C'est Sean O'Hagan lui-même qui l'écrit dans un long et bel article pour The Observer du 02 novembre (supplément dominical du Guardian), Van Morrison s'apprête à jouer pour la première fois en public son merveilleux "Astral Weeks" dont il refuse même de parler depuis sa publication en 1968.
Van Morrison - Madame George
Découvrez Van Morrison!
Is this the best album ever made?
On its release in 1968 Van Morrison's second album, Astral Weeks, baffled both the public and his record company. Now, 40 years later, it's regarded as unique - a mystical, dream-like blend of spontaneous blues, jazz and folk. And Van himself is finally ready to play it live...
Sunday November 2 2008
In the early Sixties the young George Ivan Morrison briefly played saxophone in a Belfast showband called the Olympics. Once, before a gig in Derry, the band's minibus pulled up outside his house on Hyndford Street, east Belfast and lead singer Alfie Walsh knocked on the door. Van's mother, Violet, answered, and after a few seconds of banter Walsh returned to the minibus alone. 'Yer man can't play,' he told the other band members. 'His ma says he's not coming out... He's upstairs in his room writing poetry.'
Though this anecdote may have grown in the telling, it illustrates the adolescent Van Morrison's otherness. A working-class boy from a Protestant neighbourhood, he had left Orangefield school with no academic credentials, and seems to have been an aloof-to-the-point-of-arrogant teenager; an only child who never quite shed his sense of aloneness. Years later, when his Belfast peers recalled the young Morrison, they stressed his solitary nature as well as his eccentricity. 'Van was his own master,' his boyhood friend George Jones told biographer Johnny Rogan. 'People didn't understand him.' Another friend, Billy McAllen, remembered him as being 'a bit strange, a bit weird'.
Fast forward to 25 September 1968. Morrison, 23, and already in retreat from pop stardom, stands in the centre of Century Sound Studios in midtown Manhattan. In the past few years he had tasted fame as lead singer of Them (dubbed 'Belfast's answer to the Rolling Stones' in the music press), singing on two hit singles, 'Here Comes the Night' and the proto-punk 'Gloria'. His first solo album - released in 1967, and entitled, in the spirit of the time, Blowin' Your Mind - had yielded another hit, the buoyant 'Brown-Eyed Girl'. Now, though, newly signed to Warner Brothers, he was intent on reinvention .
Strumming gently on an acoustic guitar, he begins to sing the first of several strange, stark songs he has been recently performing in small venues on the east coast to general disinterest. Around him, listening intently, are gathered three jazz musicians of the highest calibre: bassist Richard Davis, who had played with the likes of Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan, guitarist Jay Berliner, best known for his work with Charles Mingus, and drummer Connie Kay, a member of the esteemed Modern Jazz Quartet. They had been assembled, alongside arranger Larry Fallon, by producer Lewis Merenstein, who on first hearing the songs had immediately sensed that they would not work in a rock setting.
If the young Van Morrison felt awed in such exalted company, he did not show it. In fact, he betrayed little emotion at all, and throughout the session, spoke only to the technicians. 'There wasn't much communication,' recalls Richard Davis, who now teaches music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 'As far as I can recall, I don't think I exchanged one word with the guy. We just listened to his songs one time, and then we started playing.'
Brooks Arthur was the sound engineer on that same session, though, inexplicably, his name would be left off the subsequent album credits. When he talks about it today, 40 years later, regret soon turns to excitement in his voice. 'From the moment Van hit the first note I knew we were involved in something special,' he recalls. 'You have to understand, everything was live. There were no music charts. He ran it down once for the players and went into the vocal booth. Then we got the sound levels right and I hit the red light and he started singing.'
That first working day comprised two three-and-a-half-hour studio sessions, during which three extended songs were recorded. 'There wasn't too much stopping and starting,' says Arthur. 'Van took off and the musicians went with him. They were serious players, they didn't have to think about it, they just did it instinctively, and it caught fire. We were working at the speed of sound. I tell you, we were breathing rarefied air in there.'
On 15 October the musicians and sound men reconvened. In another two short sessions, according to Merenstein, they produced 'six or seven songs, two of which just didn't fit the mood of the album'. Larry Fallon then spent another day overdubbing strings and horns on certain tracks. Throughout Morrison remained uncommunicative, self-absorbed. 'People told me later that he was shy,' says Davis, 'but to me he seemed aloof, maybe a bit moody. He was caught up in his own thing. He communicated through his singing.'
It still seems scarcely credible that, under such strained conditions, an album was created that has since come to be regarded as perhaps the greatest work of art to emerge out of the pop tradition. Released in November 1968, Astral Weeks is a work of such singular beauty, such sustained emotional intensity, that nothing recorded before or since sounds even remotely similar - or, indeed, comparable. Elvis Costello would later describe it as 'still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium', adding that 'there hasn't been a record with that amount of daring made since'. When I spoke to Nick Cave about it a few years ago, he spoke enviously of 'its power to mesmerise and disturb', and wondered 'at the sheer nerve of this young guy to attempt something so obsessive and uncompromising, and then actually pull it off'.
Initially, though, Astral Weeks was greeted by both the critics and the public with utter bemusement. The NME compared Morrison's extraordinary voice to the mannered Latin stylings of José Feliciano. Initial sales were disappointing and it received little support from Warner Brothers. 'They just didn't know what to do with it so they did nothing,' says Merenstein, scathingly. 'They were expecting "Brown Eyed Girl", and the first thing I played them was a seven-minute song about rebirth with no electric guitars and an acoustic bass. They just shook their heads.'
Since then though Astral Weeks has gone from a cult album to an acknowledged classic and has been celebrated, alongside the likes of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's, in countless best albums of all-time lists. It was voted No 2 in a Mojo magazine critics' poll of 1995 and at No 19 in Rolling Stone's selection of the 500 Greatest Albums Ever Made in 2003. More surprisingly, it was also voted ninth greatest album of all time in the more populist Music of the Millennium poll conducted by Channel 4, the Guardian, HMV and Classic FM in 1997.
Now comes the news that the ever-contrary Morrison, having continually shrugged off Astral Weeks' legendary status in interviews over the years, will be performing the album in its entirety at two shows at the Hollywood Bowl on November 7-8. The concerts are an intriguing prospect but it turns out that I am not alone in wondering at the wisdom of such a risky undertaking. 'How does that old Buddhist saying go?' says Merenstein. 'Something like, "You can't bathe in the same river twice." I hear he is going to record the concerts for a live album, too. Man, I have mixed feelings about that. Part of me thinks, just leave it alone. It's a moment in time that has become timeless. It's just too unique, too magical to try and recreate.'
Astral Weeks is that rare thing in pop music, an album that lives up to its own legend. Its singularity lies, as Costello points out, in its vaulting ambition. It is neither folk nor jazz nor blues, though there are traces of all three in the music and in Morrison's raw and emotionally charged singing. There are no solos save for the ethereal flute and soprano saxophone improvisations that are woven through the last, and shortest, song, 'Slim Slow Slider', the album's elegaic coda. Throughout, there are interludes of breathtaking beauty when the music surges and subsides, rises and falls, around Morrison's voice.
And it is that voice, by turns flinty and tender, beseeching and plaintive, that is the most extraordinary instrument of all. It is the sound of someone singing to himself, utterly immersed in the words that are pouring out of his mouth. This is that adolescent aloofness transmuted into a kind of enraptured self-assurance. 'His voice has so much integrity and conviction,' says the singer Beth Orton. 'It's as if he has sung the whole album into being just by his conviction, his absolute self-belief.'
At times Morrison seems overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings he is attempting to express. 'His voice is a thing of quite extreme beauty,' says the psychologist and author Adam Phillips, a longtime fan of the album. 'What is extraordinary is the emotional atmosphere he creates in the songs and the sense that he is not even remotely concerned about communicating with an audience or a listener. He's just singing out his songs, and we are, in a sense, listening in.'
It has long been my contention that Astral Weeks is an album rooted in adolescence; its confusions and frustrations, its often volcanic emotional turbulence. On 'Cyprus Avenue' he is 'caught' and 'captured' by adolescent sexual desire, and 'conquered in a car seat'. On 'Beside You', the most dense and tortured song on the album, he sounds traumatised - though by what one never knows.
'On Astral Weeks I think he is haunted by something,' says Phillips, 'and I am not even sure he knows what it is. He sounds confounded, literally confounded. I don't think he has a clue what this music is about, other than it comes from somewhere deep inside him. As a psychologist, one often encounters people who harbour these sort of confused feelings but what you don't very often encounter is someone who has found a form for them. That is what is startling here, and almost unique in the medium of popular music.'
For all that, there is a mood of exultancy and, in places, abandonment, on Astral Weeks: words break down or are repeated until they lose their literal meaning and become mantras of desire and loss. 'I always think Astral Weeks sounds somehow victorious,' says Beth Orton. 'It's as if he has won a great victory but lost so much too. He sounds altered.'
There are few moments in popular music as affecting as the repeated refrain on 'Madame George' of the line, 'dry your eye, your eye, your eye...' as the strings swell around his voice then fall away, leaving just his acoustic strumming and Davis's wonderfully insistent bass pulse. It is the sound of someone trying to retrieve the irretrievable: lost youth, lost innocence, lost love; and at the same time realising the impossibility of ever experiencing those heightened moments again.
Astral Weeks is also a long goodbye, both to his younger self and to the city of his youth, a prelapsarian Belfast untouched by bomb or bullet. It was recorded just as the Troubles began, and remains, alongside Derek Mahon's poetry and Gerald Dawe's memoir, My Mother-City, one of the most tender...#65279; evocations of a straight-laced and hard-edged city, whose more progressive youth were embracing the creeping bohemianism of the times. On his brief return to Belfast after Them split, Morrison hung out for a time with an arty student crowd, but he was an outsider there too.
The two songs on Astral Weeks that are most infused with a sense of place - 'Cyprus Avenue' and 'Madame George' - are also undercut with the deepest sense of melancholy and longing. 'What he is tapping into on those songs is a collective experience,' says Dawe, a Belfast-born poet who knew the young Van Morrison. 'It's about describing the familiar in extraordinary detail, even as you are leaving that familiarity behind once and for all. Van grew up in an intense, tight-knit community, and knew early on that he did not fit into that community, that he was, as artists often are, an outsider. That feeling was really brought home to him when he returned to Belfast after his brief pop stardom. He didn't fit, and knew he would have to leave again, this time for good. All those complex emotions echo through Astral Weeks. That's why it resonates so deeply with people from home, many of whom have left there with the same anxieties of belonging.'
Astral Weeks may be the moment when Van Morrison accepts that he can never truly go home again. 'Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world,' he sings towards the end of the title track, echoing the gospel hymns of his youth. 'I got a home on high...'
When I interviewed Morrison back in 1987 he did not want to talk about Astral Weeks at all. We met in the Chelsea Arts Club. He arrived very late and for the first hour was tight-lipped and combative. It was only when we moved off the subject of his music that he began to open up. 'Basically, Irish writers, and I include myself here, are writing about the same things,' he mused at one point. 'Often it's about when things felt better. Either that, or sadness... It's the story about going back and rediscovering that going back answers the question, or going back and discovering it doesn't answer the question. Going away and coming back, those are the themes of all Irish writing.'
In a way, Van Morrison has grappled with those same themes ever since. For a long time his albums were about the great quest for home, the search for a place to belong, be that a tradition or a belief system or an actual landscape. In his songs he has drawn on Romanticism and esoteric theosophy, and evoked the names of John Donne and WB Yeats, TS Eliot and Seamus Heaney. On Astral Weeks, though, there is no questing. He is simply there, transported by his words and his voicing of them. No one in popular music, including Van Morrison himself, has since come close to that exalted place .
1968 and all that
In the news
5 November Richard Nixon narrowly beats Hubert Humphrey in the US presidential elections.
26 November New race relations law in the UK makes it illegal to refuse housing, jobs or public services on ethnic grounds.
30 November The Trade Descriptions Act outlaws the selling of an item with a misleading label or description.
At the cinema
Barbarella Jane Fonda plays the 41st-century astronaut in this hedonistic sci-fi romp.
Oliver! Musical version of Charles Dickens's classic tale.
Girl on a Motorcycle Road movie with Marianne Faithful.
In the shops
Sliced white loaf - 1s 7d (8½p)
Pint of milk - 11d (4½p)
Bag of sugar - 1/4 (6½p)
20 cigarettes - 4/10 (24p)
On the radio
'Those Were the Days' - Mary Hopkin
'Hey Jude' - The Beatles
'With a Little Help from My Friends' - Joe Cocker
At the theatre
Hair Controversial rock'n'roll musical.
Forty Years On Alan Bennett's first West End play.
The Real Inspector Hound Tom Stoppard's farcical whodunnit.
On the bookshelves
The Armies of the Night Normal Mailer's Pulitzer-winning nonfiction novel.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe's pioneering account of Merry Pranksterism.
Eva Trout Elizabeth Bowen's last major work. Ally Carnwath
How Van the man found his voice
Born George Ivan Morrison on 31 August 1945 at 125 Hyndford Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Courtesy of his father George's extensive jazz and blues record collection, he grows up listening to the likes of Ray Charles, Leadbelly and Mahalia Jackson.
1958 Joins the Sputniks as a saxophone player. Later groups he plays in include Deanie Sands & the Javelins, the Olympics and the Monarchs.
1964 Forms Them, and the group begin a residency in the Maritime Hotel in Belfast. Two hit singles follow: 'Baby Please Don't Go'/ 'Gloria' (November 1964) and 'Here Comes the Night' (March 1965).
1968 Astral Weeks, his masterpiece, is released.
1970 Changes direction again and releases Moondance, a soul-jazz classic.
1973 Tours with his finest band, the Caledonian Soul Orchestra, and in 1974 issues one of the great live albums, It's Too Late to Stop Now.
It is followed in October by Veedon Fleece, a record that some critics compare to Astral Weeks.
1980 Releases Common One the first of a series of albums, among them Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983) and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986) that explore themes of transcendence and spirituality.
2008 Decides finally to revisit Astral Weeks. He will play the album in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl this Friday and Saturday.