By Sean Steele
I can still picture it: sitting on the roof of a hotel in Rishikesh overlooking the Ganges snaking by below as the sun sets behind the foothills of the Himalayas. I am sitting with my guitar, a purple imitation Fender I bought in a music shop in Jaipur several weeks prior, and I am playing and singing. Gazing down at the blue-green waters, I must have played a dozen songs while the sun set and dusk settled over the landscape. But the only song I clearly remember singing is “Ballerina.” It's the penultimate song on Van Morrison's 1968 album Astral Weeks, and one of the few musical constants in my life. At many profound moments of my life, I have turned to the sonic world painted by Van Morrison and the group of musicians that created it.
I discovered Astral Weeks as a teenager growing up in Nanaimo, BC, and it remains one of the few albums from that personal era that can still move me to tears. Many other records I listened to then retain a nostalgic value, but they fail to move me, and, most importantly, most of them are no longer relevant for the version of myself I currently inhabit. Astral Weeks, on the other hand, seems to move and change with me, offering a kind of musical companionship that I have found in few other recordings. Of course, I am not alone in admiring this record. Amongst many others, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Scorsese have quoted from it, praised it or cited it as an inspiration.
Van Morrison inhabits a unique corner of popular music, and Astral Weeks inhabits a unique corner of his discography. Recorded in New York on September 25th, October 1st and 15th 1968, the album features Morrison backed by a series of A-list session musicians, many of whose primary genre was jazz. In a rare interview about recording the album, Morrison had this to say:
You have to understand something...A lot of this...there was no choice. 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.
The pragmatism imbued in this statement, and the overall approach to the album, has provided me with a perpetual source of inspiration. There is a special brand of admiration I hold for artists who, working within strict limitations, create something like Astral Weeks. These limitations need not hamper the creative process, but can rather enhance the ability to express within a narrow frame. That such beauty and sonic exploration resulted from what Morrison calls a “pure survival level” will always spurn my own artistic endeavours. It reminds me of the Zen Buddhist approach to sumi-e, the ink wash style of painting, where an artist takes time to prepare canvas, brush and ink, sits and meditates in order to clear his or her mind, and then, in a rapid burst of creative expression, paints. Similarly, Morrison once stated in an interview that many of the songs were written over a period of several years, only to be recorded in a matter of days.
Besides being a scholar of popular music, I am also a musician and a writer. My musical trajectory has taken me down disparate pathways, but all of these roads share a love for improvisation and openness. Music of an improvisational nature has always held my attention. Not only is it the music I most love to create, it's also the music that excites me most, both in its live and recorded iterations. That being said, I am also fascinated with the craft of song writing, and find inspiration in the diversity of voices that can express themselves through the use of a few guitar chords and simple melodies. Being a writer and an avid reader (two things that nearly always seem to go together), I am drawn to lyrics of a poetic nature, favouring the ambiguous, the visionary, and the metaphoric realms. Within such lyrical worlds I can incorporate my own experiences, and the result is a feeling that these are, in a bizarre way, somehow partially my songs. As if, impossibly, I had a share in their creation.
Astral Weeks is an album that combines poetic lyrics, improvisation, and, as far as I'm concerned, great song writing. The song arrangements are simple, but within these sonic structures the musicians and Morrison's inimitable voice glide, growl and soar. It's as if everyone involved were trying to take these simple chord structures and perceive them from every angle, turning chords and melodies inside out as if performing a kind of musical cubism. The result is an album made by a group of musicians searching together in sound, taking barely rehearsed songs and exploring possibilities within them. To my ears, what resulted from such experimentation is an evocative recording that continues to inspire me as a musician, an improviser, and a songwriter, acting like a kind of improvisational cognitive aide.
I am inevitably attracted to any work of art that defies an easy explanation. Drawn to the vague and the ambiguous, I thrive in that space where no straightforward interpretation satisfies; where the artwork continually seems to withhold secrets that might reveal it in its entirety. I adore artworks that seem to simultaneously disclose and occlude something profound but just out of reach. Whether this is due to a quality of the artwork, or to some mixture of conjecture and delusion on my part, will likely remain equally mysterious. I place Astral Weeks in this category because its impressionistic nature—both lyrically and musically—provides that promise of some clandestine doorway forever hiding behind a hedge or around the next bend in the labyrinth. Van Morrison is singing about the fragmentary essence of memory, invoking a person-in-mosaic to appear among the raindrops and hallways of an Ireland that may or may not have existed. Like the short stories of Dylan Thomas, Morrison's songs provide blurry snapshots of mundane moments that nevertheless provide the setting and springboard into the sublime, the profound, and the infinite.
When I finished my undergraduate degree I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life, so I bought a one-way ticket to India. I ended up in the foothills of the Himalayas, and there, on the other side of the world, far from the familiarity of home, I found solace in the chords and words of 'Ballerina'. It seems unlikely that Astral Weeks will cease to inspire, amaze, and mystify me. As for what it all means, I defer to legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, who once wrote that "you're in trouble anyway when you sit yourself down to explicate just exactly what a mystical document, which is exactly what Astral Weeks is, means" (Marcus, 1996).
Whenever I put the record on I find that it has the power to send me kaleidoscopic images from my past. These images remind of the person that I was, giving me clues as to the person I may one day become. So when I see photographs of previous selves, like the one below, I cannot help but see myself as someone who, for better or worse, and never fully understanding why, is committed to continue venturing in the slipstream.
Sean Steele is a PhD Candidate in the Humanities at York University (Toronto). He holds a diploma in music (jazz studies) from VIU (Vancouver Island University), a BA in Philosophy and History from Concordia University, and an MA in the Humanities from York. Sean explores intersections between art, religion and popular culture, with a focus on popular music subcultures as alternative spiritual communities. Sean is also a musician and a writer. He performs in the rock and roll band Zuffalo, and records his own music under the name Mareotis. His poetry has appeared in the Toronto literary publication Sewer Lid.
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