Thursday, March 14, 2013

Well, Maybe Devo was Right -- Things Really Are Devolving!!!

Okay, I'm about to say something that I've never said to another living soul, and certainly not to another living rock critic, for what will be obvious reasons.


I do not now care, and have never particularly cared, for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

Okay, there I've said it.

Which, of course, given the album's status as pretty much the holiest bovine in the entire rock album canon, is more or less akin to confessing you were glad the Greek colonels overthrew King Constantine.

And lest you think I'm just being difficult, or trying to generate some sort of blog-hit controversy, I'm not. I don't dislike the album; it simply doesn't talk to me. Maybe it's genetic, I dunno, but I just find it a little dull. Sue me.

I bring all this up because the other day -- having some more than usual time on my hands -- I finally got around to purchasing a copy of an album called Tax Free that I've been meaning to check out for ages. And therein lies a tale.

Longtime readers are aware of my fondness for a Dutch 60s beat group called The Outsiders (not to be confused with the American greaseball outfit of the same name and era who hit it big with "Time Won't Let Me.")

The Dutch Outsiders never had any of their music released in this country, but they were pretty big in Europe and they've developed a cult following in recent years; some folks claim they're the best 60s band for whom English was not their original language, and while I won't go that far, they were pretty damn good. Maybe not world class, but definitely worth hearing in that sort of Stones/Pretty Things snarling r&b derived rock style that was all the rage back then.

In any case, Tax Free was the band Outsiders singer Wally Tax formed after the breakup of that bunch, and unlike the rest of his previous oeuvre, their eponymous elpee was actually released -- albeit to an utterly oblivious public -- in the US of A.

What I didn't know until recently is that Tax Free's eponymous album has often been compared to Astral Weeks, presumably because it's produced by Lewis Merenstein (who produced AW), it features Richard Davis (who did similar duty on AW) on upright bass, it's in the same pastoral more or less acoustic quasi-jazz style as AW, and because it, like AW, makes me very, very sleepy.

Have I mentioned that John Cale plays viola on the album?

Anyhowever, all of this is a very roundabout way of setting up a Compare and Contrast that may prove edifying.

From 1965, it's the angry youngThem (featuring Van Morrison) and "I Can Only Give You Everything"...

...and from 1968, it's the not so angry Van Morrison (from Astral Weeks) and "Cypress Avenue."

Meanwhile, from 1967, here are the savage young The Outsiders (featuring Wally Tax) and "Story 16"...

...and from 1970, here are the far more genteel Tax Free (featuring Wally Tax) and "Along the Shadowed Quay."

Seriously -- do either of those examples strike you guys as some kind of musical evolution? Or at least one worth writing home about?

Because what I hear in both cases -- and yes, obviously I'm exaggerating to make a point -- is more like a failure of nerve.


Gardner said...

You have read Lester Bangs' essay on AW, yes?

steve simels said...

Another sacred text.

MJConroy said...

Just recently I've been picking up Van's earlier albums on cd - as they seem to be mostly out of print. I got Astral Weeks, having never had it on vinyl, and have to say I was underwhelmed. The other albums are a lot better. Too much noodling for my taste.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I managed to get all the way through AW once. I don't "get" it. I'd much rather listen to John Martyn's "Solid Air" for a folk-jazz mumblefest.
At least you can tell the songs apart.
On the other had I quite enjoyed "His Band And Street Choir", "Tupelo Honey, and most of "St Domoinic's Preview".

Blue Ash Fan said...

I'll see your heresy and raise you one "I never really got the appeal of Van Morrison anyway."

steve simels said...

Them - brilliant.

Some of Van's radio hits -- inspirational and timeless.

"Astral Weeks"? I just don't get it. Starting with the title, which grates as only old hippie shit can grate on somebody who had a, shall we say, ambivalent relationship with the late 60s.

ms. rosa said...

I love Them and I love Astral Weeks - in fact, I get giddy just THINKING about putting it in my car cd player. The best way I can describe my love of AW is that - I dunno - I just like the way it *sounds*. But then again, I love Terry Reid's 'River' - not that I'd play it in the car for fear I'd bliss out and crash into a Metro bus.

Oh, and The Outsiders ARE world class, regardless of mother tongue.

Sal Nunziato said...

I think I love Van Morrison, though I've never really been sure, as I am always thinking just how lousy so many of his records post 1982 are.

Know the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen sits with that "frozen smile" while that awful comedian hams it up? That's how I listen "Astral Weeks." It's as if I better like it or else.

FD13NYC said...

I'm not particularly a big fan of Van. But I do like roughly 5-7 songs by him. Moondance and Tupelo Honey have some good cuts. But I've always thought "Jackie Wilson Said" kicks ass.

Charlie Ricci said...

Never been a Van fan, mostly because of his very grating singing voice. Good vocals go a long way with me in evaluating an artist. I even think Bob Dylan sings better than Van.

steve simels said...

I believe Lester Bangs, who worshipped "Astral Weeks," said it best, and I paraphrase.

"Veedon Fucking Fleece? WTF?????"

Hannes A. Jónsson said...

"Moondance" is a wonderful record, "Irish Heartbeat" is good and "Tupelo Honey" is OK. "Astral Weeks", meanwhile, sucks balls...

Gardner said...

So I guess for you the sacred text of Lester Bangs' essay is right on par with the album he celebrates, yes? Oh dear.

Hmm. Naysaying the naysayers, I say AW is a masterpiece, Lester Bangs was right on, and of course YMMV. It does strike me as strange you'd say "failure of nerve," since the album seems to me to take many risks, more than Van would ever take again.

Would you say "Eight Miles High" was timid? Pretty hippi-fied. And just so you know the worst, I bought the 3-CD David Crosby set ("Voyage") recently and love it. For me, Crosby, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and others of the tribe were too committed to be hippies of the kind you're describing--just too weird, too out there, never to be brokers, ever.

steve simels said...


I love Lester's essay on "Astral Weeks." I also completely disagree with it. I love lots of other pieces by Lester that I also disagree with, by the way.

In any event, just for the record, today's post was, as I mentioned, deliberately overstated to make a point. And I love David Crosby and Joni Mitchell from back then.

On the other hand, one thing I can guarantee we will all agree on -- that Tax Free album sucks. Big time.

steve simels said...

I should also add that Springsteen's "Spirit in the Night," which I adore, would not have existed without the influence of both Van Morrison and Major Lance.

pete said...

I'm with you on Astral Weeks, and lots of the album cuts from cult-worshipped LPs like Moondance, etc. sound like the kind of bargain-basement Sam Cooke done better by, ulp, Rod Stewart.

But he had a string if brilliant singles beginning with Into the Mystic and ending with Jackie Wilson and I lurve the first side of Veedon Fleece. Everything after that sounds exactly the same and his repellant personality (let me apologize to my Catholic friends about everything Irish Protestants have ever said or done) keeps me from getting into the bliss so many of his fans seem genuinely to feel.

big bad wolf said...

i despise lists and rankings. this year, at 51, i admitted that i did think there was an album better than all the others and that after listening since 13 i should just admit it to myself. it's astral weeks, of course. no attempt to persuade anyone (and i'm not averse to doing so in some causes, musical and non-musical). i think steve gets it correct right up front: it either speaks to you or it doesn't. astral week is, for me, like the best of faulkner, it doesn't just speak to me, it anticipates my thoughts, emotions, and rhythms.

Anonymous said...

I was impressed, but didn't love, AW when I first heard it. Then I heard "Too Late to Stop Now" (Van's live album) and it all made sense. But not surprised many people can't get into it. Can't believe people don't love his singing and albums from those early days (up to but not completely including) Veedon Fleece. After that sameness and "repellent personality" kill the magic.

pete said...

Here's a related question. Does Love's "Forever Changes" involve the same "failure of nerve"?

No, it says here.

steve simels said...


The short answer about "Forever Changes" is "no." I heart "Forever Changes" and always have.

I don't think it's stylistically of a piece with "Astral Weeks," incidentally, except in a very very general sort of way.

pete said...

Actually, that's a good listo topic: best "soft" albums by a previously "hard" band.

Anonymous said...

actually it's not fair to compare something from '65-'66 to awful early 70's "rock."

'65-'66 will never be topped.

I swear an older friend put Astral Weeks on just to clear me and my punk-leaning friends out of his house CIRCA 1982.