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  • Writer's pictureGraeme Thomson

Lewis Merenstein: “It was so beautiful, it was hard to take.”

Lewis Merenstein, who has died, produced Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and executive-produced the follow-up, Moondance. I interviewed an obviously frail Merenstein last year. Here is the full transcript of that conversation, about the making of Astral Weeks – and Afterwards.

‘Van’s manager Bob Schwaid and I were friends, and he got me involved. I went to Boston at Bob’s request to hear Van. We went to ACE recording studio, I walked in and he was sitting on a stool. He played me “Astral Weeks” and it took me about 30 seconds to know I wanted to work with the material: “If I venture in the slipstream…” He was being born again, he was going through the tunnel and coming out again. The lyric went straight to my soul, or my spirit. To me it was very clear what he was saying, but nobody else knew what the hell he was talking about, because it wasn’t “Brown Eyed Girl”.

I came from a jazz background, and I heard jazz chords that could be played with it. After 15 minutes I went to Bob and said, “Let’s go do it!” We took Van and went back to New York. Bob and I were sharing a space off of Sixth Avenue, we had an office in the front and a little rehearsal room in the back, and it seems like Van unpacked, came over and we started doing it. It was definitely something that was being guided by a greater power. At that time Van was very passive. He was coming from Bang Records and Bert Berns, and they were pretty aggressive people, and he was coming from a hit song, and choruses, and I felt something was going on. Something was being born. I know he was not conscious of the full dimension of it.

He needed a place to stay, and he needed a new deal. We’d sit around the office and he’d play tunes, and I’d mark on a piece of paper the songs I thought would go together for this album, and which ones would be for the next album. He had most of the material for Moondance, but I sensed a story in these songs. I’d never heard any of those tunes before. I selected a story which I thought was going on in Van’s internal life at that time. He would just keep playing tunes. Van wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and I never said, “What did you mean by this?” I knew what he meant. What little I learned about him on our trip back to New York, I knew what was happening.

It came through you. It was magic. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.

He had some players from Boston, a flute player and a bass player, but they were young and not terribly accomplished, and they weren’t of the calibre I was used to using. I knew I needed people who could pick up the feeling. I had used Richard Davis quite often, and he was a highly renowned bass player. He was special. Richard made a call to his regular buddies. Connie Kay was with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jay Berliner was a fine, fine guitarist of any nature. They were all just marvellous players, super pros, and they were open souls. They played right from the heart.

Warner’s had a small rehearsal studio, and we went in there to rehearse. Larry Fallon wanted to come and hear what was happening and see if he could contribute. Right away he wanted to do this and that, and I said, “Larry, it’s not that kind of an album. It has to come out the way Van is expressing himself. After that is done we can see what touches might be needed. I don’t want any charts, I want the direction to come from the music.” I didn’t want it to turn into a rock and roll album.

I told Bob I was going to book a studio – we might as well do what we’re going to do. It was a union date, there was nothing sacred about it. We went into Brooks Arthur studio [Century Sound]. I told the players what I meant, and Van went into the booth. It wasn’t even a closed booth, it was one of those tall fibreglass booths, so you could look out. I said, “Go.”

If you listen to the very first tune, “Astral Weeks” Richard leads, and he leads all the way through. He lays the groundwork. It was magical, musically magical. It was so beautiful, it was hard to take. There were no charts. They might have run the first few minutes of a song down a couple of times, and then we did it. There was never a full take. There was nothing more to be said, there was nowhere to go. It was all there. Everybody got the sense of what was being said musically, even if they didn’t get what was being sung verbally by Van. It was like a musical puzzle that fit perfectly.

He interacted very little with the other musicians. He had a habit of turning his back on people. He was very nervous, he was like a little child – he was truly being born again. He had [his wife] Janet Planet. I don’t know what transpired between being with the Bang people and then coming to Boston, but he obviously went through a rebirth. It was like a story, like a little play. If Van knew that it was deep down in some place that was never conveyed.

I sat and listened to that album almost every night for a year, because I had no one to talk to about it

With “Slim Slow Slider”, there was nothing left to put on that album. We needed time. It was the mood of an ending, I was following the sensitivity of the music and using my own sense of creativity. Nothing else could end the album. I don’t know what was taken out of that song. Nothing terribly memorable. If you hear the reverb at the end of it, it’s tape reverb, and when we had enough time I stopped it. I’ve always wished I could make up a story that would satisfy someone who wanted an observation of what was going on. All I know is that whatever happened, happened. Everybody was in it. Richard was bent over his bass with his eyes closed, listening to Van.

I was totally blown away. It came through you. It was magic. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.

We overdubbed strings in another studio, Masterphone, and the horns were done in the same studio. Larry went in with them. They weren’t full string sections, they were small, and they didn’t play too much. On “Astral Weeks” they come up and across, cascading up and down the other side. It wasn’t very intricate, but it was fulfilling. We did horns on “Young Lovers Do”. I wasn’t particularly happy with that. Van was there, he had comments during the string overdub. Once he felt safe enough to be verbal, he was verbal. It was mostly mumble or grumble. He was given the gift as we all were. He’s a marvellous talent, but at times I don’t believe he knows what’s going on. He was the most removed from it. He didn’t look for answers, he just did it. I knew I had been given a gift, and an opportunity. I don’t think Van had a clue how special it was, it was just part of what he was writing.

I put on the label, In The Beginning and Afterwards. He screamed, “Who told you to do that?” I said, “No one, I just felt it. That’s my two cents worth.”

I sat and listened to that album almost every night for a year, because I had no one to talk to about it besides Bob. Joe Smith at WB said, “What the blank did you give me?” “What did you expect Joe?” “Something like ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’”

We couldn’t get him booked. People wouldn’t stop eating and drinking when he was playing. Rolling Stone made the album. After close to a year, no one would mention it, and then [RS reviewer] Ben Fong Torres was respected, and everybody all of a sudden discovered it and started playing it. That was the miracle of it.

The album was like an ending. From there he was flying away, and out of that came a happier person, which was Moondance.

Moondance was sad for me. He could be pretty wild back then, he was drinking. Van started pulling away from Bob, [manager] Mary Martin snatched him from Bob. Everything suddenly became Van, Van, Van, Van. I don’t know how many producers he went thought at WB.

It was a more pragmatic album. That’s what he learned up in Woodstock, so that I could be killed off. It was put together at the WB rehearsal studio. I picked the songs out, up at the WB studio, I did the road map for that album when we were rehearsing, and then I got demoted. I heard he had thrown a bass across the studio, and for me that was it. It became a nasty situation. Mary talked Van into getting rid of everybody, he wasn’t going to come up with another album unless I gave myself another title and Bob was out of it totally. I chose to go along with it. I made sure WB got the tapes, got the union papers. I think he was angry that he couldn’t claim Astral Weeks. But I’m terribly proud of the album, and I’m so glad I heard what I heard when I heard it.’

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