“DON’T BOTHER.” The owner of Octave in Lewes High Street, my ever-so-friendly local record store (sincere apologies if that sounds as if I’m gloating over my good fortune in having such a thing), was unequivocal. Which was exactly what I wanted to hear. My favourite album by one of my most cherished musicians, rendered live from Hollywood, 40 years after its extraordinary birth? I’d rather spend the money on secondhand socks.
Don’t get me wrong. For this listener, Astral Weeks remains not merely Van Morrison’s most inspirational and inspiring threequarters of an hour. An accidental fusion of folk, blues and jazz, Belfast and the Mississippi – only the studio clock prevented Morrison, unthinkably, from diluting the contributions of Modern Jazz Quartet duo drummer Connie Kay and bassist Richard Davis – it also remains one of the few unique recordings in the history of popular song. From the stand-up bass-acoustic guitar-swishy-drum overture to that wondrous opening line – “If I venture in the slipstream/Through the viaduct of your dreams” – right down to the hauntingly sudden, suitably deathly halt of “Slim Slow Slider”, it still sounds as fresh and rich and daring as it did when I first heard it five years after its release.
I also yield to no man in my love and admiration for Morrison’s first decade as a solo act. His first eight studio albums (Blowin’ Your Mind included) were all crackers to varying degrees – how many can legitimately claim that sort of feat? There were two stone-cold classics (Astral Weeks and Moondance), three works that almost matched them (St Dominic’s Preview, Hardnose The Highway and Veedon Fleece) and two more (His Band And The Street Choir and Tupelo Honey) for which the vast majority of songwriters would have willingly exchanged their soul. Amid all this, he also served up It’s Too Late To Stop Now, the single greatest justification for the invention of the live album. So far, so wonderful.
Unfortunately, the past 30 years have been considerably less fruitful. Admittedly, maintaining that sort of pace, in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, was always going to be next to impossible – ask Bob and Joni, his two main rivals for the World Heavyweight Songwriting Championship belt. All the same, it would be stretching the bounds of decency and compassion beyond endurance not to admit that, bar “Common One”, “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart” and parts of “Days Like This”, those subsequent records, flowing all too freely, have left me cold, drained as they were of everything bar professionalism, self-caricature and vitriol.
Forever at odds with the media, the music business and pretty much everything modern life has to offer, his public persona, reinforced by all those lyrical shots at “Big Time Operators”, has been that of the prototype Grumpy Old Man. The sense of someone content to take the paycheque and waddle through the motions has been impossible to avoid. Like Woody Allen, he has become more prolific with the years; and just as Woody has pretty much forgotten how to make us laugh, so Van has lost his capacity to rouse. Unlike Woody, who has at least made some enjoyable and interesting films while at least attempting to break new ground – the same can be said of Messrs Dylan, Mitchell and Young – he has run out of things to say and hence favours repetition over invention.
Which is why I gave up on him about half a dozen albums back. And why I gave only a semi-moment’s thought to attending that performance of Astral Weeks in Hollywood late last year. Tempting as it was to imagine seeing him play songs I’d given up hope of ever hearing live, it was far easier to envisage a show devoid of genuine feeling. Granted, I’ve read any number of favourable reviews of the recording, but there are only so many times a hero can disappoint and dismay.
None of this detracts, though, from the bottom line: I still listen to Van Morrison as much as I do to anyone (with the possible exception of Todd Rundgren). He fits so many moods. If I want joy, I put on “Wild Night” or “Jackie Wilson Said” or “Straight To Your Heart Like A Cannonball”. If I want despair, I plump for “TB Sheets” or “Slim Slow Slider”. If I want to hear this most expressive, resonant and thrillingly unique of voices at its most expressive, resonant and thrilling, I flip on “Madame George” or “You Don’t Pull No Punches” or the live versions of “Caravan” and “Wild Children”. If I want to jazz things up, it’s “Moondance”, “Green”, “Snow In St Anselmo” or “I Will Be There”. Or if, as is more often the case these days, I simply want serene, ineffable beauty, it’s “Fair Play” or “Autumn Song” or “Listen To The Lion” or “Ballerina”.
So thankyou, Van, for all your gifts, which I will appreciate so long as my ears continue to function, but no thanks, I won’t be investing in your latest bit of product. Sorry, but some risks are simply too great.