Book Review: Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968

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“If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream

Where immobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back roads stop

Could you find me? Would you kiss-a my eyes?” (“Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison)

With apologies to Dylan and Mitchell, better lyrics may never have been written. Nor has a particular album been so important to so many fans, critics, and fellow artists. (Apologies to Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper.) Van Morrison’s legendary album Astral Weeks was released 50 years ago – the year was 1968, and America was in turmoil.

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It was a career altering moment for Morrison, who left behind the pursuit of chart-topping hits like “Brown Eyed Girl” to create a modern masterpiece. He could have simply become a small part of the British Invasion, instead he radically re-invented his sound. Unsurprisingly, sales of the album barely scratched the surface.

Boston based writer Ryan H. Walsh has written the story that surrounds the creation of the Van Morrison masterpiece. While much of the narrative is about events peripheral to the album itself, the “stew” that was revolutionary Boston in 1968 serves as the main ingredient in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Told in a very lively style, it reads a little like a detective story that allows readers to connect the dots that led to the production and recording of the influential album, frequently cited as one of the greatest of all time.

Walsh manages to tie together a dynamic cast of characters and events including controversial cult leader Mel Lyman, two bands named Orpheus, Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,” the Velvet Underground’s legendary Tea Party shows, Timothy Leary, Wellness Guru Andrew Weil, and James Brown’s memorable Boston Garden concert on the night after the King assassination. And of course, the story of Van Morrison’s year in Boston, where he nurtured the music that would become “Astral Weeks.”

Walsh spoke with many of the major players, except Morrison, who is known to avoid interviews. They include Morrison’s ex-wife, Janet Planet, who offers one of the best lines in the book, “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy.” Walsh also spoke with Morrison’s pal from those years, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, who was a then a DJ at WBCN, an emerging alternative station.

Fittingly, the story begins in 1965, immediately after the music world was shaken by Bob Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. Following that scandalous moment, acoustic guitarist Mel Lyman who played in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, soothed the crowd with a 20-minute version of “Rock of Ages.” Soon after, Lyman formed the Fort Hill Community, a hippie commune in Boston, and began publishing Avatar, a controversial alternative weekly.

Indeed, there was a lot happening in “Boss-Town” that year, with anti-war rallies, a burgeoning “free form” radio station (WBCN), and a public television station (WGBH) that was pushing the limits with shows covering the emerging counter-culture. Attempting to repeat regional trends, record companies were marketing the “Bosstown Sound” starring long forgotten bands.

Other memorable passages include Walsh’s tale of the renowned James Brown concert, which was almost cancelled and then became a rallying point for the city that avoided the riots that destroyed parts of other American cities after King’s assassination. The last minute behind-the-scenes work of the one-time progressive major, Kevin White, who had never even heard of Brown (along with his assistant, future U.S. Representative Barney Frank), were indeed heroic, and likely saved lives and property.

Although the album ended up being recorded in New York City, Morrison absorbed all that was going on in Boston during that turbulent year. He played frequently in local clubs with local players, testing out material that would later make it on to the album. Astral Weeks is an especially enjoyable read for anyone who has ever lived in or around Boston. It’s an entertaining tale, with lots of juicy anecdotes, that truly gives you the feel of a major American city in a turbulent time gone by.

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