Ryan Walsh, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” (2018) – Van Morrison’s second solo album, “Astral Weeks,” seems to come out of nowhere. Those accustomed to the overplay of “Brown Eyed Girl” on oldies radio and assuming that’s what Morrison is all about — even if they like that version — are in for a surprise if they turn on “Astral Weeks.” Better essayists than me, most notably rock critic legend Lester Bangs, have already expanded at length on the album’s musical qualities, with a lot of words like “transcendent” thrown around. It really is worth your while to give it a listen.
One of the things that provokes discussion about the album is the contrast between the art and the artist. It’s not that anyone’s surprised that Van Morrison could create something like that on a talent level- from his early work with Them, everyone knew Morrison had talent. The contrast is between the emotional range of the album and that presented by Van Morrison the person, and much of his subsequent work. In short, “Astral Weeks” is a deeply felt, empathetic piece of work, and Van Morrison was and is… a piece of work. He himself has spent the last fifty years insisting “Astral Weeks” isn’t representative of his work or personal in any way. He’s something of a sour old man and always was, even when he was making brilliant music in his early twenties. This wasn’t rock and roll grandiosity, great talent and great failings (and great stories); he was just a low-grade, petty prick to everyone around him. You don’t need to believe great souls make great art but… the going theory seems to be that Morrison got in touch with something around the time he made “Astral Weeks.” Some of the magic lasted into subsequent albums, but it was mostly gone with a few years, and he never touched anything like it again, and it burnt something out of him.
Musician and music journalist Ryan Walsh puts forward the novel idea that there could be a Boston connection to that “something” Morrison touched in this book. It’s notionally about the album, but really it’s an attempt to summon a gestalt. Boston isn’t commonly thought of as one of the epicenters of “the sixties” as a phenomenon, but Walsh makes the argument here that maybe it should?
There’s a few different strains of narrative he follows and tries to string together. Van Morrison was indeed in Boston in 1968, Cambridge more precisely, trying to get out of a bad record contract, playing gigs, and writing the material that would go into “Astral Weeks.” He was attracted in part by the Cambridge folk revival scene, which was in collapse by then and an erstwhile member of which, Mel Lyman, was setting up a folk-music-labor-and-sex cult in Roxbury, the Fort Hill Community (or Lyman Family). This all sort of came together around the creation of the Family-backed Boston Tea Party, a concert venue which became a favorite for the Velvet Underground among others. There was a lot of psychedelic stuff going on, from Timothy Leary’s early experiments at Harvard to trippy public tv on WGBH to the countercultural press — like the Fort Hill Community’s magazine “Avatar” — pushing the envelope and getting in free speech fights. There was also the more earth-bound concerns of the time, and Walsh retells the story of how the Boston mayor’s office got James Brown to play a special concert to help keep the kids occupied and not rioting after the MLK assassination.
A reader expecting solely a deep dive into Van Morrison’s world and process might be disappointed by how much of the book isn’t really about him, but Walsh does get the goods in terms of tracking down his collaborators. He also paints a vivid picture of Boston’s music scene at the time, when record company people tried and crashingly failed to promote a “Boston Sound” as a geographical counterpoint to a San Francisco seen as fading out. He gets seemingly every old Boston rock hand talking. One person Walsh doesn’t talk to is Morrison himself. I have it on reasonably good information from a friend of the author that Walsh didn’t even bother to try, knowing that “Van the Man” has driven numerous other rock journalists, like his biographer Clinton Heylin, to distraction and hostility with his evasions and crabbiness.
How successfully does Walsh summon his Boston 1968 gestalt? Does it get across the emotional overtones he wants it to? He’s reasonably successful, I’d say. You don’t get quite the sense of cosmic connection out of the coincidences and crossed paths Walsh documents that you do out of “Astral Weeks,” but it’s harder to do that kind of thing with prose nonfiction. I’m not sure I buy the notion of “Astral Weeks” as a “Boston album.” Yes, Morrison developed the songs in Boston. But he recorded them in New York, with the vital backup of New York jazz session musicians. More importantly, the songs themselves reflect Morrison’s youth in Belfast. “Astral Weeks” has been called the last culturally significant portrait of Belfast before the Troubles. But this, thankfully, is not a thesis heavy book. Mostly, you just sort of take in the gestalt, and Walsh’s efforts to reconstruct it. ****’