“A Swath of Pure Beauty” by David D. Robbins Jr.
“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-a my eyes? / Lay me down, / In silence easy, to be born again.” (Astral Weeks)
That is the lyrical beginning to the greatest album ever made. I could listen to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” forever and never grow tired of it. Listening to it somehow connects me to a deep truth, old as the universe itself. I’ve more than once found myself listening to the album and falling into a reverie, completely lost in its time; weeping uncontrollably, grabbing my chest to slow my breathing. I don’t know what it is exactly about this album. I don’t think I ever will. I feel it so viscerally, that it has become me. I am a writer, who can often write about music with skill, but I will never touch even the outskirts of what makes “Astral Weeks” so timeless, and so majestic. There’s a courageousness in Van Morrison’s deep search into the slipstream. “Astral Weeks” flies headlong into love, finding a melancholy so true it rips your heart out. I’m bruised by the beauty of “Astral Weeks”. The world isn’t the same once you’ve really heard it. The album shows us how everything in this world is tinged with a meaning deeper than we can fathom, and that we need to embrace it. All of it: death, love, hurt, despair, elation, decay, passion, tragedy, nature, spirituality — and to ultimately find connection with all things.
Van Morrison’s debut rightfully confused listeners and his record company when it was first released in 1968. It’s an album that must even perplex Van Morrison himself, with its dense word-soup, sounds soaring and falling between the heights of love and the deserts of despair. It’s an eight-song, 46-minute-and-five-second journey recorded in two days. It’s an invocation beginning with the song “Astral Weeks” — with its wild vocals, multiple rhythms and disjointed lyrics — evoking images instead of straight narratives. It ends with an elegant movement toward death, coasting down that path on the alliteratively titled “Slim Slow Slider”, a song punctuated by flashes of flute falling away into a soprano saxophone that flutters like a dying bird:
“You’ve gone for something / And I know you won’t be back / I know you’re dying, baby / And I know you know it too.” (Slim Slow Slider)
Van Morrison most certainly didn’t set out to write this album. At least not in the traditional sense. An album like this doesn’t begin with the musical notation prepared in advance. It doesn’t start linearly. It emerges. It spreads its wings. It springs forth like Dionysus out of Zeus’ thigh. The great rock critic Lester Bangs said, “It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain; (but) there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”
Bangs was so right. The tone of this album isn’t just sad, it’s bleak. It’s a person aging before one’s time. It’s a twenty-year-old with cancer. It’s a dying mother. It’s disintegration. It’s clutching for the light in the dark. The true beauty of “Astral Weeks” rests in its unbarred appreciation of mortality. You can hear it in Van Morrison’s voice, wailing and stretching out lyrics like “rainbow ribbons in her hair” and obsessively repeating phrases like “just like a, just like a, just like a ballerina.” Or he tongue-ties listeners with sentences like, “and 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.”
It’s Van Morrison’s attempt to squeeze the last ounce of meaning from a word, like juice from an orange. He’s a sculptor with chisel in hand, pounding away furiously, stone chips flying, wishing mind-alone could make things so. He’s the songsmith of deconstruction — dismantling language, only to raise it back up again from the dead like some lyrical Lazarus. Van Morrison humbly called it the “inarticulate speech of the heart.” “Astral Weeks” was made in free-flow, like jazz improvisation. Guitarist Jay Berliner, who worked on the album after having played with jazz great Charles Mingus, said, he recalled Van Morrison allowing the players to “stretch out”. Van Morrison would come in with a skeletal framework of a song and everyone would improvise, swelling and receding around his voice. It’s a love affair between the singer’s voice and musician’s instrumentation:
“I kissed you on the lips once more, / And we said goodbye just adoring the nighttime. / Yeah, that’s the right time, To feel the way that young lovers do.” (The Way Young Lovers Do)
By most accounts, it wasn’t a typical recording session. Bassist Richard Davis said he couldn’t remember saying one word to Van Morrison during the entire recording process. Whether Davis is right about the process or not hardly matters. Songs like “The Way Young Lovers Do” swirl and spar with Van Morrison’s voice, accentuating it with horns, bass, and tenacious jazz drumming. It’s been said that Van Morrison conceived of the album’s title after looking at a friend’s painting — which he thought looked like astral projection. That fits the coda of the album. Dreaming is essentially childlike, but colored by nostalgia. It’s often elegiac and isolating, like these two lines in “Sweet Thing”:
“And I will never grow so old again. I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain” or “I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”
Van Morrison’s words spill from his mouth like water rushing through a dam break. The music matches his lyrical ebbs and flows. Just listen to the ending of the song “Astral Weeks” — where those gorgeous strings soar into the ether — into another world, another time. The songs on “Astral Weeks” generally flow from an initial sentence acting as a touchstone for the dreamscape to follow. The songs develop into a rush of words, images, broken fragments and allusions. The literal and metaphoric daydreams begin with simple phrases like these:
“We strolled through fields all wet with rain …” (The Way Young Lovers Do)
“And I will stroll the merry way, and jump the hedges first …” (Sweet Thing)
“Well, I’m caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue …” (Cyrpus Avenue)
“If I ventured in the slipstream …” (Astral Weeks)
The vortex of this tornado-of-an-album is the mystifying “Madame George”, opening in a familiar Van Morrison locale: “Down on Cyprus Avenue, / With a childlike vision leaping into view / Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe / Ford & Fitzroy, Madame George.” That is our introduction to the mysterious madame. The common myth is this song was written about a lovelorn drag queen. But Van Morrison denies this, claiming the original lyric was “Madame Joy”. But it doesn’t matter really, because what unfurls are some of the most empathetic images ever penned to song:
“Marching with the soldier boy behind,
He’s much older now, with hat on drinking wine.
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through,
The cool night air like shalimar.
And outside they’re making all the stops,
The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops.
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops,
Happy-taken Madame George.
When you fall into a trance,
Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance,
With your folded arms and history books you glance,
Into the eyes of Madame George.
And you think you found the bag,
You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag,
In the corner playing dominoes in drag,
The one and only Madame George.”
No one can say exactly what the lyrics of “Madame George” mean. But there are notions, intentions, hinted-at meanings. The song doesn’t need interpretation. So much of its power lies in imagery, rhyme, and the drifting nature of the song itself. As Bangs rightfully suggested, the song seems to be concerned with the observation of suffering, or witnessing the human condition. There’s something so heart-breakingly sympathetic in the gaze of this song. It’s Madame George after the party is over. The persona is not unlike the one in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” watching the toothless patrons drinking in taverns and feeling immense sorrow. Or like J. Alfred Prufrock seeing the “women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo” and watching “the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.” (A line about panes/pains that echoes Van Morrison in “T.B. Sheets”, a song not on this album, “And the sunlight shining through the crack in the window pane / Numbs my brain.) But unlike in “The Waste Land” — the persona in “Madame George” makes no judgment about anyone but himself.
There’s a love for humanity in “Madame George”. It’s about loving something simply for what it is. “To love the love that loves the love …” Or as the American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, in his poem “The Man On the Dump” — the truth can be found in “the the”. In other words, a thing is beautiful because it is itself, without need of appraisal. In the case of “Madame George” it means loving humanity for what it is — with all it’s filth, frailty, flaws and imperfect perfectness. This song is about unconditional love and the shame of being unable to ease suffering.
Bangs writes this about the lessons of “Madame George”: “Who is to say that someone who victimizes himself or herself is not as worthy of total compassion as the most down and out Third World orphan in a New Yorker magazine ad?” The persona in the song projects his empathy for the world onto Madame George — and after viewing the scene, he runs away to catch a train. Bangs posits, “Who wouldn’t run away? You have committed the crime of knowledge, and walked past someone you knew to be suffering … there is absolutely nothing you can do but finally reject anyone in greater pain than you.” The shame is in being intelligent enough to understand pain, and yet unable to relieve it.
“Madame George” is one of the most gorgeous songs ever sung. The persona walks among the odd-balls, the forgotten and unique characters that people Van Morrison’s brain like phantoms — like Huddie Ledbetter. This isn’t the recalling of a drunken night by some inarticulate stooge. Van Morrison’s view is always shifting, melding, breaking away. This song is the psychology of Van Morrison and yet not him at all. It was most certainly written in a stream-of-consciousness where the associations flow freely from one idea to the next. It’s about aging, sexuality, friendship, risk, time, and decay. Listeners can hypothesize Madame Joy/George is Van Morrison’s clairvoyant aunt, Joy, or his father George. But that’s futile. Madame George is both conjurer and conjured. She’s a ghost of things, walking among the hustlers, hags, whores and barflys in the mind of Van Morrison. The observer is Stephen Dedalus traversing Belfast in dream-stroll.
It’s interesting to note too, the persona in “T.B. Sheets” also runs away after witnessing pain. He sits in a room with the dying tuberculosis patient, immersing himself in the literal stench of human suffering — until we get this lyric, and the subsequent fleeing:
“And the sunlight shining, / through the crack in the window pane. / Numbs my brain. / So open up the window and let me breathe, / I said, open up the window and let me breathe / I’m looking down to the street below. / Lord, I cried for you. Oh, Lord. / The cool room, Lord, is a fool’s room, / The cool room, Lord, is a fool’s room, / And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets / And I can almost smell your T.B. sheets, on your sick bed. / I gotta go, I gotta, / And you said, please stay. / I want, I want a drink of water, / I want a drink of water, / I went to the kitchen to get me a drink of water, / I gotta go baby. / I send, I send, I send somebody around here later, / You know we got John comin’ around / Later with a bottle of wine for you, babe.” (T.B. Sheets)
If all great poetry is really about holding the reader’s attention, however briefly — then Madame George is the emotion iris. Van Morrison arranges images around Madame George like a girl wraps a silk scarf around her neck before going out into the cold. But none of this really touches on the lyricism and grace of Van Morrison’s voice. Trying to say everything about “Astral Weeks” is as unprofitable as trying to catch the wind in a net. One could write a volume about his usage of the elements to showcase “inner weather”, as poet Robert Frost would say. He sings of the unforgiving nature of sun, snow, wind, rain, water, soil, multiple times in these eight golden songs — as his mood shifts with the landscape.
Forty-one years after its creation, “Astral Weeks” still amazes and mystifies. For aspiring musicians, this album proves that great music is about tapping into the world. It’s more about courage than musical learning. There’s such a spirituality in this record, without resorting to the easily obtained sentiment we see in religion. The shaking of a leaf on a tree becomes Van Morrison’s spirit-level — much like a blade of grass became Walt Whitman’s cosmos. It’s impossible to pinpoint what exactly “it” is that makes this album so stunning. Everything about it is so unexpected, so open, casting a soft eye on the world. It’s the heart, mind and soul of a twenty-two-year-old tapping into genius. It’s amazing to think of a person at that age wise enough to create music like this.
Try to imagine the young Van Morrison walking the dusty Belfast roads. He finds a place to sit alone, perhaps looking out a window, putting himself into the mind of the world, crawling into the collective consciousness of the era, turning wind into metaphor, translating landscapes into notes, the leaves begin to speak to him in tongues of fire, as undulating and dark movements in his mind turn his throbbing aches into musical wonderment. — Art by David D. Robbins Jr.