Astral Weeks
Warner Bros. 1968
Lewis Merenstein

Side one:
1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue

Side two:
1. The Way Young Lovers Do
2. Madame George
3. Ballerina
4. Slim Slow Slider

Breaking through the surface of Astral Weeks


“And I’m conquered in a car seat
And I’m looking straight at you.”

I stared at this line for probably five minutes that wound up feeling like an hour.

It felt so familiar, and though I’m sure I’d heard it before, it was hitting me in this moment as if it had been written by some alien visitor, traveling through my deepest memories and writing a single lyric in one song based on a singular moment of my life.

It’s not, obviously. It’s from “Cyprus Avenue,” the fourth track from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, a record that has become more compelling and more confusing the more I try to understand it. And there’s no reason to think I’m alone on that one.

A brief history of myself and Mr. Morrison: at some point in college, after hearing enough of his songs on the radio, I bought a CD of Moondance and quickly decided it was a winner, and of course it is. Every song has it’s own familial pull, and sounds apart from everything else in the classic rock cannon. It’s not jazz and it’s not folk and it’s not rock. It’s probably closest to soul, but that too would be a mis-categorization if it were listed as that alone. It’s just Van Morrison, doing what only he seems to do.

Knowing that and little else, I ordered Astral Weeks next, thinking that it was his debut album and had “Brown Eyed Girl” on it. I realized I was wrong on both counts when it showed up in the mail, but that didn’t seem so important after listening to it once through. It was like a more free-form version of Moondance — if there were choruses, they seemed to appear by accident. They music and the words flowed in a confusing but pleasing way, like water rolling up on the sand, sometimes pulling farther than the tide should, sometimes less, sometimes crashing, sometimes slowly. It was random and it didn’t seem to make sense, but it sounded great and fit the mood I liked if I was trying to get some kind of work done.

And there it stayed for years — a pleasing sound that I turned to occasionally but never with full dedication. When I got my first mp3 player, the two albums occupied a permanent space among its 20 gigs, and even without obsession, the idea of taking it off to save space for something else never appeared. But I’ve read Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus going off at length on this album, and if it captured their attentions and imaginations, then certainly it’s worth a reinvestment.

After reading a piece in Boston Magazine tracking down the original characters involved in the record, it was obvious that it was well past time to go back to Astral Weeks and pay it something more than just the rote appreciation that come to the masters. Just hearing about the on-the-fly arrangements and mysterious way in which Morrison would pull out lyric sheets and then, on the spot, arrange and record “Slim Slow Slider” was enough to make me want to go back into the record, head first, for the full immersion.

It began a couple of weeks ago, just putting it back on my iPod and letting the music sit there with me for a few hours, first at work, then on the commute home. Some more headphone action came later, while taking care of some other writing or just lying in bed, while ballerinas step right up and the one and only Madame George waves goodbye with music all around the room.

There was more here, and with a trip to Blacksburg, Va., coming up, I figured I’d take some of the downtime to keep digging, keep listening and try to figure out why I was slowly growing obsessed with sussing out at least part of this riddle. At the very least, I wanted to know why I was compelled to keep listening so intently. I had even printed out five pages of lyrics from the album (two columns and properly formatted) in an effort to take it with me and try to crack the code while I rode the gauntlet of subways and flights and road trips to get to Blacksburg. But none of that happened. With the thunder of a jet engine constantly in the background, it’s better to lean on the familiar to get through a trip, so Pearl Jam and Rory Gallagher and Bob Dylan were back on the bill for the weekend.

Astral Weeks kept lingering in there, though. Maybe it’s the way the words float through, drifting from one song to the next in a way that makes every song feel more like a movement in one, eight-section composition. It doesn’t sound like anything else I own. It seems to exist within its own realm, the lyrics clashing with the conflicting musical styles, double bass and strings creating a strange bed for the compositions about love and the perils it can cause to lay on.

It’s certainly interesting, on the surface and deeper. But why, before my own library grew to unwieldily proportions, did I insist on keeping this on my person for so long, even if I didn’t listen to it as often as the rest? I don’t have an answer, but I have an idea.

I don’t know in concrete terms what the album is about, or whether its songs forms a unified account or not. But I can think of that line in “Cyprus Avenue,” staring at the lyric sheet while hearing Morrison’s voice, and, having never set foot in any part of Ireland, I suddenly remembered how it felt to be hopelessly in love for the first time and nearly emotionally paralyzed by that feeling.

It’s years ago now, nighttime, after dinner but not too late yet, and I’m in the passenger seat and we’re sitting in the parking lot, and the lights are shining in and creating a natural sepia on everything outside the windshield, and she’s next to me, and I’m looking down at the glove compartment, and that’s when I realize that I’m just grinning, conquered in a car seat, and that’s when I turn my head to look at her.

It was a unique feeling, literally one I hadn’t felt before. It’s a memory that pulls fondness and pain and confusion from the same well. The combination of the time and place and age and people and experience all factor in to that. None of that is what Van Morrison was singing about in “Cyprus Avenue,” and it doesn’t matter. The songs on Astral Weeks have no doubt conjured up countless memories from countless people that have nothing to do with the intention of the music. The mystery there is the power that the album has, and it’s never ending.

There’s nothing to solve with Astral Weeks. It’s a puzzle that keeps changing its shapes. It conquers every one of us that attempts to pin it down.

Sept. 11, 2015

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