Morrison and his collaborators lift the lid on his extraordinary art
WARNER BROS, 1968
Them and Belfast are ancient history; Bang Records and “Brown Eyed Girl” a bitter memory. At 23, Morrison finds himself in Boston with a handful of extraordinary songs that nobody understands. Enter producer Lew Merenstein and a group of New York session men steeped in jazz. Together they create one of the most magical, mercurial albums in the rock canon.
LEWIS MERENSTEIN (PRODUCER): Van’s manager Bob Schwaid and I were friends. Van had signed to Warners but no producer wanted to touch him, so I went to Boston at Bob’s request to hear him. He sat on a stool in Ace studios and played “Astral Weeks”, and it took me 30 seconds to know. I understood. The lyric went straight to my soul, it was immediately clear to me that he was being born again.
We took Van back to New York. I had an office with a little rehearsal room out back, and we’d sit around while he’d play tunes. I’d write down the songs I thought would go together for the album, because I sensed a story, like a little play. Van wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and I never said, “What do you mean by this?” I don’t know what transpired between Bang Records and Van coming to Boston, but he had obviously gone through a rebirth. I knew I needed people who could pick up that feeling. Richard Davis was a highly renowned bass player, Connie Kay drummed with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jay Berliner was a fine guitarist. They were all super pros, but also open souls who played from the heart.
We went into Century Sound. It was a Union date. There was nothing sacred about it, but right away it was magical. It was so beautiful, it was hard to take. They would run through the first few minutes of a song, never the whole thing, and then do it. Everybody got the sense of what was being said musically, even if they didn’t get what was being sung by Van. Everybody was into it. I remember Richard bent over his bass with his eyes closed, tuning into Van. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.
JAY BERLINER (GUITAR): This little guy comes in and goes straight into the vocal booth. He doesn’t have any contact with anyone. We could hardly see him. He must have been smoking something, because all you could see was white smoke in there! He sang and played in the booth, we followed, and these things just… happened. The first session was 7-11pm on September 25, 1968. We cut “Cyprus Avenue”, “Madame George”, “Beside You” and “Astral Weeks” in four hours. It was totally off the cuff. We couldn’t make eye contact, but we were hearing each other through headphones and playing off of each other. Van said nothing. Lew did all the communicating, and he seemed to be very happy. “Keep going, it sounds great!” Tunes like “Madame George” went on a long time, which was a chance to really open up. It was a very free session. On “Beside You” I was thinking of Rodrigo’s ‘Guitar Concerto’, it had a similar kind of feel.
There was another session the following week, but I wasn’t available. They brought in Barry Kornfeld, but that didn’t work out. He didn’t have a jazz background. [Only “The Way Young Lovers Do” was recorded at this session]. The final date was October 15, from 7pm-11.45pm. We did “Sweet Thing”, “Ballerina”, “Slim Slow Slider” and a song called “Royalty” that didn’t make the final cut. And that was it. It was special, but back in those days you were running from day to day. I did a soap commercial the next day!
MERENSTEIN: “Slim Slow Slider” was originally much longer, but I don’t recall what was taken out. Nothing terribly memorable. We overdubbed horns at Century Sound, and strings at Master Sound. It wasn’t very intricate, but it was fulfilling. You know, I don’t think Van had a clue how special it was. He was given the gift, as we all were. The album was like an ending.
From there he was flying away, and out of that came a happier person, which was Moondance.