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Music producer behind Van Morrison's legendary Astral Weeks album dies

By Ivan Little

Published 12/09/2016

Lewis Merenstein (pictured) worked with Van Morrison to produce the Belfast-born musician’s iconic album Astral Weeks
Lewis Merenstein (pictured) worked with Van Morrison to produce the Belfast-born musician’s iconic album Astral Weeks
Van Morrison
Iconic album Astral Weeks

An unsung hero behind Van Morrison's iconic album Astral Weeks - which is regularly named by rock critics as one of the greatest records of all time - has died at the age of 81.

Lewis Merenstein produced the 1968 album, which featured classic songs like Cyprus Avenue and Madam George.

And he was executive producer on Morrison's Moondance album, which also featured in CNN's list of the 100 finest ever records.

Fans of Van Morrison have taken to social media sites to pay tribute to Merenstein, who initially worked on jazz albums in New York, but was contacted by Morrison's record company Warner Brothers after a number of other producers they had sent to meet the Belfast singer were baffled by both him and his music.

They couldn't understand the songs he was proposing to record on Astral Weeks, which they had been expecting to be just like his massive hit, Brown Eyed Girl.

Merenstein said in a 2009 interview that after he came face to face with Morrison in Boston he was blown away by his new music.

He said that Morrison "was sitting very timidly on a stool".

"There was a little baby sitting there. I felt like I had met some purely innocent person, who didn't really fully get what he was saying.

"As a writer he was speaking from his unconscious, almost," he said.

But Merenstein knew instantly that he wanted to be associated with the very different ethereal and melodic songs that Van had written for the album and the first one he heard him playing was Astral Weeks itself.

He said: "I started crying. It (the music) just vibrated in my soul and I knew that I wanted to work with that sound."

As Bob Schwaid, Merenstein's colleague in a company called Inherit Productions, set about freeing Morrison from contractual obligations to his late producer Bert Berns' Bang Records, he started recruiting some of the finest American jazz musicians, including guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay and bass player Richard Davis, to play on Astral Weeks.

He said that Morrison had never worked with any of the musicians before and probably hadn't even heard of them, although the feeling was probably mutual.

But he added "it all happened rather spontaneously", with Morrison leading the way for the others to follow.

In a 2008 interview, Morrison said that he had no choice about the selection of Merenstein as his producer, because he had no money. And he said he did most of the production himself.

However, Morrison was angry that while he wrote the songs on Astral Weeks to a storyline, Merenstein placed them out of sequence on the finished album.

"I think Van was a little p***** with me for doing that," Merenstein conceded. The producer's admiration for Morrison never dimmed, however. He described the Morrison of the Astral Weeks sessions as a marvellously gifted poet and artist. "I knew he was being reborn. It was stunning."

He said that after Warner Brothers received the album, the company didn't know what to make of it and told Merenstein to "make Astral Weeks into Brown Eyed Girl", but he said he still loved the "timeless" record - which still moved him decades after he produced it.

Back in 1968, it was only after Rolling Stone magazine named Astral Weeks as its album of the year that people started to pay it attention and to give Van Morrison the credit he was due, although sales never matched the critical acclaim that it received. Merenstein, who went on to produce records by the Spencer Davis Group, John Cale, the Mamas & the Papas and country rock star Charlie Daniels, said that there had been no contact between Van Morrison and the musicians who worked on Astral Weeks.

One musician, Richard Davis, said he didn't think Van even introduced himself, but said: "He seemed very shy".

In November 2008, Morrison recruited Jay Berliner as one of the musicians to play two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, playing the entire Astral Weeks album.

He later toured with the same show and released a live album and a DVD of the Hollywood performances. Merenstein wasn't involved in the 'new' Astral Weeks, but there are reports that he did go to see the show, even though he had his reservations about what Morrison was doing.

In another interview last year, Merenstein repeated how much Astral Weeks had impacted on him, but he said working on Van's Moondance album was sad.

"He could be pretty wild back then, he was drinking," he said, adding that it wasn't long before Morrison's new manager around the time of Moondance talked him into getting rid of Merenstein and everyone else who had been working with him.

But for Merenstein, who died of complications due to pneumonia, Astral Weeks will undoubtedly be his musical legacy.

He once said: "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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