Sense of Sounds
by NJ McGarrigle
‘For us living more and more surrounded by intellectual schemas and masks and suffocating in the prison they erect around us, the poet’s eyes are the battering ram that knocks down these walls and gives back to us, if only for an instant, the real; and with the real, a possibility of life.’
It has taken me a long time to get ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, but I have finally fallen under its spell.
Until now, somewhere in my subconscious it had always been too beautiful a butterfly to clasp between my hands; I’d always shied away from its sweeping majesty.
Of course, I had plenty of exposure to the album: my old housemate played it on the first day of spring every year, bringing it out of its winter slumber to softly tickle an expectant summer’s belly, and spun it regularly until the season shifted again. It’s a lovely ritual – he has grown up with the album, just as it has grown within him.
For he is a devotee of the wee man from Belfast and he savours ‘Astral Weeks’ like some redolent, complex wine, in that it gets better with every measured taste, and in it he finds truth.
But Van Morrison’s masterpiece was too rich for me initially, too deep, I think. The music went straight to my head, rather than slowly pulsing through the bloodstream, which is what it should do, and left my senses staggering. For many years I steered clear of its heady potency, but then, thankfully, aforesaid friend bought me the album on vinyl as a birthday present. This meant absorbing it as one long draught and in one sitting: from the invigorating bouquet of the eponymous opening track, right down to the lingering, dark perfume of ‘Madame George’.
Now, I have made it a rule to get drunk on ‘Astral Weeks’ at least once a month. Albert Camus said that at four in the morning, everyone in the world is exactly where they are supposed to be – and in my mind’s eye, everyone is listening to ‘Astral Weeks’, furtively sipping claret.
Thinking about the essence of the music reminds me of TS Eliot’s phrase of “those other echoes that inhabit the garden”. Each time I listen to ‘Astral Weeks’, I imagine being in a high-walled garden maze, unsure of the way out, seeing flashes of light and then darkness. It creates a claustrophobia that grips one with just the right amount of sensual pressure; some times I realise I am holding my breath while listening to it. Yet these reactions only emphasise the genius of the album, and how great art should provoke a physiological reaction, as well as cerebral caresses.
But let’s go back to the beginning. I think a large part of my initial struggle with ‘Astral Weeks’ was down to the fact that I was brought up on the other Van Morrison. Hearing my Mum’s stereo as I was growing up, I walked the bright side of Van the Man’s road, listening to songs such as ‘Crazy Love’, ‘Days Like This’ and the any-family-occasion-theme tune ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Here was the guy who didn’t disdain or snarl at his audience: here was Van Morrison the entertainer.
So hearing ‘Astral Weeks’ in its entirety for the first time as a 17-year-old was akin to taking a wrong turn on some pleasant, tree-lined walkway and ending up lost in Morrison’s pathless woods.
In relation to dark journeys, critics often wonder why Van Morrison never addressed the Troubles in his music more often, considering it was going on in his own back yard (when he did, it was through the fulminating falsetto of ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ from ‘Veedon Fleece’). But Van Morrison wasn’t looking for statements; he was looking to create art – what Saul Bellow described as “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos”.
Despite its shuffling, free-spirited rhythms and muggy, layered vision of sound, stillness is the word I attach most closely to ‘Astral Weeks’; when you get to the heart of the record, it is like a cool, clear pond, reflecting whatever you wish to see. The tousle-haired young man from Northern Ireland allowed no tainted waters to pass through – ‘Astral Weeks’ is a work with its own essential force.
For many who know the album well, it will have that lovely old dressing-gown feel, while for others, discovering its joy for the first time, as I have now done, the moment feels close to like standing under an ice-cold waterfall: it leaves one breathless, gasping for air from its soft power. It leaves you feeling renewed – and then you put the needle to the groove again.