Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lester Bangs on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks

Dave Marsh writes:

I think Lester Bangs' essay on Astral Weeks (from Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus) is probably as good as Lester ever got, which is more than just considerable. I am not sure to this day whether his vision of humanity was extremely limited or the most expansive one that I know—it is maybe both, kind of alternately—or whether it's just that we arrived at different solutions to the same problem, which is the problem of thinking you're dying, dying of fear and isolation, and then not dying but also not feeling quite as fearful and isolated and starting to betray yourself by growing up, maturing. We traveled different roads but they had points of nearness where we could reach out and touch—or almost touch, Lester might say—and there was never a time when I felt like we were on different sides of the wars fought to preserve individual humanity. (I ain't speaking for what he felt; I don't know, exactly. I know some of it but not all that much for sure.)

Anyway, this is the guidelines by which the new Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl should be judged, IMO, especially this passage:

What this is about is a whole set of verbal tics—although many are bodily as well—which are there for reason enough to go a long way toward defining his style. They're all over Astral Weeks: four rushed repeats of the phrases "you breathe in, you breath out" and "you turn around" in "Beside You'; in "Cyprus Avenue", twelve "way up on"s, "baby" sung out thirteen times in a row sounding like someone running ecstatically downhill toward one's love, and the heartbreaking way he stretches "one by one" in the third verse; most of all in "Madame George", where he sings the word "dry" and then "your eye" twenty times in a twirling melodic arc so beautiful it steals your own breath, and then this occurs: "And the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves."

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. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: "It's too late to stop now!"

It's the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.

It truly may be that this is pretty much everything I have ever sought from music, and to those who damn transcendence as an object of desire—or maybe i mean, as a prospective achievement—all that I can say is, the answer to the question of who is damned is obvious and universal, and yes, it's the wrong question. The goal of what Lester is writing about here—the goal of what Lester writes here—is to transcend not one's humanity but the conditions of the world that make it so painful; and he understands the fundamental principle, which is that there is no way around the universal state of humanity, there is only a way through it. And if that is not transcendence, then I have no idea what it would be, in (this is ridiculous but important) practical terms.

I say this all so defensively because, I guess, sometimes people think that what Lester wrote is dated; sometimes I think it myself. But I think that the best of it is as close to timeless as needs be discovered in our lifetimes.

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