Will Van Morrison Set the Record Straight on Astral Weeks?
Forty-seven years later, his written-in-Cambridge masterpiece is being reissued for the first time, adding songs nobody’s heard in decades.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the Boston and Cambridge roots of Van Morrison’s psych-rock masterpiece, Astral Weeks. In the course of my reporting, I attempted to track down everyone who was involved with the album’s creation—and reached almost everyone, except the reclusive Van himself—to tell the story of the wild circumstances that led Morrison to compose its songs in an apartment on Green Street in Central Square. One question I tried to ask everyone was, “Why hasn’t the album ever been remastered and re-released in an expanded edition?” After all, reissues of classic albums—usually accompanied by outtakes and demo versions—are one of the last sure things in the old, decrepit part of the record industry that involves people buying music.
Astral Weeks is regarded, as I wrote in April, “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.”
And yet, Astral Weeks has gone decades without a significant update. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the people I spoke to were pleased it had been left untouched. Others had vested interests in hearing the sessions’ outtakes. But only one person I spoke to had an actual answer to my question.
“So far, artist relations have come between making that a reality,” Steve Woolard from Rhino Records said, somewhat diplomaticaly, in an email back in December of 2014. It’s not hard to read between the lines of what Woolard was trying to get at. When Rhino announced, in 2013, that it would issue a “Deluxe Edition” re-release of Van Morrison’s Moondance album, Morrison published this scathing protest on his website. “I did not endorse this, it is unauthorised and it has happened behind my back,” the artist wrote. “My management company at that time gave this music away 42 years ago and now I feel as though it’s being stolen from me again.”
That’s why it came as a shock last week to hear that Astral Weeks will be remastered, and is being re-released on October 30, via Rhino Records. (Van Morrison’s 70th birthday is, in fact, today—and he is celebrating by performing on Cypress Avenue in Belfast, a location immortalized in the song of the same name on Astral Weeks.) The Rhino re-release will feature several outtakes—including, according to Rolling Stone, “the first take of ‘Beside You,’ a stripped down, vibraphone-heavy ‘Madame George’ and longer versions of ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Slim Slow Slider.’”
For members of the Astral Weeks cult, these are fragments of a Holy Grail, and anticipation is dizzyingly high. It’s unclear if Morrison has buried the hatchet with the brass at Warner Brothers and Rhino, but Morrison’s website and official social media accounts have made no mention of the news at this time, so that seems unlikely. Afterall, this is the artist who once recorded 36 nonsense songs he made up on the spot with titles like ‘Want a Danish?’ and ‘The Big Royalty Check’ to satisfy a contractual obligation he felt was not legitimate.
One reason Van fans are so eager to hear outtakes and alternate versions from these sessions is that the album has been so clouded in mystery. The re-release holds out the possibility, for instance, that Brooks Arthur, the engineer and mixer of the sessions, could finally get credit for his work—he has never been recognized in the liner notes of any release of Astral Weeks. I spoke with him extensively for a section of my story that ended up on the cutting room floor, and it is my hope that by bringing attention to his work in advance of the re-release, he will be properly credited as one of the key players in the creation of a masterpiece.
“We mixed the shit out of that record,” Arthur told me last year, recalling the Astral Weeks sessions. Producer Lewis Merenstein had brought Van Morrison to New York in the fall of 1968, and he selected the professional jazz musicians who would accompanny him, but it was Brooks Arthur at the board capturing it all on tape. Van’s Boston musicians were there too—flute player John Payne and bassist Tom Kielbania were paid by Warner Brothers to attend the sessions, but Merenstein made it clear that the musicians he had brought in would be playing on the record, not them. Kielbania ran down some of the bass lines he had written with session player Richard Davis. “What he plays on the song ‘Astral Weeks’ is very close to what I had written,” Kielbania later told me, remembering the moment he knew he was being sidelined. John Payne was more insistent. He harassed Merenstein until finally, after the hired flautist had gone home early one night, Payne was allowed to record some of his parts himself. There’s been plenty of speculation about what did or did not happen at these recording sessions. Some say Morrison never even spoke to the other musicians. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, working in the studio next door, once claimed, “Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes.”
Payne’s account contradicts some of the more outrageous claims about how the sessions worked. He remembers recording the album closer “Slim Slow Slider.” “We started playing with everyone live in the room. Connie Cay, Richard Davis, Jay Berliner, and the vibe player. And we’re all playing a little bit. And then Merenstein said, ‘I want everyone to come back in the control room except for Richard, John, and Van.’ He had the concept that this would work better sparse.”
Payne went on to recount how the full take of “Slim Slow Slider” that appears on the album was actually much longer and severely edited during the mix process. “We started playing this thing and there’s a point in the live session where Van sings, ‘Every time I see you I just don’t know what to do…’ and that’s where the edit is.” Payne claps his hand for emphasis. “It’s a splice to something several minutes later where we’re about to end the song, but in between it’s all this weird stuff that got cut. I remember them cutting the tape and taking that part out. They just let it fall to the floor and then threw the tape in the trash. There should be a safety back-up of the take. And if they’re smart they should put it out with that full thing.”
Payne’s account, which he told to me in October 2014, is especially fascinating in light of the upcoming re-release’s inclusion of what’s described as a “long version” of “Slim Slow Slider.” Could it be that the cut section was not trashed, and we will soon hear the long lost “weird stuff” Payne describes above?
Century Sound, the studio were Astral Weeks was recorded, was Brooks Arthur’s new venture, and it had been open for less than a year at 135 West 52 Street when Van Morrison arrived. During the same trip to New York where I interviewed Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia about smashing a guitar over Morrison’s head—as described in my original story—I stopped by the studio address to see what it looks like now. It is now a tall building being prepared to house luxury condominiums. There is a giant banner meant to advertise the condos, sporting the slogan “Your life. Illuminated” in giant text, which kind of sounds like it could be a lyric from Astral Weeks.
Brooks Arthur isn’t the only one who worked on the album who’s not credited. The pro flautist whom Payne says went home early? No one can remember his name. The horn players? Not a clue. When I got in touch with a Warner Brothers archivist who knows where the master tapes are located, I asked him if they are accompanied by a more complete list of musician credits. “Not that I’m aware of,” Steve Woolard wrote me via email. “Brings up a good point,” he added. “Who funnels the information to the designer for packaging layout? One would think the production team. We certainly don’t have it. Curious!”
Woolard had told me that there were a handful of outtakes that were ready for inclusion in a possible expanded edition: the first take of “Beside You,” the fourth take of “Madame George,” and a 14 minute song, never heard before, that’s titled “Train.” “There were six takes of ‘Train.’ The first five of them just false starts or break downs. The track is very stream-of-consciousness and doesn’t really fit in with the album,” Woolard explained after locating the masters down in the Warner Brothers vault, “But it is cool. Van would never allow it out, I’m sure.”
Brooks Arthur doesn’t strike me as mad or bitter about not being credited for his work on Astral Weeks, but he is enthusiastic about correcting the mistake. “Yeah, the Astral Weeks fans need to know my name!” he told me during a phone interview. “I was the secret weapon!” A few years ago, he came as close as he’d ever come to righting the wrong. In 2009 Van Morrison performed Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Initially, Arthur was asked if he’d like to retake his position at the board as engineer for the live recording, which Morrison was capturing for a CD/DVD release. Arthur explains, “I told Van I would love to, but that I wasn’t as quick as I had been forty years ago. I told him I’d need an assistant engineer by my side. I never heard from Morrison again and they went with someone else. So my name, once again, is omitted from the Astral Weeks legacy. My heart broke twice!”
With all we now know about the October 30th re-release of Astral Weeks, so many questions remain. What will a vibe heavy version of “Madame George” sound like? How weird will the “weird” improvisation originally cut from “Slim Slow Slider” be? Will we ever hear any take of the unreleased “Train”? Will Brooks Arthrur be credited for engineering and mixing work on Astral Weeks?
I believe that it’s very possible Arthur’s work will be included in these liner notes if Rhino Records hears enough noise from fans this week, and I think that’s a very worthy cause to get behind. If you feel so compelled please contact Rhino Records (Twitter: @Rhino_Records ) let them know the re-released Astral Weeks should include Brooks Arthur in the credits!