I was driving home tonight, listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, possibly for the hundredth time. It is probably my favourite album of all time.
And it transported me – yet again. Approaching home and listening to the title fact, I was uplifted. And I started reminiscing.
Back in 1968
Back in 1968 I was 22, recently married, but still carrying a lot of the teenage immaturity and idealism that lasted longer in me than most people. I was listening to a lot of Dylan, whose rage, passion and sense of justice had so spoken to my heart and mind, but were now dimmed as he recovered from his motorbike accident.
Then came Astral Weeks. It wasn’t life-changing or anything, but it resonated with me, with its echoes of the swirling emotions of my recent teenage years, that sense of being out of control, of being under the influence of angst and hormones, trapped between the past and the uncertain future. But also of hope and love and faith.
“paralysed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend”
The album sounds like Morrison’s reminiscences of growing up in Belfast, of falling in love and that often unrequited, of wandering lonely streets on misty nights and train journeys through “rain, hail, sleet and snow”. Of barely holding things together, or sometimes completely falling apart. Of feeling like “nothing but a stranger in this world”, and fantasising about escaping from reality.
Astral Weeks runs the gamut of the emotions felt by tempestuous youth – love, lust and hope in the opening few songs, alienation and frustration in Cypress Avenue, the surreal recollections of a boy out of his depth in Madame George, and the sad finality of Slim Slow Slider.
Morrison says it’s just stories, but it sounds very true to life as a growing teenager.
The lyrics are impressionistic, evocative, make of them what you will, but they speak to you. And the acoustic music is some of the best you’ll ever hear – swirling rhythms, inspired parts, Celtic folk played by superb jazz players.
And now it’s 2014
So what does it say to me today?
It can still uplift me
I was feeling a little flat today, nothing major, just pensive and unmotivated. But listening to the title track, my favourite on the album, with its sense of aspiration and hope, and its driving rhythms, the interweaving parts of vocals, bass guitar (often a lead instrument on this album), guitars, flute and violin, gave me a feeling of joy.
Music can lift us up. It may be a temporary ‘high’, but it can be a powerful one. Christian music should do this all the time (not that it can often approach the quality of music on this singular album!), but somehow it rarely does (for me at least).
Our faith needs to be based on the tangible, the reality of the historical Jesus and his work in our lives today, inspiring and empowering us. But we also need to feel inspired. We need to know that imperfect people like us, who so often fall short of our aspirations, can do great things. I would love for christian music to try to do this rather than follow safe paths!
It’s not always about saying the exact right words
Evangelical christianity today seems mostly to be built on words – confessing the ‘right’ theology using the ‘right’ words, listening to sermons until we lose concentration or wonder why we need to hear all this stuff (again), ‘witnessing’ to people by telling them what they ought to believe.
There’s some value and truth in all those, I guess, but there’s not a lot of life. Real flesh and blood people need heart as well as head, to have their emotions engaged as well as their brains, to be lifted up with joy and told deep truths in stories and glimpses of another world that are not explained within an inch of their lives, and which defy fully rational explication.
Jesus told parables and left his hearers to ponder the possibility of new truths. He trusted people’s instincts and the work of the Holy Spirit to capture his hearers’ imaginations as well as their brains and wills. We need to do some of the same.
And Astral Weeks gives us some hints about how to do it.
Nostalgia colours the past
As I grow older, I seem to be more nostalgic. I guess I have more behind me to be nostalgic about, but that’s not all. The past inexorably slips away, but both the regrets and the sense of fulfilment don’t, necessarily. We view the past through the lens of nostalgia.
I can remember feeling like Van Morrison expresses in some of these songs. The circumstances were very different, and I doubt many people ever glimpsed the “real me”, but the feelings were strong.
As a christian, I know my life is short in cosmic terms, I have just a few years to learn to become more like Jesus in my character, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind, and to accomplish the good works God has prepared for me to do. I already have many regrets, I don’t want too many more.
Amid the confusions and uncertainties of life, my disappointment in myself and my sense of sometimes being a victim of my own character, I need to find a path through the rain, hail, sleet and snow to be born again.
We need to turn nostalgia to work for us. Paul Simon wrote “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” And that can be the sad case. But it needn’t be. We have a bright future, full of joy and laughter and music and friendship. The frustrations of this world are very real now, but while our humanness and sense of longing remain, we can look forward to them being expressed in a new world, here on earth and in the life to come.
We can live in the light of those truths. And, remembering the past, we can choose to move forwards and redeem the time left to us.
Listen to Astral Weeks
You can listen to the whole album on Youtube. But here are my two favourite songs. Don’t worry if you can’t catch every word, just rest back in the pictures he and the musicians paint.
Picture: cover of the album Astral Weeks. Title of post from a description by Sim Campbell.