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CENTURY SOUND, 135 West 52nd Street

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By 1968, 22-year-old Van Morrison was broke and hiding out in Boston.

 

Despite the Top 10 success of “Brown Eyed Girl” in 1967, Morrison had yet to see any royalty payments. Producer Bert Berns, who had signed Morrison to his Bang label, died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Morrison’s contract under the control of mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia.

 

After a drunken argument that ended with the DeNoia smashing the singer's acoustic guitar over his head, Morrison fled to Boston. He spent the summer playing small clubs and coffee shops, abandoning the electric pop of “Brown Eyed Girl” and refining an improvised acoustic jazz-folk sound that attracted the attention of Warner Brothers producer Lewis Merenstein.

 

“It took me about 30 seconds to know I wanted to work with the material,” said Merenstein, but before he could sign Morrison, he had to get him out of his contract with Bang Records.

 

Morrison fulfilled his obligation by recording thirty-six nonsense songs in a single session. Meanwhile, a Warner Brothers executive met four men at an abandoned warehouse on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue and swapped a bag containing $20,000 cash for Morrison’s Bang contract. Van was free to record again.

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On September 25th, 1968, Merenstein assembled some of the city’s top jazz musicians for the first of three sessions at the newly opened Century Sound studios on the second floor at 135 West 52nd Street. The recordings took place without rehearsals, and most tracks were completed in one or two takes.

 

Century Sound owner/engineer Brooks Arthur recalls “Everything was live. He ran it down once for the players and went into the vocal booth. Then we got the sound levels right and I hit the red light and he started singing.”

 

The result was both new and timeless, a spontaneous blend of classical guitar and jazz melded with Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being transported to “another time, another place.”

 

"A cloud came along, and it was called the Van Morrison sessions,” says Arthur. “We all hopped upon that cloud, and the cloud took us away for awhile, and we made this album, and we landed when it was done."

 

Today, Astral Weeks is widely recognized as a transcendent work. The Guardian calls it “the greatest work of art to emerge out of the pop tradition.” In 1979 rock critic Lester Bangs declared it the most significant record in his life, a “mystical document.”

Brooks Arthur at Century Sound Studios, © unknown

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135 West 52nd Street was demolished in the early 1980s, and a mixed-use tower called ‘The Manhattan’ was constructed in 1985. The building never opened—the developer was imprisoned for bank fraud, and it sat empty for six years until it was converted to a 289-room hotel called the Flatotel in 1991.

 

In 2013, creditors forced the Flatotel into bankruptcy, and the building was sold to The Chetrit Group for $180 million. A further $250 million was invested to convert the building into 109 high-end luxury apartments.

Lighting designer Thierry Dreyfus was commissioned to create a 423-foot installation on the front of the building. “We wanted to create something that gave the building some notoriety,” said a real estate broker representing the property, “People like to be able to talk about their building... to feel they live somewhere unique.”

 

Designer Dreyfus told the Wall Street Journal his lighting design brought “poetry to a space that lacks creativity.”

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