Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
Warner Bros. Records, November, 1968
Track Listing: 1. Astral Weeks, 2. Beside You, 3. Sweet Thing, 4. Cyprus Avenue, 5. Afterwards, 6. The Way Young Lovers Do, 7. Madame George, 8. Ballerina, 9. Slim Slow Slider
The farmer sleeps soundly, uninterrupted by the storm. He is lost in dreams of the land he never quite leaves. When he awakes, it is to the promise of the land. The land is holy.
“To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again
To be born again”
-from the song “Astral Weeks”
Outside in the garden, just below the kitchen window, the first morning visitor—a lone sparrow—arrives on the scene and glides effortlessly over the flowers that are still soaked in silver lace from the midnight rain. The wet sparkle enhances an already dazzling kaleidoscope of color. Red and white roses adorn the tops of prickly, protective green vines that are attached to the side of the farmhouse. Next to the rose bush, an army of tulips stands at attention, the softest pinks complimenting ruby reds, while yellows and whites head a row of the most brilliant purples imaginable. It is late spring, so the tulips and violet baptisia are in full bloom. They are skyscrapers that define the garden skyline as they tower over the sprouting dandelions down below, all the while giving the necessary shade to the star gazer lilies that will come alive in midsummer. A yellow jacket—casual in a brown and yellow striped polo—buzzes by methodically as it peruses the menu before deciding upon the perfect petal. Watching it all in a zigzag of blooming confidence and regal royalty are whimsical birds of paradise that drape the edges of the garden like velvet curtains cloaking the windows of painted ladies of a bygone era.
“Spread your wings
Come on fly awhile
Straight to my arms”
Stumpy tails-a-waggin’, two Boston Terriers push through the swiveling kitchen doggy door, ready to inhale the glory of the morning. Each scent is a heavenly rush, a warm and welcome embrace. The dogs stop on a dime next to the garden as if halted by an invisible force field. Their snouts twitch as they sniff wildly. Soon, they can wait no longer and in unison—like ice dancers performing a well-practiced routine—the male lifts his legs while the female squats. And just like that, they are off, running along in their merry freedom to chase squirrels and other critters beyond the decrepit old red barn. It is a moment in time that passes in an instant.
“We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain
And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again”
-from “Sweet Thing”
The rains have been generous this season. In kind, the farmer’s land shows its gratitude by donning a deep coat of luscious, furry green. Perfect rows of infant corn stalks have begun to rise noticeably off in the distance, just beyond the healthy acres of soy bean crop. Meanwhile, by the side of the old dirt road, invisible chariots carrying godly ghosts give pause, before passing through. In this time and place and in this land of fruitful bearings, the blessings of angels are better saved for lands up north or perhaps far off to the east. The resulting departure of the gods leaves a cool morning breeze in its wake, unnoticed by all but the cows that are still lazily at rest in the grass covered clearing.
“You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out
You breath in
you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out
And you’re high on your high-flyin’ cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you”
-from “Beside You”
The farmer is sitting naked on a toilet, anxious to start his day as his wife stirs in the kitchen. He is thumbing through a magazine but far more preoccupied with the mental checklist of chores he has targeted as today’s goals. Suddenly, his attention is captured in full as he turns to a page containing a photo of the famous painting that he has always enjoyed. He is drawn to the pitchfork in the hands of the stoic farmer. It is a symbol that speaks directly to his pride. The painting translates to him into being one with the land, the land that is holy.
He does not know that the real painting adorns the wall of a gallery in a museum in Chicago, some 100 miles due east. Time may have passed, or even rewound. A woman is now looking at the painting intently from across the gallery room.
“In another time
In another place
In another time
In another place”
-from the song “Astral Weeks”
She steps up, with great trepidation, needing to position herself better, directly in front of the painting, as if getting closer will help her come to terms with the source of her angst.
She is not a farmer or the wife or daughter of a farmer, so it’s not that. Maybe it is simply because she is from Iowa too, like the couple in the painting. It is hard to pinpoint but she simply cannot ignore the emotions the painting stirs in her. Those grim faces just seem bitter. The fact she is deeply religious—Irish Catholic—may play a part in her projecting a feeling that the artist is somehow poking fun of bible thumpers, although there is nothing explicit in the painting to back her assertion. It is just a feeling. One of many that has contributed to her disdain for the famous painting. She cannot look at it one second longer. Disgusted, she turns away and decides to find the French Impressionists. She does not know it yet as she makes her way through the maze of gallery archways, but Day of God (Mahana No Atua) by Paul Gauguin has been waiting patiently for her arrival for over a century.
“This time it’s found you
You turn around you turn around you turn around you turn around
And I’m beside you
-from “Beside You”