Monday, May 9, 2011

Now I Can Die In Peace:

They have finally remastered Van's Astral Weeks, Band & Street Choir, and Moondance albums on CD

By Pat Thomas

In the summer of 1983, needing a break from my high-paying, but totally dead-end job at Kodak in Rochester, I asked for a month off and got it – and I bought my 19 yr old self a plane ticket and Euro-Rail Pass and set off to Europe. I brought a walkman and just ONE cassette tape with me; Van Morrison’s “Moondance” album. Here was an album that was both a sedative and crystal meth for the long days and nights I spent on trains. I was too young and too cheap at that point to ever consider getting a hotel room; I slept on the train whenever possible. (Although I did do my fair share of ‘youth hostels’ of course).

Van’s blend of R&B, Celtic Soul, traditional folk music and what not made for great ‘chill out’ music on the train – and I clearly remember after a whole sleepless night, stepping off the train somewhere in the middle of Germany on a bright sunny Saturday morning – I felt hung over from the lack of sleep and the sun was killing me with its brightness. I wanted to pass out. When I stuck the “Moondance” cassette into my walkman – and the upbeat groove of “Come Running” hit my ears it perked me up a like a nice hit of speed. All was right with the world for at least the next hour, til I sorted out my next destination.

When I arrived back in Rochester, I bought a copy of Van’s 1974 double live album “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” at the Record Theatre. I transferred this LP to cassette and the meditative mood of “Listen To The Lion” made those long hours at Kodak seem a little more bearable. By this point, Absolute Grey was in full swing and I wasn’t known around town as a Van Morrison fan, but for worshipping at the temple of the Velvet Underground. I clearly remember Bob Martin being surprised when I mentioned that I’d been digging deep into Van.

A bit later, I compared notes about Van with Steve Dollar – and he recalled an amazing Mardi Gras in New Orleans when him and a bunch of pals spent the whole time driving around town, partying their asses off and cranking “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” on the car cassette player. An evening spent at Dollar’s apartment saw me leaving with a tape of “Veedon Fleece” and “A Night At The Belfast Opera House.”

Getting turned on to “Veedon Fleece” was drinking a vintage Scotch for the first time, you finally knew the taste of something smooth that was gonna melt your brain. The live recording from the Belfast Opera House was an introduction into what Van was currently doing, blending spiritual longing with his Irish roots.

Just before I split Rochester for Denmark in the summer of 1985, I found myself holed up in a swank downtown hotel hanging with Steve Wynn and talking about Van’s “T.B. Sheets” which Steve cited as a particular favorite. While living in Copenhagen during 1986, Van released “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” and came to town to promote it. I can’t remember the name of the venue, but me and my pal Bent Sorensen were mesmerized watching Van. I was particularly struck by his guitar playing, so subtle, yet so expressive. He wasn’t the primary guitarist on his own songs and yet, what he brought to them was magical.

I eventually made my way from Copenhagen, back to Rochester and then to San Francisco – where along the way, I pretty much got the whole Van catalog. About a year after hitting San Francisco, I was invited into the home of one Paul Bradshaw where he asked me within 5 minutes of arriving to name my top 5 fave artists, when my reply included Van Morrison, Fairport Convention, and the Dream Syndicate – he said “I think we’ll be friends.” Some 22 years later, we still are and Van and Fairport remains a constant soundtrack between us.

20 years in the Bay Area led to many Van gigs and immersing myself in the great pile of bullshit in the sky, known at the California Music Business. As the years passed, I moved from releasing ‘new artists’ to reissuing ‘old’ ones – and more than a couple of times, I found myself in the offices of Warner Brothers Records in Los Angeles once I got into the reissue game.

Now, for those who have read this essay thus far, is what this article is all about! (so keep reading)

First off, in the early 1990’s, Warners still controlled Van’s classic 1970’s and early 1980’s catalog – albums like “St. Dominic’s Preview” and “Beautiful Vision.” This was also the age of fax machines, not emails. Someone at Warners had the bright idea of assembling a Van Morrison box set and faxed a proposal for a track listing to Van. They wanted Van’s co-operation in regards to using unreleased and rare recordings as well as the usual collection of ‘hits.” Van wrote a 2 word reply across the proposal and faxed it back, it read “Fuck You!”

A couple of years later, Van got back the rights to all of his albums from Warners with the exception of his first three; “Astral Weeks”, “His Band and Street Choir” and “Moondance.” These three, Warners will own forever. They had put them on CD in the late 1980’s when CDs became ‘the thing’ – and now some 20 years later, the lack of technology in that early CD mastering process is very apparent. In other words, they sound shitty. Van has ‘remastered’ and released the other albums from this era himself at least once, some of them twice and they sound fantastic.

Meanwhile, Warners (like most labels) has jumped onto the vinyl remastering and reissuing bandwagon and they have somewhat recently redone “Moondance” on LP. I haven’t heard this version, so I can’t comment, but suffice to say, they didn’t need or seek Van’s permission (as they own that album and the other two outright) – and he hasn’t publicly told anyone at the company to fuck off. He did tell them however, he would allow them to reissue those 3 albums as deluxe CD versions with rare/unreleased bonus tracks, in exchange for Warners handing back their ‘lifetime’ rights to him. No surprise, they’ve declined.

So, one day, at a meeting with Warners, I asked them when we would get remastered versions of “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance” and “Band and Street Choir” on CD – without bonus tracks – as that would require no co-operation from Van – and that frankly, remastering those CDs was so long overdue. They agreed that the Van CDs they’re currently selling don’t sound their best, because they were mastered some 20+ yrs ago – but no, they were ‘afraid’ of Van – and that just didn’t want the hassle. That was four years ago.

About 2 years ago, with no announcement and no fanfare, somebody at Warners in Japan got the idea (finally!) to remaster those three CDs from the original tapes and release them in Japan only. Very few people outside of Asia seemed to hear about this. Certainly not myself. Until about a month ago, when I caught wind of this. Apparently they are already ‘out of print’ – but new, sealed copies can still be had by searching Amazon and Ebay. I bought all 3 and it’s like listening to these albums for the first time. For me, the most amazing one is “Band and Street Choir” – I’m hearing talking between songs, instruments that I’ve never really heard before – it’s like the whole thing has come ‘alive’ – it always had the air of a ‘live album’ recorded in a ‘studio setting’ and that is now more apparent than ever. You need this!

“Astral Weeks” – hands down, one of the seminal works of Van’s life or our own lives, so getting this one is a no-brainer. The string sections glisten, the flute breathes. You’ll feel like you’re high when you hear this one. “Moondance” was always an exquisite experience and this remaster brings back the fact, that even if this album is overly familiar to me, it’s one of best collection of songs that anyone has assembled in one place at one time. Van built with his bare hands, what we still can’t do today.

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