Van Morrison’s publicist offered me an interview to promote his 2009 DVD release Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which was available exclusively at Amazon.com. It seems to be out-of-print now. I was not excited to risk a human encounter with the notoriously grumpy singer, so settled for an email interview, where he seemed quite forthcoming. I wasn’t familiar with the Astral Weeks album beforehand, so gave it a few spins to get the hang of it. Hopefully these questions don’t make me look too dumb. I never listened to it again. I did interview his daughter Shana, and I’m glad to see her looking great in the photo above.
You’ve been an old soul man since your youth, but the reality is that you were barely out of your teens when you started writing the songs for Astral Weeks and had just turned 23 when you started the sessions in 1968. Do you look back on that time and shudder at how (relatively) innocent you were? (Indeed, producer Lewis Merenstein said you were “a little baby” when you made the record)
I feel like all of my music has been inspired by soul no matter what earth age I am when I write it. I write from the collective unconscious, so it’s not really about me — it’s about the collective. And I assume the collective soul age is far more advanced than the individual soul age.
Artists of a certain vintage generally go out of their way to eschew the nostalgia tag in an effort to show that they are still relevant and contemporary and forward looking … did you have mixed emotions about revisiting this record when you could once again be breaking ground in another genre?
I had absolutely no mixed emotions about doing Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl. To me it’s brand new — these are the least played of all my works. To me, it is very forward looking and I am told iconoclastic to have the guts to take a vintage work and take it somewhere else. I always wanted orchestration to these songs, so that is what I set my mind to do, and I did what I intended with it and ad-libbed new material to many of the compositions as I was up there on the stage. It was pure magic and from what I am told the audience understood exactly what they were there for.
It’s all speculation, but how do you think your career would have progressed if Astral Weeks had been a massive commercial hit? Could it have become a millstone?
I would have quit the business had that happened. I am not one who has ever taken well to fame and what that attracts — it’s a drag. I just wanted to be a songwriter and a singer. I did not bargain for all the rest of it.
Was it depressing when Astral Weeks failed to dent the charts — not so much from a commercial perspective, though you were penniless at the time, but because you’d toiled hard and your efforts deserved to be heard?
No. I just moved on. The 2009 version debuted at (No. 33 on the Billboard 200) … with no help or promotion, so it’s all right. I always work hard. I do it for the work, not the praise. I am a songwriter, therefore I write; and I am a singer, therefore I sing. That’s it. My works tend to lean to a sophisticated collective, and some people are just not going to ‘get it.’ The ones who want it will find it.
I assume you hate “lists” but how did you feel about Rolling Stone ranking it as No. 19 among the greatest albums of all time?
Well, I just wonder what the criteria is (sic).
Astral Weeks was born of a professional and personal crisis related to (Bang Records owner) Bert Berns’ death. Surely it’s not easy to listen to the record or play the songs and be transported to all the business stress you were under?
No. Astral Weeks had nothing to do with me, Bert or anything like that. I was practising songwriting. Each composition is a fictional story I made up to work on my craft as a songwriter. The rest of the stories people say about my music is fiction as well. I do not tend to write about me. I write about the collective, the collective unconscious.
Does it stick in your craw that his estate still owns the rights to “Madame George” and “Beside You”?
Universal owns that. I am not bothered in the least. I get 50-plus percent, so it’s not a big deal to me. That is another of the tons of fictional stories people talk about. They must have me confused with someone else.
Now that you’ve been playing Astral Weeks live pretty solidly now, what unexpected delights or challenges are you encountering that maybe weren’t apparent a) when you first recorded the album? b) when you taped the Bowl shows?
Each and every show, I have discovered layers I had not noticed in my lyrics and magic from every crowd — from Hollywood on my new DVD of that performance distributed exclusively by Amazon.com to London’s Royal Albert Hall, to New York’s Madison Square Garden and Beacon Theater, and back to L.A. It has been very well received and of course I appreciate it because it is a lot of really hard work. Alchemy is a hard job 🙂 [NOTE: This is Van’s doing; I’ve never typed this symbol in my life.]
Since you own the masters of the Bowl CD, when will we start seeing the “new” songs crop up in movies, commercials and soundtrack albums?
There has been a lot of interest but it’s hard to say when since studios have their own timetables. But I will say any film would be done right by the live versions of these compositions. Each can tell a story — whatever story one wants to make of it. This is why when people say “It’s about this or that” I just laugh because that is about the person listening — not me. These songs trigger things in people’s “own” imaginations. That is their stuff — not mine.
How strongly does the Van Morrison CD catalog sell?
It does OK.
Will you ever work with Warner Bros./Rhino to put out an extended version of Astral Weeks, with any outtakes or other goodies?
I will do my own from now on — no need for a label. I will put it out on my own most likely. We have loads of outtakes and alternate versions. Each is its own character.
The bass is a key part of the original record. To what extent were you seeking a James Jamerson sound, or maybe Bob Babbitt or Lewis Steinberg?
None. I had my own sound in mind.
Yet the bass seems to be mixed down on the DVD, or at least given an equal ranking to the other instruments?
I was really into strings those 2 nights and my guitar — plus it was outdoors may have had a bit to do with it. But I wanted to be super sure we used only straight-from-the-stage raw sound — unadulterated and not messed with — just like it was that night.
Why wasn’t (original bass player) Richard Davis involved with the Hollywood Bowl shows?
He had to leave early so we went to Plan B (with David Hayes).
Lewis Merenstein said Richard Davis was “the soul … the heart and beat” of Astral Weeks … did you feel his absence?
Merenstein has his own opinions. I have mine. To me it was about songcraft and orchestration above all else.
Why is the sequencing different this time ’round, with “Madame George” now the final track?
It made more sense to me. I like my new sequence better. It has a certain magic and flow to it.
About the time of the sessions in Sept/Oct ’68, people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors and Cream were topping the album charts with some jazzy explorations. But you had been an old jazz guy since your childhood, what did you think of these forays?
Imagine that. Back then The Doors opened for me at the Whisky A Go-Go in Hollywood too. Go figure.
What else do you remember about the musical landscape at the time — songs like “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” were top of the R&B charts then.
There was a lot of shouting and slurring and loud guitars — not sensible to my particular senses.
What do you think of Susan Boyle? How long until the industry ruins her?
They already have, haven’t they? I read she checked into a mental clinic today. Enough said.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
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