Down Home in the Backstreet: Astral Weeks Turns 50

Why this landmark album is powerfully relevant to an emerging post-sectarian, post-Troubles Belfast

In the beginning was the Irish rain. At the intersection of Newtownards Road and Templemore Avenue, it falls cold and merciless and straight. A grey veil is descending upon east Belfast. The backstreets are empty; the few trees heavy with moisture. The Samson and Goliath gantry cranes, twin icons of Northern Irish industrialism, are scarcely visible on the rainy horizon.

This is the Freedom Corner, an area of special importance to east Belfast’s loyalist population. In a city known for its murals — a 2014 guide estimated there are approximately 300 — the paramilitary wall paintings at this well-known corner are some of the most evocative and elaborate. Slick with rain, their brilliant colors are extra vibrant. Their words of defiance leap off the gables.

Close by is a vacant lot — or a waste ground, a local term that simply exudes urban bleakness. Here stood the Avenue One bar, the unofficial headquarters of Jim Gray’s personal crime empire. Flamboyant and exceedingly violent, Gray was a key figure during the Troubles, the name given to the thirty-year conflict between Northern Ireland’s loyalist and republican communities. Gray was a loyalist paramilitary boss masquerading as a New York mafia don. Or was it the other way around? Regardless, the Avenue One bar and Gray both met untimely ends over a decade ago: the drinking establishment by the wrecking ball, him by assassin’s bullets.

In Belfast, an ambitious re-imaging campaign is underway. Paramilitary murals are painted over; illustrations promoting a shared history go up in their place. Sporting successes, cultural achievements, and fallen war heroes are celebrated. The idea is to create joint “neutral spaces” that both republican and loyalist communities can appreciate. The ultimate goal is to bridge the city’s ancient divide between loyalists and republicans, to put further distance between the high intentions of the present and the dead hand of the past.

Here at the Freedom Corner, this gradual shift to a post-Troubles world is illustrated by a makeshift wall erected to conceal the nearby waste ground. Emblazoned with photographs of Belfast’s most recognizable places and faces, the wall celebrates the city’s cultural heritage. See football superstar George Best and the life-size statue of novelist C.S. Lewis outside the Holywood Arches Library. Further along is a snapshot of the imposing Stormont building, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. And there at the end of the Newtownards Road section of the wall, shoehorned into a modest space, almost as if his inclusion was an afterthought, is a photograph of an artist whose name has become synonymous with this very city: Van Morrison.

Morrison’s reverence for his home is profound and undeniable. His best songs, no matter how many times one has listened to them, always reveal something thoughtful and essential and good about Belfast, its culture, and its people. Morrison might be Tourism Northern Ireland’s most underutilized marketing tool. Each one of his civic-inspired compositions is its own evocative promotional campaign. Picture it with me … A glossy, oversized advert for Iarnród Éireann, displayed prominently in Dublin’s Connolly Station, featuring a striking illustration of the Boyne Viaduct in Drogheda with these words emblazoned across the top: “And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row.”

Back in 2004, when Belfast’s re-imaging campaign was just getting underway, Morrison was inquired about having his image appear in a new mural, one slated to replace another of the loyalist paramilitary variety. Morrison — eternally and unashamedly apolitical — is said to have politely refused. And yet here he is, on the Newtownards Road, microphone in a white-knuckle grip, gazing at passersby through his trademark aviator sunglasses.

The Irish rain stops cleanly; the trees shed the weight of it. The grey veil lifts gently. A Morrison couplet suddenly bubbles to the surface: “And when heart is open / You will change just like a flower slowly opening.” Rainy skies can change and waste grounds can change, and I suppose it’s all no different from how a violent city can change.

Over the past decade, local historian Aidan Campbell has published 11 books on specific areas of east Belfast. The tomes are stuffed with timeworn photographs, long-forgotten names, folksy anecdotes. Life is chronicled fully: new mothers weigh their mewling babies on the scales at a neighborhood pharmacy; a drunken gardener is killed, knocked down by a passing lorry, his charitable employers paying for the funeral expenses.

Additionally, Campbell has presented hundreds of illustrated historical talks to Belfast-area churches, community associations, and historical societies. He’s not interested in merely giving voice to the city’s past; he wants it to sing full-throated, dance spiritedly, let out a whoop and toss its cap in the air. Each presentation comes with its share of audience queries, observations, and suggestions. At a recent talk for a local women’s group, one member of the crowd was most aggrieved. She hailed from east Belfast, she informed Campbell, the Beersbridge Road, to be precise. The same modest corner of the world as Van Morrison, mind you. So why, pray tell, was she not lavished with the same press coverage as him?

In February 2012, Morrison played at the 10,000-seat Odyssey Arena, his first show in Belfast in over a decade. Ambling onto the stage to the opening bars of “Brown Eyed Girl,” the Irishman received a delirious reception. The homecoming celebration shows no sign of abating. In 2015, BBC Radio Ulster celebrated Morrison’s 70th birthday with six days of special programming. The following year he knelt before Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace’s Royal Ballroom and received an honorary knighthood. The former Monarch could now boast of becoming a knight.

Morrison currently fancies small crowds and intimate venues — posh settings such as the Europa Hotel and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa — yet these modest gigs still garner heavy coverage in the next day’s Belfast Telegraph, News Letter, or Irish News. Campbell’s aggrieved Beersbridge Road resident must have been particularly piqued when a spate of instantly legendary concerts at Morrison’s beloved former school, Orangefield High, and on the thoroughfare he made famous, Cyprus Avenue, dominated Northern Irish news cycles.

Morrison notably stayed away from Northern Ireland during the 1970s, the most dangerous and disruptive period of the Troubles. Today, he’s a constant presence, a man embracing the now, the here. Belfast is like a family member, one he anxiously flees from at times, but with whom there is a vital, permanent bond. It’s a peculiarly complicated relationship that other natives have similarly cultivated. Writes local poet (and fellow Orangefield alumnus) Gerald Dawe: “Belfast, more than many other European cities, has been stereotyped to death; you can love it and hate it with the same degree of intensity.”

Perhaps Morrison’s presence is explained by the need to play the role of loving caretaker. Morrison dutifully looked after his elderly mother, Violet, who lived here until she passed away in June 2016. He graciously ushered her to local events, such as the ceremony for his Freedom of Belfast honor, held at the nearby Waterfront Hall.

Or perhaps the reasons are a bit more complex. It could be Morrison finally recognized the crucial roles his home, his family, and the streets of east Belfast played in his development as an artist and, more importantly, as a person. Maybe he needed to escape to run into himself — an artist becoming better acquainted with the younger version of himself that went into exile all those decades ago in order to be more in touch with the older version now reconciling with his home.

Or maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe if asked about his recent resettlement in Northern Ireland, Morrison’s response would be a simple and pure one: “Did I ever leave?”

Baile. It’s an Irish word to which I keep returning. Translated by Dr. Eoghan O Raghallaigh, a lecturer at Maynooth University in Ireland, baile means: place, home, farmstead, homestead, town, village. Or this wonderfully expressive little phrase: “where we come home.” Baile. Pronounced BAL-yeh. I say it repeatedly, as if, to paraphrase Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, doing so summons all the energies of the word. Baile … Where we come home.

In Ireland, a townland is the smallest administrative division of land. According to a paper Aidan Campbell shared with me, there are currently 61,402 named townlands scattered across the 32 counties that comprise Northern Ireland and the Republic. The term baile, anglicized as “bally,” is the most dominant element used in Irish townland names. In the greater Belfast area, the prefix is a common one, found in dozens of lively designations that read like they could have been lifted from a child’s storybook: Ballyhanwood, Ballyhackamore, Ballyrushboy, Ballymisert, Ballydollaghan, Ballynavally. There’s Ballymena, where Morrison once gigged, back during his days with Them, and Ballymacarett, site of a major railway junction serving the Belfast and County Down Railway and the scene of a train crash in January 1945 that killed 22 people.

In the narratively ambitious “Madame George,” the sixth track on Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the concept of baile is evoked when the Irishman wistfully recalls a train trip home (“And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row”), a journey across forgotten northern landscapes, amid the smell of coal, beneath plumes of black smoke. Soon after, baile is suggested once more, this time in the line “Down home in the backstreet.” A spiritual and physical epicenter is established, a place from which Morrison will venture forth and invariably return, over and again. And then, one track later, baile is heard, the actual word itself, going out into the world, when Morrison overemphasizes and drags out the first two syllables of “ballerina” in the incantatory phrase “Just like a ballerina.”

This concept of baile, this “where we come home”-ness, is central to Morrison’s art. Belfast is his muse-city, its rural and urban landscapes an eternal source of poetic inspiration. Morrison was tormented by its paralysis, its isolation, its bellicose religion, the narrow-mindedness found on those narrow backstreets, an ability to take itself so seriously that the city earned a reputation for being cultureless. He removed himself as quickly as he was able only to discover that its hold on his soul was immovable. His most imaginatively rich songs spring from a fierce quarrel between the exiled self that wishes to transcend geography and time, and the Irish self that is rooted in the land.

From his days fronting Them in the mid-1960s right up to his most recent solo release, Born to Sing: No Plan B, Morrison has gleefully celebrated his Belfast roots. I think of Dutch historian Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse’s “Ghosts of War” photo series, a project that melded urban photos from World War II with present-day images from the same locations. Much like this series, the Belfast of Morrison’s songs feels superimposed over the actual city, the mists of memory and imagination blending with the solidity of brick and mortar. Spectral figures pause on bustling avenues, loiter in front of corner shops, dawdle by railway stations. They come rollin’ down Royal Avenue, refusing to stop at City Hall, down along the Newtownards and Comber Roads, across the North Road Bridge and through Orangefield Park. Past the Kingdom Hall and its ringing bells, past Davey’s Chipper and the Castle Picture House, past neighborhood flags and emblems. Down through the days of leaves, days when the rains came, feeling the silence on long summer nights.

By diving into Morrison’s catalogue we dive into a kind of Belfast: his Belfast. Today, that ability to infuse his music with an extraordinarily powerful “consciousness of place” is even recognized and appreciated by those outside his core group of zealous fans. In 2014, The Mystic of the East: Van Morrison Trail was unveiled in east Belfast. The self-guided, 3.5-kilometer trail starts at Elmgrove Primary School — a football’s kick from the unkempt scrap of riverside terrain known as the Hollow, immortalized in the top-10 hit “Brown Eyed Girl” — and concludes on the Beersbridge Road, near the former locations of Morrison’s favorite eateries. (From Johnny Rogan’s biography, Van Morrison: No Surrender: “Van Morrison, despite his long, painful progress towards spiritual election, is still a ravenous foodie at heart.”) In between, one can visit a number of the Belfast spots referenced in Morrison’s songs, places that, according to the trail’s accompanying guide, “were to shape the character and values of ‘Van the Man.’” Thanks to the magic of technology — in this case, QR codes and a smartphone app — visitors can listen to song snippets at each key stop on the trail.

Local figures such as Campbell and Bobby Cosgrove, a popular east Belfast historian who conducted Morrison-themed walks before health concerns forced him into retirement, once spearheaded the movement to promote Van the Man-inspired tourism and establish Belfast as a giant shrine to the artist’s work. Today, that movement is fronted by Northern Ireland’s economic establishment. On Tourism Northern Ireland’s web site, visitors can find a summary of the Van Morrison Trail as well as information on nearby lodging and other places of interest. One could conceivably spend a morning navigating the tight circuitry of working-class backstreets in Morrison’s old neighborhood, walking among drab two-up-two-down terraced homes, red-bricked shops, and bleak churches, and then return to their five-Red-Star-rated hotel across the River Lagan in time for a lunch of seared quail breast and butter-poached Portavogie lobster.

Of course, such a journey would provide an intriguing study in contrasts. (And would not be unlike the one Morrison undertook during adolescent walks from the claustrophobic closeness of Hyndford Street to spacious, leafy Cyprus Avenue.) But it’s a journey Tourism Northern Ireland is banking on visitors wishing to make. The Van Morrison Trail is one component of the Connswater Community Greenway project, a £40 million plan to develop attractive and accessible parkland for east Belfast’s visitors and residents. The project will also create 16 kilometers of foot and cycle paths, over two dozen new or improved bridges and crossings, and a nine-kilometer linear park that will follow the course of various rivers, including the Connswater, the river that flows through the Hollow.

Look around Belfast and one sees similarly ambitious projects. It’s all part of a sustained effort to establish the city as a world-class visitor destination. Belfast Waterfront underwent a £29.5 million expansion and at the time of this writing, the enhanced conference and entertainment center had more than 30 national and international bookings over the next three years. Events include the World Council of Credit Unions, the Royal College of Nursing, and the BBC Good Food Show. (Van, the forever-foodie, would certainly approve.)

Across the River Lagan, restoration is beginning on the former headquarters and drawing offices of Harland & Wolff, once the proud titleholder of “world’s largest shipyard.” Morrison’s father, George, was once employed there as a “sparkie” or electrician. More famously, it’s known as the birthplace of RMS Titanic, which once held the designation of world’s largest ship. The vessel will feature prominently in the building’s new life as a four-story, nautical-themed boutique hotel.

Nearby is Titanic Belfast, a £100 million interactive museum that chronicles the story of the famed ocean liner, from construction to launch and tragic end. Titanic Belfast has become the city’s flagship destination. During its first three years, the museum drew an estimated 1.9 million admissions to its galleries, bringing an economic return of £105 million. Last year, it earned a spot on Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist, which ranks the 500 best places to see in the world.

Titanic Belfast is heralded as a shining example of how the city can both preserve and promote its maritime and industrial heritages. The museum is also the crowning project of a far-reaching movement dedicated to urban renewal and tourism development. The hard captains of industry no longer govern the city’s domains of linen, shipbuilding, and rope-making. Today, it’s leisure tourism, cultural tourism, and business travel. Belfast opened its doors to the world — and the world has arrived, eager to cross its threshold.

“In the lives of cities, boldness and vision rarely follow catastrophe,” wrote architectural critic Paul Goldberger. Belfast, all devout and profane and hard, is proving the exception. Nearly 20 years have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the covenant responsible for bringing an end to the Troubles and delivering this current period of relative calm. The agreement’s vision of a transformed, peaceful, and stable Northern Ireland is finally being fulfilled.

I am reminded of a lengthy New York Times piece that detailed the province’s burgeoning appeal to tourists, specifically followers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Northern Ireland’s lush glens, rocky strands, and murky caves are key filming locations for the hit fantasy series and can be visited on tours such as “Stones & Thrones,” a 90-minute guided excursion through the countryside. The hope is that “Game of Thrones” will raise the province’s profile much like the Lord of the Rings trilogy did for New Zealand.

The Times story features quotes from a local guide named David McAnirn, whose simple words brilliantly capture the significant contrast between the ever-changing Northern Ireland of the present and the strife-ridden Northern Ireland of a generation ago. “No one ever used to come here,” McAnirn says of the Dark Hedges, the ominous-looking avenue of beech trees that feature as the Kingsroad in “Game of Thrones.” “Now hundreds come each day.”

And then later in the story, an observation that manages to be equally heartrending and darkly humorous: “For most of my life I was in a film set … And it was a horror movie.”

And so here we are. The Belfast of the present — today’s Belfast. Paramilitary drinking establishments encounter the wrecking ball, murals are erased from gable walls. Joint neutral spaces are created that, to paraphrase from an essay by local architect Ciaran Mackel, make and grow lives and livelihoods. A shared community vision for a shared future.

In today’s Belfast, foreign visitors arrive in ever-increasing numbers while the hotel occupancy rate climbs to an all-time high. Cruise ships arrive daily, Ryanair adds new routes from Belfast International Airport, and a once-unimaginable accolade is bestowed: Readers of the Guardian and Observer newspapers voted Belfast 2016’s “Best U.K. City.”

Outside the Europa Hotel, I catch a conversation between a doorman and a group of freshly-arrived tourists. “It’s Belfast,” the smiling doorman says as he ushers his guests inside. “You can experience all four seasons in one day here. It’s all part of the city’s charm.”

Fionn mac Cumhaill, the hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, once observed, “The best music in the world is the music of what happens.” This is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks: the sound of life happening. Church bells peal, ferry boats gather anchors and cast off, schoolchildren caper and twirl, leaves rustle in the wind, raindrops fall. Within its 47 minutes and 10 seconds, Belfast talks, breathes, dreams, kisses, loves, withdraws. Astral Weeks recognizes the power of rituals, the lyricism of the everyday. It reveals that to exist is to occupy a moment. Life is weather, life is walking, life is cigarettes and cherry wine.

Astral Weeks removed pop music from the regal summits of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and brought it down to the lanes and backstreets. It’s a masterwork of intense observation and vivid imagery, not high-minded technical sophistication. It’s a journey, an adventure, a reinterpretation of James Joyce’s clever observation that the “longest way round is the shortest way home.” There’s a circularity and completeness to it, a feeling that the album exists without opening tracks and outros, beginnings and endings. If those aforementioned releases ushered in the album era, then Astral Weeks was the immediate giant leap forward, a pure reconsideration of the format itself: an LP with a novelistic vision.

In Morrison’s hands, pop music became more exploratory, more explicit, provincial even, able to be coded in local symbols and language. He set out to record the rhythms of ordinary life — how ordinary people live in an ordinary city — and in the process, extracted extraordinary meaning from the familiar. Listeners fall softly into the album’s confined, narrative spaces, and from there a great truth is revealed: Even when paralyzed by geography, class, nationality, or religion, one can find the freedom to achieve freedom. Or to paraphrase a key line from the opening track: One can be born again.

Astral Weeks has been in record shops for 50 years now. Cut and released in the fall of 1968, the album is a product of its era, the poetry of a particular moment, a repossession of the sharp fragments of the past. And yet, Astral Weeks is powerfully relevant to the Belfast of the present — today’s Belfast — and to an emerging post-sectarian, post-Troubles Northern Ireland. It’s an ancient artifact for a new prosperous age.

In Belfast, representations of the past are all around you. They are influential in how natives memorialize and visitors better grasp its rich history. When these representations endeavor to rise above the city’s decades of conflict, rather than reflect it, they take on a unique importance. For their aim is transcendence, not escape or exploitation.

Astral Weeks reminds listeners that there was a Belfast that existed before the outbreak of violence in 1966. A Belfast absolutely alive and complete, prosperous and gracious, so determined to not be destroyed by tribal allegiances — a city of happiness, the possibility of happiness. Astral Weeks gathers up the avenues and backstreets, the hillside mountains and trees, the red-bricked shops and terraced homes and generously returns them to the people from which they were stolen. In short, the album gives the city its humanity back. I struggle to think of a finer legacy than this.

At the intersection of Newtownards Road and Templemore Avenue, I bid farewell to the Freedom Corner and the solemn, fedora-topped visage of Van the Man, slowly ease into traffic, and drive deeper into the heart of east Belfast. Glancing at the compact disc on the passenger seat, I consider how I have gone without listening to the very album that inspired my journey here, not unlike a visitor to Tutwiler, Mississippi, eschewing the Delta blues.

There’s a tide of late afternoon sunlight before the inevitable next rain shower. I roll down the windows, switch on the car stereo, and prepare to venture in the slipstream …