Things seemed to be going well for Van Morrison.
It was 1967, and he was riding on the success of his debut solo album, “Blowin’ Your Mind!” which kicks off with the indelible three-minute pop classic “Brown Eyed Girl” (smartly changed from “Brown Skinned Girl” during recording). After the single spent 16 weeks on the Billboard 100 and peaked at No. 1, signaling a bona fide hit, it seemed as if Morrison could do anything. The lane to being the next world-famous songwriter during rock’s golden era was wide open.
However, things never really went the way they were supposed to for the Northern Irishman. A tumultuous two years led him to take a sharp left turn and produce a jazz-rock mash-up album that shocked just about everyone: “Astral Weeks,” which came out 50 years ago on Nov. 29, 1968.
The story of Morrison is the story of a man constantly at war with the recording establishment — be it the labels, other musicians or his fans — while desperately seeking its approval. Rock critic Ryan H. Walsh’s recent article in Pitchfork revisiting Morrison’s 1970 classic “Moondance” finds the musician harshly scolding a live audience for not listening closely enough, essentially stalking Bob Dylan in hopes of befriending him and squabbling with his new backing band (The Band), who “treated the Irish singer like a drunken court-jester with some peculiar musical ideas.”
Plus, Morrison was party to some ruckus while fronting the Irish proto-punk band Them — incidents that, according to Walsh’s book “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” involved him running up a $2,600 bar tab with Jim Morrison in the Los Angeles nightspot Whisky a Go Go and smashing someone else’s guitar onstage during the band’s 1966 tour of the United States. But his first true hardship came as a solo artist in December 1967, when producer Bert Berns died of a sudden heart attack.
Berns had signed Van Morrison to his label BANG Records and produced “Brown Eyed Girl.” Relations between the two were strained when Berns died, with the producer pushing Morrison to create more pop hits while the musician wanted to explore new musical territory. But things were about to get much worse, leading Morrison to flee New York City for Cambridge, Mass.
Exactly what happened is somewhat murky. One legend has it that Berns’s widow Ilene Berns took over the contracts, barring Morrison from the studio and New York City’s clubs, and attempted to have him deported.
The other account is even darker. Berns was notoriously tied to the mob and, as the New Yorker recounted, mobster Carmine (Wassel) DeNoia began supervising the contracts. DeNoia and Morrison reportedly got into a drunken argument that ended when the singer smashed an acoustic guitar over the gangster’s head — leading him to fear DeNoia would retaliate by attempting to have him deported.
The one constant in both accounts is Morrison’s anxiety over deportation. “The move to Boston was completely fear-based,” Walsh told The Washington Post in a recent interview.
He also married his longtime sweetheart Janet Rigsbee (cementing his status in the United States) and began playing small clubs, high school gyms and coffee shops, a world away from blacking out with The Doors frontman at sweaty rock clubs. Morrison began refining his new sound, the one that would eventually become “Astral Weeks.”
These songs were long, more circular, less melodic. They were structured around a voice, rather than a backbeat. Acoustic instruments, piccolos and flutes replaced electric bass and guitars. Percussion was sparse: spring showers rather than a thunderstorm.
They impressed the hell out of people who knew music, including a Warner Bros. executive named Joe Smith, who bought Morrison’s contract from BANG. (That doesn’t mean Morrison was any less of rage incarnate, though. While his songs espoused love, Smith said, “He was a hateful little guy, but . . . I still think he’s the best rock ’n’ roll voice out there.”)
On producer Lewis Merenstein’s insistence, a (begrudging) Morrison took the unusual step of hiring a group of jazz musicians such as Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet and bassist Richard Davis. He met his band on the first day of recording.
“Van barely even said hello to these guys. They were confused by him, [wondering], ‘Who is this guy?’” Walsh said. “He just showed them the compositions, and then they all just spat out those beautiful songs.”
“I think so much of it is just this beautiful train wreck of so many different people working on it with no rehearsals. There’s an element of accident, or happenstance, to this. If they had set up to make this holy album that we’d be talking about 50 years later, they would probably have practiced for weeks and rolled out the red carpet — and it probably would have failed.”
Still, years later, Morrison maintained that he wasn’t necessarily trying to make a jazz-rock fusion album.
“I wanted to do it around the singing, and it had to be kind of jazzy, because that’s the way I’m singing it,” Morrison told NPR in 2009. “The approach was spontaneity. That was the whole point of having this particular group of people. That was that performance on those days.”
He continued to claim that he didn’t feel like these were particularly special sessions.
“A lot of this . . . there was no choice,” he added. “I was totally broke. So I didn’t have time to sit around pondering or thinking all this through. It was just done on a basic pure survival level. I did what I had to do.”
Critics and fellow musicians fawned (and continue to fawn) over it. “It made me trust in beauty. It gave me a sense of the divine,” Bruce Springsteen has said of the album. Though Morrison was in his 20s when he made it, “there are lifetimes behind it,” wrote rock critic Lester Bangs.
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman quoted it when he won the Oscar for 2006’s “Capote,” by thanking people and then saying of them: “I love, I love, I love, I love, I love. You know the Van Morrison song, I love, I love, I love, and he keeps repeating it like that?”
Director Martin Scorsese has said it inspired the first 15 minutes of “Taxi Driver.” And musician Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.”
Walsh doesn’t mince words: “They don’t sound like recordings to me. They sound like living breathing organisms. The album is a secret passcode that people pass along to each other . . . a hopeful message about the possibility of love, or a comment on the cycle of life that everyone goes through, that somehow remains pure and pristine.’”
None of that, though, mattered to Warner Bros., because not enough people bought it. It was the kind of album that brings to mind that old legend about the Velvet Underground: Only 1,000 people heard them, but all of those people started a band.
In fact, when Morrison went to record his next album, “Moondance,” he seemed to be searching for another pop hit reminiscent of “Brown Eyed Girl.” As his piano player Jef Labes said, “I think Warners had pretty much told him, ‘You have one more chance.’”
He succeeded. “Moondance” was a commercial hit, and well received critically. Yet, his masterpiece, “Astral Weeks,” remained known to the select few who really cared to spend time unraveling it.
But, then, that’s the story of Morrison: Things never really went the way they were supposed to.