Everybody loves Astral Weeks. Note the present-tense there, if you please, because, as has periodically been the case with Van Morrison’s discography, the now-quinquagenarian classic didn’t start out as his universally acclaimed masterpiece. In 1968 terms, many listeners weren’t ready for his contemplative folk-jazz fusion after the rollicking rock of Them’s “Gloria” and his solo top 10 pop hit “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Facing facts, the rightful retrospective adulation bestowed by critics upon Morrison’s Astral Weeks never matched its contemporary soft sales, only limping to RIAA gold certification some three decades later. Born untrendy amid the tumult of hippie hipness, as was the sad fate of other deprived masterpieces of its era like John Coltrane’s posthumously exploratory Om, the Velvet Underground’s post-Warhol scorcher White Light / White Heat and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s self-explanatory The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, it needed more time to cook in the ears and reveal itself as vital to (sub)culture. It took an entire decade for the oft irascible pen of rock writer Lester Bangs to properly shine his gonzo mercy upon it, personally selecting the album for fellow Astral Weeks advocate Greil Marcus’ literary thought experiment Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.
While Marcus’ positive review of that 1968 classic in the hallowed pages of Rolling Stone led to its final standing as the magazine’s chosen album of the year, it was a different story altogether six years later when Veedon Fleece rolled around. Critic Jim Miller savaged the record, throwing around unkind barbs like “abortive,” “aberration” and, most directly, “pompous tripe.” In his estimation, Morrison made a mistake. To each his own, perhaps, but this was in Rolling Stone, then still an arbiter of taste for many a record buyer.
Then again, there were, and are, its defenders. Leonard Cohen loved Veedon Fleece, calling it “superb” in the then-contemporary pages of Melody Maker. The late Jeff Buckley had it in his personal record collection alongside about a dozen others by Morrison, indicative of his known fandom. In a Vanity Fair feature some years back, Elvis Costello counted the album as part of a list of 500 essentials. Sinéad O’Connor not only swears by it, but remains one of the few courageous enough to declare it better than Astral Weeks. And to many ears, including these right here, she’s right.
But, frankly, comparing Veedon Fleece to Astral Weeks today requires more compelled regurgitation than any doctor would consider healthy. So much has been written about the latter album, its influence and its importance, on this side of the millennium marker that drawing sonic parallels robs the former of its right to stand alone, to be assessed with fresh ears as the aberrant catalog entry the original executioner Jim Miller concluded it was. Though the stream-of-conscious style of the lyrics and jazz tangles of the instrumentation assuredly tie the albums together, there’s great value in taking Veedon Fleece in for a unencumbered listen.
In action, Veedon Fleece is the sound of new beginnings. Fresh off of a separation and divorce from his first wife, Janet Rigsbee, in 1973, Morrison retreated to Ireland (as opposed to his native Northern Ireland) for what’s been described as a vacation with his then-fiancée Carol Guida. His former spouse had played no small role during the preceding years of success, something rather obviously documented on 1971’s Tupelo Honey. Unlike John Lennon’s euphemistic “lost weekend,” that year-and-a-half spent away from wife Yoko Ono and instead with May Pang — which incidentally overlaps the recording and release of Veedon Fleece — Morrison’s was truly more of a jaunt, lasting a mere three weeks. Yet the relatively brief period proved productive, inspiring and leading to the writing of most of the songs that would eventually appear on the record.
Listeners love a break-up album, and the 1970s gave us some of the best, including Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and Barry White’s Let The Music Play. Still, to categorize Veedon Fleece as such or otherwise lump it in with those for convenience serves to oversimplify a record imbued with thematic complications. While no doubt informed by his divorce from Rigsbee and his relationship with Guida, the record exudes a sense of literary adventure, at times evoking epic quests alongside existential ones.
“A sort of institutional inaccessibility in the ensuing decades has kept ‘Veedon Fleece’ criminally unheard, even by those who count themselves as Morrison fans, generations of listeners who snap their fingers and turn on to “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” without ever knowing the power of “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River.”
Musically, there was a notable break as well when it came time to record Veedon Fleece. Having disbanded The Caledonia Soul Orchestra lineup, which had last appeared on wax earlier in 1974 on the splendid live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Morrison made the album on two coasts, in California with a few of the sizeable ensemble’s players and in New York with professional session musicians. In the former category was bassist David Hayes, who would play with him on and off well into the 1980s and then again on this side of the millennium, and saxophonist Jack Schroer. Recorded later out east were “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac,” relying on players like jazz guitarist John Tropea and fairly prolific drummer-for-hire Allan Schwartzberg to fill things out.
Both Rigsbee’s absence and the stark contrast with It’s Too Late to Stop Now emerge more or less immediately on Veedon Fleece, as opener “Fair Play” saunters in with light strums and piano keys. Fifteen seconds in, Morrison blurts out: “fair play to you / Killarney’s lakes are so blue,” capturing his 1973 sense of place in more ways than one. His literary interests spill over like fresh water, free-associating tropes of the American West while hailing Oscar Wilde. It feels not so much like a kiss-off as a spirited contemplation, a touch of bitterness and a taste of a bewitching. This isn’t Lou Reed plainspokenly emoting emotional breakdown as on Berlin, but instead a farrago of thought.
Given the freewheeling nature of “Fair Play,” the abridged novella fantasy of “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” feels more grounded. It shares with its immediate predecessor a component of travel, with its presumably manufactured protagonist up to no good in San Francisco. The violence comes almost casually, Morrison’s delivery as poetic as it is matter-of-fact when it comes to depicting the literal hatchet job. He soars here when he wants to, a dramatic and nearly weepy reminder of the vocal powerhouse present on Moondance. The song’s closing line “now he’s livin’ with a gun” bleeds over to the swaying “Who Was That Masked Man,” another meaningfully mood-altering thinkpiece like “Fair Play.”
The Celtic accents and influences found, for example, on 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, resurface on “Streets Of Arklow” and closer “Country Fair,” which really should be expected on a Van Morrison album written largely in Ireland. Still, given the duality of the blues tradition and the Irish folksong tradition that not infrequently characterized Morrison, the former feels like a heavenly reconciliation of the two, albeit one deeply informed by the looming possibility of hell.
As grand album concept centerpieces go, “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River” makes for quite a sprawl. At least as ambitious as psychedelia yet more inherently Homeric in scope, the nearly nine-minute journey spills Morrison’s guts into a pastoral epic. The arrangement is a madness, seemingly driven by conflicting improvisations and trills swirling about his lyrics around the titular veedon fleece, a treasure one suspects carries the sort of gravity of a Turin Shroud or Holy Grail. Utterly beautiful and perilously manic, the song encapsulates sheer genius and crusading zeal, clearly necessary in his creative process at this volatile stage in his life and career.
For all the inspired William Blake babble that precedes it, the direct “Comfort You” operates with its intent laid bare. In the wake of one marriage and the virtual dawn of the next, Morrison’s quid pro quo proposal reflects a needful honesty, his plea for emotional equity finding a touch of lopsidedness on the back half. Divorce breaks people, in big ways and small. But it also can refocus them as to what they need in order to go on. Cry for me, so that it makes it OK for me to weep on you; that’s a conditional survival tactic for damn sure. Musically, “Comfort You” comes across similarly straightforward albeit subtly lush, a linear folk ballad arrangement that benefits from him not overdoing it with the vocal trills.
While not so wildly dissimilar from the Caledonia Studios cuts as to disrupt Veedon Fleece’s flow, the East Coast pair “Bulbs” and “Cul De Sac” definitely smack of rock polish. With a brotherly Allman swagger and roots in the sessions for 1973’s Hard Nose the Highway, “Bulbs” returns to American sensibilities and a comparative conventionalism against the wild-eyed wonder of “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River.” It’s a fun reprieve from the gravity, which no doubt explains why Warner Bros. selected it as Veedon Fleece’s single. Its Manhattan B-side “Cul De Sac” has similarly commercial appeal, with a more conventional playthrough that fans could latch onto had they got through the more vexing and mysterious album material.
“Cult records are too often like loaded dice, rigged for an outcome not necessarily desired by all parties.”
The week Veedon Fleece debuted on the Billboard 200, claiming No. 75, the top three spots were occupied by singer-songwriter sets: Carole King’s Wrap Around Joy, John Lennon’s Walls And Bridges and a greatest hits anthology from the departed Jim Croce, in that order. Though it was that particular frame’s highest charting newbie, beating out fellow first-timers like Loggins and Messina’s Mother Lode and Todd Rungren’s Utopia, the distinction seemed hardly worth trumpeting. It would ultimately reach No. 53, but it dropped off altogether after 10 total weeks, seven fewer than It’s Too Late to Stop Now. It feels almost cruel that an audience dazzled by King’s then-contemporary hit “Jazzman” couldn’t connect that soft rock sentiment to what Morrison was up to. Little wonder, then, that the album proved his last for nearly three years, when 1977’s regrettably underappreciated A Period of Transition arrived.
A sort of institutional inaccessibility in the ensuing decades has kept Veedon Fleece criminally unheard, even by those who count themselves as Morrison fans, generations of listeners who snap their fingers and turn on to “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” without ever knowing the power of “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River.” None of its songs made it onto 1990’s multi-platinum introductory compilation The Best Of Van Morrison, nor its 1993 successor volume. Veedon Fleece is similarly snubbed on more recent hits sets, absent entirely from 2007’s Still On Top and represented with a sole appearance (“Fair Play”) on 2015’s The Essential Van Morrison.
Still, though some of the decision makers behind these collections may have systematically viewed its material as expendable, Morrison clearly retained an affection for Veedon Fleece after all these years. Four of its songs — “Bulbs,” “Come Here My Love,” “Comfort You” and “Cul De Sac” — made the cut for his career-spanning 2014 book Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics. That quartet of songs appears on the back half of the record, and odds are that many who picked up the hardback had little to no familiarity with them.
Cult records are too often like loaded dice, rigged for an outcome not necessarily desired by all parties. Contrarians and aesthetic fetishists crave difference, and as such can champion the obscure or underappreciated to downright ridiculous extremes. Despite what some have said in earnest or otherwise of this 1974 album over the years, the kaleidoscopic lens of Astral Weeks is the wrong prescription for viewing Veedon Fleece. It misses the damn point, that this gift, a treasure as mythical and mysterious as its titular provenance, cannot simply be discovered the same way you discovered Astral Weeks or really any other record in the artist’s deep catalog. This is a pilgrimage, one as sacred as it is demanding. You can hold Veedon Fleece the record in your hands, play it on your home stereo system, marvel at its majesty and restraint. You’ve earned that, provided you respect the quest the way the artist did.
Because unless I’m missing something, Van Morrison never actually found the Veedon Fleece, that storied prize. Real or imagined, Lord knows he tried. Some 45 years later, here in the unforgiving Now, why should that task be any easier for you?