. It’s good – he displays far more range and agility, far more interest in stretching and exploring the material, than he did on Keep It Simple, or his Austin City Limits live album. But it’s earthbound, rather than ethereal. He finds the blues at the heart of every song here, and works it. This makes for a very different Astral Weeks – not really astral at all, actually. The most telling moment for me (and I reserve the right to change my mind after more listens) is at the very end of “Astral Weeks,” the first song. He takes us through a new closing vamp (incidentally, he’s started copyrighting his vamps separately, as if they were new songs: what’s with that?) on the “I believe I’ve transcended” line, and he gets really soft with it. We’re just about to take off – he’s really transported us up to the astral plane, looking down. But he doesn’t leave it – as the song ends and the musicians dissolve into their closing glissandos and whatnot, Van raises his voice again and repeats the “transcended” line in a soul growl. It kind of destroys the moment; more than that it tells us that we’re here precisely not to go soaring off into the astral plane.
We’re here to appreciate a new take on old classics. Certainly to tap into the blues vein that’s always run through Van’s work. To savor creative singing and excellent playing on some favorite tunes. Maybe even to think about the idea of transcending, or to include the motif of transcendence among the colors and moods this music invokes. But we’re not here to actually transcend in the very moment. Get healed on your own time.
None of which means the music isn’t good.