Van Morrison, Unlikeliest of Literary Muses
On the Outsize Influence of Astral Weeks
For some musicians, the literary connections are obvious: Bob Dylan, for one, even before he ended up taking home the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bruce Springsteen’s talked about the influence of Flannery O’Connor on his album Nebraska for decades. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. ends with a lyric envisioning a radically different parallel timeline for Lamar, turning the whole narrative of the album (and Lamar’s life) on its head—meaning that someone’s probably writing an academic paper juxtaposing DAMN. and Philip Roth’s The Counterlife right now, if they haven’t already. And then there’s Van Morrison, who’s probably not going to be a surprise Nobel winner—though you never know—but whose literary influence is quietly formidable.
While certain artists have inspired works that could fill bookshelves—Dylan, The Beatles, James Brown—Morrison’s literary footprint is less massive, but has had just as much impact. For the right writers, Morrison’s work—particularly the music he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and specifically Astral Weeks—is an absolutely transformational muse. There’s something about Van Morrison’s music that pushes writers in unexpected directions, turning essays on his own sound into places where writers can push their own prose towards the heartfelt and ecstatic. What quality, then, has made Morrison’s music so vital for a certain strain of writer?
As a quick primer: the album Astral Weeks was recorded in New York in 1968, during a time when the Irish-born singer was living in Massachusetts. It sits in a strange and indescribable place in Morrison’s discography: at times sweeping and at times intimate, not quite as soul-influenced as what came before or as forceful as what came later. It’s a gloriously contradictory album, and while other works of Morrison’s have certainly drawn their admirers—Steve Erickson’s 2012 novel These Dreams of You takes its title from a Morrison song, for instance—Astral Weeks has a particularly massive literary influence.
In the 1979 anthology Stranded, Lester Bangs wrote about Astral Weeks; the essay was subsequently reprinted in the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. It has the blend of discomfiting personal detail and meticulous analysis that characterizes the best of Bangs’s work: while he’s candid about how the album got him through a particularly depressed point in his life (“it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction,” he writes early on), that’s not sufficient for purposes of this work. Instead, Bangs delves deeply into the album’s lyrics and music, and Morrison’s subsequent live performances of songs from, and interviews about, the album.
Ryan Walsh, in his book Astral Weeks, also declares his love for the album in question; in his prologue, he cites it as “my favorite record of all time.” Immediately thereafter, he goes on to echo a take on it that by the time of his writing of it had reached canonical levels—to wit, Lester Bangs’s 1979 essay on the album. Bangs is cited several times over the course of Walsh’s book, and by the time Walsh reaches the end of his narrative, Bangs comes back around, this time as evidence of how Astral Weeks has gone from a misunderstood album to a bona fide classic.
One particular quote from Bangs’s essay may explain Morrison’s particular appeal to a certain subset of writers. “Van Morrison is interested, obsessed, with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture,” Bangs writes. That sort of precision with regards to evocation sounds not unlike the struggles of any writer who’s paid careful attention to their craft: not simply seeking the right words, but the right structure, the right balance; prose that doesn’t stint on any level.
At the same time, if Morrison can be seen in this sense as a musician who’s more of a literary stylist than the literary stylists who adore his work, there’s another aspect in which he sharply differs. Both Walsh and Bangs note that Morrison has, since the release of Astral Weeks, been loathe to comment much about the album—or to offer interpretations of his songs that satisfied anyone. This, too, may be why writers find Morrison’s music so appealing: there’s more than enough room to incorporate a multiplicity of styles.
In Bangs’s essay, Morrison’s album is a means by which Bangs can analyze his own feelings of depression and gradually move towards an overarching theory of the contradictions that emerge when one attempts to engage with the outside world with any kind of empathy, and the world’s potential to utterly devastate that person in return. Walsh’s book, by contrast, uses Morrison’s presence in the Boston music scene of 1968 and the breadth of his music to pull in disparate threads, some of them only tenuously connected to Morrison—including organized crime’s ties to the music industry and a commune headed by an increasingly megalomaniacal figure. For virtually any other musician, this sprawling approach might seem needlessly complex; for a book with circa-1968 Van Morrison at its heart, it clicks surprisingly well.
The ways in which Morrison shows up a couple of times in Jessica Hopper’s acclaimed 2015 book The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic are also hugely significant. One of them is a short work for the Village Voice Pazz & Job Critics’ Poll from 2006, titled “Sweet Things.” It’s addressed to a particular figure, and in it Hopper suggests an itinerary in which the two “drive around Chicago and listen to ‘Sweet Thing’ by Van Morrison and see who cries first, you or me.” The musician she’s addressing here is one Sufjan Stevens, whose career (especially since then) has looked not unlike that of Van Morrison: a penchant for the transcendental and the harrowing in equal measure, a sense of musical restlessness, a dense and ecstatic wordplay when it comes to lyrics. It’s also a slightly punk rock response to Morrison, a reminder that, though singular, there are others who may be able to run with this style and inspire in their own ways. (Has the great Sufjan Stevens-inspired essay yet been written? Give it time.)
And then there’s a short essay, “Between the Viaduct of Your Dreams: On Van Morrison,” which takes its title from the opening lines of the song “Astral Weeks.” Here, Hopper zooms in on the title song of the album as a way of unlocking Morrison’s appeal. (Remember, this is “On Van Morrison,” not “On ‘Astral Weeks’” or “On Astral Weeks.”) “There is so much wanting in ‘Astral Weeks,’” Hopper writes, “but it’s not desperation, it’s all vessel; it’s faith enough to cover us all.” Which is perhaps the last part of why Morrison’s work appeals to writers so much: there’s more than a little of the urge to create in that image, in that quality, in that work.
Bangs’s essay ends with “a juxtaposition of poets,” placing Morrison’s lyrics beside the poetry of Federico García Lorca and letting that comparison highlight areas of overlap. Bangs demonstrates just how Morrison’s lyrical evocations function as poetry, even as he also argues that exploring one aspects of these songs is to the detriment of their other components. But there’s also a pretty direct line from Morrison to Bangs to a generation of writers whose work took some sort of cue from Bangs. All of that, then, means that a certain literary take on Van Morrison’s music has more than a little in common with the numerous permutations of a folk song over the years, with a deftly chosen sample, with jazz improvisation—itself a motif of Walsh’s Morrison-inspired book—around a central theme.
Put more succinctly: on one hand you have music that you can read like literature; on the other, you have a chain of literary works that connect like music. For an album as hard to pin down as Astral Weeks, and an artist as infamously oblique as Van Morrison, that seems entirely fitting.