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."