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Featured Album: "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

“Astral Weeks” is the second studio album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, released on November 29, 1968. Regarded by many as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, the story behind “Astral Weeks” spans nearly two years of struggle, legal battles, and plenty of coffee shop gigs in between following his top 10 hit “Brown Eyed Girl.” Morrison’s debut album “Blowin’ Your Mind!” was full of potential chart-topping pop hits but only “Brown Eyed Girl” made any sort of significant splash. However, while most of the album failed to launch, “Brown Eyed Girl” made enough of an impact (to this day, the song remains one of the longest surviving songs of the ‘60s in recurrent rotation and is one of only ten songs to have ever earned over 10 million radio airplays) for Bang Records founder Bert Berns to continue pushing Morrison to record singles geared toward pop crossover success. Morrison had a completely different vision in mind and continuously fought with Berns over creative differences. At the time, Morrison was the label’s biggest artist since losing Neil Diamond and Berns had reportedly been accepting loans from the mob in order to keep the label afloat. One month after the release of “Brown Eyed Girl,” Berns was found dead in his New York hotel room of an apparent heart attack. Bern’s widow, Ilene Berns, held Morrison accountable for his death, blaming their constant fights for inducing unwarranted stress on his congenital heart defect. This began a year-long battle of Ilene’s vindictiveness, refusing to release Morrison from his contract but also preventing him from recording or releasing any new music. Suddenly finding himself in the position of a starving artist with a coast-to-coast hit, Morrison retreated to playing covers in Massachusetts coffee shops and underground jazz clubs as he had also been blacklisted from major venues and TV appearances. Bert Berns’ connections with the New York mob also proved to be a dangerous situation for Morrison in the city, so he kept a low profile in Cambridge until he was eventually spotted by A&R reps from Warner Bros. Records. News of his resurface spread to Ilene, who after discovering unfiled immigration paperwork from her late husband, tried to get Morrison deported. He promptly married long time girlfriend Janet Rigsbee and plead his case to Warner Bros., urging their expertise in helping him break his contract. To fulfill his obligation to Bang Records, he submitted thirty-six songs (all of which were nonsense and completely unusable), refrained from releasing songs under Warner Bros. for one year, and forfeited the royalties to two of his songs controlled by Band’s catalogue, “Madame George” and “Beside You,” and include them on his upcoming studio release (although the versions that made it onto “Astral Weeks” were vastly different than the original recordings under Berns.) There was still the problem of feared mob retaliation as Morrison’s last hit on Bang Records, “Brown Eyed Girl,” hadn’t quite made enough to clear Berns’ outstanding debt (to this day, Morrison claims that he hasn’t received a penny from “Brown Eyed Girl”). With the help of Don Rickles’ manager’s “connections,” Morrison allegedly arranged a one time drop of $20,000 at an abandoned Manhattan warehouse to free him from Berns’ haunting clutches once and for all! Throughout this tumultuous year, Morrison had taken to the improvised vocal stylings of his jazz ensemble performances, as well as the coffee shop crooning he had developed struggling to be heard in a crowded corner of busy college town study hubs aided only by an acoustic guitar. This contrasting blend of styles would later fuse in the recording studio in what would later come to be known as Van Morrison’s signature masterpiece, “Astral Weeks.” Morrison recruited fellow underground performers from the folk and nightclub scenes to be his backing instrumentals for the project. “Astral Weeks” ditches the standard four-piece percussion and electric template typical of late ‘60s rock n roll bands and instead features strings, horns, acoustic guitars, xylophones, etc., all glued together by the prominent rhythm of a classical stand-up bass. In the recording session for each song, Morrison would isolate himself from the rest of the band in a separate booth with nothing but a metronome and instruct the musicians to play whatever they wanted, encouraging them to build off of one another, and allowing for an unprecedented creative freedom. As the day went on, various musicians drifted in and out of the studio as instruments were constantly changing hands. These jam sessions were so casual that to this day, the flute player on “Beside You” and “Cyprus Avenue” remains unknown and uncredited. Meanwhile, Morrison in the other booth recorded endless takes of the same songs, each time changing the words with whatever came to mind. Morrison claims that the songs “Madame George” and “Cyprus Avenue” were recorded in one take in a stream of consciousness, as the rest of the album’s lyrics came out of composites from the previous year’s live performances, recalling the stories and verses that had stuck with him throughout his trying time singing his struggles to a room full of disinterested strangers. As far as the public was concerned, “Astral Weeks” was a commercial failure for the fans that had come to know him through “Brown Eyed Girl.” It’s vastly different from anything else in his discography and furled him further away from chart success, taking two additional albums to craft another top 10 single, 1971’s “Domino.” It took 35 years for “Astral Weeks” to be certified gold, prompting music historian Andrew Ford to famously say that “Astral Weeks will sell as many copies this year as it did in 1968 and has every year in between,” dubbing the album “Neither instant nor evanescent.” The influence of Van Morrison’s sophomore release seems to have affected the right people, with Bono and Bruce Springsteen citing it as one of their favorite albums and Martin Scorsese dedicating the first fifteen minutes of his 1976 Academy Award nominated film “Taxi Driver” to his love for the album. Critical reception for the work has only continued to grow as “Astral Weeks” ranks 15th in most appearances on Best of All-Time lists. Everyone from Johnny Depp to Elvis Costello credits the album as a pivotal moment in the evolution of their listening habits. Note the effect it has on you when streaming the short eight song musical landscape including the tracks “The Way Young Lovers Do,” “Ballerina,” and “Slim Slow Slider” included in the 1999 remaster now available on Spotify!

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