It’s 2018, and therefore fifty years since Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released. I think it’s one of the best albums ever made.
Funnily, I’d always thought of Sir Van as the epitome of dull dad rock. I had heard Brown Eyed Girl, obviously, which is maligned by the artist himself. And I’d heard that he’d performed in The Last Waltz which was, as far as I was concerned, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, only bearable to the performers because of the heavily-frequented coke room in the back.
But I’d always heard good things about Astral Weeks. And so I listened. Simple as that. People always love dramatic stories for their favourite albums, about when they were listening to it and how it cured their mum’s cancer. But I simply listened, and that was enough.
I’ve been reading Proust recently. It’s admittedly quite tedious, at least in the original French, which is a tough pill to swallow, and which contains many ridiculously long sentences, which are intertwined with random bits of knowledge, that appear out of nowhere and mix the present with the past, and don’t seem to go anywhere, or at least that’s what I think, and which sometimes seem to defy grammar, only making sense when the final clause comes about. Astral Weeks is sort of like that. It’s just that it takes an hour to get through as opposed to half a lifetime.
Proust’s long winding sentences reflect on perspective. It’s about the narrator remembering and experiencing things in the present, past, and future. The entire novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, is about memory and the fleeting present. You cannot relive things since they are always going to be re-interpreted with the lens you take in the future. There is thus not really any such thing as reality with the meaning of ‘truth’. Reality is itself about mistruth. Everything is blurred by perspective.
Where Astral Weeks comes into this is not just in its musical freedom (taking huge jazz influences), which isn’t too far from the stylistic freedom Proust takes, but also in the same concept of memory. The album is dotted with references to Morrison’s past – Belfast streets, certain houses he remembers, little experiences – yet they’re all mentioned with a modern sensibility. As much as it is about his childhood, it is also about his troubled love life; concrete places like Cypress Avenue, which may not have seemed all that relevant as a child, have become, after mature recollection, symbols of something very important. Proustian.
But this is all irrelevant to just enjoying the album, I think. Its uncompromising freedom and the sense of drifting that it manifests may alienate some unseasoned listeners, but I think it is overall accessible to anyone who is capable of feeling nostalgia, which counts most of us. The beauty is mixed with a slight sadness, as is typical of nostalgia. The string arrangement at the end of Madame George is a euphoric climax and yet still holds a melancholic quality.
Morrison is a fantastic image-maker, and not a story-teller. Someone who goes into the songs on this album expecting to be told narratives and to be bombarded with robust lyrics is going to be disappointed. What is sung here is vague, beautifully constructed, and I believe very personal. As already mentioned, there are many references to Belfast. Instead of trying to understand these, you should instead understand what is making Morrison conjure up these images in his writing process. It is personal, and I am going to doubt very much that you have the same attachment to Cypress Avenue as Van does. You instead think about what it represents to him, and what it means to you. I know exactly what it means to me, and it’s not relevant to anybody else.
Desperately procrastinating from revision by writing 600 words on a topic that isn’t something I need to know for any exam, yet still contains reference to a text I have to study, even if it is in microscopic detail.
Don’t read this without expecting to be unfulfilled at the end.
The whole Facebook palaver has brought the question of whether we should be using social media as much as we are to the forefront and, as much as I hate to be the tired and edgy stereotype of the enlightened adolescent, I can only come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be. I’ve seen enough “bombshell” viral videos about the effects of social media (and excessive Internet usage in general) to keep an entire colony of knuckle draggers occupied for a fortnight, but it’s not these that persuade me. Rather, it’s common sense.
Privacy issues aside (are recent revelations really that shocking?), it’s the distraction during a heap of work, it’s the shortened reading attention span, it’s the hours per day lost to menial entertainment, not important enough to be stored even in the tiniest crevices of my long-depleted brain. My phone is always there and, especially when stressed, bored, or just generally low, it’s a constant source of at least mild distraction, prolonging whatever problems I have outside of the screen. I’m not the only one with these problems, evidently.
But the problem I’m having is that the internet is just so useful, and social media so well-established. At university, events get announced on Facebook, tickets sold there, important information about college life is published there. Outside of the academic side of things, Messenger is, at least in my world, the number one source of contact for anyone. iMessage is no longer supreme, and instead people will message or call me with Facebook. Everyone has Facebook, so it’s primary.
This piece right here is going to be published online. Simply one of the many uses of the internet. After this, I’ll learn some Russian vocabulary using Memrise, a fantastic site and app which of course requires the internet. I’ll probably listen to music (another irritating addiction I have – that pull my ears has to earphones) on Apple Music which, naturally, uses the internet. It’s just such a convenient and extraordinary thing, yet it’s really damaging to my daily life.
So I’m making some steps. I am writing at the moment on a Pages document (because I am a filthy Mac user) since my laptop is not connected to my WiFi. I intend to, upon finishing it, copy and paste it into WordPress and, huzzah, there my random and inconsequential thoughts will be published online to my wide audience of faithful admirers.
People always say turning off notifications for social media is a good step, but I think the opposite. If a message notification flashes up on your screen, you can determine whether it is useless or not (usually is) and, using willpower, decide to prolong replying or ignoring it until later. If it is urgent, as messages occasionally are, you can respond without anchoring yourself to also checking the rest of your social media feeds.
A lot of avoiding internet distraction comes down to self-discipline, which I like to think I am somewhat good at usually. But I earlier nodded to music addiction. It sounds silly to demean serious addiction by comparing it to just overdoing music, but I seriously have a problem. Something feels off when there’s nothing playing or nobody is talking to me. I also love going from album to album in an artist’s discography or in a genre or period of music. You can’t just listen to one Krautrock album, you have to listen to them all and their influences, and who they influenced, and the band’s live stuff (usually overlong jams). I’ve gone from marathoning Faust to doing the same with Public Image Ltd in just two days, and from here, there’s much more to delve into. It’s a never-ending hobby or distraction or whatever it wants to be called and it’s destroying all my productivity.
Okay so now I’m going to do some studying using the internet and I am not sure how long I will last. Let’s hope for something not soul-destroying.
I rather like the mischievous critic Piero Scaruffi. He likely would not want to think of himself as conducting in any mischief, but his online infamy and elitist taste for high art has made him a figure of chaos. Your favourite artist? To him they’re probably shit. Or at least very average. Scaruffi is maligned, often respected, and the butt of obscure memes for music fans.
He is most well-known for that Beatles entry into his site in which he calls the respected band overrated and denigrates their popularity.
The fact that so many books still name the Beatles as “the greatest or most significant or most influential” rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art. Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times. Classical critics rank the highly controversial Beethoven over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe. Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success. The Beatles sold more than anyone else (not true, by the way), therefore they must have been the greatest. Jazz critics grow up listening to a lot of jazz music of the past, classical critics grow up listening to a lot of classical music of the past. Rock critics are often totally ignorant of the rock music of the past, they barely know the best sellers. No wonder they will think that the Beatles did anything worthy of being saved.
Now, I love The Beatles, and I oppose a lot of what Scaruffi says in his piece, which is long and arduous. However, I keep on coming back to it. And whenever I listen to any new album, I admit to having a nosy at his site to see what he has to say about it. Usually it’s not good. Recently I checked out what he had to say about David Bowie and it was rather brutal, to be honest.
My criticism of Scaruffi is that he tends to focus way too much on the experimental and does not like commercial viability. Thus when there are interesting artists, such as Bowie, who take other people’s experimental ideas and apply them to a setting where they can be reached by the masses (in order to create a higher form of pop and popular rock), this is received poorly by Scaruffi. In the case of Bowie, he accused him of watering down truly interesting music and forewarning the death of rock and roll.
But this stance is itself interesting. In a strange way, it’s quite refreshing to be told that musicians you like may not be as good as you think. It makes you evaluate why you like them and formulate your own philosophy on music and what it should be. Scaruffi has his stance, and though many would call it pure contrarianism, I would argue that it is a unique one.
Just looking through his lists of the greatest rock albums of all time, there is so much interesting music here to listen to. There are so many genuinely good albums that are different to those chosen by the likes of the Rolling Stone magazine, and I think people should try to listen to as much as they can of what he has recommended in order to gain a different insight into music.
If we dismiss certain critics purely for difference in opinion, then what is the point of criticism at all?