1968: Van Morrison Risks His Life & Career For 'Astral Weeks'

By | July 8, 2019

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Singer/songwriter Van Morrison performs with flutist Artie Kaplan and his upright bass player at a Warner Brothers party at Steve Paul's The Scene nightclub on January 27, 1969 in New York, New York. (Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty I

The story behind Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s landmark album, is fraught with bad decisions, angry record executives, and the mafia. The short version of the story is that Morrison didn’t want to work with his then-current label, so to get out of his contract he recorded an album full of unreleasable nonsense songs. He also had to buy that contract back from mobsters for $20,000 in order to he make the jump to Warner Bros. Free from his former contractual obligations he recorded the album with a bunch of jazz musicians without telling them what to play. According to everyone who ever worked on the album, Morrison never introduced himself and just told them to play whatever they felt like playing.

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is an anomaly in 1968. It’s a jazzy pop record that slips in and out of time signatures with little regard for what was then cool or hip. It was the same year that saw The Beatles (or the "White Album") and the first album by The Doors. This seminal piece of music went underappreciated for decades and by all accounts, it almost didn’t exist.

Morrison got in his own way during the writing and recording of his album, but somehow the stars aligned and after three sessions of long takes Astral Weeks was born. 

Morrison’s dispute with his label killed its owner

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After finding early success in the United States with the single “Brown Eyed Girl” on Bang Records, Morrison wanted to change up his sound and do something different, but label owner Bert Berns didn’t see things that way, and because he owned Morrison’s contract he put the singer-songwriter on ice. Morrison continued making trouble for Berns, so much so that Berns suffered a heart attack in a New York hotel room on December 30, 1967.

Now, it’s not Morrison’s fault that the head of his label suffered a heart attack, but Berns’ wife Ilene felt that the singer was directly responsible and she went out of her way to make his life a living hell. Her vindictive sense of obligation to her former husband might be just one of the things that inspired Morrison to get out of New York City