This column—sometimes by design, frequently by default—has a way of trotting toward the wrathful. Writing about the weekly Torah portion, and attempting to relate its timeless message to the timely occurrences shaping our world, one can be overcome by those gusts of righteous anger that have breathed life in mindful men since Moses was knocking about.
But for this, the last column of the year, I couldn’t face another dose of fury. Contemplating my new year’s resolutions, I promised to try and sidle up to grace. I promised myself calm and lovingkindness. It was in that pacified state of mind that I sat down to write this column. And then I learned that this week’s parasha was all about the first round of plagues inflicted by Moses on the hard-hearted Pharaoh. I had wanted a cheerful and soft send-off to 2010; instead, what I got was pestilence, blood, frogs, and boils.
Refusing to succumb to all that awesome celestial vengeance, I put on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, one of very few albums I know that possess the quality of redemption. No matter what afflictions you, the listener, might bring into the experience, no matter how much woe or heartache or ennui or sweet melancholy, Morrison’s howls—and the swirling musical notes that accompany them—will purge you of your sadness. One emerges from listening to the record like a man exiting a darkened theater into a bright spring afternoon: a few blinks of the eye, a few breaths of air, and nothing but beauty all around.
And while great works of art hardly have need for biographical notations, the story of Astral Weeks is one worth retelling. In 1968, then 23 years old and a mildly successful pop star, Morrison found himself in the house of legal bondage: The year before, he had signed a contract with Bang Records and was dismayed when Bert Berns, the label’s owner and chief producer, seized control over every facet of the creative process. Berns selected the studio musicians, arranged the songs, and gave Morrison’s debut solo album the unfortunate title Blowin’ Your Mind! One song, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” became a huge hit, and Berns pushed Morrison to follow up with more in the same spirit and write nothing but sweet, weightless pop anthems. But Morrison had other ideas, impressionistic slivers of song that ebbed and flowed in his mind and lacked anything nearing a conventional structure. Incensed at Morrison’s reticence, Bert Berns had a heart attack and passed away.
His widow, Ilene, was livid. Whether or not she blamed Morrison for her husband’s untimely death—conflicting accounts exist on this matter—she refused to set the singer free. Her heart, too, was hardened.
Moses, facing a similar predicament in this week’s parasha, had Aaron to lean on; Van Morrison had Lewis Merenstein. The priest of Israel turned his staff into a snake and watched with delight as it devoured the wands of the Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The New York record producer arranged a complicated legal compromise that released Morrison from his commitments to Bang Records. The first time he’d heard the young Irish singer play his stuff, Merenstein later recalled, “I started crying. It just vibrated in my soul.”
Whisked off to a studio, Morrison had no time to prepare for his exodus. He was assigned a band of musicians, most of whom he’d never before met, and told to start singing. To allow him to commune with the spirit of the song, he was placed in an isolated recording booth with his guitar, unable to see or hear the others, a sound-proof plexiglass Mount Sinai of sorts. There, he let loose.
The musicians were perplexed. Usually, even the wildest jam session begins with a lead sheet, a skeletal arrangement of sorts that gives the players some idea of where a tune is headed and leaves them to fill in the details and add their own flourishes. Van Morrison provided nothing of the kind. Guitarist Jay Berliner, hired by Merenstein, later recalled the peculiar difficulties of the Astral Weeks sessions. “Van just played us the songs on his guitar,” he said, “and then told us to go ahead and play exactly what he felt.”
What Van Morrison felt was urgency. “There was no choice,” he told NPR’s Josh Gleason in 2009. “I was totally broke. So, I didn’t have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do.”
Other albums—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds—may be more monumental than Astral Weeks. Others yet—The Velvet Underground & Nico—may be more influential. But no other album, I believe, surpasses the audacity, the wonder, the desperation, and the joy of Astral Weeks. It is of all musical genres and of none at all, and its lyrics—with lines like “If I ventured in the slipstream/ Between the viaducts of your dream”—are as close as pop would ever get to closing its eyes and dreaming. For spiritual seekers, people willing to wander for a few decades in the desert because they know for certain that the promised land awaits, there can be no better companion than this record.
Lester Bangs, perhaps the finest rock writer who ever lived, was one of those seekers. “Van Morrison was twenty-two or twenty-three years old when he made this record,” Bangs wrote. “There are lifetimes behind it. What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.”
This pretty much describes us all, especially as we stare at another new year charging our way. We may be stunned by life, we may be completely overwhelmed, but we are not alone.