Van Morrison's Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Should aging rock stars be allowed to dust off their magnum opuses?
Somehow it's become an inevitability, this business of reperforming your famous album. Lou Reed did it with Berlin, Brian Wilson did it with Pet Sounds, Roger Waters did it with Dark Side of the Moon, Arthur Lee (RIP) did it with Love's Forever Changes. Even Anthrax did it, with Among the Living. The years pass, a consensus is achieved, and then it's time: Assemble the band, hose off the magnum opus. There's a certain clinical rhythm to the thing, like getting a colonoscopy.
Still, let's not become inured to the oddness of it. Because it is odd. Totally un-rock 'n' roll, for starters, to be casting this fond retrospective gaze upon one's own work. (Would Iggy Pop do it, for God's sake? Oh—he already did.) And then rather risky too, by a paradox. Reperforming is a high-wire act. It's aesthetically fraught. What are you doing out there, exactly? You could be burnishing your masterpiece or flogging a dead horse. Or flogging your masterpiece. Or burnishing a dead horse.
In the case of Van Morrison and Astral Weeks—last year's reperformance of which has just been released as Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl—there would seem to be even more on the line than usual. Is there another album in the canon so haunted by the specter of maturity, so obsessed with a return to the lost springs of creation? "And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first/ And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst/ And I will never grow so old again." Morrison had read no William Blake when he delivered these lines (the poetical-mystical immersions of his middle period were still to come), which perhaps accounts for their authentically Blakeian atmosphere: Astral Weeks was this displaced 23-year-old Irishman's Songs Of Innocence & Experience.
It begins with a request to be born again and ends in a guitar-and-flute coughing fit as the dwindling junkie of "Slim Slow Slider" tips over on the streets of West London. The songs are strung taut between two worlds—or perhaps between one world and what it is dying to become. A man on Cyprus Avenue is watching schoolgirls through his windshield, frozen with yearning, "conquered in a car seat/ Nothing that I can do." Can lechery be made holy? Maybe if you use enough harpsichord. ... The album's opening couplet is immortal: "If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dream ..." The first words, that cautious "ventured," suggest tentativeness, but the singer has already taken the plunge. Between innocence and experience, in a fast-moving associative blur, runs this bristling, scatty, half-tortured voice that will never sound the same again.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.
Illustrated by Robert Neubecker.