How does this protagonist experience himself? Because no one else actually speaks in the song, this is an important question. He experiences himself as put in place by forces beyond his control, and paralyzed— “caught one more time/ up on Cyprus Avenue.” Because he throws in “one more time,” we get the sense that this voyeuristic impulse is compulsive. A slave to his compulsion, “conquered in a car seat,” he never, at least in the song, reckons that he has volitional power to change or modify his behavior. He may want to be caught. There’s not much we can infer about his life situation— he may or may not have a normal job, friends, or even a wife and family. He worries that he “may go crazy/ before that mansion on the hill,” but he hasn’t gone crazy yet; he drinks, but not so much that it obliterates his faculties. What he reveals needs to be parsed carefully— while he is clearly socially anxious, it may be context-dependent; it could hinge on his deviance, and not be present elsewhere. But his social anxiety does not make him particularly repentant— he enjoys that “the little girls drop something/ on the way back home from school.” That the next line directs his attention to falling leaves suggests a man of age— that the little girls’ youthfulness (and his attraction to their nascent sexuality) reminds him of his own impinging obsolescence. It is curious to note that Morrison wrote and recorded this song in his early twenties— like Ray Davies, he was attracted both to age and to deviance. One central mystery of the song is that the protagonist’s attention is compelled by one particular girl, who he calls a “lady.” He dotes on her from a distance, and his epiphany begins when she arrives, “rainbow ribbons in her hair…returning from the fair.” Much of the protagonist’s ecstasy is conveyed by Morrison’s vocal mannerisms; the ecstatic crescendos he builds into his performances, especially on “rainbow ribbons,” makes clear both the protagonist’s agitation and his transport. That the two are so interlocked as to be indistinguishable is a possibility; it can be taken as a tension/release dynamic. Yet we wonder if this release is really what the protagonist wants— guilt, Catholic or otherwise, may dictate that he can’t even bear the thought of having sexual intercourse with his lady. It is difficult to distinguish ecstasy from agony here— from the vocal striations to the tightness of the three-chord structure, Morrison makes us feel how tightly wound the scenario is. That his voice conveys genuine release makes the song one of the few instances in the rock canon in which we feel what “humanity,” as a complex entity, really is, sans postures. Exquisite tensions are not undercut by an impulse to entertain; the song demonstrates the seriousness of solid high art.
It is significant that the protagonist waits until the end of the song to reveal his lady’s age— fourteen years old. He acts like an abashed child in a manner that mirrors her own youth. There is nothing mature about his approach, or lack thereof; but there is nothing abusive in it either. To the extent that a male gaze can be harmless, his is. As the song begins to fade out, he repeats “baby” over and over again, like an incantation. It is the first direct hint in the lyrics of a religious overtone, and is not especially overt as such. The song also does not give too many clues about what else happens on Cyprus Avenue; the song is tightly focused on this incident. But it must be significant that the other song on Astral Weeks centered on Cyprus Avenue, “Madame George,” also features a deviant character. The difference is the kind of voyeurism involved; in “Cyprus Avenue,” a protagonist watches a young girl; in “Madame George,” a young male protagonist observes a drag queen. That “Madame George” is more stately and less rapturous than “Cyprus Avenue” can be attributed to a different subtext; rather than love and longing, the protagonist of “Madame George” learns a kind of respect for his Madame’s difference, and pity; he watches as she is abandoned by her friends. Both Madame George and the protagonist of “Cyprus Avenue” have a certain amount of nobility in their thwarted hopes; neither one imposes on the people that surround them, or that they desire. Deviance, on Astral Weeks, does not diffuse kindness; differences do not have to create hostilities. The whole album is wrapped in an ambience which can only be described as spiritual; because the ethereal musical landscape doubles the lyrical content, there is a sensation of floating, of ascension. But we never learn the ultimate fate of Madame George, or of the humble protagonist of “Cyprus Avenue.” This enhances the ethereality of the songs; no mysteries solved, nothing closed, situations left in a state of suspension.
Does Astral Weeks deserve its sacred cow status? Especially for these two great narratives, I would say that it does. While the jazz accompaniment does enhance the ambience, and reinforce that Astral Weeks is a great musical hybrid, if anything seals the deal it is Van’s voice. Modulated somewhere between baritone and tenor, rich in grain in a way that Roland Barthes might approve of, Morrison improvises scats, does repetitions of certain syllables and phrases, and lets his voice at times sail over the crescendos built into the songs. Because the grain of a human voice can convey things that a text cannot (what might, perhaps, be called the ineffable), Morrison actually has an advantage that James Joyce does not. Because he parlays this advantage into transcendent territory, the whole album, even the lesser narratives, sticks as an edifice potentially as permanent as anything in the canon of popular music. And, along with “Madame George,” “Cyprus Avenue” stands out as an example of what can be achieved with three chords, a voice, and a story.