Friday, November 14, 2008
In-depth interviews with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and two-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Van Morrison are exceedingly few and far between. But in conjunction with his performances Nov. 7 and 8 at the Hollywood Bowl, where he’ll perform his 1968 album “Astral Weeks” in its entirety for the first time anywhere, along with other songs from throughout his career, he agreed to respond by e-mail to questions from Times staff writer Randy Lewis.
What combination of opportunity and motivation was behind the decision to revisit "Astral Weeks" in a live setting now?
I am not “revisiting” it, as this is a totally different project. I had always wanted to do these songs fully orchestrated and live. I never got around to it -- then I thought, well, we have lost the great [drummer] Connie Kay already and Larry Fallon the original arranger –- so I thought I should probably get to it now. Jay [Berliner] and Richard [Davis] have never done it fully orchestrated and live before either so I see it as a new project.
Update: In the paragraph above, we originally identified Connie Kay as the bassist. He was the drummer on "Astral Weeks."
What's your thought at this stage of your career about the boldness of a 22-year-old Belfast musician with some rock hits to his credit going into a New York studio with the likes of Downbeat's jazz bassist of the year [Richard Davis], the Modern Jazz Quartet's drummer [Connie Kay] and one of Charles Mingus' collaborators [guitarist Jay Berliner]?
Well, first, I think I have probably always been more advanced in my head, in my thinking, than the calendar age of 22. My thinking musically has always been more advanced -- it is difficult to get it down onto paper sometimes, even now. And the Music on “Astral Weeks” required these great musicians because no one else could have pulled it off like they did. There is another reason, too, and that is the fact I did not settle for anyone other than these guys -- they were the ones I insisted on.
What, if any, contact has there been with Richard Davis and Jay Berliner (or Kay before his death in 1994) over the years?
Connie Kay called me a lot over the years, on a regular basis. He was the drummer on “Tupelo Honey” and “Listen to the Lion.” He is also on several recordings I did in the '80s, numbers I have not released yet. Connie was the best drummer I have run across yet. The original arranger, Larry Fallon, kept in touch with me over the years, but we had lost contact with him, unfortunately. I actually called him for this project, but I found out he had passed away not too long ago. That was a shame -- he was a great arranger. He seemed to understand this music -- which is rare and is not easy to do. I was in touch with Richard a few times over the years.
The circumstances that brought you to the East Coast of the U.S. at the time [in 1968]?
I had been with Bert Berns’ Bang Records label, and I didn’t get paid, so I was living on a shoestring -- a very hand-to-mouth existence at that time -- in Boston and for a long time after that too. I went down to New York and this is when I got the offer from Warner Brothers. They had told me they had to buy out the Bang deal. Then I got involved with [producer Lewis] Merenstein, et al. The real reason I made Astral Weeks Recordings in New York is because I was literally broke and they kept me stranded there.
Did these songs emerge more or less fully formed lyrically and melodically, or did you spend considerable time reworking, shaping and editing them during the live performances that led up to the recording session?
Well, I had already written “Ballerina,” in 1966!, if this tells you anything, and the poetry written on the backside of the “Astral Weeks” album [cover] was an excerpt from something else I had written prior to that! Matter of fact, thinking back, I had previously recorded “Madame George” and “Beside You” well before the '68 Warner release, for Bang Records. But the arrangements were nothing like what I had in mind for those songs. I had also previously played versions of a few of the songs Live at the Catacombs [club] in Boston well before going in and making what became the “Astral Weeks” recordings that ended up as the record. We made that record straight through finally like I wanted them, without stopping. We did it my way in the studio that day.
So, yes it took a very long time and a lot of thinking and arranging and hard work to structure these songs like I wanted them, like I envisioned them in my head. That was the hardest work, but then I found out I then had to work through the people in the music business, and then the people that come around as a result that you are in the music business, and that was even harder, but in a different way. All for the sake of making my music, my song.
What were you reading, listening to, experiencing, feeling after "Brown Eyed Girl" and all the Bert Berns sessions that sent you in this direction musically and philosophically?
“Brown Eyed Girl” is misunderstood. I already had that song down -- so I did not turn anywhere or change direction -- it was already done, just not released. If you listen closely you can hear there is depth to that song; there are layers of arrangement in my original version. Thing is, Bert required a “hit” record. He thought “Brown Eyed Girl” was the hit single. The song sounds catchy and pop, but [it] is really multi-dimensional. I was not happy with it, as the music in my mind is much more sophisticated than that.
I call that 'The Money Song' -- because they got all the money and I got none. What happened after that is I ended up with zero money. I was broke and depressed and remained that way for many years after that, and I just decided to make a stand for myself and do things my way, not theirs, like I was already doing in songs like “TB Sheets” and “Who Drove The Red Sports Car?”— which I guess were over the heads of those who were so-called “in the know.”
I did not ever want to be on a pop label -- I thought Bert was musically beyond that, but it turned out he was more interested in money than musical ability, song craft and poetic artistry. Despite all that, if Bert were not in with a bad crowd, I think he may have been interested in having the ears that hear. He probably did.
How did you settle on Lewis Merenstein to produce “Astral Weeks”?
Merenstein came about when my back was against the wall. I did not have a choice at the time. I was all the way on the ground. People only have a choice when they have money -- I did not have either, they made sure of that. Then I found out when you have success, then come the sharks in disguise -- and those [were] quite obvious. I did most of the [production] work myself, though, if the truth be told. I wrote it all, put it all where it needed to be.
What was the immediate aftermath for you? Was it a natural evolution, or a sharp turn toward the more easily accessible verse-chorus song structures you used in many of the songs on the "Moondance" album?
First of all “Moondance” was written by me in 1965, as an instrumental, so I did not turn toward anything other than what I had already written and done. I have always played what I feel like playing whenever I feel like playing it.
I put out records to this day that are not necessarily in a sequence of anything. Some could be written a while back, some not. There is no set pattern. I just put things out when I decide to put it out; [that] does not mean that it’s what I was thinking or doing or writing in any time frame. It usually comes down to what goes with what else, or what needs to go out whenever. It would be a mistake to think such and such because something comes out or came out when it did. My records do not require a lot of thought of ‘What is this?’ and ‘What is that?’ That would be too contrived for me.
Do you connect differently now with the "Astral Weeks" material, and what is it about these songs that make them feel like they exist outside of time? I've talked to some musicians who say they didn't understand the real meaning of some of their songs until years later; that their music reached beyond their intellectual understanding of themselves at the time.
“Astral Weeks” songs were written over a period of time -– some early 1966 -- and evolved musically. They are timeless works that were from another sort of place -- not what is at all obvious. They are poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination.
The songs are poetic stories, so the meaning is the same as always -- timeless and unchanging. The songs are works of fiction that will inherently have a different meaning for different people. People take from it whatever their disposition to take from it is. It is like Tolkien’s “Hobbit” -- the hobbit is what it is. I doubt he would change what the stories [are] just because time went by.
“Astral Weeks” are little poetic stories I made up and set to music. The album is about song craft for me -- making things up and making them fit to a tune I have arranged. The songs were somewhat channeled works -- that is why I called it “Astral Weeks.” As my songwriting has gone on I tend to do the same channeling, so it’s sort of like “Astral Decades,” I guess.
I am about the arrangements and the layers of depth in the music. So, no, I do not see it any differently than it is -- it just is whatever it is.
Did you know what you wanted and what you'd achieved right away?
It is all poetry I made up anyway. It’s like asking "What is art?" It is whatever the beholder decides it is. To this day most all of my music comes from a similar place. I am not exactly sure where the location it comes to me from is located, but it always comes from the realm of the imagination. It is all fiction, and like all art, listeners can take from it what they want from it -- or not.
Like the song “The Way Young Lovers Do.” What is it? I do not know -- I made it up. Anyway, what 90-year-old does not want to feel like young lovers do? Most probably would -- it is as simple as that.
It’s a funny feeling that you actually have the courtesy of asking me about my songs. Did you know there have been numerous books written about my music where none of the authors were interested in my take on my music? None of the authors have ever had the courtesy of asking me to elaborate on my own music -- 500-page books and not one word did they want from me -- on anything, ever. I have tried to offer up help and am refused. They have flat out refused all insight from me. :-)
I guess they all want to make it into something it’s not or was not intended to be by me. Anyway, it’s bizarre to me.
Does it mean anything to you that "Astral Weeks" is so highly regarded -- No. 2 on the Mojo list of all-time greatest works -- yet it took 33 years to go gold?
The music on “Astral Weeks” is sophisticated poetry that is multi-layered in sounds that I do not think the majority take the time to wrap their head around. It’s subjective. I think it would be reductive for me to try to answer why.
I’d guess there are many reasons why it took so long, but yet it is recognized. It’s different than anything then and different still than anything that is obtainable now. Maybe there is not a big market for thoughtful deep music, I do not know. It speaks different things to different people. Maybe it spoke “Don’t buy me” to some –- not sure. I have always been quite sure it is not Top 40 material.
Does "Astral Weeks" represent to you something unique and extraordinary within your own body of work, more than any other album you've made?
Now that I really think about it, this, like all of my work, comes from the collective unconscious, I suppose. That is why it speaks different things to different people. All of my records are unique unto themselves and this one is no different. It is just part of what I do as a songwriter. These are just another set of stories and poetry, like all of them.
Over time has it gotten easier or harder to make your records the way you want to make them, and why?
Harder to find musicians that understand the depth of the arrangements as I originally write them, and harder because my style is a mixture of many elements. But easier because I am my own producer and I make them myself. I have the freedom to create, rather than to be stifled by someone else’s notions or far off-the-mark ideas.
Your albums continue to sell impressive quantities of physical CDs -- nearly 2 million in the last year, I understand -- in an era when the music industry has shifted its attention to downloads and sometimes can't give music away. How do you interpret the continuing success of your music when it's not being played heavily on commercial radio or promoted intensively by record companies?
Yes, I am lucky I have an audience that is not into the fad of the download. I am very grateful for that. My fans must intrinsically understand the value of having a record in their hand. With so much standing to kill the record business and make it extinct, I think it is great there are still people who appreciate the beauty of a record -- a real record, not a purchase of bad quality air through a wire that can erase with a punch of a button :-)
People must really want to save the records -- in spite of the record business that cannot seem to see the forest for the wood.
People in the record business have always been concerned about making money, but when you were a young fan and then started out as a recording artist, there were label owners like Sam Phillips, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler who actually had ears -- people who knew music inside and out, rather than treating it strictly like a commodity to be marketed for maximum profit. You've made no secret of your disdain for many aspects of the music business -– did you start your own record label at least in part to show what's still possible when music itself is the driving force?
Let’s put it this way: When these men started selling off and moving on it was the beginning of what is now becoming the end of the record business. For the record business to win and win big it has to have people within it that have ears for music and who understand the old greats and respect [them]. With the way things have gone, it looks more and more like there is not much of a chance for new men with ears to emerge in the music business. It’s too money driven and no one seems to know how to really do simple mathematics.
Ahmet knew the value of respecting true ability and those who were there for the long haul. Today record companies are run by 30-year-olds who are more into who “famous” came in the building. They don’t care about selling hard copy CDs, where their real long-term money is. If they did, they would stop shooting themselves in the foot by ignoring the tried and true, and stop betting on so many losing horses. And they would learn how to use a calculator.
I have been independent with my own label since late '70s early '80s. I am really not trying to set any example for anything. It is the only way I can do what I do. It is the only way I can operate.
You've written some of the catchiest pop songs in the history of rock music ("Jackie Wilson Said," "Wild Night," "Bright Side of the Road"), as well as some of the most deeply spiritual ("Listen to the Lion," "In the Garden," "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God"). Do those come from two different places inside?
No, I think everything comes from the same place in the imagination, just a different topic du jour, so to speak. I have worked with my art of song craft, and the result of that is somewhat of an across-the-board variety. I have experimented with many types of singing and use of voice as well as many types of songs, most ending up a mixture of a lot of different styles. But I prefer writing and crafting the spiritual-leaning songs the most.
Is there a legitimate place for music that simply entertains rather than music like yours that seeks to touch the heart and soul? Conversely, is it inherently destructive to commercialize music, which is fundamentally a sacred form of human expression?
Well, I myself will start playing entertainment-type songs if the audience is not understanding, or if I get a vibe they are not really listening, or if they seem to need to go somewhere else, or if I need to go somewhere else.
When music is commercialized, others tend to copy the formula. Then we end up with the drone of the constant loop of the same old thing over and over.
When music is contrived to the nth degree I do not think it can be sacred in that form. It loses its soul its heartbeat; its freedom to be.
Were you always a spiritual seeker?
Of course. How could I be a musician or write poetry if I am not?
Has all the inner work you've obviously done led you to a deeper understanding or knowledge of your role in life? Is that a never-ending process for you?
I do therefore I am. I do not assume that I have any “role” -- I do not think I do. That word does not feel right to me. I do not wear it well.
Perhaps the better word would be “purpose,” or “mission”?
My spiritual understanding has grown only to the extent [of my knowledge] about myself. But there is no role. That is illusion placed upon me by other people. I have no illusions about who I am. As a writer interested in wordsmith, what I gain spiritually can only help me and my writing or topics of my writing. But I have no role, no role at all. I am on no mission. I am what I am, and I write what I write.
I've always admired your sax playing, because it truly seems to express something you can't get out any other way. So even though you could probably hire whatever session great you wanted --and many times you have -- those where you choose to play sax yourself seem very special. What outlet opens for you when you pick up your horn?
Thank you for the compliment. I really enjoy the sax and [in] fact, I sometimes throw in an ‘entertainment’-type of kick-up song just so I can play it. On the other hand, I like playing very spirit-driven songs like ‘St. James Infirmary’ live on the sax. Can’t beat that feeling of just taking it where it wants to go. There is a freedom in that -- a good feeling, for sure.
I've been told by record execs at Warner Bros. and Rhino that the reason there has never been a Van Morrison CD box set is that you never wanted to stop looking ahead long enough to do it. Is that true, and given this decision to return to "Astral Weeks" now, is that still the case?
Well, Warner Bros. and Rhino don’t speak for me. They do not know me. I have always been forward-thinking, but other than that I have not really thought much about it. Putting “Astral Weeks” live to orchestration is my idea of being forward-thinking.
For all B.B. King has accomplished as a guitarist and a singer, when I talked to him recently, he said "If I could sing like Bobby Bland I'd be a happy man." Do you ever have a similar view of your own abilities as a songwriter, a singer or instrumentalist?
No, I only am what I am. But I sure do like the timbre of John Lee and I wouldn’t mind if I sounded like Leadbelly.
What musicians haven't you worked with that you'd still like to?
I would have loved for Miles Davis to have played on a record of mine. Actually, he said he would, but I didn’t get to him in time. I would have loved to have played with Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Lightnin’, Mahalia Jackson, Ella, Billie Holiday, so many.