Van Morrison is on vacation in Ireland where he is busy. He's busy writing songs. Good songs. It's 1974 and Astral Weeks was six years ago. The loopy freewheeling hippie days of His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey are at least three years ago. Saint Dominic's Preview and Hard Nose the Highway were just a couple of years ago, but they didn't fare too well with either the audience or the critics. You might say that his career is in freefall, but his enthusiasm has not been bent. He is still on a quest to find that Holy Grail, and he even names his particular version of it in the title of this album. It sounds a bit silly in retrospect, and perhaps it should be a bit silly. After all, Van is the feeler; not the thinker. Dylan is the thinker. Dylan has actually read and understood Baudelaire. It's highly doubtful that Van has ever actually finished Blake's Jerusalem, let alone understood it. Both Blake and Dylan are building their own mythos, after all. Van is just trying to get laid.
He's sitting out on a lawn in front of Sutton House Hotel overlooking Dublin Bay. He's got two Irish Wolfhounds with him. A photographer snaps the shot that becomes the album cover. Later on, in Rolling Stone magazine, he would tell some interviewer that a fan once asked him if he still had the dogs. He would recount how he told the fan that an album cover was not real life. It almost sound like something Dylan would say, but Dylan would say it like, "There are angels that care about the wounded and sometimes they even care about you."
What do Elvis Costello and Sinéad O'Connor have in common? They both call this their favorite work by Van Morrison. I certainly would not go that far since I still maintain that Astral Weeks cannot be outdone. Ever. By anyone. There is a serious trance going on in Astral Weeks where Van Morrison actually connects for one entire session with his muse. The rest have all been hit and miss. When he does hit, however; it's as good as it gets.
Something has been bringing me back to this album recently. I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's the autumn leaves falling down, which always reminds me of that wonderful song on Hard Nose the Highway (from just the year before) called simply "Autumn Song." That joyful but nostalgic twinkling piano in "Autumn Song" always reminds me of "Fair Play" which opens up Veedon Fleece with that refrain of, "There's only one meadow's way to go / And I say Geronimo."
One spoilsport has said that Van was deciding where to live and begin a new life, and that his fiancée wanted to move to San Geronimo, California, just north of San Francisco, on Meadow Way. I suppose that fits, and I don't really care, because I'm not looking for a mythos out of Van Morrison as I would out of, say, William Blake. I don't expect Van Morrison to paint marvelous detailed paintings about his songs. I just want him to quit thinking and sing them to me in that voice. And if he wants to use it to tell me, over and over, about the street he's thinking of moving to, that's fine with me. I'll chime in with "Geronimo," as well.
The San Francisco story holds up pretty well when you get to "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," a story which takes place in that very city. If there is only one song on this album that you wind up owning, this would be my suggestion. The bass line in this one carries the tune, and it reminds me quite a bit of my favorite songs on Joe Henry's Shuffletown. In fact, this bass line is probably the inspiration for "Drowning in the River Half Laughing," a must-listen if you like this one. They are surely sister songs and evoke the same feelings of loss and regret and just how deeply this life can be felt by those who hurt like little children even though they are fully, fully grown. And fully grown men can give some of the hurt back, like when Linden Arden turns on his pursuers and "cleaves their heads off with a hatchet."
"Linden Arden …" is the second song on the album, so you can see that if my favorite songs are presented in a row and at the beginning, it's hard to resist coming back to this one. "Linden Arden..." segues into a falsetto continuation of the same story: The same story, except he now owns a gun. Until, that is, he is captured and sits encased in a glass cell "wishing on a toilet roll." The use of falsetto is a bit strange, but there are several instances on this particular album where he's trying things with his voice that I'd never heard before.
"Bulbs" sounds as if it would have fit just fine on His Band and Street Choir, since it's electric-guitar based and quite a rocking little number. It's almost as joyous as "Domino" or "Blue Money." You can hear him trying to perfect the "grunt" which he started back on Saint Dominic's Preview in "Listen to the Lion."
Some of the other songs on this album sound more like Astral Weeks material, such as "You Don't Pull No Punches but You Don't Push the River," and "Streets of Arklow." And some of them are the love songs that either involve you or put you to sleep, such as "Come Here My Love." A fellow has to write and practice a lot of songs like "Come Here My Love" before he can come up with something perfect, such as "Someone Like You," which must be damn near the perfect love song, since I have heard it on what seems like a dozen movie sound tracks in my life. "Someone Like You" comes on another one of Van's mostly overlooked albums and another of my favorites: Poetic Champions Compose from 1987. You see? That's at least thirteen years that he practiced writing that perfect love song before he got it right.
This album from 1974, mostly written on vacation in Ireland, got very little critical attention when it was released. He's hardly ever done any of the songs on this album in concerts over the years. In fact, I don't think he's ever done any of my favorite songs on here. And that's just fine by me. The sad truth is that Van Morrison can ruin one of his songs for you if he sings it live in concert. He's just bloody awful live and in concert. He recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Astral Weeks" by performing the entire album at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California. I read reviews that praise his performance, but I am doubtful. I will wait and get the DVD and judge for myself. I am not hoping for much. In fact, if I find that three minutes in, his abysmal attempt to recreate the magic that these songs have for me is in any way, shape or form ruining my appreciation for them (as I fully expect will happen), I will stop the DVD and throw it away.
I'll call it "Fair Play" and put that song from Veedon Fleece on the jukebox and turn it up. I'll turn it way up loud. And I'll happily yell, "Geronimo!"