Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” has always seemed like a fluke. In November, 1968, the irascible songwriter from Belfast released a jazz-influenced acoustic song cycle that featured minimal percussion, an upright bass, flute, harpsichord, vibraphone, strings, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being transported to “another time” and “another place.” The album was recorded in three sessions, with the string arrangements overdubbed later. Many of the songs were captured on the first or second take. Morrison has called the sessions that produced the album “uncanny,” adding that “it was like an alchemical kind of situation.” A decade later, Lester Bangs called the album “a mystical document” and “a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk.” Bruce Springsteen said that it gave him “a sense of the divine.” The critic Greil Marcus equated the album to Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long-jump performance at the Mexico City Olympics, a singular achievement that was “way outside of history.”
Ryan H. Walsh’s new book, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” takes up Morrison’s sui-generis masterpiece and unearths the largely forgotten context from which it emerged. Though the songs on “Astral Weeks” were recorded in New York and are full of references to Morrison’s childhood in Northern Ireland, they were, in Walsh’s words, “planned, shaped and rehearsed in Boston and Cambridge,” where Morrison lived and performed for much of 1968. In documenting the milieu out of which the album came, Walsh also argues for Boston as an underappreciated hub of late-sixties radicalism, artistic invention, and social experimentation. The result is a complex, inquisitive, and satisfying book that illuminates and explicates the origins of “Astral Weeks” without diminishing the album’s otherworldly aura.
For unexpected weather, Par’ici sells Eiffel Tower-themed umbrellas, sun hats, and scarves; for amusement, it sells Eiffel Tower-embossed soccer balls, poker chips, and Rubik’s Cubes. Several dozen types of Eiffel Tower miniatures are also on offer, from inch-high plastic key chains that cost 0.50 euros, to bronze lawn ornaments that stand four-and-a-half-feet tall and sell for 890 euros each. The store also offers a fair selection of items that don’t allude to the Eiffel Tower (Mona Lisa shot glasses, plastic cancan-dancer figurines, ballpoint pens in the shape of baguettes, etc.), but for the most part Eiffel Tower products dominate.
A central irony here is that 52 Rue Mouffetard is not particularly close to the Eiffel Tower. One cannot glimpse the Tower from any point along this cobblestoned thoroughfare, and a pedestrian would need to walk west for one hour to reach the monument on foot. It is because of this seeming anomaly—not in spite of it—that Par’ici feels like a fitting place to begin our investigation of souvenirs.
In a recent conversation with Vulture’s great interviewer David Marchese, the actor and comedian Martin Short talked a bit about the process he goes through when preparing to be a guest on a late-night talk show. “What I do for a typical talk-show appearance, and I’m not exaggerating, is I’ll send in something like 18 pages ahead of time,” Short said, adding that he then spends at least ninety minutes speaking with a show’s producer, cutting down his proposed material and shaping it into a conversation he’ll have with the host. What looks almost like an organic chat on TV is really a tightly choreographed two-man bit, with Short doing, as he puts it, “an impersonation of myself being relaxed.”
He’s not alone in preparing meticulously. During his last appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” in 2015, Short told a story about how his friend Steve Martin would call him, from time to time, to tell him a joke that he was readying for a “Letterman” appearance that was still months away. (And less fastidious guests are compelled by most late-night shows to at least have their material vetted before they appear.) Yet one gets the sense that, of all his peers, Short is the hardest-working talk-show guest in the business—and, as a result, he may also be the greatest.
In the midst of such global problems, fiction can seem like an indulgent distraction. Books that touch on topical issues might get a pass — it’s hard to deny the importance of To Kill a Mockingbird or War and Peace — but what about those quiet novels that explore one person’s intellectual development or emotional turmoil?
Taking this question as an entry point, Lisa Halliday has written a slyly ambitious debut novel, Asymmetry, that manages to deliver personal and global stories as if they were one.