Van Mor­ri­son’s rage and the bat­tle be­hind a mas­ter­piece

‘As­tral Weeks’ — an al­bum con­sid­ered by many to be rock’s finest — turns 50

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY TRAVIS M. AN­DREWS­[email protected]­

Things seemed to be go­ing well for Van Mor­ri­son.

It was 1967, and he was rid­ing on the suc­cess of his de­but solo al­bum, “Blowin’ Your Mind!” which kicks off with the in­deli­ble three-minute pop clas­sic “Brown Eyed Girl” (smartly changed from “Brown Skinned Girl” dur­ing record­ing). Af­ter the sin­gle spent 16 weeks on the Bill­board 100 and peaked at No. 1, sig­nal­ing a bona fide hit, it seemed as if Mor­ri­son could do any­thing. The lane to be­ing the next world-fa­mous song­writer dur­ing rock’s golden era was wide open.

How­ever, things never re­ally went the way they were sup­posed to for the North­ern Ir­ish­man. A tu­mul­tuous two years led him to take a sharp left turn and pro­duce a jazz-rock mash-up al­bum that shocked just about ev­ery­one: “As­tral Weeks,” which came out 50 years ago on Nov. 29, 1968.

The story of Mor­ri­son is the story of a man con­stantly at war with the record­ing es­tab­lish­ment — be it the la­bels, other mu­si­cians or his fans — while des­per­ately seek­ing its ap­proval. Rock critic Ryan H. Walsh’s re­cent ar­ti­cle in Pitch­fork re­vis­it­ing Mor­ri­son’s 1970 clas­sic “Moon­dance” finds the mu­si­cian harshly scold­ing a live au­di­ence for not lis­ten­ing closely enough, es­sen­tially stalk­ing Bob Dy­lan in hopes of be­friend­ing him and squab­bling with his new back­ing band (the Band), who “treated the Ir­ish singer like a drunken court-jester with some pe­cu­liar mu­si­cal ideas.”

Plus, Mor­ri­son was party to some ruckus while fronting the Ir­ish proto-punk band Them — in­ci­dents that, ac­cord­ing to Walsh’s book “As­tral Weeks: A Se­cret His­tory of 1968,” in­volved him run­ning up a $2,600 bar tab with Jim Mor­ri­son in the Los An­ge­les nightspot Whisky a Go Go and smash­ing some­one else’s gui­tar on­stage dur­ing the band’s 1966 tour of the United States. But his first true hard­ship came as a solo artist in De­cem­ber 1967, when pro­ducer Bert Berns died of a sud­den heart at­tack.

Berns had signed Van Mor­ri­son to his la­bel BANG Records and pro­duced “Brown Eyed Girl.” Re­la­tions be­tween the two were strained when Berns died, with the pro­ducer push­ing Mor­ri­son to cre­ate more pop hits while the mu­si­cian wanted to ex­plore new mu­si­cal ter­ri­tory. But things were about to get much worse, lead­ing Mor­ri­son to flee New York City for Cam­bridge, Mass.

Ex­actly what hap­pened is some­what murky. One leg­end has it that Berns’s widow Ilene Berns took over the con­tracts, bar­ring Mor­ri­son from the stu­dio and New York City’s clubs, and at­tempted to have him de­ported.

The other ac­count is even darker. Berns was no­to­ri­ously tied to the mob and, as the New Yorker re­counted, mob­ster Carmine (Was­sel) DeNoia be­gan su­per­vis­ing the con­tracts. DeNoia and Mor­ri­son re­port­edly got into a drunken ar­gu­ment that ended when the singer smashed an acous­tic gui­tar over the gang­ster’s head — lead­ing him to fear DeNoia would re­tal­i­ate by at­tempt­ing to have him de­ported.

The one con­stant in both ac­counts is Mor­ri­son’s anx­i­ety over de­por­ta­tion. “The move to Bos­ton was com­pletely fear-based,” Walsh told The Wash­ing­ton Post in a re­cent in­ter­view.

He also mar­ried his long­time sweet­heart Janet Rigs­bee (ce­ment­ing his sta­tus in the United States) and be­gan play­ing small clubs, high school gyms and cof­fee shops, a world away from black­ing out with the Doors front­man at sweaty rock clubs. Mor­ri­son be­gan re­fin­ing his new sound, the one that would even­tu­ally be­come “As­tral Weeks.”

Th­ese songs were long, more cir­cu­lar, less melodic. They were struc­tured around a voice, rather than a back­beat. Acous­tic in­stru­ments, pic­co­los and flutes re­placed elec­tric bass and gui­tars. Per­cus­sion was sparse: spring show­ers rather than a thun­der­storm.

They im­pressed the hell out of peo­ple who knew mu­sic, in­clud­ing a Warner Bros. ex­ec­u­tive named Joe Smith, who bought Mor­ri­son’s con­tract from BANG. (That doesn’t mean Mor­ri­son was any less of rage in­car­nate, though. While his songs es­poused love, Smith said, “He was a hate­ful lit­tle guy, but . . . I still think he’s the best rock ’n’ roll voice out there.”)

On pro­ducer Lewis Meren­stein’s in­sis­tence, a (be­grudg­ing) Mor­ri­son took the un­usual step of hir­ing a group of jazz mu­si­cians such as Con­nie Kay of the Mod­ern Jazz Quar­tet and bassist Richard Davis. He met his band on the first day of record­ing.

“Van barely even said hello to th­ese guys. They were con­fused by him, [won­der­ing], ‘Who is this guy?’” Walsh said. “He just showed them the com­po­si­tions, and then they all just spat out those beau­ti­ful songs.”

“I think so much of it is just this beau­ti­ful train wreck of so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple work­ing on it with no re­hearsals. There’s an ele­ment of ac­ci­dent, or hap­pen­stance, to this. If they had set up to make this holy al­bum that we’d be talk­ing about 50 years later, they would prob­a­bly have prac­ticed for weeks and rolled out the red car­pet — and it prob­a­bly would have failed.”

Still, years later, Mor­ri­son main­tained that he wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily try­ing to make a jazz-rock fu­sion al­bum.

“I wanted to do it around the singing, and it had to be kind of jazzy, be­cause that’s the way I’m singing it,” Mor­ri­son told NPR in 2009. “The ap­proach was spon­tane­ity. That was the whole point of hav­ing this par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple. That was that per­for­mance on those days.”

He con­tin­ued to claim that he didn’t feel like th­ese were par­tic­u­larly spe­cial ses­sions.

“A lot of this . . . there was no choice,” he added. “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.”

Crit­ics and fel­low mu­si­cians fawned (and con­tinue to fawn) over it. “It made me trust in beauty. It gave me a sense of the di­vine,” Bruce Spring­steen has said of the al­bum. Though Mor­ri­son was in his 20s when he made it, “there are life­times be­hind it,” wrote rock critic Lester Bangs.

Ac­tor Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man quoted it when he won the Os­car for 2006’s “Capote,” by thank­ing peo­ple and then say­ing of them: “I love, I love, I love, I love, I love. You know the Van Mor­ri­son song, I love, I love, I love, and he keeps re­peat­ing it like that?”

Di­rec­tor Martin Scors­ese has said it in­spired the first 15 min­utes of “Taxi Driver.” And mu­si­cian Elvis Costello called it “the most ad­ven­tur­ous record made in the rock medium.”

Walsh doesn’t mince words: “They don’t sound like record­ings to me. They sound like liv­ing breath­ing or­gan­isms. The al­bum is a se­cret pass­code that peo­ple pass along to each other . . . a hope­ful mes­sage about the pos­si­bil­ity of love, or a com­ment on the cy­cle of life that ev­ery­one goes through, that some­how re­mains pure and pris­tine.’”

None of that, though, mat­tered to Warner Bros., be­cause not enough peo­ple bought it. It was the kind of al­bum that brings to mind that old leg­end about the Vel­vet Un­der­ground: Only 1,000 peo­ple heard them, but all of those peo­ple started a band.

In fact, when Mor­ri­son went to record his next al­bum, “Moon­dance,” he seemed to be search­ing for an­other pop hit rem­i­nis­cent of “Brown Eyed Girl.” As his pi­ano player Jef Labes said, “I think Warn­ers had pretty much told him, ‘You have one more chance.’”

He suc­ceeded. “Moon­dance” was a com­mer­cial hit, and well re­ceived crit­i­cally. Yet, his mas­ter­piece, “As­tral Weeks,” re­mained known to the se­lect few who re­ally cared to spend time un­rav­el­ing it.

But, then, that’s the story of Mor­ri­son: Things never re­ally went the way they were sup­posed to.


Van Mor­ri­son per­forms dur­ing the 2004 Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val in New York. His jazz-rock mash-up al­bum “As­tral Weeks” came out on Nov. 29, 1968.

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