His full and formal title is Sir George Ivan Morrison OBE, but he’s better known as Van, and let’s face it: he’s a real piece of work, an artist who’s never been afraid to do what he wants, say what he wants, and express himself in a manner that often thoroughly infuriates large chunks of his fanbase. That said, Van Morrison has delivered albums over the course of his career which are so powerful and moving that even if some people can’t forgive him his transgressions, they can at least forget them for the duration of those albums.
Of those albums, there’s one that invariably sits perched in the topmost spot: Astral Weeks, the LP that is to Morrison’s discography what Pet Sounds is to The Beach Boys’ back catalog.
Picture it: Boston, 1968. Van Morrison is living with his wife, Janet Rigsbee, signed to a famously loathsome contract with Bang Records which not only prevented him from recording anything new but also effectively kept him from picking up any gigs in New York City. Still, the success he’d achieved from his single “Brown-Eyed Girl” was enough for Warner Bros. to pursue him for a new record deal, one which he was only able to sign after WB did a whole lotta wrangling with Bang. Even better, Warner Bros. loved the new music Morrison was penning, with producer Lewis Merenstein going on record as saying that he actually started crying the first time he heard the title track to Astral Weeks.
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Despite that love, the label never actually released that track or any other as a single, but at least it’s explicable, even if the explanation is infuriating: it’s because Morrison’s contract with Bang stated that he had to give Bang’s publishing company half of the copyright to any musical composition written and recorded by Morrison and released as a single within one year from Sept. 12, 1968. Given how seething mad he was with Bang, there was no way Morrison was ever going to allow that to happen.
The sessions for the album were very much ruled by Morrison, but not exactly with an iron fist, surprisingly. "What stood out in my mind was the fact that he allowed us to stretch out," guitarist Jay Berliner recalled of the recording. "We were used to playing to charts, but Van just played us the songs on his guitar and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what we felt."
Whether he feels the same way about it now, we couldn’t say, but in 1972 Morrison spoke of Astral Weeks to Rolling Stone and said, “I was really pretty happy with the album. The only complaint I had was that it was rather rushed. But I thought it was closer to the type of music I wanted to put out. And still is, actually."
If only it had been the commercial success that it deserved to be: Astral Weeks topped out at No. 55 on the U.K. albums chart, didn’t chart at all in the U.S., and although it did finally go gold in America, that didn’t happen until 2001. Still, as Andrew Ford wrote in his 1997 book Illegal Harmonies: Music in the 20th Century, "Neither instant nor evanescent: Astral Weeks will sell as many copies this year as it did in 1968 and has every year in between.”
That’s because Astral Weeks is an eternal joy...because of – and, yes, sometimes despite – Van Morrison.
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