There has never been a recording quite like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks
. Released in 1968, the entire album feels like something you would hear while pressing your ear to the floor of somebody else’s dream. Morrison himself has stated that the creation of the album was more akin to spiritual channeling than to songwriting. The album’s sound certainly seems like something echoing out to us from a world not quite our own. Astral Weeks
cannot accurately be called a rock and roll album. The sound belies any identifiable category, really. At times it resembles something close to folk, at other times it calls to mind the music of ancient Celtic bards. Threads of jazz, classical, and blue are woven through the surreal soundscape, with the grounding force of Van’s defiant, mournful, ecstatic wail keeping all of it from flying apart at the seams and evaporating into the atmosphere.
The album did not shake up any music charts at the time of its release. In fact, it didn’t even budge them. But time has expanded the influence of the album until today, when it is regarded by many as a legendary and unique work of art. Mojo
’s 1995 list of Greatest Albums had it numbered at 2. In 2003 Rolling Stone
placed it on their list at No. 19. Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Glen Hansard have all cited the album as a major influence on their work. Elvis Costello proclaimed that no album has ever attained the heights of adventurousness and musical daring touched upon by Astral Weeks
Despite its currently revered position in musical history, the album was created on a limited budget and with limited studio time. Van had claimed that he was completely penniless and literally starving while he put the album together. Yet, despite all of this deprivation and desperation, a work of singular and timeless beauty emerged.
Of all the songs on Astral Weeks
, "Cyprus Avenue" is perhaps the keystone. It never received much airplay, but the song quickly became a favorite among hardcore Van Morrison fans. The singer often used it to close his concerts in the '70s, often performing extended versions in which he seemed to become completely possessed by some towering emotion or otherworldly force.
Cyprus Avenue was, and is, a real street in Belfast, Ireland. Coming from the poorer part of Belfast, Van viewed Cyprus Avenue as the veritable "other side of the tracks."
In Clinton Heylin’s biography on Van Morrison, “Can You Feel the Silence,” he cites Morrison’s boyhood friend, Roy Kane, as explaining that Cyprus Avenue was “the street that we would all aspire to… And [it really was] the other side of the tracks, because the Beersbridge Road had the railway line cut across it.” All the “good-looking totty” were from Cyprus Avenue, where two girls' schools stood. Morrison also remembers Cyprus Avenue as a place for the rich, and recounts going there to sit amongst the trees and contemplate.
It might be the tension between socioeconomic classes that elevates "Cyprus Avenue" from a love song to something more. The song’s narrator is not merely singing about his pining for some beautiful girl; he is instead singing about the much greater suffering that comes from pining for an unattainable world
The song’s narrator is sitting “conquered in a car seat,” fearing that he might lose his mind before a “mansion on the hill” as little girls run by the car with autumn leaves falling down around them on the idyllic street. Of these girls, there is one in particular that arrests his attention. She has “rainbow ribbons in her hair” and “six white horses and a carriage,” clearly beyond a poor boy’s hope of attainment.
With her horses and carriage, the girl is out of the narrator’s league in every possible sense of the word. Her economic status lifts her into a higher plane of reality than the narrator’s. So it is that the pain and the longing indicated in the song go far beyond that inspired by youthful lust, and touches upon the much greater suffering that comes from being seen as intrinsically inferior to others because of socioeconomic limitations that are completely outside of one’s ability to affect.
Troubled childhoods often summon a confusion of emotion. No matter how painful they might be, they still carry with them the inevitable nostalgia that comes from remembering more naïve times of our past. It is a psychic space where suffering and ecstasy merge into something differing, something that resonates with both of those emotions and yet neither of them at the same time. It is a space that is both magnetic and repulsive, and subsequently is endlessly confounding. The most magical achievement of "Cyprus Avenue" might be that it manages to not only tell us about that bewildering experience, but to actually become
Artists are largely known for their egos and their pretensions. One listen to "Cyprus Avenue," however, and few listeners will find reason to doubt Van’s claim that it was a channeled work. The song is a haunting work of art unlike anything made before or since. Yet, the emotions that "Cyprus Avenue" summons are as recognizable today as ever before, especially to anyone that has ever been poor and found themselves on the rich side of the tracks, longing for things they can never have.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.