Fifty Years On (Part Two): A Personal Topography of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks
by Michael Montgomery
Most days when I bike to class I’m one of the few people without earbuds in their ears. Cyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians—nearly all of them make their commute ensconced in a sonic landscape only they can hear. I sometimes wonder what they’re listening to. Rap, perhaps? Electronic Dance Music? A podcast?
I keep my ears free for two reasons. First, I think it’s dangerous to be cocooned from your surroundings, especially while whizzing past dozens of bikes in a roundabout. Second, I like to enjoy those surroundings, and I feel that music distracts from that.
Having said that, I will now dismount from my high horse to admit that even I indulge from time to time in a little musical accompaniment. I don’t do it often, and only while walking. Nonetheless, such musical commuting has produced some of my strongest memories here at UC Davis, most of them centered on one musician: Van Morrison.
It would not be an overstatement to say Morrison provided the soundtrack to my freshman year. Other musicians certainly contributed, often thanks to me seeing them at the Mondavi Center, but none had the same staying power as Morrison, and especially his 1968 album, Astral Weeks, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its release this month.
My first exposure to Astral Weeks came in May 2016, during my senior year of high school. When I started up at Davis in the fall, it was one of the few CDs I brought with me. I didn’t bike much then, being wary of my manic fellow riders, and as I walked to and from my Tercero dorm, I found myself listening to Astral Weeks so much that I began associating its songs with physical landmarks. Since I’d often start the album from the beginning each time, I also came to associate the chronology of specific walks with the chronology of the album itself.
The best example of this is my walk to the downtown Amtrak station, which served (and still serves) as my primary means of long-distance transportation. If I pressed play on my phone the minute I exited my dorm, Astral Weeks’ opening song, also called “Astral Weeks,” would get me as far as Rock Hall or so. At once trance-like and enlivening in its simplicity, this song never fails to boost my spirits. One morning I had to catch a 6:25 a.m. train to Gilroy, and I’ll never forget how “Astral Weeks” accelerated my step in the brisk, dawn air.
The next track, “Beside You,” would get me almost to the end of Hutchison Drive, where I would cut north across a lawn by the School of Education just in time to hear the opening minor chord of “Sweet Thing.” Morrison mentions in that song “gardens misty wet with rain.” Fittingly, my shortcut through the grass would often leave my shoes wet with dew.
Somewhere after the tidy sorority houses along 1st Street, “Sweet Thing” would give way to “Cyprus Avenue,” with its melding of harpsichord, blues chord changes, and boldly assertive bass. I would usually realize right about this time that I was running late for my train and would pick up my pace. Before “Cyprus Avenue” was over, I’d arrive at the station—but not before Morrison beat me to it with his lyrics about “walking by the railroad.”
The rest of the album’s songs have their own associations: “Ballerina” with Geidt Hall; “Madame George” with Hart Hall; “The Way Young Lovers Do” with the redwoods south of the Silo.
To this day, I can’t listen to Astral Weeks without being reminded of those walks. When I hear “Astral Weeks” transition into “Beside You,” my first inclination is to think, “There goes Rock Hall. Here comes the Music Building.” Similarly, when I walk toward the Music Building, I can’t help but think of “Astral Weeks” that morning with the 6:25 train. In this way, Morrison’s album is indelibly stamped on the UC Davis campus, and the UC Davis campus is indelibly stamped on Morrison’s album, at least as far as my personal understanding of them goes.
That’s the power of music, and Van Morrison’s music especially. It forges connections—among musicians themselves, between musicians and listeners, between songs and places. If students find that listening to music while riding or walking to class helps them make those connections more meaningful and concrete, who am I to judge them for having their earbuds in? If, rather than insulate them from their surroundings, listening to music gives students a tangible connection to those surroundings, who am I to criticize them for doing it? After all, Astral Weeks did the same thing for me.
Michael is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This is his second year on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.