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'Van Morrison's landmark album Astral Weeks turns 50 this weekend. We tracked down the musicians who played on it'

A new documentary looks at how a 23-year old introvert from east Belfast overcame the mob, US Immigration, poverty, and his own tricky personality, to make one of the most enduring and best-loved albums ever recorded.

Alan Torney RTÉ Radio producer

IT’S FIFTY YEARS this weekend since the final recording session for Van Morrison’s timeless album ‘Astral Weeks’.

And although these days it’s hard to avoid the album on Desert Island Discs, and on all the big lists of the best albums of all time, it wasn’t always like that. Far from it.

In fact, for its first thirty years in this world, ‘Astral Weeks’ led a humble and largely-forgotten existence.

Much has been said by the record’s many fans about the meaning of its impressionistic, ambiguous poetry.

But the question I wanted to ask to mark the anniversary was not about what Van meant in those eight remarkable songs.

Rather I wanted to find out how the album even came to be made in the first place.

After all, 1968 began with Van Morrison living in poverty, facing deportation from the US and threats from New York mobsters.

‘Underworld types’

“It was a very scary time,” Morrison’s Californian girlfriend at the time, Janet, told me recently.

“We were in a terrible position. We had no money. Still, Van wanted to continue on and make his music.”

That the couple were penniless was all the more galling, given that Morrison had a huge hit with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ just six months earlier.

But the singer was tied into a now famously bad recording contract with a record company that Janet recalls “was filled with underworld types” who chased the couple out of New York.

There are stories of a guitar being smashed over Van’s head at one point, and associates of the company reported Morrison to US immigration because his visa had expired.

Things were looking decidedly bleak for Morrison, both personally and professionally.

But if we skip forward to the end of 1968, Van Morrison had entirely turned his life around: he was now married, living comfortably in New York, had signed a deal with Warner Brothers Records, and had recorded an album that is now seen as one of the greatest achievements in music history.

How on earth did he do it? And who were the people who helped him pull it off?

Tape machine

Morrison himself rarely speaks about the album or that time in his life, and any time he does he sounds distinctly ill-at-ease.

So in the summer of 2018, my colleague Tim Desmond and I set ourselves a mission of tracking down nine people, each of whom played a big part in the ‘Astral Weeks’ story.

First up was the woman Van Morrison married at the very start of 1968, the 20-year old he christened “Janet Planet”, and whose writings, image, and voice appear on his records from that era.

The couple would later go their separate ways in 1973, but in the programme, Janet gives us an insight into the creative process Morrison used in writing the songs at their kitchen table that summer, not to mention into the state-of-mind of the man himself in 1968.

“We had this tape machine, and we kinda developed this working style in New York,” she told me.

“Because it was really streamlined and easy for Van to sit with his guitar, and sing and play, and I could sit very close to him with the machine and I could record about twenty minutes at a time really.

“Then we’d go back and listen to it. Then he would decide: he’d say ‘I like that, I like that, I don’t like that, that’s stupid.

“And then I’d say, ‘well, I like this’. Then I would re-write those parts, and then he would do the whole process again. It was amazing. It was hypnotic.

“The songs we were working on that whole time became ‘Astral Weeks’. It was really the experience of a lifetime, I have to say.”

First impression

Amazingly, the band of student musicians Morrison assembled that summer on a shoe-string budget, Tom Kielbania (bass), John Sheldon (guitar), Joe Bebo (drums), and John Payne (flute), have never met up since 1968.

In The Summer of Astral Weeks, we bring all four back to the basement of the Boston club where they played that summer, the very spot where Morrison’s band first went acoustic, as revealed earlier this year by Ryan H. Walsh in his superb account of the story, ‘Astral Weeks – A Secret History of 1968′.

In New York City, we get a different perspective on things from three more characters: two famous jazz musicians, Warren Smith (percussion) and Jay Berliner (guitar) and the sound engineer who recorded and mixed the album, Brooks Arthur.

All three were there for those legendary recording sessions in September and October 1968.

When we invited them to meet us on the site of the recording studios used in ’68 for ‘Astral Weeks, we were really hoping they might consider jamming together on some of the tunes from the album.

They went one better, and brought along some of the original instruments from 1968.

“My first impression was how shy he was,” remembers Warren Smith, who had by 1968 already played with the likes of Miles Davis and Nina Simone.

Record deal

“He did very little talking. Very quiet. He was almost bashful in front of the other musicians.”

Jay Berliner says that, despite recording the songs with Morrison, he doesn’t consider that he really met him: “He just went into the isolation booth and I didn’t really see much of him after that. But he wasn’t shy when he sang.”

Finally, we tracked-down the now 90-year old Warner Brothers Records executive, Joe Smith, who signed Van Morrison up for ‘Astral Weeks’ – but not before taking his life in his hands to make that happen.

“The deal was we had to give the ‘managers’ $20,000 to buy his contract, and deliver it to them on the ninth floor of a warehouse at night when it’s dark,” Smith recalls.

“So I took a taxi over there; I didn’t think it was a good neighbourhood for a limo.

“I get there and there’s a couple of guys downstairs at the door. And I’m walking up the stairs certain that somebody’s gonna hit me on the head!

“But I gave it to the guy: $20,000 in cash to sign Van Morrison to a contract.”

Over the time we spent making this programme, and speaking to those who were close to Morrison at the time of ‘Astral Weeks’, we didn’t really come to any firm conclusions as to why he always seems so uncomfortable discussing the album that so many others have fallen in love with.

Does he feel, perhaps, that ‘Astral Weeks’ has overshadowed the rest of his music?

Is it that those eight songs were the product of a very traumatic time in his life, one he’d prefer to forget?

Or is he still angry at how Lewis Merenstein, the producer, made those songs sound by adding horns and strings in post-production?

Greatest album

The album was released in late 1968 to a mainly indifferent reception.

Morrison would have to wait another two years for commercial success with his next album, ‘Moondance’.

‘Astral Weeks’ remained for a long time his least popular record until, thirty years later, it started popping up on critics’ lists of the world’s most important albums in publications like Time Magazine, the Times of London, and Rolling Stone.

Hot Press ranked it as the greatest Irish album of all time.

Given its creator’s reserve, it’s probably fitting that this weekend’s ‘Astral Weeks’ anniversary will pass quietly, with no concerts or symposiums marking the occasion.

Instead, in homes across the globe, the record’s many, many fans will being paying their own private tributes.

The story of ‘Astral Weeks’ is a completely unlikely tale of love, stress, poverty, and – eventually – triumph.

Ultimately, it’s the story of how a 23-year old introvert from east Belfast overcame the mob, US immigration, poverty, and his own tricky personality, to make one of the most enduring and best-loved albums ever recorded.

The Summer of Astral Weeks airs today at 2pm on RTÉ Radio 1 and is available online or for podcast here.

The documentary was funded by the BAI Sound & Vision Scheme as part of the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards, which take place at Vicar Street on October 25th.

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About the author:

Alan Torney  / RTÉ Radio producer

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