Van was the vocalist with Them (an Irish version of the Stones, if you like) and they had a few big hit singles in the glory days. He is a multi-instrumentalist (piano, sax, guitar and much more besides) but in truth his best instrument is his voice. Them proved much too narrow a channel for Van and he split the band up once he tired of chasing chart success, promptly disappearing to the US to hone his ‘Irish / Caledonian’ vision and find the best way to express it.
Astral Weeks appeared in 1969 and I first heard tracks from it on Radio One’s more progressive programmes hosted by people like Pete Drummond and John Peel. I bought the album as soon as I’d saved up enough pocket money!
If you have read W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce or Flann O’Brien, for example, you will know that the ‘Irish’ poetic or prose voice is rich, evocative and often downright difficult to comprehend. So too are Van’s lyrics. But, down the years, I’ve taken the view that such concerns do not matter – each time I listen there is something fresh to consider (and after forty years that is saying something). Madame George engages me in exactly the same way that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row does, and I reckon I’d need them both in my Desert Island knapsack. But Astral Weeks is no one-trick pony – open your heart to Sweet Thing, Cypress Avenue, Madame George, Ballerina (ahh-sigh) and Astral Weeks itself and the payback will surely be huge. Over to you.