We never fought about music. My brother—who gave me fodder for an endless series of lovelorn mixtapes in middle school and the band names to make me look cool on Facebook in high school—got me listening to alternative music starting in seventh grade, and my drives to school changed for the next few years. My mom endured my obsessive love for Everclear’s “So Much for the Afterglow,” and as the school bus phased out short morning drives and introduced me to the majestic appeal of early mornings spent channeling the heartache and rage of others through my earbuds, I stopped listening to Motown.
When the group began writing the song, it was an unremarkable reggae number called “Under the Weather Girls.” The bass-and-drum groove sits at the back of the pocket, pushing confidently forward with the rolling pace of a long-wandering caravan, gleefully propelled by the eighth notes on the bass drum at the end of every phrase. As the group struggled to finish the song one day in practice, the Edge handed Bono a small slip of paper on which he’d written, “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Bono read the sheet and sang the chorus as it is on the record.
I would load a favorite tape into Tape Player A and a blank cassette into Tape Player B. Inevitably fast-forwarding to midway through my favorite song, I’d back up to the beginning, and record the track onto the new tape. As it recorded, I’d listen and think about the trip to come. One March, I even collected my favorite summer traveling music and stashed it away until summer so, after such anticipation, it would feel all the better when I listened to it with the windows down.
When I first heard the album, I’d already listened to it several times. I’d reversed Van Morrison’s line of influence, working from Springsteen’s guileless “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”-era emulations back to Morrison’s own “Moondance” and only then, after these and other derivations and precursors, to the confounding “Astral Weeks” itself. The night I first understood “Astral Weeks,” I was cold in the dark back seat of my family’s car, looking out the fogged window as we became helplessly lost en route to a Christmas party.
All my life, I’d sought joyful music, though I’d never consciously acknowledged that overriding characteristic in my favorite songs. One muggy night in mid-July of that summer, I found a soft-focus, black-and-white video of “Racing in the Street” performed live in 1978. The song was, and remains, my favorite of Springsteen’s—the ballad of a man who struggles through life, hoping to find redemption in the late night street races he and his friend Sonny follow across the East Coast. On the record, soon after Springsteen’s protagonist describes his wife’s descent into loneliness—sitting on her father’s porch “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born”—overdubbed guitars quietly guide the track into a slow fade. But in the Passaic, N.J., performance, as Springsteen backs into the darkness onstage, he begins wailing through his harmonica, and something entirely different takes place.