Van Morrison's career almost over before it began
By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Van Morrison hates the fame game so much that he would have abandoned his music career 40 years ago if one of his early albums had made him a superstar.
The album in question is his second solo release, "Astral Weeks," which failed to crack the U.S. or British pop charts when it came out in 1968 but is now regarded as one of the greatest musical works of the rock era and is generating new interest more than 40 years since its release.
Undaunted by the initial commercial setback, the Irish soul singer says he "just moved on" to his next project: The 1970 album "Moondance" whose title track is one of his best-known songs.
If "Astral Weeks" had generated the sales commensurate with its eventual stellar status and transformed him into a huge pop star, Morrison is in no doubt about his reaction.
"I would have quit the business had that happened," he said in an email interview with Reuters. "I am not one who has ever taken well to fame and what that attracts. It's a drag. I just wanted to be a songwriter and a singer. I did not bargain for all the rest of it."
Morrison, now 63, has spent his entire career trying to dodge "all the rest of it," in the process becoming one of rock's most unknowable figures. A hugely influential artist who was in turn inspired by Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan, Morrison has earned a reputation as a grumpy old man and has zero tolerance for showbiz frivolity. He even failed to turn up to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1993.
But Morrison remains proud of "Astral Weeks," which ranks at No. 19 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the greatest albums of all time and is now a steady seller along with the rest of his vast catalog.
The disc, recorded in less than two days in New York City with a jazz quartet assembled by producer Lewis Merenstein, was a marked departure for the singer of the pop hits "Gloria" (with his band Them) and "Brown Eyed Girl."
Morrison had spent years crafting the songs, setting mysterious lyrics referencing his Belfast childhood to multilayered arrangements. The centerpiece of the free-form improvisational effort was "Madame George," a 10-minute tune whose meaning confounds the writer and his fans to this day.
"I was practicing songwriting," he recalled. "Each composition is a fictional story I made up to work on my craft as a songwriter. The rest of the stories people say about my music is fiction as well. I do not tend to write about me. I write about the collective, the collective unconscious."
While many artists of a certain vintage avoid dwelling on their past glories in an effort to show that they are still relevant, Morrison is simply reveling in "Astral Weeks."
To mark its 40th anniversary, he performed the album in its entirety at two shows in Los Angeles last November, and released the fruits on the DVD "Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl," which has just gone on sale exclusively at Amazon.com. A CD was also released through his own EMI-distributed label.
He has also revived "Astral Weeks" at sold-out shows in London and New York City.
Morrison has been accompanied on stage by an orchestral string section as well as a band comprising two of the veterans from the original "Astral Weeks" sessions. He has also ad-libbed new material to many of his compositions.
"To me it is very forward-looking and, I am told, iconoclastic to have the guts to take a vintage work and take it somewhere else," he said. "Each and every show, I have discovered layers I had not noticed in my lyrics and magic from every crowd."
Morrison said movie studios have expressed a lot of interest in licensing the live recordings. It helps that the vague lyrics can be applied to virtually any situation.
"Any film would be done right by the live versions of these compositions," he said. "Each can tell a story -- whatever story one wants to make of it. This is why when people say 'It's about this or that' I just laugh because that is about the person listening -- not me. These songs trigger things in people's own imaginations. That is their stuff -- not mine."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)