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.
Against the stream of time, or in its slipstream to be precise, Van Morrison in 1968 goes into a New York studio. He finds a group of crack session men, the cream of the contemporary jazz scene, assembled there by producer Lew Merenstein. Bassist Richard Davis has played with Eric Dolphy and Ahmad Jamal; drummer Connie Kay is from the Modern Jazz Quartet; Jay Berliner, on guitar, is a Mingus man. Rather an unrock crew for a session with Van Morrison, performer of the bouncy "Brown-Eyed Girl" and recent graduate from mad-dog beat combo Them. But then, Van, as Merenstein has intuited, is about to become an unrock star. His new songs are weird—straggling, open-ended raptures, almost gibberish some of them, about 14-year-old girls and railroad bridges in Belfast. In the studio, ecstasy happens: Davis and Kay set up a cross-flutter of bass and cymbal, a kind of hallucinated skiffle, that will become the nervous system of Astral Weeks. One imagines Van and the band in an inspired folk-bop huddle, eye to eye, melding minds at high temperatures, but apparently not. Studio walls separate them, as well as some never-explained reluctance on the part of the singer to offer any direction at all to his musicians: Most accounts have Van sealed off, raving privately in his recording booth while the unflappable jazzers outside just do it.
Fast forward 40 years, and Van is no longer a minstrel on fire but a "legendary figure," girded with age and thicker about the larynx, about to reperform his most renowned work. His career has been restless and refractory, with plenty of blinding music in it but nothing, as even his fiercest partisan will admit, to compare to Astral Weeks. He simply never goes there again, with the result that the album assumes in his discography the character of something almost aberrant, a freak-out or visitation. In its wake, he'll become a seeker, exploring theosophy, poetry, the New Age—even Scientology, briefly. He'll rumble about Blake and Yeats and Madame Blavatsky for album after album, but Astral Weeks, in which his pet word "mystic" isn't used once, remains his most purely mystical statement. Unrepeatable, in other words.
And yet here he is in November 2008, repeating it—sort of. It must be said that the first 10 minutes of Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl are not easy to enjoy. The music is a fine sparkling shuffle, but the singer sounds truculent, dissociated, puddinglike. "From the far side of the ocean/ If I put the wheels in motion ..." There's a technical interest, perhaps, in hearing lines as beautiful as these rephrased as lounge-bar throwaways. And some small satirical gratification to be had from Van's growling of "I believe I've transcended/ I believe I've tran-scen-ded ..." when he has plainly done no such thing. But these are jaundiced pleasures, and by the middle of "Beside You" the possibility has presented itself that the whole affair might be an amazing Morrisonian debacle, like one of those shows where he ends up swearing at everybody.
As his tubes warm up, though, and as he works his changes upon the words "I just don't know what to do/ I just don't know what to do," "Slim Slow Slider" becomes rather gorgeous. When Patti Smith reperformed Horses in London in 2005 she began (of course) with "Gloria," her visionary expansion of the 1964 Them hit, her strange tribute to Van. She was fiery-voiced and potent, and somewhat unexpectedly she took the roof off. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is less robust than that. The spirit shyly descends, then gives a puff on its boosters and is away again. Here's why we love Astral Weeks, the real one: because life runs backward, in some way. The original gift is squandered, the native knowledge mislaid, and half an existence spent scrambling to reclaim what once seemed our birthright. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is by no means a great album. Here and there it even stinks. But in the annals of reperformance, it's already a classic—perhaps the most poignant dialogue yet recorded between time, mean old don't-give-a-shit time, and the irretrievable moment.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.
Illustrated by Robert Neubecker.