College, for me, was like coming over the ridgeline of adolescence and discovering, in one long exultant gulp of perception, that I’d lived unknowingly for years in the outer suburbs of a glittering Oz-like metropolis, except instead of emeralds and munchkins there was French cinema and birth control. Some people get to school and discover politics or drugs or group sex or any of the other intoxicants of spirit you encounter once removed from parental stricture. Not me. (My high school life had some of these, though it would’ve been improved by more.) So in college I did the predictable things. I read, with dumb astonishment, a great many books, and I listened to an even greater number of records, and these I talked about with the florid intensity of undergraduate devotion. It is only barely not true that most of what I learned in school I learned by listening to Astral Weeks, again and again, more or less uninterruptedly, for four years. You misjudge me a lot if you think that’s a complaint.
This came back to me last month as I prepared for, and then watched, my youngest stepdaughter’s graduation from high school. Somehow, despite an almost daily sense of myself as having only just crossed into the country of adulthood, I have two daughters in college. You’d think that, having been looking over the horizon at this eventuality for years, I’d have been better prepared. But no.
I had especially hoped to have some eloquent counsel about the collegiate adventure ahead for this year’s graduate, an independent-minded and rule-averse and indefatigably bright-souled kid, who combines as winningly as you can imagine this stylish hipster-kid poise with what I can only describe as a sweetness of character, a friendliness so without guile it about breaks your heart. She is, Eliza, so cool and also so kind, a mixture of which the world is not overfull, in my experience. Hadn’t I something ballasting and wise to say to her, some words of gravity and solace – something, I mean, that might in the breadth of its insight and articulacy exceed the parameters of, say, a mixtape? I thought and thought.
I pondered and procrastinated, scratched some notes.
I made her a mix.
As a person not often at a loss for phrases, I found this wordlessness strange and a little unhappy. I reminded myself by way of consolation that, in exchanges with young people, generous silence is often the best you can do. Stepparenthood taught me this and I hadn’t forgotten. But it wasn’t this, exactly, that left me stymied. The more I thought about it, and of what school was for me and wasn’t, and of what I could say and could not, the clearer it became that I hadn’t much right to waylay Eliza with edifying sentiment.
It’s only barely not true that I learned most of what I learned in college by way of Astral Weeks. But laboring over my little graduation mix – the next entry in a years-deep archive of songs exchanged between us – I remembered that much of what I know about Astral Weeks I learned from listening to another record, a different record, years later and in the midst of a very different life. And I didn’t quite know what to make of that record until Eliza taught me.
One of my dearest friends in college was a young man who had a talent, enviable and unfaltering, for making Theories. Pick any handful of objects frozen just then in amber of your cultural consciousness: metal bands, Bonanza, the early poems of Hart Crane, Patsy Cline. It didn’t matter. Without overmuch effort, and following whatever the cascading stream of talk, he could extemporize a narrative linking them into this cracked, kaleidoscopic cohesion. It would be fluent and fast and unserious and for me, eighteen and new to college and all but vibrating with happiness about being there, pretty fucking joyous to behold.
He had an oversized concert t-shirt embossed with the cadaverous image of Robert Smith, in which he would sometimes sleep. It was he who first played me tapes of Lyle Lovett, Dinosaur Jr., Nancy Sinatra, Ornette Coleman, and – I am almost sure – the Replacements. He’d read books by people with names like Roethke and Coover and Rukeyser, and he could talk as readily about Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction with the offhand familiarity of accidental expertise. (“So you see, Alec,” deadpan, “Slash is a player of many moods.”) He was also about the least self-aggrandizing person you were likely to meet within the egotropic climates of collegiate sociability, and he made you feel, when you were talking to him, that whatever he said was somehow half your invention.
Deciding he was the funniest person I had ever met is one of not many decisions I made in the late-80s that I stand by utterly.
From the ages of 18 to 22, that passage of maximal male insufferability, we weren’t much apart, and this was a blessing and a mercy. (It’s hard to imagine how much worse I would have otherwise been, though it’s clear I would have been worse.) What this meant is that we lived for a while among a set of Theories on deep rotation. These included: The Theory That Clifford Brown Was Better Than Miles Davis. The Theory of the Inevitable Return of Madonna’s Repressed Italianness. The Theory of Grace Kelly’s Entrance. None of them was, finally, a great deal other than stupid, by which I suppose I just mean clever, insular, designed to do not much more than entertain each other and whoever was around. The greatest of these, the brightest star among lesser lights, was: The Theory of Astral Weeks.
Like many of the other Theories in vogue with us then, this one followed a basic grammar: What you think of as one thing is, actually – haHA! – something else. You might think of Astral Weeks as a collection of gorgeous songs, neither hippie-folk nor psychedelia nor rock-n-roll – a record so extravagant and weird, and of such enchanting unlikeliness, you hardly knew what to call it. But you would be wrong. It was my friend’s insistence that the secret of Astral Weeks was that it told, in fact, a sprawling broken story. Once you recognized this, each song, and then the album itself, became a new thing, strange and dense but also, in a delectable way, explicable. The thing to do, if you were listening with this kind of Talmudic devotion, was to make sense of the story.
If you’ve heard Astral Weeks you’ll know this is not a simple task, though it is exactly the kind of work to beguile young people looking for reasons to procrastinate, or get high, or just keep talking to each other. The record starts like this, in a tangle of words and sounds that, the first time I heard them, seemed to address me from some location considerably removed from the conditions of my small teenage life:
But then, all of a sudden, it was something else. I can remember my friend sitting across from me at some ridiculous piece of institutional furniture and, with gentle persistence, explaining over and over again one point. He’s saying, “They’re at a wake.” I am all vacant unresponsiveness. “They’re showing slides of whoever’s dead. They’re pointing at him, at the singer, because he’s in the picture.” Nothing. “Do you get it? The singer’s the person who’s dead.” Blink. “It’s the singer of the song and he’s imagining whoever it is he’s in love with, and, and… he’s asking what she’d do if he was dead. Dude. Listen.”
And Van is singing would you find me? Kiss my eyes? Lay me down in silence easy?
Branching mythologies would follow, until we had it, a theory, a story. Here was a record that starts out at this imagined wake, and then for most of the rest of its duration tours exulatantly through the stations of a youthful love affair, only to end back where it begins, which is in the contemplation of death, with the singer conjuring up an eerie shrouded figure. (Slim slow slider, he says on the final track, horse you ride is white as snow.) But then came the largest fact, the claim that made everything resonate on another frequency altogether: Astral Weeks ends like this because the death with which the record contends is not, as in the opening, imaginary. It is not the singer who is dead. The record is sung to, and for, and about a lover who has died. Astral Weeks, for all its enveloping gorgeousness, was a memorial, an 8-song edifice of grief. It is the sound of a young man contending with the blank fact, obvious and all but inconceivable, that those we love will die, quite independently of the force and implacability of our love for them. It finds the singer unleashing these cascades of joyous sound because it’s all he has by way of bulwark and protest. It offers noise as life; cacophony against dying.
It was college. It was talk like that.
I assume that at some point you’ll have made a similarly baroque liturgy out of your love for some like object. Young people in particular excel in making rituals of their devotion. And I certainly was devoted to Astral Weeks. But I will say that in the midst of all that juvenile veneration what most struck me most forcefully was not the record’s interfusion of joy and annihilating grief. No. All my wonder was saved instead for the quantity of work just a few swift sentences, properly placed, could do.
When I first came to it, I could have told you staggeringly little about what you might call the substance of Astral Weeks. Love it though I would surely have said I did, the record itself was for me really not much more than a radiant atmosphere, a wash of sound whose sum was this giddiness of spirit it produced in me. And that was fine. I won’t say this felt inadequate, or like a deficit of pleasure, because it did not. But once touched with the wand of just a handful of words – a crackpot narrative – the record found itself transformed into different kind of thing, something alive with sex and love and the strange, mostly abstract sorrows of adulthood.
For years, that transformation was most of what I’d hear. Play a track and I’d be dropped back into that long ago moment when a friend I loved wrote this piece of quasi-scriptural revelation back into the world for me, and made it a thing we might talk back and forth about, in words anybody could use.
And I’ll tell you: this was, for me, an estimable and ramifying joy. It occurred to me that you could set even this record’s flights toward the mystic, its weird exhilarations, down amid the ordinariness of your day-lit life and they would, in the exchange, shed not a bit of the glowing otherworldliness for which you fell in love with them in the first place. You could turn your experience of dumbstruck delight in a thing into something else – theories, words to trade – and it would lose nothing. It might in fact be said to gather into itself a new kind of density and brightness, something lit from within by the presence of other people, and your love for them, and theirs for you. This is what I meant when I would say, as I did say many years later as he stood beside me on my wedding day, that my friend had given me my first glimpse of what criticism could be, and why you might want to make a life out of it.
“Marriage is a noble daring,” John Dryden wrote, and I thought about that phrase a lot during my married years. I liked it, not least for its edge of cynical satire. Had I been paying closer attention, though, I might have caught the implication, not only about bravery and tenacity, but about the omnipresence of fear. Only slowly did I come into the sense that as your happiness scaled up and grew intricate and involved so too, in exact proportion, did the quantity of your life given over to dread. I spent a lot of time afraid of something happening to the girls. I spent a lot of time afraid of something happening to our lives together.
Allow me, now, to introduce a theory: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by a band called Neutral Milk Hotel are the same record. You can best approach them, I mean, as belated versions of the other, wedded so elementally that you misappraise them more by speaking of them separately than as one. It isn’t that time does not flow between them, these records from 1968 and 1998. It surely does, and shows itself as time often does: in style. You can talk a lot about these deep histories of shape and form, punk and folk, and I can probably be induced to talk back to you. But these are, I would submit, matters more cosmetic than otherwise. In their essence, in whatever secret algorithmic core the aural data-miners have yet to uncode, they are the same.
I don’t mean only that they both trade extensively in a kind of heady mysticism, the bending of language toward obscurity as it approaches some threshold of the unspeakable, though that’s not nothing. I take it in fact to be one good way into Aeroplane, a record that has since its release gathered about itself an extravagant, nearly impenetrable cloud of devotion, a kind of obscuring dudestorm of love. (Sometime in the early 2000s one of the premiere venues for this sort of thing – Pitchfork? Magnet? – declared Aeroplane the “greatest record of the ‘90s,” which given the demographic tilt of its readership was not a lot different from declaring it a holy relic, sacred and inviolable.) And sure enough, Aeroplane can at first seem like 40-odd minutes of Dadaist devotional poetry tracked over a thrumming guitars and sung in a piercing nasal tenor that stops short, though not by much, of being assaultive. The record starts, in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part I,” like this
When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet
though you can dip in more or less anywhere to find like obscurities. Here as on Astral Weeks we are in the presence of something only marginally not idiolalia, some language obeying perhaps the insular logic of a dream but no apparent other.
Sit with it long enough, though, and it changes. Sit with, maybe, through the accreting years of your life, as you drift from juvenile ardors into some marginally wider reckoning with the possibilities of sorrow, and then, gradually, you begin to feel your way into its recurrences, the patterns the songs can’t release, the presences that insist on themselves. The one you are least likely to miss is that of Anne Frank, the figure who haunts the record as an object of devotion no less than grief, appearing in visions by turn violent and erotic, haloed in the distorted beauty of the singer’s dreams: “She was born in a bottle rocket / 1929 / with wings and rings around the socket / right between her spine / all drenched in milk and holy water / pouring from the sky.”
Whatever else she may be for the record – and she is woven into dream-logics we do best not to hazard – I take Anne Frank to be the bearer, to the singer of In the Aeroplane, of all manner of incomprehensibilities. The most undoing of these, as on Astral Weeks, is also the simplest: it is just that in the contest between your love and death – in the battle that pits your ardor and your fear, your courage and your bliss, against the all-devouring force of dying – you lose. Always. And forever.
You can hear this all over the record, on tracks that teeter between horror and a frenzied, carnal exhilaration. You can hear it on what is perhaps the most compressed jolt of violent joy in all the annals of post-punk, a song called “Ghost.” “Ghost” is “Sweet Thing” – a love song in which a passion for the beloved spills out into an awestruck love for everything that is – tuned almost wholly to the note of terror. The song shudders and blares, all brass and martial drum and huge distorted guitar. And the singer says of Anne Frank, “I know that she will live forever… she won’t ever die” – very much like a young man trying to cry or shout or otherwise conjure into being a world in which that might be true.
Though I learned a lot in college, enough that I feel an indefensible tenderness toward what are objectively embarrassing episodes of boyish self-seriousness, I did not learn to love the world in this way. That came later, somewhere in the long stretch of small hours in a house near the coast of Maine. It’s part, though only part, of what Eliza and her sister gave to me, a hard sort of gift for which I will never reach the end of my gratitude and which I would not give in return, even if I knew how, which I don’t.
And so, short on words, I made a mix, and let me say right now it is a fucking triumph. I stitched it together and thought of how long it had taken for me to come into my sense of both of those records from my youth, and though I’m delighted that Eliza has a lot to say about them – the day she texted me just to talk about Neutral Milk Hotel is, I assure you, marked on the calendar of my heart – there is no saying what these songs will become to her, or when, or how. And that’s as it should be. Still, listening to them now, I find it hard not to harbor these predictive wishes for her, as for her sister, wishes that tend to come in impossible combination. It’s hard, I mean, not to want them to encounter enough of the world to fall in reckless blazing love with it and, also, to know nothing of loneliness or sorrow or unedifying pain. Or no more than they do already.
Put a hope like that into words and it reads like the nonsense, the category error, it is. But songs make for a different kind of wishing. They do different work. This is why mixes are not keepsakes or archives of parental wisdom and, jesus, even less are they roadmaps to the byways of Cool. Young people have little need of any of these things. They’re more like prayers, the pleas you send up into a future irretrievably other to ourselves. That they be vibrant and fearless. That they be unharmable, the equal of any grief. That they be joyous and tough and, in the teeth of all that is broken, loved. And loved and loved and loved.
Here, then, for the recording angel, is the nearest I could come to saying any of this. Not for the first time, I’m grateful to Justin Bieber for the assist.
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