Polydor Records, Warner Bros. Records 1974
by Matt Meade
Part I: Where I Tell you How Much I Love Van Morrison
I never would have listened to this record had it not been for that breakup.
Sometimes you need a good breakup to lead you into something. You use the end of the relationship as an excuse for working out more, or gardening, or maybe even something creepier like pursuing lepidoptery.
Eventually that old relationship ending is what leads you into a new relationship, and you think, “had I never taken that cooking class, I never would have met this person…” When that person leaves you too and you are conducting the autopsy on yet another failed relationship, you can admit to yourself that you were not self-improving, but merely using an external object or activity to distract you from your pain. But every so often you will truly use the heartbreak to take another step on that well-worn highway between the town of Innocence and the bleak urban landscape that is Experience. Every once in a while your aching soul will lead you to a record like the oft overlooked Veedon Fleece.
I was a good Van Morrison acolyte, even before the breakup. I came to him the way many music fans of my generation did, by way of “Brown Eyed Girl,” falling in love with the song before I was old enough to understand that it was a song that the man himself grouchily dismissed.
I fell in love with Morrison back in those days when the fact that my parents also loved the guy was a good thing. They giggled while I danced arhythmically to “Ro Ro Rosey” in the living room with my toddler’s Buddha belly and peanut butter and jelly festooned cheeks. I can remember “It Stoned Me” coming on my mom’s oldies radio station, probably crammed in between The Chordettes singing “Lollipop” in a round, and the insane falsetto of Frankie Valli on “Walk Like a Man.” We would belt out the chorus singing, “Ohhhhhhhhh the water… Ohhhhhhh the water… Let it run all over me,” neither one of us were aware of the implications of the song.
I graduated to Morrison’s more hip efforts via The Last Waltz. My father exposed me to Scorsese’s concert film not long after he caught me listening to Bobby Brown’s catchy and insipid “On Our Own,” from the Ghostbusters II soundtrack. The old man was pretty ashamed that a son of his “was getting into stuff like that.”
He sat me down in front of our Zenith and pushed the tape into the VCR (I knew that he was serious because I could see from the box that he had gone all the way to the Blockbuster on Altamont Avenue to rent the film. This meant that he had first gone to the more conveniently located Crazie Nick’s Video, but had been frustrated by the fact that they only had porn and 27 copies of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, at which point he must have driven all the way over to the other side of town to obtain this important document.)
“This is the movie I was telling you about,” he explained.
I had no recollection of the conversation where he had told me about this film, but I nodded my head like I did. My old man was working hard to impart some kind of ancient wisdom to me, and I was going to listen.
At the time I didn’t realize how famous and important these faces were. The mythical Staples Singers, the ethereal Joni Mitchel, the incomparable Ronnie Hawkins. Of course, I had heard of Neil Young, but I hardly recognized him because he was not singing “Keep on Rockin’ the Free World,” which PYX 106 had convinced me was his only contribution to the history of rock and roll.
I wondered where my dad had acquired the knowledge of these people whose names he called out as they trotted onto the stage, and how he knew all the words to all these songs. Muddy Waters, Dr. John, and Emmylou Harris may as well have been key grips and camera operators because despite their supposed import, they had never been on any radio station I knew.
But Van Morrison I recognized. Van Morrison I understood. Even though I didn’t know these songs, I knew what he was doing. Van Morrison acted like the concert belonged to him. He made it seem like The Band had not been Bob Dylan’s band first, but Van’s band last. Van kicked and howled his way through “Caravan,” like he intended to smash his way through the television, trying to get at me, voyeur and imposter that I was, and I wasn’t sure the glass was enough to keep me safe.
Suffice it to say it was a life changing experience.
After that, I made sure to keep his Best Of catalog handy, digging on “Domino,” and “Jackie Wilson Said,” when I needed a changeup from Otis Redding or The Animals. I learned a bit about Them and grooved on their version of “Please Don’t Go.” I discovered “Gloria” (by way of Jimi Hendrix, of course), and I came to hate the sexless and vapid John Mellencamp/ M’chel N’degochelo cover version of “Wild Night.”
I bemoaned the grumpy, late career slide into MOR mediocrity that was happening concurrent to all the discoveries I was making during my adolescence in the 90s, but I refused to allow a bad word to be spoken in my presence. Only I could complain because Van knew I loved him. Van and I had an understanding.
Part II: The Part Where I Fell in Love with Astral Weeks
And then, as can be expected, a shaman like friend, one familiar with the dark arts and bad weed, introduced me to Astral Weeks. I bristled at first. I resisted its strange rhythms, its pulsing, mystic waves. I complained of the way it would tempt with the vaguest whiff of the accessible, carefree melodies of Morrison’s early work, and then trap you when you fell for the trick, thereby imprisoning you behind the bars of its bittersweet musings.
Though I had resisted at first, I soon came to love, and embrace the record and then quickly eschew all other Van Morrison work once I realized that this 40 some minute record, impossibly made by a 23 year old alcoholic, was probably the most extraordinary and perfect musical achievement of the 20th century.
As my teen years gave way to my 20s, my love for the record grew. I started putting “Ballerina” on mix CDs for girls I hardly knew, thinking this would surely make them love me forever. I told people on a regular basis that “I would never grow so old again,” to which they would inevitably respond, “Bob Dylan, right?” Under religion on my Facebook page I replaced the defiant and self-indulgent classification “Atheist” with the even more self-indulgent, even more defiant devotion, “Astral Weeks,” (not to be adversarial this time, but to try to be honest with myself for the first time in my life (this all assumes that it matters one iota what you put down as your religion on your Facebook profile)).
And then I discovered that there was someone who loved Astral Weeks as much as I did. It made me feel like the kid running from song to song on that record, all fresh for the world and bursting at the seams with love. We moved in together and ignored all of our problems and listened to Van Morrison almost constantly. For a 6-month period in my early 20s we lived on nothing but tap water, 2-day-old pastries discarded by Starbucks, and the innocence and purity that gushed from the song “The Way Young Lovers Do.”
And I am pretty sure I was sublimely content.
I won’t go any further into what the contentment was like because it was special and private and a little embarrassing. It’s also none of your damn business, and I’m not really comfortable discussing that kind of happiness, but rest assured it was magnificent, and rest assured the break up happened soon after the apex of our happiness.
I got custody of the work of Jack Kerouack, Eldreidge Cleaver, and David Lynch, and I didn’t get custody of The Belfast Cowboy’s masterpiece.
I had a physical copy, of course, but not an existential one. I played the tape at night, with the lights off, in secret, nude and wrapped in nothing but a sleeping bag. I would don my headphones and press play, but the imagery was too blinding, the smells too potent, the memories associated too vivid. The record was not just a shimmering achievement, existing in some vacuum the way the work of Radiohead or Deerhunter does. Astral Weeks leaves the aural space and enters the real world, occupying the room you are in. Like Chiang Sung from Mortal Kombat the record had the ability to take on the qualities of those its encountered and for me it had assumed the identity of my ex, torturing me with smiles and smells, allusions to, and images of happier times. Listening proved too daunting.
So for a period of time, my life was without Van Morrison.
Those were dark times. It lead to a lot of comfort eating, and too much jerking off to weird porn.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself. Then Veedon Fleece emerged.
I wasn’t looking for it. I was actively avoiding all things Van Morrison by this point. But the record just sort of appeared, finding me in a way that was too supernatural and strange for me to get into here. Suffice it to say that I may as well have acquired the record from a mysterious curio shop in Chinatown.
Perhaps the strangest thing about it was that, I had never heard of it. If the title had ever come up I must have mentally lumped it in with all that out of touch late-period stuff that I thought I could ignore. Stuff like the too smooth Wavelength (1978) and the embarrassing Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983). But it turned out that this record had a reputation, like some legendary figure you hear about in your highschool, some hip thug whose name was called in homeroom everyday, but who never appeared. I learned that Robyn Hitchcock had covered “Fair Play,” C. J. Chenier (son of fabled king of zydeco Clifton Chenier) had done a zydeco tribute to “Comfort You,” and Elvis Costello gushed about “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.”
It was Sinead O’Connor who really confounded me. I had been using her music to nurse my post relationship wounds, (like you do) and I stumbled across excerpts from an interview on the Dave Fanning show where she did the unthinkable. She compared Veedon Fleece favorably to the record that everyone knows is Van’s masterpiece.
“It is far superior to Astral Weeks,” she said. “This is the definitive Van album with the definitive Van song, ‘Who Was That Masked Man?’”
Some people never got over the fact that O’Connor tore up that picture of the pope. For me, daring to challenge the supremacy of Astral Weeks was a far more rebellious act. A far more daring demonstration. Not only that, but she compared Astral Weeks to a record of which I was only vaguely aware. I mean, had she said that St. Dominicks’ Preview was doing something that Astral Weeks wasn’t she would have been wrong, but at least she would have the celebratory “Redwood Tree,” to bolster her argument.
What is this strange record? What did these others know that I didn’t? Could they possibly be onto something that I had missed? Was I too busy obsessing over the contentious, unreleased Bang recordings? Was I finally being punished for complaining about how much of a pussy he sounded like on “Moondance?” (I had only been denigrating the song. I swear to god. Not the entire album…) Should I have been worshipping at the altar of Astral Weeks? Had I been doing it wrong all along?
Were I not in the state I was in, I would have dismissed these ideas without a second thought and I would have moved on. But I was newly bereft, and like some sap in a vaguely supernatural rom com who goes to a psychic, or wishes on some magic dust, or adheres to the instructions left by a dead husband in a series of cryptic letters designed to put the bereaved former spouse in a situation to sleep with the dead husband’s best friend, I gave it a shot.
Part III: The Part Where I Talk About Veedon Fleece
Once I put needle to vinyl, it felt like I was somewhere familiar. Not home, of course, but a place I was supposed to be. It wasn’t the place I was used to, decorated with cracked steel rims, smelling of Shalimar, with a clear view of Cyprus Ave. It was somewhere new. Incense and pot smoke were present underneath the splashes and strokes of the acoustic guitar. Mustiness stored for decades wafted up from the swirling piano. The flute was the steam from a mug of tea.
Though the record is serious, it doesn’t bog you down with its own heavy sentiment, or mire you in unnecessary intellectualism. Here the soulful mysticism that you have heard so much about is fully on display, matured and leavened into a shape the likes of which could only be made by someone in their 30s.
Released in 1974, Veedon Fleece was recorded after Morrison’s on-stage persona had evolved from the precocious, to the bold, to the eccentric, to the sublime. By the mid-70s Van Morrison had become more than just a rock star. He was spoken about in hushed tones by people who knew what they were talking about (scribes like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus), and emulated by people who knew what they were doing (people like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and anyone who ever made looking like a middle school math teacher sexy just because of what they were saying).
Indeed Veedon Fleece was released during this period, two whole years before the infamous, scenery chewing appearance in the Last Waltz. This record was made and recorded in the years where Morrison was girthing up, but could not yet fill an Orson Wells sized trench coat.
This is a record made by an older, wiser version of George Ivan Morrison. Not the young, desperate lover conquered in a car seat. This record was made by a world weary guy closer to middle age than to his school days.
It was made in the wake of his fame and success blossoming into something he could no longer understand or control. It was made after having been bilked out of millions by bad record contracts. This record was made by a man who had been divorced, a man who had experienced loss, a man whose home country was engulfed in the literal and figurative flames of The Troubles.
And that may be the most important element of the record. It was made by a man who had learned that oh so difficult lesson; that you can’t go home again. That at some point you must leave and never come back to the place where you were young. That place where you ventured in the slipstream, in the viaducts of your dream. You may have done everything in your power to allow yourself access to that home, but despite your efforts, despite your desire, the place that was your home may not be there when you return.
Maybe that is why so many of the songs, as well as the central conceit of the record, is about searching for something. For lost loves, for your distant home, for the veedon fleece.
What is a veedon fleece? Exactly? If I were to define it, if Morrison were to define it, it would sap it of its mysterious protean quality. If you really want to know, ask those kids heading out to San Francisco who Morrison is singing about in “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.” All people head out to SF in one way or another when they are young. All young people are searching for the veedon fleece. In the same song though, these young western-bound men get their heads cleaved off with a hatchet. No one said searching for the veedon fleece would be safe. No one said you’d live to tell about it.
Linden Arden becomes some kind of avenging angel. He is the kind of character Dylan was writing about at the same time in songs like “Joey,” and “Hurricane”; men conflicted by their own use of violence and its effect on their communities.
And he loved the little children like they were his very own
He said, “Someday it may get lonely.”
Now, he’s living, living with a gun.
This final line becomes the introduction and refrain for the following song, “Who Was That Masked Man?” wherein Morrison asks “Ain’t it lonely when you’re living with a gun?” The generation who was making music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was learning all too well what a weight it is to live with a gun. But a gun is only one of many things the people who populate these songs have to learn to live with.
In “Who Was That Masked Man?” a butterfly trapped behind glass becomes yet another allusion to the idea of youth and beauty frozen in time. It is that same youth and beauty that seizes Linden Arden, that makes him so jealous, and makes him react so violently. Morrison knows that his days of strolling the merry way, after jumping the hedges first, and drinking clear, clean water for to quench his thirst are over. There are going to be new hedges to jump and new gardens all wet with rain to walk and talk in from here on out.
Should we talk about the way Van Morrison sings for a second?
There is something about it that is both absurd and beautiful.
How is it that he can sound simultaneously like a grumbling 66-year-old miner and a like a shrieking 13-year-old girl? The way he mumbles and squeaks, hisses and whines, makes him sound like some mad, animated caricature. Some distant, deranged cousin of Steamboat Willy. But everything he does and says, every kick, every howl and grumble is a part of some abandon the music is making this man experience. Some singular emotion he is channeling and trying to allow you, the listener, to experience.
And it’s no wonder that the patron saint of this record is William Blake. The mystic. The visionary. A man seized by his creative ambition.
In typical, mystical, Blakeian fashion, Morrison chants:
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow
The songs on this record are not about the evening fading into morning. But it’s not about the darkness either. It’s not a record about how things are over now. It’s a record about the cruel heat of the afternoon, and how you can keep your body temperature low enough to survive until sundown. It’s a record about how to keep going after you’ve lost your sight from staring for too long at the sun. A record about how the light can kill everything at the same time that it makes the grass grow and your soul clean.
The record blossoms from this heat and light, beginning with the first notes of the deceptive invitation that is “Fair Play” and evolving through the pristine first side. The suite at the end of the record, comprised of “Comfort You,” “Come Here My Love,” and “County Fair,” is misleading. It hints at a soggy pastoral bliss that is dishonest in the context of the rest of the album. If there is a flaw on the record it is the way that this finale sort of meanders too pleasantly to a close. But that is no matter because any flaws, any failings of the record are incinerated by the blinding, radiant, near nuclear light of the record’s centerpiece.
Part IV: Where I tell you about “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River”:
“You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River” is nine minutes long, but it presents itself as an even longer work. It sucks you into as if it were not a song, but some kind of lost season, releasing you only after you’ve lived folded inside of it for a period of months, emerging to find bruises you don’t remember acquiring and dry, dead leaves in your hair.
Now, if you hear the first few moments of the urgent 12/8 time signature of “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River,” and you don’t know what the song is about, you should just turn it off, because you are not yet ready. You should go get in a near fatal car accident, or fall in love with a man who will never love you, or be accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or some shit like that.
Also, the title is long, but we are not abbreviating it, ok? Don’t call it, “You don’t pull no punches…,” or the something asinine like, YDPNPBYDPTR. It’s called “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River,” so suck it up and deal with it, and stop acting like such a fucking cry-baby. Use copy and paste if you need to, but I type it out every time like a goddamn adult so if you decide that you want to CTRL+C, CTRL+ V, just do it and be discreet about it because I don’t want to know about it.
Those first few scat-like utterances of “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River,” are the exclamations of a man who has gotten to “That Point.” That Point is a place in your life where you realize how futile are your efforts, how unfair is the world, how exhausting is the plight. Which plight? The Plight. “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River,” is a paean to that realization. It’s a building constructed to process the paperwork created by the kinds of anxieties people like Cervantes and Moses made careers writing about.
And that’s the magic of the record. It gives you a place you can go when everything else has been taken from you. It doesn’t show you snapshots from when you were young and thin and could ejaculate six times a night as long as you had a bottle of Gatorade and some cigarettes handy. It’s a perfectly compact lamp you can put on your bed side table so you can read Graham Greene novels before bed now that you’re too tired for sex. It doesn’t get you drunk and dance around barefoot in the rain with you. It offers you off-brand ibuprofen and an umbrella.
It does the kinds of things for people that the man who made Astral Weeks didn’t even know people needed to have done for them.
Part V: Where I Pit Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece against one another in some sort of Sick Mono Y Mono style battle To the Death
Now, I have no interest in pitting these records against one another in some sort of sick, mono y mono style battle to the death, partly because it’s brutal, and partly because I would be worried Veedon Fleece would emerge from the Van Morrison cock fight pecked to within an inch of its life. (Though, you never can tell about these things. The record is elusive and chimeral, surprising you at every turn, telling you it is one thing and then emerging as another. It is a master of the stick and move, of the fake, the faint and the roll, and this just might keep its head attached to its body were it to fight the younger, stronger more Clubber Lang like and permanently younger Astral Weeks.)
But this isn’t about which album is better. This is about whether or not you should listen to this record.
Because let’s be honest, you probably haven’t heard it. Or if you have, it was because you thought “Into the Mystic” might be on it. What I am trying to say is that even if you have heard this record, you have not really listened.
But, here is the thing: I am not recommending that you listen to this record.
That’s right. After all my gushing, and after comparing it to the work of Bob Dylan and the author of the Pentateuch, I think you should stay away from this record. I have not even bothered to link to the record here, or to share any of the tracks in this review by any of the very easy methods that are available to me. And I know it would be easy for you to Google these tracks and listen to them on YouTube, or Spotify (or whatever player I am supposed to be listening to music on, but I’m not because I am too old to bother with Google Play, or Grooveshark, or whatever…) You may be curious to hear these songs, but I urge you to refrain from doing so.
Having never heard this record, you have a unique opportunity and what I recommend you do is to take the following course of action:
I know that the time for buying CDs is over and we are almost past the point where anyone even buys vinyl, but I suggest that you go out today and buy this record in both of these formats. Then I suggest you purchase this glass case:
This is your insurance policy for the soul. Try to imagine, if you will, a world where someone takes Astral Weeks from you. Try to imagine that you too have lost this record in a messy divorce, or you have contracted some strange form of Oliver Sacks type neurological Musicophilia where the songs from Astral Weeks no longer cohere as music, or that you have been enrolled in some kind of a Clockwork Orange style hypnotism program which will take from you the ability to enjoy gang-rape, ultraviolence or the effervescent “Slim Slow Slider.”
Buy the record for that eventuality.
I pray you don’t ever have to use it, but won’t you feel better knowing it’s there?
Now, let me be clear, just because Veedon Fleece is under glass, awaiting your inevitable emotional collapse, it doesn’t mean that you should stop listening to Van Morrison. You should continue spinning his records. As often as possible. You have plenty of options, besides Veedon Fleece after all. You could enjoy the hypersweet Tupelo Honey, the rich and soulful His Band and Street Choir, or It’s Too Late to Stop Now, the great, two disk, live record which would be pretty much perfect even if it didn’t include the superlatively boozy cover of “Bring it on Home to Me.” You could always throw on your trusty copy of Astral Weeks, of course. I do
(Yes, my heart healed to the point where I can again listen to Astral Weeks, though not without melancholy, not with the bitter to compliment the sweet, not without the kind of longing felt only by those who have traveled down the road from innocence to experience, those who have gotten to That Point. Which point? That Point.)
For my money though, I don’t think you can do any better than the aforementioned performance from The Last Waltz. In a single song, it sums up everything you need to know about getting your heart broken, putting it back together again, and loving Van Morrison.