The chaotic and convoluted process that would yield one of pop music’s most revolutionary and acclaimed albums is the story that anchors this captivating 2018 work by Ryan H. Walsh. Van Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he first came to prominence with the group Them. By 1968, in the aftermath of his surprise solo hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Morrison was living in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts not far from Harvard Square. That year saw a whole host of decade-defining events and personalities criss-crossing each other in the greater Boston area. Walsh uses the making of Van’s cerebral classic as a philosophical thread that stitches them together.
There have been many good-to-great music books in recent years that focus on one particular year of the Sixties or Seventies. These books generally use one of two marketing strategies: superlatives (“1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music”) or the promise of esoteric information (“Fire and Rain: The Lost Story of 1970”). “Astral Weeks” goes the second route and one can assume the “secret history” is what Walsh determines it is. But that’s all good for people pre-disposed to the subjects at hand. This is an obsessively researched book with a Holy Grail-type quest at its center: Walsh’s search for a rumored tape recording of a Boston nightclub gig where much of “Astral Weeks” was played a month before the iconic album was cut in New York City.
Walsh casts a pretty wide net here, so Van fans should be forewarned. Also central to his story is the twisted tale of the cultish commune led by the mysterious Mel Lyman, a guy who went from a humble harmonica player in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to a messianic figurehead of a community who owned a block of houses on Boston’s Fort Hill, topped by a water tower made to look like a fairy-tale tower. There are detailed anecdotes of student antiwar protests (esp. at Boston University) and about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (nee, Richard Alpert), whose exploits in the promotion of psychedelics at Harvard was national news. But many of the offshoot topics here concern music. For pop history completists, there is a deep-dive retelling of MGM Record’s ill-fated “Bosstown Sound” hype, many pages devoted to the Velvet Underground for whom Boston clubs were a home-away-from-home (fifteen trips up from NYC in ’68), and the momentous concert James Brown gave at the old Boston Garden on the same night as Martin Luther King’s assassination: an event that the new mayor, Kevin White, arranged to have televised live to keep potential rioting at bay (it worked).
One thing that does join together many of these disparate elements is an overarching spiritual quest that informed much of the late Sixties. But in a related takeaway, we see that this process is not all sweetness and light. Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” is practically rock’s Exhibit A when it comes to enlightenment-seeking. Not surprisingly, this crusade didn’t exactly translate into everyday life: a choice Van anecdote is him drinking in the admiration of L.A. hitmakers The Association after a gig on Cape Cod, then calling them a bunch of “faggots” as soon as they were out of earshot. Morrison does have a long history of epic crankiness, though he did make a friend in Peter Wolf, singer for the local band Hallucinations (and later, of course, with J. Geils) and he invited Morrison to come up on stage to sing with him at the city’s premier rock club, the Boston Tea Party.
The venue was housed in a building that was built in 1870 to commemorate the Rev. Theodore Parker, the noted Transcendentalist, social reformer and abolitionist who believed that Spiritualism was going to become the “religion of America.” Maybe not, but the Tea Party did become a “cathedral of the hippie era.” Those angel vibes certainly must have been conducive to the spirit of the age. Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, more known for his streetwise lyrics, was an avid follower of New Age pioneer author Alice Bailey. In fact, Reed, who has a reputation as being ornery as Van, comes across very well here. The story of how he and the Velvets mentored singer-songwriter/local hero Jonathan Richman (then a suburban teenager) is one of Walsh’s more likable side stories. Richman would later form the proto-punk Modern Lovers, who would go on to make the Boston-rock anthem “Roadrunner” and, interestingly, “Astral Plane.”
And then on the lowest end of the spectrum is Mel Lyman, the kind of two-bit scumbag that often found themselves elevated in the well-meaning but not always wised-up Sixties. As a musician, his biggest claim to fame was playing a soothing 30-minute harmonica solo to the passed-over folkies who had just booed Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Lyman tapped into that reactionary energy to become the megalomaniac leader of his ultra-conservative commune. It was a scene marked by bullying, misogyny and an upfront volatility that ol’ Mel had no problem with (more than a few visitors were threatened at gunpoint). The best thing you could say about Lyman’s “family” is that they didn’t lapse into wholesale butchery like the Mansons. After Mel did everyone a favor by croaking in 1978, the commune developed their building/design business and to this day a now-multigenerational group still live behind the walls of their Fort Hill compound.
Walsh, to his credit, gives a fair definitive accounting of the Lyman gang and how they were intertwined with the area’s counterculture. He ends “Astral Days” with an impassioned overview of that album’s lasting influence on everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese. Considering his great admiration for Morrison’s piece de resistance (and to the great early-to-mid 70s titles that followed) it’s probably a blessing that the book came out before Van’s recent descent into extreme anti-vax and conspiracy phase of the last few years. What a long, strange trip (as they say) and classic-rock music fans and students of Sixties culture should enjoy this novel and absorbing look at the weird, wonderful year that was 1968.