I bought the LP because I had to. Yes, buying Astral Weeks was compulsory for Steve, the 1979 Festive Fifty obsessive. It had been reissued at budget price by then (a somewhat ironic echo of the fact that Van Morrison claims he was starving when it came out), and came in a tacky placcy inner sleeve, from W. H. Smiths in Chichester. Putting it on, I was somewhat bemused by this morbid hippy, with instrumentation that seemed improvised and words that sat uncomfortably between morose hippy and yelping would-be soul boy. The added implication that there was some thin connection between the tracks, a throwback to the song-cycles of Schubert, only perplexed me more. The Way Young Lovers Do seemed like a jaunty enough opener to side two, while Sweet Thing managed to get by on my burgeoning interest in jazz (excited by accidentally picking up the Modern Jazz Quartet’s ten-inch LP Concord).
However, I really only came for the show: the nearly ten-minute epic Madame George (FF 1976 #21 and FF 1978 #21, the only song in those two charts not to change its position, as JP notes in the newly-liberated tapes of the 78 list). Now what the hell was this? Seemingly set in either downtown New York or Chicago, it throws in references to the rich areas of Irish cities: Cypress Avenue, Sandy Row…and is about a transvestite?!? Dumbfounded, I listened to the whole LP several times over, trying to absorb the Celtic undertow and the jazz veneer…without success. The album was put away, not to be played for many a year. In fact, it went the way of my entire vinyl collection in the 1990s: recorded and then sold.
Then, by happy accident, the Yahoo Peel Group puts me right. Two people come up with hitherto unheard (by me) tapes of that chart, for long considered a Holy Grail: and both have Madame George sitting right there. Suddenly, the scales literally fell off my eyes. This man unfolds his soul to us, with delicately strummed guitar, leading almost at the very end to lilting backing. He tells a story, a tale of an image fading gradually from view, of the thing we want disappearing before our eyes, like so many dashed hopes, of a lost childhood….and all the time swoops and swirls with a unique voice, with influences impossible to pin down, but all held together by a growling ego and a sure grasp on the listener’s imagination.
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through /The cool night air like shalimar /And outside they’re making all the stops /The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops/ Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops.
Pungent and unforgettable: the schoolboy crush song par excellence. Safe to say, I’m under his spell, and then when Moondance elbows its way in, I’ve found a pair of nonpareil classics that I often return to. Van The Man, also known as the Belfast Cowboy, has produced a sizeable quantity of music since: but can we honestly say that compares to the rough, honest stargazing from the gutter?