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18 December 2017

Will Self on Astral Weeks by Van Morrison: “I felt his words like a corkscrew to my heart”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Will Self

I wouldn’t exactly say it was my favourite album – I don’t do listicles – but Astral Weeks by Van Morrison is probably the album – considered as an album – that I’ve listened to most in my life. It is – almost all would acknowledge – a great album, and moreover one that’s constituted by a suite of eight songs, one flowing seamlessly into the next, so as to give the whole the feel of a single through-composed piece. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever thought much about the individual tracks – for me, the quiddity of Astral Weeks is… the astral weeks I spent lying by the turntable, picking the needle up when it swirled across the inside of the disc, flipping that disc, then collapsing back on to the carpet as the achingly familiar chords of either the title track, or those of “The Way Young Lovers Do”, the first track on the second side, swelled in my hurting heart.

It was 1986, I was living in a cavernous flat off the Cromwell Road in West London lent to me by a wealthy friend. My only employment was doing a weekly cartoon strip for this very magazine – and like its protagonist, Slump, I spent most of my time in bed. I’d like to claim I was a victim of the Thatcherite “readjustment” – but mostly I was the victim of a ravening drug habit. Heroin, of course – it was the temper of the times – but also a lot of cocaine, injected, which scared the bejasus out of me. (As Ivan Morrison probably wouldn’t say.) Sometimes I’d walk around the apartment, with a needle stuck in my arm, the barrel of the syringe full of blood, and as I rhythmically pumped it, “flushing” the solution of cocaine into my system, my heartbeats hammered in my ears, as Van the Man strummed my heartstrings.

With the touching faith of the bourgeoisie in all professionals, I asked my GP for help – and he sent me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as a borderline schizophrenic and put me on a drug called Parstelin, a mix of so-called antidepressants and antipsychotics that was so strong I felt as if I were walking around buried up to my waist in mud with my brain full of sand. Which I didn’t altogether mind, since it stopped me physically leaving the flat to score more coke. Instead I lay by the record player. I must’ve listened to Astral Weeks hundreds – if not thousands – of times. I was in love as well (pretty obviously), with an unattainable girl who lived in Notting Hill. So every time Van warbled, “I saw you walking/Down by the Ladbroke Grove this morning…” I felt his words – as his great rival would put it – like a corkscrew to my heart.

I know every word, strum and nylon-string-squeak of Astral Weeks by heart. In the intervening 30 years, I’ve had several more periods of listening intensively to this album – I’ve read all about its recording; hell, I’ve even visited Cyprus Avenue, the unprepossessing suburban Belfast street that provides the mythopoeic landscape for the song of the same name. Yet I’m by no means a slavish Van Morrison fan – it’s just that weird sedated period, of being at once death-borne and transcendent, venturing in the slipstream – between the viaducts of his dreams, and my own – that’s left this album with me. Forever.

Read the rest of the series here

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special