Van Morrison revisits perhaps his finest hour, forty years later

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"I believe I've transcended," Van Morrison repeatedly incanted toward the end of the title track from his 1968 album, Astral Weeks, during the second night of a brief November stint at the Hollywood Bowl. Indeed, frequently over the course of those two nights, the famously mercurial, 63-year-old Irish singer-songwriter seemed to transcend age, time, and whatever other ballasts turn some veteran performers into wan caricatures of themselves better suited to halls of fame than halls of music. All the more remarkably, he was, for the first time in his five-decade career, doing what could be loosely termed an "oldies show," performing Astral Weeks in its entirety, with a band that included Charles Mingus guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on the record itself.

Now, as evidence that those Bowl shows really did happen and weren't his enthusiastic fans' collective delusion, he's released the CD Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (in stores this week), with a DVD concert film soon to follow. Owing to popular demand, Morrison will also perform four more live Astral Weeks gigs, at Madison Square Garden and the newly renovated Beacon Theatre, beginning February 27. As with his L.A. appearances, each night will begin with an hour-long set of other rare classics from across his repertoire -- a marked contrast from most recent concerts, where the set list, while constantly in flux, has favored his newer albums, with only a few familiar crowd-pleasers (like "Moondance" or "Gloria") sprinkled in.  

But as far as Morrison is concerned, the resurrection of Astral Weeks isn't so much a journey into the past as an entirely new beginning. For all its enduring critical acclaim (Lester Bangs, for one, famously cited it as his favorite record), the album was a commercial non-starter upon its release and remains, along with 1974's masterful, defiantly uncommercial Veedon Fleece, one of his least-performed. At the time, a proper tour was never organized, and although the singer, backed by a trio, did play a few Astral Weeks gigs on both coasts, few took note. "It's never really been done live, and that's kind of what my music is all about," Morrison told me last fall when we met in L.A. a few days prior to the Hollywood Bowl shows. "I just wanted to check it out for myself and re-explore it."

These New York dates will also mark a homecoming of sorts, to the place where Astral Weeks was first recorded, in September of 1968, during a storied 48 hours at Manhattan's Century Sound Studios. Along with Berliner, many of the Astral Weeks session musicians (including bassist Richard Davis and late drummer Connie Kaye) were recruited because of their background in jazz. Most had never met or played with the singer before. "It was recorded like a jazz session, which is the way I like to do it," says Morrison. "It was 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."

Forty years later, a similar in-the-moment euphoria prevailed as another group of musicians -- some old, some new -- came together in L.A. "We'd only had one run-through, and even that wasn't a complete rehearsal," Morrison said, speaking by phone last month from his U.K. home. Nonetheless, when he and his band took to the Hollywood Bowl stage, the result was an inspired reimagining of the Astral Weeks song cycle, from a reshuffled track order to a dramatically expanded "Slim Slow Slider," now transformed from a plaintive, three-minute album closer into a wailing, heart-wrenching eight-minute centerpiece. Meanwhile, from the first pluckings of the title track's pizzicato bass line to the final invocation to "get on the train" on "Madame George," Morrison grunted, spoke in tongues, strummed his guitar, and blew his harmonica with such impassioned vigor that it really was as though he were playing these songs for the very first time. To be born again, indeed.

The fact that I have now talked with Van Morrison at length on two separate occasions about his music is nearly as rare an occurrence as the Astral Weeks concerts, the singer having 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; in recent songs like "New Biography" and "Too Many Myths," he's been harshly critical of the myriad websites and pseudo-biographies that have peddled purportedly authoritative accounts of his life and work. Coupled with his recalcitrant on-stage demeanor, this has earned him a reputation for being "difficult," when in fact these 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 endures the pain of artistic creation is obliged to be "nice" when discussing his craft.

He doesn't suffer slackers, either. Pay close attention during one of his concerts -- nearly two-dozen of which I've attended in the last decade -- and you can frequently catch sight of bandmembers scurrying to keep apace with their leader as he calls out sudden tempo changes or uses hand gestures to take a swelling crescendo down to a muted whisper and back again. For these and other reasons, it has not always been easy to find musicians tuned into his wavelength. "It's difficult to get them to do...to go where I'm going," he told me during our first interview, in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "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 album cut is deconstructed and reassembled into a trancelike epic often lasting 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 1995's Days Like This) and "Burning Ground" (from 1997's The Healing Game). These are the moments -- the bedrock of any Morrison gig -- in which the "healing" about which he's so often sung really begins.

"If you study psychology and philosophy, and you look at various types of religion, what you find out is that people call this these different names," he says. "Carl Jung would look at it one way, and Alfred Adler would look at it another way. Aristotle would maybe look at it a different way, Sartre would look at it some other way, Beckett would look at it a different way. If you go through all this, what I end up with is energy, and I can't name it, and no one can really say what this energy is. So the healing thing is tapping into that energy, because I can't find a name for it, and I can't find it in any books. There was a time when I read everything I could get my hands on because I was looking to find out what this is -- is anybody writing about this energy? And not really."

The course that a concert takes 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."

Even on less celebrated works like Days Like This or 1987's Poetic Champions Compose, you can find yourself enraptured by the dense networks of interconnected images and allusions in these songs, struggling to make some mental geography out of the mystical yet entirely tangible places he frequently sings about: an ancient highway, a town called Paradise, the viaducts of his dreams.  Nearly all those tropes, however, date back to Astral Weeks, which begins with its first-person narrator venturing into the slipstream and ends some eight tracks later with the funereal assertion "I know you're dying/And I know you know it too/Every time 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 his music of the subsequent forty years, up to and including the epic album-closer "Behind the Ritual," from last year's Keep It Simple, wherein he 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, hovering just out of reach and threatening to displace the present. It's a feeling that extends to the myriad cover/tribute albums he's produced in the past fifteen years, honoring traditional country with Pay the Devil and jazz with How Long Has This Been Going On, while elsewhere tipping his porkpie hat to such influences as Mose Allison, Lonnie Donegan, John Lee Hooker and Solomon Burke.  It is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay those albums to say that Morrison's original compositions are frequently indistinguishable from the "period" songs written by others 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?" he 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 cliche. 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."

Since Astral Weeks, Morrison has issued more than thirty 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've been a regular (and hardly undeserved) object of scorn and derision in such 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 it being the highest-charting domestic release of his career, he 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 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," he says. "It's like I've got these scars," he adds, 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 he still loves it, right?

"The only thing I love is the music," he says, without hesitation. "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."

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