Van Morrison's 1968 solo debut, Astral Weeks, is an unconquerable achievement. Conceived when the then-23-year-old was in the pitch of heavy drinking, the album stands as a wandering, mystical cycle of energy.
True to the stereotypes, Morrison drank heavily in his early life, once claiming that the link between his nationality and dependency was symbiotic. "You're Irish, number one," he said, "and you're a drinker, number two."
As St. Patrick's Day arrives in a tide of green beer and regurgitated corned beef, Astral Weeks calls to be revisited but with some reverence -- to both Celticism and the drink.
When the winding rhythm guitar comes in, take in a shot of Irish whiskey slowly. Jameson or Powers, perhaps. Cherish the warmth it deposits in your chest. It is said that vinyl is the warmest medium for music. Take a second to appreciate this synchronicity before uncorking your wine around the second refrain of "lay me down in silence, easy."
Make it a red wine. Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Drink it as you would velvet, with careful lips and esteem. Even if it is cheap wine, understand that there is art in alcohol. This is why tragedy is the corollary to its exploitation. Do not let this realization impede the hypnosis of the violins building blithely to the song's conclusion.
When the song ends, reset the needle to the beginning of the record. Venture again into the slipstream. There is no easier song to get lost in than "Astral Weeks," so lose yourself in it, all seven minutes of plucky upright bass, again. Hear the pastoral flutes as an extension of the wine's oaky vespers. Feel your forehead flush with heaviness. Exhale.
In the static between songs, resist the urge you write down your emotions. Alcohol is a gracious muse but an unjust debtor. "The heaviest dope I ever did was alcohol," Morrison has said, "it's a real heavy drug, a real motherfucker." Keep this sentiment as a companion.
Now that you've twice rambled through the title track, open a twiggy Irish stout for your second chapter. For the sake of the meditation, make it an O'Hara's, or something other than Guinness, which does not invite the pensive, bare mood of "Beside You." Pull in the milky, thick brew once for each big, passionately slurred flourish Morrison unleashes. Listen as the Belfast Cowboy spontaneously returns to the refrain to remind you he is your guide.
Swirl the beer in the glass. Peer between the marbled wisps of froth as "Sweet Thing" drips peacefully from the speaker. Fall in love with a gypsy who withholds their name with a smile.
Gaze at your turntable pensively as the signature harpsichord enters the room. Notice how delicately the needle traipses the record, boring a trench into the vinyl with every pass. Pour two fingers of the whiskey over ice, adding a spoonful of honey and some water. Imagine Morrison as he walks an Irish railroad with a skin of cherry wine. Taste how the honey subdues but does not quell the burn of the liquor. When you are through with this image, flip the record and drink until the ice no longer floats.
"The Way Young Lovers Do"
You cannot resist a dance. It begins in your shoulders when the horns come in and wiggles all the way through your wrists. Refrain from drinking while you dance, but think of how romantic the alcohol has made you feel. Understand that this romance, like the gypsy, is an unsustainable normal, but become absorbed completely in the moment.
The afterglow. There is a nearly sultry feeling to an even drunkenness. Stay here.
Press the cheeks of your feet into the floor and feel how the cool channels through your socks, how the booze has heightened your sense of such things. For the song's entrancing 10 minutes, think in metaphors for nature -- Morrison's breathless repetition of "the love the love the love" is a river, the strings are skinny rays of Gaelic sun, the bass is the gentle vibration of a continent as it drifts. If there is any wine left, pour enough to maintain this thinking.
"Ballerina" has no formal structure, per se -- it blossoms and wilts with Morrison's ardor finally peaking to exalt in the finale. At points, his voice shakes like a stray in a thunderstorm, wobbling between collapse and a higher plane of existence. It is easy to understand how such an unbridled passion can boil over into mayhem.
The ice cubes in your tumbler have melted, reconstituting the whiskey cocktail. Drink and watch the honey stream down the bottom of the glass as you glance through it. This is the monocle of many sabotaged artists.
"Slim Slow Slider"
Think of your father. Think of your mother kindly, even if that is not the way you typically think of her. Think of the first person who ever handed you a drink. Think of them all until the familiars disappear, and they become only archetypes. Here, the lack of sobriety becomes almost parental.
Realize that spirits and brigandism will kill you long before you're liberated -- that both will leave you slush-gutted and ornery where you were once providential. Meditate on the song's protagonist -- a misguided and destructive girl in a temptuous city -- and how she, too, is a metaphor for the moment. Enjoy the buzz as it calms and begins to subside like album's simmering last seconds. Dump what's left of your beer in the kitchen sink with a silent sláinte.
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