While I might not have been in the exact emotional state of Lester Bangs, “nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind,” there was a time I too compulsively hunkered down under the ephemeral comfort of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
In 2015, I was working in marketing and content development for a high-end yacht builder. The work environment was toxic. I was over-worked yet under-utilized, then I’d limp home for a few more hours of writing and editing poetry, hoping to at least find some sense of accomplishment or relief in a creative outlet. This, as my entire nervous system rebelled against me in all manner of indignations, courtesy of a chronic illness.
Unlike Bangs, I was doing everything I could think of to improve my situation, but no amount of doctors’ appointments, or submitting to journals, or job applications, or dates, seemed to change anything. I felt like a gnat, dying of thirst on flypaper, trapped and forgettable.
When the sense of doom boiled over, I’d get up from my desk at the Melville Marina District in Portsmouth, Rhode Island to get content for a social media post. I’d walk out among the boats, trying to lose myself in the forest of masts. I would press up against the railing there like the crowds at the Battery in Herman Melville’s “Loomings” peering waterwards, only unlike Ishmael in Moby Dick, and unlike an early version of myself, I would not be going to sea, despite the “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” I had no choice but to find another escape so I turned to Astral Weeks. If I had to cut a video for YouTube, I’d plug in my headphones to handle the audio, when the truth was, the audio was on mute and I was venturing into the slipstream. More and more, those eight tracks of Astral Weeks became my security blanket, my companion as I composed a blog post or prepared for a boat show.
This type of relationship with the album seems common among Van fans. In 1978, a decade after Astral Weeks was released, Bangs wrote his iconic review of the album for the Greil Marcus-edited anthology Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. In it, Bangs declared Astral Weeks was “the rock record with the most significance in my life so far.” Marcus himself claims, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.” Similarly, musician and author Ryan H. Walsh claims Astral Weeks is his “favorite record of all time.” Walsh writes when he first encountered the record, “I was experiencing my first true heartbreak—I felt like a shell of myself, carved out by loneliness.” Rock journalist Jessica Hopper recommends “Astral Weeks,” the album’s title track for “when the chasm of human experience feels unbridgeable… and there is no absolution to be had, no forgiveness to salve you, and the world feels too much in its infinite newness and it’s midnight and people are screaming and feeding babies ranch-flavor chicken fingers from a bucket.” Stifled, sad people seem to gravitate towards Astral Weeks.
Bangs writes that, “It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain,” which is why he, Bangs, connected with the album so intensely during his own time of turmoil. And yes, Van Morrison, both the man and his public persona—if there even is one—is, to use his own words, “a gaping wound that will never heal.” Morrison is wounded from being an only child, from being deeper than everyone else around him, from being a loner, from watching loved ones die in his youth, from prejudice, from being screwed over in the music industry, from an overdeveloped sense of injustice, from it-doesn’t-matter-quite-frankly-and-it’s-none-of-our-business-anyway, as he keeps telling us.
The appeal of Astral Weeks isn’t just that misery loves company; it’s that the work legitimizes the listeners’ feelings and carves out a respite. There are more heartbreaking records to listen to, but Astral Weeks effectively repairs pain and knits back together what was broken. Are you lonely? “I’ll stand beside you.” Because I’m worried about the same thing, “If I ventured…Could you find me?” We’re listening, so the implied answer is, “yes.” Yes, take us “strongly in your [song] again and we will not remember that we ever felt the pain.” The passion in Morrison’s voice, the desperation he conveys, the depth of his conviction and anguish and love, validates our feelings of despair—just as it is validating to read that Ishmael involuntarily pauses before coffin warehouses. It made my frustration towards mergers and cubicles and overly stuffed, communal office refrigerators feel justified. The music connected me to a greater sense of creativity and purpose that was slipping away from me in my immediate surroundings. Like an audible IV, it provided me a source of strength. Even if we aren’t shells of ourselves with spiders on the brain, it’s comforting to recognize those impulses in one another and know we aren’t crazy, or if we are, at least we’re not alone. With Morrison emoting on our behalf, we certainly are less so. There is a bridge back to humanity. As a listener, we can cast ourselves in any part we want: as the man himself, or the one being sung to.
Further healing power of the album rests in what is familiar. Because I was born in 1987, nineteen years after the songs were released, they’ve never not been there for me. They are literally familiar to my ear. My 2015 deep dive was not my first Astral Weeks experience. “Sweet Thing” appears on the 1990 compilation album The Best of Van Morrison, a staple of my childhood, on constant rotation during car pools and my parent’s DJing dinnertime since its release. The reputation of Astral Weeks looms large over music lore and I heard the full album from time to time growing up. Thanks to streaming services later on, I always had access to my other favorite tracks from the record whenever I wanted them: “Astral Weeks,” “Sweet Thing” “Cyprus Avenue,” and “Madame George.”
Regardless of your prior knowledge of Astral Weeks, the songs were crafted in nostalgia from their inception and are built to be familiar. This is not to say Astral Weeks sounds like any other album—on the contrary. This masterpiece is unique, timeless, from “another time, in another place.” It is wholly its own. But the themes are familiar as memories: young love, reconciling where you are in your life and where you want to be, revising past haunts. The subjects are mystical and mythical, twinkling fairytales from childhood. Streets as proper nouns are name-checked. They could be your own streets, from your own past. “Sweet Thing” begins with the word “and” as if we too were part of that earlier, ongoing conversation. “And,” as if it was a verse cast out from the Bible: the Gospel According to Van. Edging on reminiscent, but nothing formulaic.
Then of course there is the music itself. It speeds along, wheels in motions, rapid acoustic strums, the antonym of passive. “Madame George” has someplace to be. Summer is rushing in the loud, jazzy, “The Way Young Lovers Do.” For further proof of the album’s surprising speed, watch Glen Hansard cover “Astral Weeks,” the aggression made possible by the source material. Or even better, get yourself a copy of the “Catacomb Tapes,” Peter Wolf’s 1968 bootleg recording of The Van Morrison Controversy playing in Boston before Van recorded the eventual studio album.
However urgently the songs’ internal fire may burn, they are simultaneously gentle. They don’t sleepwalk, but they tour dreamscapes and pastoral images, “way across the country where the hillside mountains glide.” There’s always an improvisational feel of the flute, kissing the tracks as delicate as powdered sugar raining over pastries. “Cyprus Avenue” sounds more like the embodiment of a dancing ballerina than “Ballerina,” the [overdubbed] strings making your arms float up and down like a conductor’s, or a falling of a leaf against the mild friction of air. The songs on Astral Weeks are what you need to hear when you want to jump into a winter harbor or curse out your boss. Without any of the triteness, it’s a paced breathing exercise before we all had mindfulness apps on our phones to help us keep our cool. It’s the album you could actually listen to at your dysfunctional office and complete your work and feel fulfilled.
For all the aforementioned pain described by mopey rock writers, myself included, this album is more about love than heartache. These aren’t poppy love songs, with one-dimensional characters and easy, rhyming love in a predictable verse-chorus-verse pattern. Astral Weeks’ love reflects a more authentic affection that ambles its individual path, where a character must vow to his beloved: if we can just be together, “I’ll be satisfied/ Not to read in between the lines.” Which, coincidently, may be a cheeky wink to listeners hung up on analyzing the lyrics. Bangs writes of “Astral Weeks”:
“I haven’t got the slightest idea what that “means,” though on one level I’d like to approach it in a manner as indirect and evocative as the lyrics themselves. Because 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.”
But of course words do have meaning. Bangs insists that Morrison’s lyrics are “about a person, like all the best songs, all the greatest literature.” And if literature bears analysis, and if, as Bangs does at the end of his essay, we can compare Morrison to a poet such as Federico García Lorca, then Morrison’s songwriting can withstand close reading. A close reading and repeated playing.
The singer of “Astral Weeks” is trying to make peace with himself as he wrestles with his feelings of belonging, “I’m nothing but a stranger in this world/I got a home on high/In another land/So far away.” He’s doubting whether he can connect with anyone, “If I ventured…Could you find me?” Would his beloved, would his fans, would the world, follow him through this long and winding journey to craft his art, through “the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream?” He’s “pushin’ on the door” of artistic breakthrough “trying to do [his] very best” but his insecurities are made more intense due to imagined conversations with his own heroes, like Huddie Leadbetter. Who can’t relate to that? That’s how I still feel when I “talk” to Lead Belly. Or Bangs. And especially to Morrison.
Bangs, Lester. “Stranded.” Lester Bangs on “Astral Weeks”, personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html.
Hopper, Jessica. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Featherproof Books, 2015.
Marcus, Greil. When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison. Public Affairs, 2011.
Walsh, Ryan H. Astral Weeks: a Secret History of 1968. Penguin Books, 2019.
BROOKES MOODY earned a PhD in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she taught literary journal production and creative writing. In addition to being an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Sicily, Brookes received her MFA in creative writing from The New School in 2012. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has previously been published in crazyhorse, The Mississippi Review, The Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, and Aesthetica, where she was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. She currently works as the Marketing Associate at Writers.Com and acts as the Senior Awards Administrator at Tupelo Quarterly. You can find her at www.brookesmoody.com or on Instagram @brookes.moody.
Art: “Bird Singing” by Virgil Suárez, Digital Collage