Posts Tagged ‘Van Morrison’

Progress Report #8: The Second Coming of Astral Weeks

March 4, 2009

When I was in my early twenties, I was a member of a cult—the cult of Astral Weeks. (For those who don’t know it, it’s a recording by Van Morrison.) That record had a big influence on the direction my life took. It gave me a big push toward the street. It’s interesting to me that just as I’ve started working on the section of the book that deals with my encounter with the record, Astral Weeks, and its creator are in the news almost every day. Late last year, Van did a live performance of the entire album at the Hollywood Bowl and included one of the musicians from the original recording, guitarist Jay Berliner. The recording of the concert is out now, and Morrison is promoting it heavily. I stopped following Van years ago, but I was curious to hear how the concert turned out. I know what he’s capable of doing in concert, and I’d been hearing that he really pulled it off, that it was a remarkably inspired performance. I’ve heard it now, and I don’t think so—not at all. It has bursts of energy, but not much else. He’s lost so much of his voice. That happens with age, and I’m not judging the record on that account. My biggest problem with his performance is that there’s so little conviction in his singing. His conviction, his resolute connection to the lyrics, was the quality that made the original recording so astonishing. The general enthusiasm for the Hollywood Bowl performance puzzles me. For me, the star of the show is Berliner.

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Progress Report #1

November 10, 2008

I’m working on a book, and I aim to make occasional progress reports on it in this blog. Its working title is Street Song. I started writing it a little over two years ago, and I think I have at least another three to go. (Someone asked me why it’s going to take so long. My spontaneous reply was, “Because it has a lot of layers, and I want it to be good.”) It’s difficult to say what this book is about—although I know very well what it’s about. It’s just difficult to say it. I usually tell people that it’s about the years that I spent living on the streets in North Beach, which is a neighborhood here in San Francisco. But that’s only one part of it. If I had to sum up the book in just a few phrases I would say,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

There are two works by other writers that serve as inspiration for this book. One is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and the other is the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. At the front of Tropic of Cancer, Miller quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. 

That passage fascinated me. I was twenty years old and a big reader who at one time read nothing but novels. I’d wanted to be a novelist, but had become dissatisfied with the form. I didn’t think novels were true enough. Emerson made me wonder why anybody should write fiction when you could write creatively about real life. If only you had the courage—and a real life…I liked Miller’s attempt at putting Emerson’s idea into practice. I was especially impressed by his decision to abandon everything and descend penniless to the street, making his way solely by his wits. It seemed a courageous thing to do. Today, I find Tropic of Cancer difficult to read. I don’t like his contempt for other people, nor the crudeness of his lust—both of which I think were exaggerated. But I still find his vision for the book strong.

I discovered Astral Weeks around the same time as Tropic of Cancer. For a long time, it was my very favorite work of art. (I prefer Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems now.) I loved the vividness of the world Morrison created. It was both real and poetic in a way that made me think he had actually seen beneath the surface of reality. I loved the story: the movement of a boy out onto the streets and his maturation. And I loved the theme of romantic love taken to the level of mysticism.

Street Song will be nothing like Tropic of Cancer or Astral Weeks. Back In the days that I lived for art’s sake, the two works pushed me in a certain direction. From there I took off on my own. I expect to do three drafts. I’m currently on the second draft, chapter four, which is about a solo trip I took to Europe when I was seventeen.

More some other time.