“Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison 1968 Warner Bros.

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Part One: In The Beginning
1. “Astral Weeks” 7:06
2. “Beside You” 5:16
3. “Sweet Thing” 4:25
4. “Cyprus Avenue” 7:00
Part Two: Afterwards
5. “The Way Young Lovers Do” 3:18
6. “Madame George” 9:45
7. “Ballerina” 7:03
8. Slim Slow Slider” 3:17

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Astral Weeks is the second studio album by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison. It was recorded at Century Sound Studios in New York City during three sessions in September and October 1968, although most participants and biographers agree that the eight songs were culled from the first and last early evening sessions. Except for John Payne, Morrison and the assembled jazz musicians had not played together before and the recordings commenced without rehearsals or lead sheets handed out.
The cover art, music and lyrics of the album portray the symbolism equating earthly love and heaven that would often feature in Morrison’s work. When Astral Weekswas released by Warner Bros. Records in November 1968, it did not receive promotion from the label and was not an immediate success with consumers or critics. Blending folk, blues, jazz, and classical music, the album’s songs signaled a radical departure from the sound of his previous pop hits, such as “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967).
Astral Weeks’ critical standing eventually improved greatly, however, and it has since been viewed as one of rock music’s greatest and most important records (a reputation Morrison himself has dismissed). Sometimes referred to as a song cycle or concept album, critics laud the album’s arrangements and songwriting; Morrison’s lyrics are often described as impressionistic, hypnotic, and modernist. It was placed on numerous widely circulated lists of the best albums of all time and had an enduring effect on both listeners and musicians. Forty years after the album’s release, Morrison performed all eight of its songs live for the first time during two Hollywood Bowl concerts in November 2008.
Side One – In The Beginning “Astral Weeks”
The song “Astral Weeks” opens the album with the lines “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream/ Where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop “, which according to Erik Hage shows Morrison had “once and for all pulled neck and neck with Dylan as a lyricist”. Morrison described it as “one of those songs where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel… I don’t think I can elaborate on it any more than that.” The words in the song: “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall” appear to be based on Morrison’s real life custom of carrying around a poster of Lead Belly and hanging it on the wall wherever he lived. (This was revealed in a Rolling Stone interview in 1978.)
“Beside You”
“Sweet Thing” is the only song on the album to look forward instead of backward. In the words of The AllMusic reviewer: “Over the endlessly descending, circular progression, Morrison sings positive lyrics about nature and a romantic partner, seemingly beginning in the middle of a thought: ‘And I will stroll the merry way.'” Paul Du Noyer wrote, “Sweet Thing puts the singer in a hazy, pastoral paradise where he wanders in ‘gardens wet with rain’, or counts the stars in his lover’s eyes, and vows to ‘never grow so old again’ or ‘read between the lines’. He pleads with his mind to keep quiet, so his heart can hear itself think. He yearns to obliterate experience and rediscover innocence.” It has been a more popular cover song than any of the others on the album and is the only Astral Weeks song that has been included in any of Morrison’s compilation albums.
“Cyprus Avenue”
The song “Cyprus Avenue” is a three chord blues composition and served for many years as the closing song for most of Morrison’s live shows. Along with “Madame George”, it is the centerpiece of the album and both songs are Belfast related and highly impressionistic. The song is told from the point of view of an outsider watching from inside an automobile and getting tongue-tied as the refined school girl he fantasizes about appears and he imagines her a fine lady with “rainbow ribbons in her hair” in a carriage drawn by six white horses and “returning from a fair”. Van Morrison described Cyprus Avenue as “a street in Belfast, a place where there’s a lot of wealth. It wasn’t far from where I was brought up and it was a very different scene. To me it was a very mystical place. It was a whole avenue lined with trees and I found it a place where I could think.”
“Astral Weeks songs…were from another sort of place—not what is at all obvious. They are poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination…[They] are little poetic stories I made up and set to music. The album is about song craft for me—making things up and making them fit to a tune I have arranged. The songs were somewhat channeled works—that is why I called it ‘Astral Weeks’. As my songwriting has gone on I tend to do the same channeling, so it’s sort of like ‘Astral Decades’, I guess.”
—Van Morrison (2008)
Side Two – Afterwards
“The Way Young Lovers Do”
“The Way Young Lovers Do” is described by Clinton Heylin as a “lounge-jazz” sound that “still sticks out like Spumante at a champagne buffet”. In his review for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus also spoke of the song as a “poor jazz-flavored cut that, is uncomfortably out of place on this record”. Brian Hinton describes it as there being “a Sinatra strut to Van’s voice, a blues knowingness with Stax brass, and a string section which swirls where previously it drifted.” He describes it as “about growing up, an adolescent first kiss…”
“Madame George”
Called the other album masterpiece (along with Cyprus Avenue), “Madame George” is almost ten minutes long and tells of the mysterious madame “in a corner playing dominoes in drag”, among other things. It also has a setting of Cyprus Avenue in Belfast with impressionistic lyrics that give stream-of-conscious details that are seemingly unrelated. Erik Hage describes the effect of the sensory experience of the lyrics, the instrumentation and Morrison’s impassioned vocals on the listener and the album as being “like some kind of twilight state between sleeping and wakefulness”, engaging the listener to project themselves into the spell of the song. Rolling Stone’s album reviewer wrote: “The crowning touch is ‘Madame George’, a cryptic character study that may or may not be about an aging transvestite but that is certainly as heartbreaking a reverie as you will find in pop music.” Morrison has denied that the song is about a transvestite, as others, including Lester Bangs, have believed. The original title of the song is “Madame Joy” and Morrison later changed the title although he actually sings the words “Madame Joy” in the song. An earlier recording for Bang Records with slightly altered lyrics, backing singers, a much swifter tempo and a “bizarrely inappropriate party atmosphere” changes the tone considerably from the Astral Weeks recording.
The oldest composition on Astral Weeks is “Ballerina”, which Morrison composed in 1966 while still a member of Them. About the same time he first met his future wife, Janet. Inspired by “a flash about an actress in an opera house appearing in a ballet” (according to Morrison), former Them guitarist Jim Armstrong recalls the band working on the song between engagements. “[Morrison] had all these words”, Armstrong says, “we sort of formalized it, ’cause there was no structure to it”. Them performed the song one night in Hawaii, but it was not recorded until Astral Weeks. On the full-length version of “Ballerina” which first appeared on the 2015 expanded edition, the left and right audio channels are opposite to those on the originally released edited version.
“Slim Slow Slider”
“Slim Slow Slider” is the only song on the album to not have string overdubs and according to John Payne, Morrison had not played it live before. Like in the song “T.B. Sheets”, the singer tells of watching a young girl die, but in “Slim Slow Slider” the girl seems bent on her own self-destruction: “I know you’re dying, baby/I know you know it too.” The song ends abruptly with the words, “Every time I see you, I just don’t know what to do.”[62] It has been said to be about a junkie but Morrison has only said that it’s about someone “who is caught up in a big city like London or maybe is on dope, I’m not sure.”
Rolling Stone Review: Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

Van Morrison
Van Morrison “Astral Weeks” 1968
He didn’t use the phrase for a song title until a year later, but Astral Weeks was the album on which Van Morrison fully descended “into the mystic.” Morrison’s first full-fledged solo album sounded like nothing else in the pop-music world of 1968: soft, reflective, hypnotic, haunted by the ghosts of old blues singers and ancient Celts and performed by a group of extraordinary jazz musicians, it sounds like the work of a singer and songwriter who is, as Morrison sings in the title track, “nothing but a stranger in this world.”
It also sounds like the work of a group of musicians who had become finely attuned to one another through years of working together — but, in fact, Morrison had made his name with rock songs like “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night,” and he sang Astral Weeks sitting by himself in a glass-enclosed booth, scarcely communicating with the session musicians, who barely knew who he was.
“Some people are real disillusioned when I tell them about making the record,” says Richard Davis, who supplied what may be the most acclaimed bass lines ever to grace a pop record. “People say, ‘He must have talked to you about the record and created the magic feeling that had to be there….’ To tell you the truth, I don’t remember any conversations with him. He pretty much kept to himself. He didn’t make any suggestions about what to play, how to play, how to stylize what we were doing.”
“I asked him what he wanted me to play, and he said to play whatever I felt like playing,” adds Connie Kay, the Modern Jazz Quartet drummer, who was also in the group assembled for the session. “We more or less sat there and jammed, that’s all.”
Kay was hired because Davis had suggested him; Davis got the nod because he had often worked with Lewis Merenstein, who produced the record and rounded up the musicians. Other musicians on the album include guitarist Jay Berliner, percussionist Warren Smith and horn player John Payne — all of them New York jazzmen and session players who knew nothing about Morrison and who rarely appeared on pop records.
At the time, Morrison’s solo career was just getting under way; earlier he had led the rough rock and R&B band Them. Until he signed with Warner Bros. to make Astral Weeks, the mercurial Irishman didn’t even have a deal with a major American label, though he had made a few solo recordings, including the sunny pop hit “Brown Eyed Girl” and the scarifying “T.B. Sheets,” a ten-minute dirge about a friend’s death from tuberculosis.
The songs he brought into New York’s Century Sound Studios were a far cry from those earlier tunes. They were long, most of them, and meandering, suffused with the pain of the blues and the lilt of traditional Irish melodies. Morrison depicted the streets of Belfast in a dim, hallucinatory light, peopled with characters who danced like young lovers and spun like ballerinas but who mostly struggled to reach out to each other and find the peace and calm that otherwise eluded them. The crowning touch is “Madame George,” a cryptic character study that may or may not be about an aging transvestite but that is certainly as heartbreaking a reverie as you will find in pop music.
A straight rock & roll band probably wouldn’t have known what to do with these songs, but the musicians Merenstein assembled moved with the lightness and freedom that the tunes demanded. And the arrangements, invented on the spot by those players, were as singular as the world they illustrated: a soothing acoustic guitar, gently brushed drums, the caressing warmth of Davis’s bass.
Not that the musicians were trying to interpret Morrison’s words. “I can’t remember ever really paying attention to the lyrics,” says Davis. “We listened to him because you have to play along with the singer, but mostly we were playing with each other. We were into what we were doing, and he was into what he was doing, and it just coagulated.”
They worked from seven to ten at night, running through songs they had never heard before; both Davis and Kay remember that the basic tracks were finished in a single three-hour session (the liner notes of the compact disc say it took “less than two days”). By seven o’clock some of the musicians had already played on two earlier sessions — and Davis, for one, credits the relatively late hour with the way Astral Weeks sounds.
“You know how it is at dusk, when the day has ended but it hasn’t?” Davis asks. “There’s a certain feeling about the seven-to-ten-o’clock session. You’ve just come back from a dinner break, some guys have had a drink or two, it’s this dusky part of the day, and everybody’s relaxed. Sometimes that can be a problem — but with this record, I remember that the ambiance of that time of day was all through everything we played.”
The album wasn’t a hit, the way Moondance would be in 1970, but it was instantly recognized as one of the rare albums for which the word timeless is not only appropriate but inescapable. And songs from the LP have continued to show up in Morrison’s live performances since then. “Cyprus Avenue” was often his set closer, and as recently as last year he performed a “Ballerina/Madame George” medley.
As for the Astral Weeks musicians, they don’t know much more about Morrison than they did back in 1968. “He didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who hung out with musicians, so I never got to know him,” says Davis, who now teaches music in Wisconsin, in addition to doing session work and playing live dates. “But I’ll tell you, man, there’s something about that album. It keeps popping up all the time.”


Astral Sojourn

Van Morrison Crazy Love
Van Morrison Crazy Love

The untold story of how Van Morrison fled record-industry thugs, hid out in Boston, and wrote one of rock’s greatest albums.

One day in 1968, when John Sheldon was 17 years old, a short, dough-faced man in a button-down shirt showed up on the doorstep of his parents’ house in Cambridge. It was the Irish songwriter for whom Sheldon, a guitar prodigy, had recently auditioned. Now here the guy was on his porch, all 5-foot-5 of him, with an upright bass player looming over his shoulder.
“I didn’t really know quite what to make of him,” Sheldon remembers. “He didn’t say very much, he had no social, kind of, ‘How you doing?’ There wasn’t any of that. We played for a while, and the first thing I remember him saying was, ‘Are you available for gigs?’”
And so it was that John Sheldon became, briefly, the guitarist for Van Morrison.
Morrison was riding the success of his first single, “Brown Eyed Girl,” but he hadn’t yet become a household name. And Boston wasn’t rolling out any red carpets upon his arrival. “There was a gig at the Boston Tea Party,” Sheldon says, “but we had no drummer. I remember going out in a car with Tom [Kielbania, the bass player] and Van. We drove by Berklee [College of Music] and saw this guy on the sidewalk. Tom said, ‘Hey, it’s Joe. Joe, do you want to play drums?’ This is the kind of level that things were happening at then.”
Morrison quickly became a constant presence in the Sheldon household. He would tie up the family phone, carrying on epic arguments over the royalties for “Brown Eyed Girl.” “My parents would come in for breakfast on Sunday,” Sheldon recalls, “and it would be a bunch of people they didn’t know.” One day, Sheldon says, “Van came over to the house in Cambridge and he said that he had a dream and in the dream there were no more electric instruments. So he got rid of the drummer and rehearsed with just me and Tom. Tom played a standup bass, me on the acoustic guitar. So that’s when we started playing songs like ‘Madame George.’”
After a few weeks, the trio went to meet a producer named Lewis Merenstein at Ace Recording Studios, across from Boston Common. At the time it was one of the few professional studios in Boston, the place where the original “Charlie on the MTA” had been recorded.
Thirty seconds in, “my whole being was vibrating,” Merenstein said in 2008. “I knew he was being reborn…I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.”
Sheldon remembers the producer telling Morrison, “I think you’re a genius, and I want you to make a record for Warner Brothers.” It was clear to Sheldon that Merenstein wasn’t talking to any of the other band members.
The song Van Morrison played that day, the one that so unhinged the producer, was called “Astral Weeks,” and it would become the title track on the album that would redefine Morrison’s career. That audition of sorts at Ace was the last moment Sheldon was involved in the recording. His hunch had been correct: When Morrison left to record Astral Weeks in New York, he didn’t take Sheldon with him.
These days, when he looks back, what Sheldon remembers best from that summer is Morrison sitting in the yard of his parents’ house in Cambridge, playing those songs from Astral Weeks. “It’s sort of a shining memory, I’d guess you’d say. He’s out in the sun, he’s playing those songs, and they’re very melancholy. They’re mournful songs. Years later, maybe 10 years later, a friend of mine got me stoned and put on Astral Weeks, and I went, ‘Hey, man, this is good.’”
Astral Weeks is widely regarded as one of the best albums in the rock ’n’ roll canon. Martin Scorsese claims the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver are based on it. Philip Seymour Hoffman quoted it in his Oscar acceptance speech. Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.” Legendary music critic Lester Bangs declared it the most significant record in his life, a “mystical document.”
It is also an album that was planned, shaped, and rehearsed here, in and around Boston and Cambridge. This fact has been a sort of secret kept in plain view. After all, the first clue is printed right there on the back of the album sleeve:
I saw you coming from the Cape, way from Hyannis Port all the way,
When I got back it was like a dream come true.
I saw you coming from Cambridgeport with my poetry and jazz,
Knew you had the blues, saw you coming from across the river…
Morrison has claimed, preposterously, that he wrote this poem years before ever coming to Massachusetts. In the intervening years, it’s almost been as if he were covering his tracks. The city, for its part, hasn’t done much to claim the album as its own. When I first heard that Morrison composed Astral Weeks here, the information was disorienting: It didn’t make any sense. Why wasn’t this a bigger part of Boston’s well-groomed rock folklore—right up there with, say, the fact that Bob Dylan workshopped songs at Club 47, in Harvard Square? Hell, why was Morrison even in Boston in the summer of 1968?
The last question, it turns out, is the easiest to answer—and one of the most outrageous rock ’n’ roll tales ever told. Astral Weeks was born out of sheer desperation, conceived at a time when Morrison was trapped in the world’s worst recording contract and evading record-industry thugs.
Just a few years before, Morrison had been aimless in Belfast after dissolving his affiliation with his band, Them. He was offered a recording contract by an American music producer named Bert Berns, a man described by his own biographer, Joel Selvin, as reeking of “Pall Malls, cheap cologne, and hit records.” Berns was a hitmaker; he wrote “Twist and Shout,” and Them had recorded his song “Here Comes the Night.” Morrison barely read the contract before signing it. That’s how he wound up in New York, living with his girlfriend, Janet Rigsbee, in a series of cheap hotels while he worked on tracks for Berns’s label, Bang Records.
But things between Berns and Morrison soon soured. At 22, Morrison thought of himself as a singing Irish poet. Berns, meanwhile, wanted to ride the late-’60s wave of psychedelia, and he released Morrison’s debut solo album under the title Blowin’ Your Mind!—with a cover sporting trippy fonts and patterns, and a photograph of a visibly sweaty Morrison, clearly meant to convey that the drugs had just kicked in.
Morrison was furious. It was a cheap marketing ploy meant to sell him as something he decidedly was not. Worse, he was still broke, even though “Brown Eyed Girl” was a huge success. Morrison and Berns argued constantly over royalties. Then, on December 30, 1967, Berns—his heart weakened by childhood rheumatic fever—died of a heart attack at just 38 years old.
It turned out Bang Records had some unsavory connections, and now that Berns was dead, Morrison’s main contact at the label was Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, whose father was the inspiration for the character Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. Wassel was an even less forgiving boss than Berns. Legend has it he once threw Tiny Tim off a boat because he didn’t like the look of him.
Even today, Wassel hasn’t lost any of his tough-guy shtick. “Hello, City Morgue” is how he answered his phone one night last October when I decided to ring him up. He was friendly, forthcoming, and a little scattered, but readily agreed to meet in person to talk about Van Morrison. “I helped that guy out,” Wassel insisted. “If he ever sees me again, he better stand up and salute me!”
Wassel lives in a Manhattan building called the Franconia, on West 72nd Street. When I arrived, he was wearing a loose white undershirt and blue pajama pants. His thick-rimmed black glasses were giant windowpanes that framed his eyes. “Didn’t I meet you once before?” he asked me. He said he’d been living at the Franconia for 56 years.
Wassel told me he “got Bert Berns started in the music business.” Of course, Berns had been involved in the music business long before he met Wassel, so what he actually meant was that he introduced Berns to full-blown gangsters like Genovese family member Patsy Pagano—and to the quick results that brute force yielded when applied to the creative industries. Back in Berns’s day, this included everything from bullying performers back into studios, dismantling local record-bootlegging operations with a sledgehammer, and finding ways to borrow money that didn’t require a credit check. In the unpredictable world of the record business, these connections gave Berns and Bang Records an advantage that could level the playing field with bigger and more-established labels.
In August 1967, Berns organized a belated record-release party for “Brown Eyed Girl” on a boat that departed from 50th Street in Manhattan. Morrison attended with Janet. There’s a picture from this evening hanging on Wassel’s wall. The framed photo shows Morrison sporting a rare smile. Janet looks pleasantly taken aback by all the fanfare, Berns is glancing over at Janet, and Wassel is in back, a giant cigar stuffed in his mouth, his eyes closed, head tilted back.
I asked Wassel to tell me more about what happened with Van Morrison right before Morrison fled New York. For a moment he looked stumped. “Oh,” Wassel suddenly remembered, “I broke his guitar on his head.”
This is true. Here’s what happened.
One night, Wassel visited Morrison at the King Edward Hotel, where Morrison and Janet were staying. They were already anxious: Morrison’s papers were not wholly in order, and he was worried he’d be deported. Also, Morrison was severely intoxicated. Wassel asked about a radio he had given Morrison, which now appeared to be broken. Morrison’s temper flared up, worsened by the booze, and Wassel put an end to his incomprehensible Gaelic swearing by smashing Morrison’s Martin acoustic guitar over his head.
This is true. Here’s what happened.
All of this may have had something to do with why, in early 1968, Morrison and Janet hastily married and moved to Cambridge.
“My band then was called the Hallucinations,” Peter Wolf tells me over bourbon and pastries at his home in downtown Boston. “A kind of neo-punk thing. We practiced at the Boston Tea Party, on Lansdowne Street. One day during rehearsal, this guy came into the club asking for the manager. He was looking for a gig. He was speaking real funny.”
When Morrison arrived in Boston in 1968, few people were more dialed in to the rock counterculture than Wolf. Not long after, Wolf would make Boston rock history as the frontman of the J. Geils Band, but back then he still had his overnight shift DJing at the legendary rock station WBCN, where he’d take on a persona he called the Woofa Goofa, a hyperfast, stream-of-consciousness combination of total jive and rock ’n’ roll minutiae. “At the time, Them’s ‘Gloria’ was like the national anthem for every garage band in the country. Of course I knew him,” Wolf says. But even for an established musician like Morrison, “the gigs and opportunities in Boston weren’t coming easy.”
Still, the two proved to be kindred spirits. Shortly after Morrison moved to town, Wolf began to receive postcards at WBCN requesting a myriad of obscure blues artists. Meanwhile, the two would run into each other at gigs around town, and Morrison began telling Wolf about this great Boston DJ he was listening to late at night. Wolf revealed his identity as the Woofa Goofa, Morrison explained he had been sending the postcards, and the two became fast friends.
“He’d come over to use my telephone,” Wolf says. “It was all business. Calls to clubs, producers, and managers.”
Wolf shows me a stack of photographs and postcards, all related to his friendship with Morrison. He hands me a Polaroid of the two of them, side by side, in the throes of inebriated, bellowing laughter. You almost get drunk just looking at the image. Wolf says you get really close with someone once you’ve thrown up on each other.
By late August 1968, Morrison had already impressed Merenstein and experienced the prophetic dream that dictated his new sound. He booked several shows under the name “The Van Morrison Controversy” to hone the new material.
Those gigs took place at a subterranean nightclub called the Catacombs, at 1120 Boylston Street in the Fenway, two floors below a pool parlor. (Today, it’s a stack of rehearsal studios beneath a pizza joint.) Hieroglyphs and Egyptian motifs decorated the walls. The club mostly hosted jazz, but Morrison’s poet rock fit right in.
Sheldon, the 17-year-old guitarist, had been ditched by this point. The band consisted of Morrison, bassist Tom Kielbania, and drummer Joey Bebo. But it was missing something. At a jam session, Kielbania recruited a flute player named John Payne.
Payne remembers meeting Morrison in the back of the club: “This guy comes out, a short guy with a pageboy haircut, kind of a blank look on his face. Tom [Kielbania] says, ‘Van, this is the guy I was telling you about.’ And he sort of goes, ‘Uh eh,’ and gives me a limp hand. He was just—I wouldn’t say antisocial. Just…in his own world.”
As Payne watched from the audience, Morrison and Kielbania began to play. “I listened to the first set and I didn’t like it,” Payne remembers. “I was kind of thinking of leaving. I thought, The guy doesn’t seem like he wants me to be here, maybe the bass player is forcing me on him. And until I’m on the stage with him, I don’t get it.”
Then, in the second set, Payne joined them onstage. “I started playing a little and I could tell he had heard everything I had played and he was reacting to it. His phrasing was not independent of what I was doing, and I had never experienced that. This was alive. Then he starts the next song and it’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’” Payne was shocked: He was playing with the man whose voice he’d been hearing on the jukebox for weeks. “I could still play, but it was like, Oh my God.”
In the audience, a writer named Eric Kraft was spellbound. Kraft wrote for an underground weekly called Boston After Dark—a precursor to the Boston Phoenix—and had been assigned to cover Morrison’s string of shows. Decades later, he still recalls it in vivid detail. “It was so amazing,” he tells me. “It changed my life, actually.”
Kraft managed to get the taciturn Morrison talking the next night. “We sat on the club’s kitchen floor,” Kraft recalls. “It was the only place to sit, really, and we talked for a while. We’d talk about what we wanted to do with our lives.” Morrison spoke of his troubles with Bang, the songs he was writing, his hopes for himself. In turn, Kraft talked about his own ambitions. It was the first time he had ever told anyone that he wanted to be a fiction writer. Morrison told him to go for it. “The fact that it interested him was very propulsive for me,” Kraft says. “It pushed me forward.”
During one of these Catacombs performances, Morrison’s new friend Peter Wolf set up a tape recorder in the corner, capturing the entire concert on a reel-to-reel. Morrison performed nearly all of Astral Weeks these nights with the Boston trio, and Wolf has the audio to prove it. The existence of the tapes has become, for Morrison fans, a kind of holy grail. When I asked Wolf if anyone has ever heard the recordings he made, Wolf paused for a moment. “Not,” he finally said, “for a very, very, very long time.”
So much happened at the Catacombs: the essential addition of John Payne’s flute to the songs, Eric Kraft’s life-changing experience during the first show, and, of course, Wolf’s audio documentation. But one more significant event happened there: It was also where Van Morrison first met the man who would extricate him from the mob.
His savior was a Chelsea native and former Boston DJ named Joe Smith, a legendary Warner Brothers executive; he’d already signed acts like the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, he was at the Catacombs on a tip from Merenstein, who’d raved about Morrison’s audition at Ace Recording Studios.
Smith wasn’t impressed with Morrison’s personality: “He was a hateful little guy,” he recalls. “His live performance? He may as well have been in Philadelphia. There’s no action from him. But his voice! I still think he’s the best rock ’n’ roll voice out there.” Smith immediately decided to sign Morrison to Warner Brothers.
But that turned out to be more complicated than the label had hoped: Smith had to figure out a way to get Morrison out of his contract. “There was a guy in town named Joe Scandore, who was Don Rickles’s manager. And he was connected,” Smith says. “I had to go to him and say, ‘How can I get this deal through so I can release this guy?’ And he set up the arrangement.”
The “arrangement” sounded completely terrifying. At 6 p.m. on 9th Avenue in Manhattan, Joe Smith entered an abandoned warehouse with a sack containing $20,000 in cash. Smith remembers how it went down: “I had to walk up three flights of stairs, and they were four guys. Two tall and thin, and two built like buildings. There was no small talk. I got the signed contract and got the hell out of there, because I was afraid somebody would whack me in the head and take back the contract and I’d be out the money.” Did he ever hear from these people again?
“No,” Smith says. “They weren’t in the music business.”
With its roots in tempers, outbursts, gangsters, and violence, it’s easy to forget that Astral Weeks is an album completely preoccupied with the notion of love. The album and the events that surrounded its creation, at their core, are a love story.
Morrison first met Janet when she was 19, in San Leandro, California, during Them’s 1966 U.S. tour. “I looked at him, he looked at me, and it was alchemical whammo,” Janet once explained. Morrison began calling her Janet Planet, “probably because it rhymed,” she says. A few years later they met up again in New York City, and just before fleeing to Boston to escape Wassel and his cronies, they married in an understated civil ceremony.
“Scary men were indeed banging on our door [in New York], swearing to Van his career was over,” Janet tells me. They moved to an apartment in a disheveled little building on Green Street in Cambridge. “It was not a wonderful place to live,” she remembers. The couple was broke, desperate, and hunted. But it was there, sitting at their tiny kitchen table, strumming an acoustic guitar, that Morrison wrote much of Astral Weeks.
Janet kept track of Morrison’s songs and lyrics for him, listened to the demos, and helped him revise. “Van liked to work in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way back then,” she says, “letting the tape recorder continue to run while he just sort of played guitar and improvised, trying various things for 20 minutes or so at a time.”
The years immediately following Astral Weeks’ release seemed like a fairy tale: Morrison and Janet moved to Woodstock, New York, and then to California. They had a daughter named Shana. As Morrison’s muse, Janet was in press photos and images accompanying the Warner Brothers albums; she even wrote the liner notes for a few releases. But somewhere along the way, something in the relationship seemed to shatter irreversibly. In November 1972, Janet left, filing for divorce a few months later.
These days, Janet’s last name is neither Rigsbee nor Morrison. When I find her via her Etsy shop, Lovebeads by Janet Planet, she’s listed as Janet Morrison Minto out of Sherman Oaks, California. “Do you still listen to Van Morrison’s music?” I ask her.
“No. I don’t listen to Van’s music anymore,” Janet tells me. “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy…. No one loved his artistry more or believed in his greatness more than me. So I suppose it could be considered unfortunate that hearing the intro to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ come over the grocery store’s speaker system is my signal to hit the checkout counter and get out, ASAP.”
I invite you to imagine a world in which your memory of an early, intense, turbulent relationship is constantly triggered by something as ubiquitous and iconic as the song “Brown Eyed Girl.” Nearly 50 years later, Janet is just as likely to encounter that song as she might have been during the fall of 1968. Can you imagine the mechanisms you might put in place to protect yourself from repeatedly re-experiencing that pain?
As for Morrison, his personal thoughts on Astral Weeks change from interview to interview. He’s said it was originally planned as an opera, and also that it’s just a random assortment of songs. He’s said that the arrangements are “too samey,” and—most unbelievably—he’s claimed that it’s not a personal record. “It’s not about me,” he told NPR in 2009. “It’s totally fictional. It’s put together of composites, of conversations I heard—you know, things I saw in movies, newspapers, books, whatever. It comes out as stories. That’s it. There’s no more.” Morrison, who has a new album out this month, declined to be interviewed for this story.
If Janet Morrison Minto has to walk out of a store when “Brown Eyed Girl” starts playing, perhaps Morrison’s claim that these songs have nothing to do with his own life is his strategy for dealing with painful memories. After all, Morrison earns his living by singing those songs into a microphone every night. What would you do?
The evening I interviewed Peter Wolf, he told me a story about one of the nights Morrison came back to town. He wouldn’t clarify the approximate date or give me any additional context. All he told me was this:
It’s late at night. Van Morrison is exhausted after his performance in Boston, but there’s one thing he still wants to do while he’s here. He gets into a car with Wolf and requests to be taken to an address. Wolf drives. They amble down Mass. Ave., headed out of Boston and into Cambridge. Nothing looks like it did in 1968, but then again, neither do the two men in the car. They turn onto a series of side streets. Once they’re close, Wolf slows down to a crawl, because neither of them has been here in a long, long time, and it looks barely familiar. Just past the intersection of Bay and Green streets, Wolf points out the window, to the left, where Morrison and Janet lived in 1968. Morrison sits there for a moment, gazing into the past. And then, without a word, they drive off.
Special thanks to David Bieber for assistance on this story.
By Ryan Hamilton Walsh | Boston Magazine | April 2015