Asked and obliged to be concise, I would name Astral Weeks by Van Morrison as my favourite album, and ‘Madame George’ from Astral Weeks as my favourite song. This article isn’t intended as an extensive exploration of the album’s music or themes; it doesn’t recount my listening experiences of the song as a form of personal history; and nor does it fully attempt to define or explain my feelings when I hear it today. Instead, it is a brief history of how the album and the song came about; and a depiction of how it encouraged, in turn, an interest in a particular perfume.
Van Morrison’s band Them, after touring America for a couple of months but returning to Ireland neither moneyed nor content with their management, disbanded in 1966. Morrison signed a contract in haste with Bang Records – a label just founded by Bert Berns, who had produced some of Them’s recordings – and in early 1967 travelled back to America, to New York, recording there over two days a group of songs which Bang Records released as the album Blowin’ Your Mind!. Morrison, apparently neither consulted nor made aware of the impending release, was unhappy with the album, believing the songs he had recorded would only be released as singles and that they did not, collected together, comprise a coherent stream of music.
One of the songs from the album which was released as a single, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the middle of 1967. Owing to the terms of the contract he had signed, in neither the short nor the long term did its success furnish Morrison with financial reward. Increasingly in dispute with Berns – who made it difficult for Morrison to get gigs in New York; and who failed to provide anything approaching assistance when Morrison faced visa problems, eventually solved when he married his American girlfriend – Morrison relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He began performing in Cambridge and Boston with a small band comprising acoustic guitar, double bass and flute, developing songs which he had written and kept to himself over the past several years. Motivated by ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, several producers from Warner Bros. attended one such performance. The group included Lewis Merenstein, part of Inherit Productions with whom Warner Bros. had a working relationship; and Merenstein, moved in particular by a performance of ‘Astral Weeks’, determined to sign Morrison and set to work on an album.
Astral Weeks, in essence Morrison’s solo debut, was released in November 1968. Merenstein’s partner at Inherit, Bob Schwaid, had succeeded amid acrimonious circumstances in freeing Morrison from his contract with Bang: Warner Bros. ultimately buying Morrison out of the deal, although he was laden with a stipulation requiring him to submit to Bang thirty-one original songs, a task he only fulfilled by passing on, according to Ilene Berns, ‘nonsense music about ringworms’.
Astral Weeks was recorded over three sessions, with its eight songs ultimately drawn from two of the three: the first, taking place on the evening of 25 September; and the last, on the evening of 15 October. The middle session, on 1 October, took place in the morning, and according to the musicians involved this failed to provide the right atmosphere for the music with which they were engaged. There is a palpable sense of the evening through Astral Weeks, an impression of a fading outer light consummate with an intensifying inner desire. The musicians that the recordings brought together were talented and experienced: the two most prominent, double-bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, having previously worked on two of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Davis on Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album, Out to Lunch!, Berliner on Charles Mingus’ 1963 record, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
‘Madame George’ was one of four songs recorded during the first session, alongside ‘Cyprus Avenue’, ‘Beside You’, and the title composition. Despite the pedigree of the musicians, it remains one of the miracles of art that a collection of people who had not worked with each other before, and who played without lead sheets – which provided the musicians significant freedom of expression – came together and made these four pieces in one sitting.
John Cale was working in an adjacent studio, and years later reported that, ‘Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes’. This account doesn’t appear quite true: Morrison recorded concurrently with the rest of the musicians, but apparently somewhat isolated, remaining in a separate vocal booth. Yet the music which resulted transcends music, inseparable from the heart and the soul Van Morrison reveals through his singing.
‘Madame George’ was originally called ‘Madame Joy’, and first recorded while Van Morrison was still with Bang Records. A version of the song, titled ‘Madame George’ but with Morrison singing ‘Madame Joy’ throughout, was released on the 1973 album put out by Bang against Morrison’s wishes, T.B. Sheets (Columbia later compiled the same recordings on a 1991 release, Bang Masters). Whereas the title track indicates – in its surging rhythmic claustrophobia, in its suffocating closeness to suffering – what was to come on Astral Weeks, the version of ‘Madame George’ on T.B. Sheets is much looser, drawing more from R&B and funk than jazz, coming in at half the length, and with an atmosphere of the pub or the club, emphasised by audible background chatter and drinking.
As it appears on Astral Weeks, the song is a ten-minute reflection, a monologue in which the speaker recalls tenderly a scene from his youth, an ambiguous corner-bound figure, and their physical passing but emotional and metaphysical remains. The speaker pulls the scene apart and places it together piece by piece, talking himself explicitly through his recollection, softly remembering ‘That’s when you fall’, and the moment ‘You know you gotta go / On a train from Dublin up to Sandy Row / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below / In the rain, hail, sleet and snow’. The music critic Lester Bangs, in a beautiful piece of writing published in 1979, refers to the title character of the song as a ‘lovelorn drag queen’, and this seems indisputable from the song’s lyrics and gestures, though some have read ‘George’ as a reference to heroin. What follows are the song’s opening lines:
‘Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision slipping into view
The click and clacking of the high-heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy Madame George
Marching with the soldier boy behind
He’s much older now with hat on drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like Shalimar’
* * *
The House of Guerlain was founded in 1828 in Paris by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain, a chemist who moved into cosmetics, began to focus on perfumery, and had increasing success – often creating personalised perfumes, with Honoré de Balzac one of his clients – in what was a fledgling market.
Pierre-François was able to open a store on the prestigious rue de la Paix in 1840; and in 1853 he became the official perfumer of Emperor Napoleon III, creating Eau de Cologne Impériale for Empress Eugénie. When Pierre-François died in 1864, with Guerlain well established in Paris and receiving commissions from royalty across Europe, the perfumery passed to his sons, Aimé and Gabriel. They took respectively the responsibilities of master perfumer and commercial manager: one working on the fragrances while the other took care of the finances, production and marketing.
The perfume which Aimé Guerlain is most remembered for today is Jicky. It stands as the oldest perfume in continual existence, created in 1889 and produced with the same structure, with the same notes, ever since. Aimé was motivated to utilise, for the first time in perfumery, synthetic alongside natural ingredients in his composition. For its lavender and vanilla accord, Aimé took natural bergamot and lavender, and added to these synthetic vanillin – a relatively recent development by German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann, Wilhelm Haarmann and Karl Reimer – and synthetic coumarin and linalool.
The vanillin used by Guerlain was procured from De Laire, a laboratory in France which had bought the patent from the Germans. The vanillin it produced was of an impure grade, leaving several residual chemicals which continued to provide Guerlain’s perfumes with their distinctive vanilla note well into the next century. Appreciation for Jicky slowly grew, and though marketed as a feminine perfume, its bold and revolutionary scent saw it worn by many men.
Jacques Guerlain, Aimé’s nephew and an inspiration for Jicky, took over as master perfumer in 1895. He created a string of celebrated fragrances, including Après L’Ondée, L’Heure Bleue, and Mitsouko, before creating Shalimar in 1921. The apocryphal tale of its development goes that Jacques, by way of experiment, simply poured whole a sample of vanillin into a bottle of Jicky – and Shalimar was the result. Its top note is of bergamot; its middle combines the floral notes of jasmine, rose and iris with a characteristically herbal thyme; and its base notes comprise that strong dose of vanillin, coumarin, opoponax and civet.
Shalimar was re-released in 1925, in a bottle designed by Raymond Guerlain, and made by the crystal house Baccarat. It has been in continual production ever since. Shalimar was important in establishing Guerlain outside of France. Considered the classic oriental fragrance, it remains the flagship perfume of the House of Guerlain.
An old and much missed Van Morrison website, once hosted at harbour.sfu.ca, told me in my youth what the mention of Shalimar in ‘Madame George’ explicitly meant. The song, with its sense of Shalimar’s sweet scent, drifting and lingering in the cool night-time air, inspired my interest in perfumery: there was an obvious impulse towards sharing something of the song’s atmosphere, something of its world. Shalimar was one of the first two perfumes I bought around three or four years ago – alongside Guerlain’s Vetiver – and I wear it whenever the mood is right.
Lester Bangs’ essential piece on Astral Weeks: https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html
An excellent blog on perfumery by Elena Vosnaki, which explains in detail the chemistry of Shalimar: http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.nl/2008/09/shalimar-by-guerlain-review-and-history.html