Sunday, March 01, 2009

In Full: Lewis Merenstein, producer of Astral Weeks

Update, 9/9/16: Goodbye, Lewis Merenstein

Following is the full transcript of an interview I conducted with producer Lewis Merenstein on 10/29/08 at an Upper West Side restaurant. Chances are you haven't heard of him, but it's likely you're familiar with one of the albums he helmed: Van Morrison's stellar 1968 release Astral Weeks, currently experiencing a rebirth of sorts, via Morrison's recent Hollywood Bowl reprisal (which I blogged here), the attendant concert album, and shows in NYC this past weekend and this coming Wednesday and Thursday at the Beacon Theatre. (All info here.)

I've long been obsessed with the remarkable free-form improvisational aspect of the record--in particular, the way Richard Davis's bass intertwines so gorgeously with Morrison's voice on tracks like "Beside You." Probably few other bassists on earth could've adapted so well to this situation and still projected so much of their personality. Davis is easily my favorite jazz bassist, and it's a joy to draw parallels between his '60s work with Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy and others with what he does on Astral Weeks.

Anyway, sorry for the digression. What I meant to state more directly was that Richard Davis would've had nothing to do with Astral Weeks were it not for Merenstein's presence. A seasoned jazz producer, Merenstein was sent by Warner Brothers to check out the latest batch of Morrison's songs, and upon hearing Morrison demo what would become the title track to Astral Weeks, he immediately thought to pair the singer with Davis. (Connie Kay, of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Warren Smith, now a prominent free-jazz drummer, are also on the date.) The pair are shown above--Merenstein on the left, Davis on the right--around the time of the 1968 recording sessions. They're still good friends today.

Merenstein's insights re: the session--as well as re: Morrison's decision to revive the material--are fascinating and will definitely be of interest to any fan of the album, particularly jazz-minded ones. A producer's role isn't always an artistic one, but in the case of Astral Weeks, it definitely was essential to the way the record ended up. As Merenstein puts it, "Richard was the soul of the album."

Before I get to the Q&A, a quick note on its origin. Last October, I began conceiving a feature article on the Astral Weeks revival, focusing on Richard Davis's involvement in the project. Davis was originally slated to perform with Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl, but for reasons still unclear to me, he wasn't present at the gig. The project fell through at that point, but I had already spoken with Merenstein and didn't want to abandon what I felt was an illuminating conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Mr. Merenstein for taking the time to reflect and to Josh Frank for transcription assistance.


Lewis Merenstein: My background was as a recording engineer. I'm from Baltimore, Maryland and when I came to New York, I got a job as a recording engineer and spent the first five years I'd say—four years—working at Nola Penthouse doing only jazz. We did all [of] producer Tom Wilson['s sessions]—I engineered, so I had a marvelous education—in those days it was a small console, two tracks, so you either got it or you didn't. And jazz musicians during that period they could fall in and play; the contractual situations weren't so tight. That a guy came by the studio and you'd say, "Hey, come on," and they sat in: Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Thelonious Monk, on and on and on. At the time, nobody knew who was going to be well known later on. No one knew that Monk would be a legend.

Hank Shteamer: About what year was this?

LM: '50s, late '50s, when I moved to New York. This city had a lot of jazz, a lot more than it has now. Birdland, bigger venues; I know downtown has jazz places for young people, but it was a different energy; it wasn't as fast, didn't have as much computers. Records were still records. So I had an enormous upbringing working with those musicians. As a kid in Baltimore, I studied trumpet—not very well, I was never a great player but I loved music.

HS: When were you born?

LM: A long time ago. [Laughs]

HS: So was Astral Weeks the first record you actually produced?

LM: No, I produced other ones before that. I produced Miriam Makeba, I produced Gladys Knight and the Pips, I produced a lot of rock acts—tremendous variety.

HS: In the Clinton Heylin book [a Van Morrison biography], you were describing your first meeting with Van Morrison...

LM: Warner Brothers had contacted Bob Schwaid [Morrison's manager at the time], and he contacted me. And they had sent some producers, and they didn't know what he was talking about; people went up expecting to hear "Brown Eyed Girl," because the year before he had had "Brown Eyed Girl" on Bang Records and that's what he was last known for. So Joe Smith and Mo Ostin asked me to go up [to Boston] and listen to him. And I went up and it was at Ace Recording Studio at 1 Boylston Place, and there was Van Morrisson, very timdly sitting on a stool and I came in very timidly sitting on a stool and he played! And the first tune he played was "Astral Weeks." Thirty seconds into it, 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. He went on and played more things, various tunes. And I guess everything was agreed on and he came back to New York, with Bob, who was going to manage him, who was picked to manage him and the other producers didn't hear it the way I heard it.

My first thought was when I heard him I heard Richard Davis, because I used to use Richard in a lot of sessions. Van and I rehearsed—Warners had a publisher's little recording studio up at Warner Brothers; they still have it. It's a little place for songwriters to work, producers to work with artists. And we worked for a couple weeks, and he had, I think, been working in Boston and doing a lot of the material, so he knew his material well. I culled through it and chose what tunes I thought—in my mind I'm very conceptual, and I never asked him to discuss the meaning of any of his tunes. He's that kind of a person. We'd sit and have dinner together—you know, like what we're doing now—and we'd talk a lot. He had no idea what was going on. He basically didn't have a clue.

I got Larry Fallon, who I worked with also; he's in heaven now working with other great musicians. He's a jazz player, and he came in and wrote out chord sheets and got Richard involved. I said, "Richard, it's got to really lay underneath him; you can't go and do notes with him because he's just going to sit and play his guitar and you've got to fill it." We decided to get Connie Kay and Jay [Berliner] too and the other people we contacted, which I had worked with some of them before. And I said, "Van, we're going in the studio." And Van does a lot of, "Uh, uh, uh, uh" [mimicking Morrison's monosyllabic, unexpressive speech]—he's got this personality; I don't want to overdescribe it or underdescribe it. I think he's a remarkable poet and all credit to him. As I said to someone else, something that's as timeless as this had to happen: It had to happen that it was me and not Tom Wilson that was sent up there. It had to happen that I heard the lyrics and knew what to do in my mind—or felt I knew what to do. I just—not to sound too metaphysical about it, but there was no way of avoiding that. I believe that's true of anything that's timeless.

Working with jazz musicians, some of them are so timeless. I was at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago to hear Keith Jarrett, the 25th anniversary with his trio; that's beyond timeless. Anyway, we came down, and we went to Brooks Arthur's studio and Van, again, didn't really know what was happening. Larry had worked with him a little in the rehearsal studio, just went over the chords to make sure everything was right and went in the studio. Van had never worked with—I don't believe he had heard of the players we had, and it happened rather spontaneously. I knew what I wanted to do, Van got in a sort of an open booth, just a half-moon booth, with a mike, his guitar, vocal. Richard sat down and ran [a tune], and we did it.

And for me, it was Richard all the way; Richard was the soul of the album. Richard was the heart and beat of it, which I knew he would be because, it was funny: Whenever I used Richard on sessions, you know sometimes you call sessions, musicians play, personalities come out. Whenever I had an important session, I'd call Richard. Richard was always there twenty minutes, half an hour early practicing. And when the other musicians would come in and see Richard, they knew they had to come up to top form.

A lot of respect—it was just beautiful, just beautiful. I forget if we did one take, two takes, how many times I may have interrupted it and asked the band to soften it up a little bit and maybe move the tempo a little bit. Van had nothing to say. He just went and sang the song. That's primarily the way the album preceded.

HS: I know there was a quote online—

LM: Stories. There's been so many stories.

HS: It really seems like there has been. Some people said that it wasn't recorded simultaneously. You're telling me the entire thing was live?

LM: Every cut on that album was done with Van and the basic group, live. What was overdubbed was the strings and the horns. That's it. Flute—there's a flute thing, but I don’t even know if that was overdubbed. I know John Payne wanted to do it, the kid from Boston, and then I said no; I got somebody else, and then I finally said, "Do the thing already." And he was thrilled he did it. It was absolutely—in fact it was so live, I'll give you something inside. I was talking to Richard last night; he teaches bass up in Madison ,Wisconsin. Have you interviewed him?

HS: I'm going to the show and I'm going to speak to him afterwards. [This never happened, since Davis didn't end up performing.]

LM: They [i.e., Morrison's camp] sent him—don't tell him I said this. After the shows it's okay. But they had someone in L.A. write every single note, every breath, every curve, every subtlety that he did, they had written out for him. So he comes out there the next week; they're trying to imitate the exactness of the album. They're not gonna: Connie Kay is in heaven, and the only other person alive was Jay Berliner, which they did the same thing to. This was a spontaneous thing: Richard, all those feelings that you hear on the album that Richard gave the bass line that laid so beautifully there, that you feel, that laid such a nice place for those lyrics to go on; Richard just did that! You know, jazz musicians are— I have a special love for them. You know back when I started, rarely were there charts when they did albums. People came in and did albums, jazz musicians, Lee Morgan and great players, they just knew when it was their turn and they knew what to play. You know, there were plenty of albums that had written-out charts, because Bobby Timmons—I'm talking about jazz musicians that were really fine musicians, and Art [Blakey] had written-out charts. A lot of people had charts, but many dates were done, dates where the pianist started and everyone went with him and the next guy played played his solo and the next guy played with him and so forth and so on. This was that kind of an atmosphere that I created for us.

The funniest thing was that Warner Brothers, when they first heard it, didn't know what to make of it. They said, "This is not 'Brown Eyed Girl.' I said, "I don't know how make 'Brown Eyed Girl.' I said, "You go ahead and you take 'Astral Weeks' and you make that into 'Brown Eyed Girl.' Don't you get what he…?" People didn't get it right way. I think Joe loved it—he was the president of Warner Brothers—and I think somebody else loved it, but they didn't know how to market it; it laid around for a year. I mean, I truly loved the album; I loved it, my heart loved it, I listened to it daily. Not so with most albums I produce, to that degree. Bob couldn't book the band because they wanted "Brown Eyed Girl," and he wasn't "Brown Eyed Girl" anymore. And people didn't know what he was doing. He had his own band—John [Payne] was with him, people from Boston. I think he worked the scene; Bob got him maybe the Bitter End. People didn't get what was happening; that's not what they expected. Rolling Stone, I think it was Ben Fong-Torres, called it the album of the year in 1968, and that's how it happened. He heard it, and heard it; he heard it. It's not an album that you put on and—some people hear it right away, and some people have to hear it a couple times. People used to ask me, "What is he talking about? Who's Madame George?" I said, "Ask him, why are you asking me who Madame George is?" It's beautiful, it's music—let it be whoever you want it to be. He was going with Janet Planet at the time—he may have been married to her or not—"Ballerina," certain tunes. Even the album cover—Warner Brothers' designer listened to the album and he gave it a mystical feel; that was the nature of the album, which can't be explained, like any mystery you can't really explain it. There were more tunes recorded that weren't on the album; that was my choice. I labeled [the sides] "In the Beginning" and "Afterwards." I think Van was a little pissed at me for doing that. I said it felt like a beginning and afterwards when I sequenced the album. The last tune, "Slim Slow Slider," I needed for time on the album. It sort of had the mood of "We're over," something was over. And what was over was actually those tunes in my mind. And working together we already worked a lot of the tunes for Moondance. They just didn't fit: In my mind they didn't work with Astral Weeks, which was really a rebirth kind of mystery. So I think those other tunes were bootlegged. I think Clinton had showed me a copy of four tunes I didn't use; they were meaningless, I never had a copy; I didn't care, they didn't mean much to me.

The album had its normal trials and tribulations. I must have stopped, the engineer must have stopped the album, you know, the album. As a tune is down, you may want to do a piece over. The strings were done at Mastertone Recording Studio on 42nd street. I engineered them. I knew the owner, so I was at the studio one night— engineered them, Larry wrote the strings, Van had comments about them, I had comments about them: where to put them, which tunes to use them on. I don't know how many people know that there's a cascading string line that goes down the left side of the speaker and up the right side of the speaker on "Astral Weeks" at the ending; listen, you'll hear the string line go down. Just little things, you know, touches of more—It was all done; it could have been Van, nothing. We didn't need horns, we didn't strings; it was done, the magic was done. There were just little compliments that were put on. Horns [i.e., on "The Way That Young Lovers Do"] I wasn't thrilled about, but that's what we had in the arrangement. I thought it might have been less harsh, but it seemed to work.

HS: Can you tell me what your exposure to Van Morrison was before you worked with him?

LM: On the radio.

HS: You just heard "Brown Eyed Girl" and stuff like that?

LM: Things like that—Them, maybe some other things. I didn't have any—My exposure to him as a listener of music, and that was it.

HS: In the Heylin book, it said something about how you had King Pleasure in mind when you were conceiving Astral Weeks.

LM: Oh yeah, we both, he and I would sit and talk. James Moody, King Pleasure [hums "Moody's Mood for Love"]. We both loved that. Van, he loved blues. He had real deep roots in blues. When we talked, I don't know what I said in the book—["Moody's Mood for Love"] was one of the musical pieces that was stunning in its description of a feeling.

HS: I think it's interesting that on Astral Weeks, I think there are elements of the record, like "The Way That Young Lovers Do," it's a very jazzy feel in a traditional way. And I think there's another sense though on something like "Beside You," it almost has more in common with the free-form jazz that was happening in the early 60s, more than it does with [records that have] an old-school singer with a jazz orchestra behind them. When you first heard those pieces did you have the more free-form jazz in mind?

LM: The only one I really had in mind was "Astral Weeks," that I really heard. I started hearing them as we were going. I think what Larry did with the horns [on "The Way That Young Lovers Do"] it was the one I wasn't really overjoyed with, as far as the harshness of the arrangements. It was very hard against everything else which was not so hard. It was really definitive, the way it pushed. It caused that tune to sound that way with the horns more than anything else.

HS: Had you heard any of Richard Davis's more avant-garde jazz?

LM: I knew all of it. And the players that I used with him in a lot of the sessions were jazz players. I did a Biff Rose album; I don't know if you remember him, he was a star for a moment. Stunning lyrics, great piano player. In fact, they did a two-sided album, comedy and tragedy because he was bi-musical: "I guess I forgot to tell you how much I love you,"—Oh, it just tore your heart out. I said to Richard, "Bring in who you want," or I had some people; there would be a lot of jazz players. They wouldn't play in the pure jazz form but their sensitivity was that of a jazz player. The nuances were much different than just a regular studio musician, who had a balance. I mean Jay Berliner is a great classical guitarist. You don't see albums with Jay Berliner on it. He's classically styled, it's something different. I'm giving you long answers to some simple questions.

HS: The thing that interests me most about the record is on pieces like "The Way That Young Lovers Do" some of the tunes have more of a repeating form. But like "Beside You," it's almost like the bass is improvising along as the vocal line for the tune.

LM: Probably so.

HS: And it's very free-form and it's unlike any other pop music in the way that it's presented.

LM: Well that's the form that Van presented it. Because Richard was underneath; he didn't create it. Van had to sing it that way, he had to present it that way, and Richard took the liberty of doing what he did underneath it. And the tunes that I liked, most of them had some, I guess it was a mystical romantic feeling to it after being born again. I mean that's the tunes I selected for the album. We didn't always agree.

HS: When you first heard Van Morrison playing the song, and you had this idea of maybe using Richard Davis, did you discuss that with [Morrison]?

LM: I may have, but I don't think—in fact I'm sure he didn't know who Richard Davis was. He hadn't worked in that world with pure jazz players. After this was all over, he tried to use Larry Fallon; it didn't work out. He tried to use Richard Davis; I think he flew Richard to London, but Richard never got a copy of the album, so it didn't work out. In fact Van is trying to do—There's an old saying that you can only step in the river one time. Well, Van is trying to something that can't be done [i.e., reproduce Astral Weeks]. He's not innocent; he was innocent one time, he can't be innocent twice, I mean, as far as I know. I mean you can be a born-again something or other, and change your way of life, go from one type of a life to another type, have a more orthodox life. I'm not saying humans can't change. But when he did Astral Weeks, he didn't even know it, he had been born again. There was a poet that was loose there. It poured out. Think of it. Astral Weeks and Moondance and never again. Tons of albums, nothing equal to those albums. He is a marvelous poet, and he's written some incredible tunes, the tune Rod Stewart did; he's a marvelously gifted poet and artist. But when I went into Ace Studio, there was a little baby sitting there—he was timid. And I hate to say timid. I don't know what he was during "Brown Eyed Girl," but when I met him, I felt like I had met some purely innocent person that was saying these words, and felt it, and didn't really fully get what he was saying. Get the poetry, the poetic—I don't want to just use a bunch of words: He got it, but as a writer he was speaking from his unconscious almost

HS: Along those lines, in terms of stepping in the river twice, how do you feel about the idea that they're trying to re-create it?

LM: I have mixed feelings about it. Van, it's 40 years and the original is on Warner Brothers and maybe he wants to have an opportunity to put it out on his own label now and resell it. Van has never worked for anybody for a long time. Van is a very "I" person: "I wrote it, I produced, I sang on it." He's a very "I" person. And this being the album that is his, quote, creative gift. Rolling Stone put out a tabletop book, I don't know if you saw it or not, with the 500 greatest albums. And the people that picked were everyone from Bono to top disk jockeys and things like that. And this album was voted number 19—19 out of the top 500 albums. I brought a copy of it to show you. If he wanted to just do it, he wouldn't get Richard. Richard is laughing, like, "I don't know if I'll be able to do exactly what I did 40 years ago!" It's pretty hard to play nuances. So I don't know what his motive is.

HS: You don't communicate with Van much anymore?

LM: No, we had unfortunately—during Moondance, when we started working on it, he got a new manager, a woman up in Woodstock, and she wanted to break him out of every agreement. He didn't want to work with Bob anymore, simply because Bob didn't do anything with Astral Weeks and this woman manager, I forget her name, [wanted to get him] out of everything, even though we had pretty much selected the tunes for Moondance, we had rehearsed Moondance. We were having a debate whether he uses some of the players he found at Woodstock or Richard again and some of that again, but that would have been resolved without litigation. So we were moving ahead and litigation stopped how much I could participate. If anything, I could've called myself co-producer of the album, of Moondance, certainly a lot of work was done by Van and the group at Woodstock. My work would've been with total honesty, I would've wanted to get coproduction, which I could've had, they gave me the choice. At the time I was so upset with the whole thing, I think that's the title I gave myself, the title I chose. Because there was going to be a litigation. Bob, without going into it, it was a—What we owned and Warner Brothers and Van owned, was three-way split on things.

HS: Moondance is obviously much more straightforward than Astral Week.
LM: Van was writing that. "Moondance" has a melody; he came in with a light-jazz melody happening to it. Forgive me for interrupting your question.

HS: When you were thinking of bringing Richard and the other musicians back, were you thinking of making Moondance a similar thing to Astral Weeks?

LM: No, no, no, only Richard, not the rest of the muscians. This was a different thing; this was a poppish type of thing.

HS: So you had no intention of sort of re-doing that?

LM: I, as a producer, if I got anything out of working with an engineer, [it was that] I worked with good producers. I attempt to frame the artist within the best way, not to make X,Y, not to turn it sideways. They're the artist. I'm the artist in my way of what I do. But no, I knew it was pop right away. I could've put "Moondance" on Astral Weeks, but it didn't fit. It was a pop tune. There's nothing pop on Astral Weeks, I don't care how you cut it. You can try to do, and I think some of the tunes may have done; Johnny Rivers covered a tune from Moondance the second it was released and had a hit with it. But lyrically, it was marvelous; it was a marvelous album.

HS: Back to the Astral Weeks sessions: You said there were chord sheets given to Richard Davis?

LM: Larry wrote just chords that the bands played,

HS: So you wrote them out?

LM: Yeah, just the chords. They were there for interpretation.
HS: Richard was sort of the leader of the thing, right?
LM: No, he was over there, the drummer that was there. Van was the leader, Van played.

HS: But [Morrison] never discussed what he wanted to do? He would just start playing and they would start playing?

LM: Larry would run the tune down once or twice.

HS: And so the other musicians would play without the vocal?

LM: No, with the vocal, they'd get a feel of where it was going. How it was going.

HS: But the arrangements—

LM: There were no arrangements.

HS: It was pretty much spontaneous.

LM: It was totally, the whole album was done, other than the strings and the horns was done free-from, spontaneous, not free-form, but spontaneous based on what Van was doing. If you listen very carefully you'll hear in most tunes, it's Van and Richard happening and drums everything moving it along.

HS: I heard there was an edit on "Slim Slow Slider," that there was a long instrumental section at the end.

LM: No [Laughs]. I faded it out; there may have been an edit, who knows. Whatever I took out, if there was something taken out, it was because it didn't have any relativity in my mind to what was done. "Slim Slow Slider" was just—of the tunes that were, I think four other tunes may have been cut that we were thinking about. Because in my mind we needed more time for the album and of them "Slim Slow Slider" had the best ending effect. Sort of sad, melancholy type ending. I don't remember honestly whether there was something cut out or not.

HS: There's someone in the book quoted as saying there was a long instrumental section, that was played, that didn't appear on the actual album.

LM: That's possible

HS: Those tapes don't still exist?

LM: Not that I know of.

HS: There was also some indication in the book that Van Morrison that album didn't end up the way he wanted it to end up.

LM: Totally regardless of what Van said, Van had no idea how he wanted to album to start or end.

HS: Do you remember talking to him afterwards about whether or not he was satisfied or after the sessions or anything like that?

LM: We were on to Moondance. I don't know, we just gave the album to Warner Brothers. I don't remember him having any comments.

HS: Did he comment on the sensitivity of the players that you had chosen?

LM: Van—did you ever see Van work in person?

HS: No.

LM: Well Van will stand there holding the microphone. He's almost frozen on stage most of the time; he's not a performer. Van doesn't give much respect to his audience, much less anyone else around him.

HS: Because Richard Davis said there was absolutely no contact between Van and the musicians.

LM: None! Zero. When I say zero, I mean they didn't hang out. Take was over, there was a break, Richard and the guys went out to smoke a cigarette, grabbed a cup of coffee. They weren't Van's band.

HS: Were you self-conscious about that, bringing those parties together? It was just sort of a professional situation?

LM: That's what had to be done. What was I going to do? Go out and find musicians who would fall in love with Van and start a band and do that? Might as well of taken five years. I took an artist and produced an album.

HS: So there was no direction you sensed coming from him, so you took control and did it your way.

LM: The direction was him singing and playing—that was where I followed. That's why it came out the way it did. If I would've gone somewhere else, it wouldn't have came out the way it did. So there obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.

HS: I didn't mean to say that it was haphazard…

LM: No, no, no, I'm very serious with you. Just think, when I sat down, I said to you that something as timeless as forty years had to happen because it had to happen. I had to be the one to do it. Not that producer, not that producer, not that producer, regardless of their accomplishments. It had to be Richard, not that bass player. I don't want to sound to existential, but there was Van, and that was it; there was no band. We didn't talk about going out and finding a band that was gonna play "Madame George." That was a tune that he had when he was on Bang Records. Nobody knew what to do with "Madame George." That wasn't a new tune he wrote for the album.

HS: Obviously the album has gotten a huge amount of accolades, but when you cut it, did you have a sense of the unprecedentedness of it?

LM: I just knew it was beautiful and I felt good. I felt real good. Having been a recording engineer working with people, I can pick out, I wish this was mixed a little different—you know, I stood behind Brooks and tried to balance it properly. If you write you might wish you would've changed a sentence. I was totally in love with it—I loved it, it was beautiful. It was stunning and it still is to this day. To this day it still gives me pain to hear it. Pain is the wrong word—I'm so moved by it. It is what it is.

HS: So would you even want to hear what was done live with it? Do you have any interest in it?

LM: Curiosity. But I mean it's going to be what it's going to be, unless he adds other tunes. I mean, what's he going to do? Sing Astral Weeks in another language? He gave Richard [the bass notation]—In fact, he's doing a cover record, on himself. It's a timeless piece.

I'm your age and I did an album. This was given to me [referring to Rolling Stone book on 500 greatest albums]: Exile on Main Street, the Clash, Bob Dylan—he's got three albums in the top 20—The White Album, here look at it, The Velvet Underground, which my Buddy Tom did, Abbey Road, Are You Experienced? Look at the albums, legendary albums: Nevermind, Born to Run, Astral Weeks. You know what it felt like when someone gave me this? You know how it feels to feel like a little kid and go, "Oh my god, me?" You know what I feel? I have no idea who wrote this: Look at this review, read the last paragraph and tell me what you feel like, you be me for a second. Look at the last paragraph and then tell me what you feel like.

HS: Wow.

LM: That wow went right through me. "The crowning achievement of the album was choosing the—" [a reference to Merenstein's decision to use seasoned jazz players as sidemen]. That's exactly what happened, those people added the color and the mist. Look what the artist did to the album, listening to the album; he made the cover, no one told him to make it like that. It was all there, it couldn't not be exactly that.

HS: That's great how they credited you like that.

LM: Think of yourself as a writer, if someone said the crowning achievement, the 19 greatest pieces of writing out of 500. I see the albums that came after it and the people that chose, from Bono, to 50 top disk jockeys. How did it end up being number 19? That's why [Morrison] wants to do [Astral Weeks] again.

HS: I'm wondering if you feel in your years since then, did you ever hear any albums or artists that were kind of picking up the thread of what you guys had begun with that record?

LM: I think it may have, I don't know. I have heard artists, the first album of this English group.

HS: Current group? Radiohead?

LM: Beautiful keyboard thing, singing beautiful vocals. The lead singer is married to the actress.

HS: Coldplay.

LM: Their first album wiped me to the ground, leveled me. I lie in bed, listened to the album, and had the same feeling. When I get that feeling, I know something is going to happen. A friend of mine in California, had just gotten it and said, "Lewis, I'm going to send you an album that's just going to knock you down." Coldplay did the same thing to me in a way; it got me in the same place where it just exhausted my emotions, I said, "Oh I can't hear it again. Let me hear it again, but I can't hear it again." It was too much to handle.

HS: Do you listen to much contemporary music?

LM: Yeah, I listen to a lot of music. I love music.

HS: Do you produce anymore?

LM: Yeah, it's hard for me to get up the energy to do it, because I've done so much work in the studio and I can't tolerate people who think they're originating something. They do a bass lick and think they invented it. After the people I worked with. And it takes a different kind of energy today to do it then it did back then. I actually stopped working in the studio, maybe about 16—when we used to hook up 32 tracks. I started with mono basically and then it became, "Well, the guitar player wants to do his part again." Well if he wants to do his part again and the bass player wants to do his part again, an album that would've taken three months would take a year; an album that would cost 50 thousand dollars would cost half a million dollars. It was tolerating—The best PBS show I ever saw on music, and I've seen a lot of shows, was about two years ago, they had one on George Martin. Have you ever seen this?

HS: No, I'd like to see it.

LM: Get it if you can. You're interested in music. There was a lot of scenes that you saw before the studio with the Beatles. He was being asked questions, "George, what do you think of this?" and they showed the equipment they worked on and how incredible, I mean the equipment was basic equipment, two-track equipment that they overdubbed and multidubbed and how marvelously inventive they all were. I'll just paraphrase the ending. The guy says, "George, you've produced every single Beatle album; that's a mind boggling thought if you're in the music business." That's right: "You produced every single Beatle album." It's haunting, it's like what an achievement, what a gift. "What do you think the Beatles' greatest gift was?" "That's a tough question, let's see"—I'm paraphrasing this now. "Songwriters, entertaining guys, fine musicians, etc., etc." There's a pause, and already my head is in the television set waiting to hear what he's going to say. "But their greatest gift of all that they had, they had nothing to do with." My head at that time was in the tube. And the guy said, "Well, what was that?" And he answered, "Their timing." How humble. How totally humble a man—what enormous sensitivity to life. He knew if they came a year earlier or a year later, nobody would've cared. Almost nobody cared almost a month later. But the world was ready for it.

So I could say the same for Astral Weeks 40 years later. Any album that 40 years later people are still playing and talking about and they're willing to write about and find out deeper secrets about it. But there are no secrets about it other than he played it, I heard it and knew where to go. And that's because I had my sensitivity and my emotions, my professionalism. And he had his sensitivities, poetry, artistry, rebirth, or unconscious way of speaking poetry that he might not have had before. It certainly wasn't obvious before. So as time goes by, I keep telling the George Martin story to people who speak loudly about themselves, in a way, only because I see that's truly the way it is. In Hebrew, they might say it's bashert—it was meant to happen. Every language has its own "It's supposed to happen" kind of thing. I'm lucky! Someone called me and said, "Go to Boston." I was standing and talking to Tom. We're the dearest of friends; they could've called him, and he could've gone to Boston. Or somebody else, other people did go and didn't know what he was talking about. They went up and wanted to hear "Brown Eyed Girl." So ask me more questions.

HS: I feel like you pretty much covered them

LM: Clinton did a pretty good job with the book I thought. He interviewed me four or five times, but he was smart. I'll tell you something: He knew the answer to maybe 20 percent of the questions he asked me. And I didn't know it until—He wanted to find out whether I was—He did it with everybody—whether they were telling the truth. He had been to the Warner studio, the rehearsal studio. The guy was still there that knew what we had done; he knew, he did all this research.

I've worked with a lot of great people: Van Morrison, George Burns did his first singing album when he was 75 years old, with Larry Fallon and we had an orchestra. He said, "I'm not gonna sing"; I said, "George, you gotta sing." Neil Bogart at Buddah wanted me to do it and I had him doing "With a Little Help from My Friends." You know I love music and I love the privilege of being able to participate with other people who love music. And I love being stopped in my tracks by a guy like Monk in the middle of the take with 15 other musicians, I go looking for him and I'm scared to stop the tape machines and he comes into the studio and pinches my cheek and says something I don't even understand and I said, "Oh," and he goes back out the studio and back on the piano and starts working. Those things; there's stories with any profession, but with music it's something different.


Anonymous said...

The Warner Bros. exec was Mo Ostin, not Moe Austin.

orleyfarm said...

Just came across your blog--am thrilled to see Richard Davis get he props he deserves for his playing on Astral Weeks.
I have the Ken Mc(Mac?)Intyre album "Home" featuring Jaki Byard that you were looking for--if you are still looking for it let me know how to get in touch.

Anonymous said...

Great read. The Tom he is referring to is Tom Wilson, this black cat who produced 3 Dylan albums + Like A Rolling Stone. Dead now, and largely forgotten. Maybe you can get back to Lewis to do an appreciation of him.

Anonymous said...

tremendous interview. love his angle on casting a record and going where the music, not necessarily the artist, wants to go.

HDN said...

Best interview on the subject I read in a very long time.

ian murray said...

"Some people hear it right away" said the man. It was late autumn 1972, it was Chiswick, west London; I (drummer) had accompanied my friend Ray Flacke (guitarist) to visit his cronie, also a guitarist in his bed-sit flat. We smoked a joint and drank tea with digestive biscuits and they began to blether strings, chords, amps etc. I strolled over to a record player and picked up an album I'd never seen before, remembered the name from a long-removed band called Them and drifted off into what was to become a life-long love affair with Astral Weeks...."Some people hear it right away"