An Appreciation: Lewis Merenstein, producer of Van Morrison masterpiece ‘Astral Weeks’
Even if Lewis Merenstein hadn’t produced records by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Miriam Makeba, John Cale, the Spencer Davis Group, Mama Cass Elliot and numerous other acts, music fans would owe him a debt of deep gratitude if the only recording he helped usher into existence had been Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece “Astral Weeks.”
Merenstein, who died Sept. 6 at age 81 of complications from pneumonia, had mostly worked in the world of jazz with producer Tom Wilson when Morrison’s manager asked him to meet with the singer.
This came on the heels of Morrison’s first solo hit, “Brown Eyed Girl,” after leaving his band Them. When Warner Bros. Chairman Mo Ostin and label President Joe Smith signed Morrison to their label, Merenstein was already aboard. He had the idea of lining up some top jazz musicians to work with him.
Morrison had been living and working on the East Coast of the U.S. in 1966 and ’67 while signed to Bang Records, the label run by producer and songwriter Bert Berns, who died of a heart attack at age 38, leaving Morrison without the champion who’d been backing him.
“I was living on a shoestring — a very hand-to-mouth existence at that time — in Boston and for a long time after that too,” Morrison told The Times in a 2007 interview.
“I went down to New York and this is when I got the offer from Warner Bros.,” he said. “They had told me they had to buy out the Bang deal — then I got involved with Merenstein, et al. The real reason I made ‘Astral Weeks’ recordings in New York is because I was literally broke and they kept me stranded there.”
Merenstein described his first interaction with Morrison in a 2009 interview with jazz writer Hank Shteamer, who has recently posted his complete interview with Merenstein on his website.
“Warner Bros. had contacted Bob Schwaid [Morrison’s manager at the time], and he contacted me,” Merenstein told Shteamer. “They had sent some producers, and they didn’t know what he [Morrison] was talking about; people went up expecting to hear ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’ because … that’s what he was last known for.
“And I went up and it was at Ace Recording Studio at 1 Boylston Place, and there was Van Morrison, very timidly sitting on a stool, and I came in very timidly sitting on a stool and he played,” Merenstein said. “And the first tune he played was ‘Astral Weeks.’
“Thirty seconds into it,” Merenstein recalled, “my whole being was vibrating, because having spent all that time with jazz players, when he was playing, I could hear — the lyric I got right away; I knew he was being reborn. I heard 30 seconds, a minute and it went right through me, and I got the poetry of it. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.”
Merenstein contacted jazz bassist Richard Davis, then brought in guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay and percussionist Warren Smith Jr. as the core band to work with Morrison, who innately fused jazz, folk, Celtic music, R&B, soul, blues and gospel in the free-form songs that came to constitute “Astral Weeks.”
Some string accompaniment and horn parts were overdubbed later, but most of the album was recorded live in the studio, in just one or two takes for each track, Merenstein said. There was virtually no verbal communication between Morrison and the musicians during the sessions, he said.
“He was really an artist,” longtime music executive Smith told The Times this week. “He gave us this album, ‘Astral Weeks,’ which never exploded [commercially], but it became such an insider record, a you’ve-gotta-hear-the-way-this-guy-sings kind of record.
“We had such an artist roster then — Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, not run-of-the-mill artists,” Smith said. “They were very special and had to be treated specially. Van’s album came off the books, and when I played it for opinion makers we had, the feeling was that if it was not a smash [hit] album, it was definitely the work of a very important artist.”
In 2007, Morrison told The Times that “The music on ‘Astral Weeks’ required these great musicians because no one else could have pulled it off like they did.”
Four decades after it was recorded, Morrison said, “The music on ‘Astral Weeks’ is sophisticated poetry that is multi-layered in sounds that I do not think the majority take the time to wrap their head around.… It’s subjective.
“I think it would be reductive for me to try to answer why,” he said. “I’d guess there are many reasons why it took so long [to be appreciated by the public], but yet is recognized — it’s different than anything then and different still than anything that is obtainable now. Maybe there is not a big market for thoughtful deep music. I do not know… it speaks different things to different people. Maybe it spoke ‘Don’t buy me’ to some — I’m not sure, [but] I have always been quite sure it is not Top 40 material.”
Merenstein, who said he also made suggestions as to tempo or arrangement of some songs during the “Astral Weeks” sessions, also served as executive producer on Morrison’s subsequent album, “Moondance,” which became his commercial breakthrough in 1970.
After that, the two men parted ways.
“I’ve been asked about this many times,” Smith said, “and of my five or 10 favorite records of my tenure at Warner Bros., ‘Moondance’ is right up there at the top. Whatever differences we may have had [personally], I have total respect for the man’s talent.”
Of Merenstein’s role in the creation of ‘Astral Weeks,’ Morrison told The Times this week, “I think he did a great job on the sessions and pulling the right musicians together.
“He also teamed me up with my old buddy, engineer Brooks Arthur, from the Bert Berns days, to make it more comfortable for me. I am really sorry to hear of his passing.”
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