Glen Hansard’s “Astral Weeks”: A Sacred Space
My father died of cancer when he was 48 and I was a senior in college. Lung cancer, although he was not a smoker. One of my first acts upon returning to college from New York City after the funeral was to plug in my guitar and play the four chords to the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” over and over and over again. To me that day, “Sweet Jane” was New York – it was cold, it was wind, it was hard earth, it was a hole six feet in the ground, it was dirt being shoveled into the hole, it was worms slowly devouring what was in the hole, it was my mother sobbing, it was my brother stone-faced, it was my grandparents burying their son, it was me unraveled and alone.
I couldn’t stop playing those four chords. I must have sat there for an hour, like a metronome, back and forth, back and forth. Those four chords kept me afloat, kept me from falling into that hole myself. I played those four chords every way I could think of: I played them thrashing, I played them plodding; I played them deafening, I played them hushed; I played them with distortion, I played them raw; I played them with rage, I played them with submission; I played them with the conviction that “life is just to die”; and I played them because I didn’t know what else to do.
Watching Glen Hansard perform Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” recently in Oakland brought me back to my college room and to those four chords. Hansard played the two primary chords of “Astral Weeks” in much the same way, over and over and over again, hushed and enraged, tenderly and maliciously; he caressed his guitar like a newborn and wielded it like a machine gun, his powerful voice perfectly complimenting the dual currents. I sensed he would have played those two chords back and forth the entire night if there were not an audience to placate, that if someone had taken his guitar from him in the midst of those two chords, he would have turned to ash. Hansard transformed those two chords into a prayer; they wrenched him, left him exhausted. I witnessed the power of music in Hansard’s performance. How it shines a purifying light on the darkest recesses and provides a sustaining strength in times of self-doubt. Watching him perform “Astral Weeks” is like being let into a sacred space.