This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #467: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.
Genius is complicated.
Irish-born Van Morrison lived most of his life in the United States. While he was often regarded, socially, as being distant and curmudgeonly, he is regarded, musically, as being a songwriter gifted with extraordinary insight into the human soul. Van Morrison is generally regarded as a peer to folks such as Bob Dylan when it comes to the craft of putting poetry to music. I have a great admiration for Morrison when it comes to the uniqueness of his singing voice and the integrity that he brought to bear with his choice of musical expression. He was one of those rare musicians who, after achieving a huge commercial hit with “Brown-eyed Girl”, sought to completely re-invent himself, professionally. That re-invention took the form of an album called, “Astral Weeks”. The lead track was a song called “Astral Weeks” as well.
The willingness to strip a successful career down to the studs can be made by choice or by chance. In Morrison’s case, it was a little of both. The story is that after the success of “Brown-eyed Girl”, Morrison was under pressure from record executives to create similar-sounding songs. Morrison balked at limitations being imposed upon his creative freedoms. Arguments ensued and, shortly thereafter, the head of his recording company died of a heart attack. His widow, who inherited the company, along with Morrison’s recording contract, publicly blamed the acrimony between Morrison and her husband for being the cause of his death. There were also questions about the involvement of the Mob in the record company. In any case, Morrison found himself in contractual limbo; unable to record as he wished and unwilling to record as he was being directed. So, he abandoned his career.
Van Morrison married his US girlfriend to avoid being deported by the new studio head. He settled around the Boston area and began earning money playing acoustically at coffee houses and small clubs. Soon, he partnered up with fellow musicians who were inclined toward Blues and Folk and a musical partnership was formed. Morrison started creating songs that were more poetic and philosophical. The more he played acoustically, the more liberated he began to feel and the more artistic his songs became.
At one such session, an executive from Warner Brothers Music saw his set and asked to sign him to a new contract. After many meetings and an exchange of a briefcase filled with money(!), Van Morrison was let out of his old contract and was able to start recording again….on terms acceptable to him. His first recording session resulted in the album, “Astral Weeks”.
“Astral Weeks” was released in 1968 and is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential albums of all time. It is more “concept album” than it is a collection of singles. In fact, Warner Brothers did not release even one single from the entire album. “Astral Weeks” is viewed as a complete entity, with all tracks contributing to a singular message which was that, as humans, we have worth beyond measure; individually and collectively. The song, “Astral Weeks” was recorded almost without any direction. In studio, Morrison played the full version of the song acoustically and then told the session players who had been hired to assist him, to play their instruments as they saw fit. To this day, those who sat in with Morrison claimed that his trust in their musicianship was total and filled them with a sense of freedom and of pride unlike anything else they had ever been involved with prior or since.
But, with Genius comes the complication. Many regard “Astral Weeks” as, not only being one of the great albums of all time but, that it was Morrison’s greatest work. The downside to that great achievement is living forever in its creative shadow. “Astral Weeks” was released 53 years ago! For all of those 53 years, Van Morrison (who is still alive and actively performing) has had his every musical effort compared to “Astral Weeks” and, almost always, those efforts have been found wanting. That is not to say that he hasn’t produced good work….he has. But, none have reached the creative splendour of his album, “Astral Weeks”. It is a legacy of frustration that has manifested itself in surly behaviour toward others and an increasingly extreme set of political views that cast him as an outsider, more and more.
“Astral Weeks” the album, and the song, are both unlike anything else found on this list of the 500 Top Songs of all time. It is peaceful and uplifting and satisfying in a way that is difficult to put into words. All I can really say is that if a song can give you the same feeling as the first warm sunshine of Spring when it blankets your skin then, “Astral Weeks” is it. Enjoy the experience.
The link to the music video for Astral Weeks by Van Morrison can be found here.
Van Morrison’s website can be accessed by the link found here.
Thanks to KEXP for providing the inspiration necessary to create my own list of 500 great songs and, more specifically, the words for this post. A link to their terrific website can be found here.