‘Astral Weeks’ and the Making of a Van Morrison Classic

Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks beautifully captures a not-so-distant era of free-form radio playing the "boss-town sound", people living communally, thriving underground newspapers -- and a 22-year-old Van Morrison coming into his own.

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968
Ryan H. Walsh
Mar 2018

The manner by which many of us might perceive George Ivan Morrison today probably depends on our patience for peculiarities, our empathy towards eccentrics, or willingness to waive a wide berth for those who might have provided some of the greatest songs of our childhood. Listeners don’t have to be safely ensconced in their AARP Golden Ages to appreciate the sounds of Van Morrison. The initial hits of this Belfast Ireland native celebrated African-American soul music with such classics as 1970’s “Moondance”, “Domino”, 1971’s “Wild Night”, and so many more. He had kicked down the doors with 1964’s “Gloria”, an immediate garage rock classic recorded with his group, Them. Punk Goddess and poet Patti Smith took that song’s chorus as a basis for her 1975 version that went into some dangerous areas. (It’s unlikely that Morrison would have written, let alone performed, such an opening line as “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / But not mine”.) Morrison branched out into traditional Irish music (recording with The Chieftains), blues and jazz covers, and a likely steady stream of easy listening revenue when Rod Stewart covered “Someone Like You” and “Have I told You Lately”.

In Ryan H. Walsh‘s remarkable new book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Van Morrison is just one part in an enormous, challenging tapestry of characters and locations that changed the lives of those involved and those who followed. Walsh elevates what was known as “The Boss-Town Sound”, effectively arguing that Boston’s music scene at that time helped give birth not just to The Standells’ “Dirty Water” but also early success for New York’s Velvet Underground. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, Van Morrison was brewing something different, something magical. Gone were the simple rock chords of Them’s “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night”, or their cool electric arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Morrison’s early version of “Brown Eyed Girl” charted at number ten in 1967, but the album from which that came, Blowin’ Your Mind!, (with the major exception of the brilliant and still devastating nearly ten-minute “T.B. Sheets”) probably wasn’t likely to distinguish him beyond a revolving door of hipster white blues singers drawn to the rhythm, a tight combo, and with energy to spare. It would be hard to topple James Brown from his mantle as the hardest working man in show business, and Van Morrison certainly had more in his bag of tricks waiting for a receptive mood, time, and audience.

Walsh wisely begins his narrative at the Newport Folk Festival, 1965, when a 27-year-old harmonica player named Mel Lyman performs an unscheduled finalé to the apparent devastation that Bob Dylan caused after his cataclysmic electric set. He performs a 30 minute version of “Rock of Ages” that he probably believes is going to bring the audience back to glory, back to a higher level:

“Within eighteen months of this performance Mel Lyman would commandeer an entire neighborhood of run-down houses in the Fort Hill area of Roxbury, an impoverished part of Boston, issue cuss-laden pronouncements through an underground newspaper, and declare he was God to anyone who would listen.”

Boston is probably the most substantial character in this book. Walsh notes from the start that he wants to tell us about a city before the tech boom, before the predominance of professional sports teams made the “Hub of the Universe” the “Championship City”. This was the era in Boston and Cambridge when Timothy Leary was at Harvard conducting LSD experiments, and when serial killers like Albert “The Boston Strangler” DeSalvo had to balance his right to a fair trial with a film portrayal starring Tony Curtis, making his own somewhat specious claim towards artistic credibility. This was the era when documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies was such a devastating examination of the mental health system in Massachusetts that it was banned for over 20 years. This was the era of great academics like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn putting their careers on the line for the sake of protest. It was a swirling vortex of anger, class struggle, racial divisions, and ecstasy found through LSD, spiritual communes, the occult, and something in the music. Was it folk? Was it garage rock? Was it the proximity to New York City and Newport that spoke to the musicality of Boston? Rather than just trying to validate Boston by connecting it to New York City and other regions more deeply covered by others, Walsh manages to take us through a swirling, quick majestic tour of the time and place and so many of its players without overwhelming us.

Astral Weeks (the book) is a detective story. Walsh tracks down former J. Geils frontman and music legend Peter Wolf, a fixture of the Boston scene since the late ’60s. In the brief period of time Van Morrison lived in Cambridge, he would visit Wolf while the latter was working his DJ shift at the legendary FM Boston radio station WBCN 104.1. Wolf assumed a persona he called “The Woofa Goofa”, talking quick stream of consciousness as he played one obscure blues artist after another. It’s an achingly romantic scene, probably even heartbreaking for many of us who remember free-form radio. Morrison was the music fan and immersed artist who had fled a fairly successful band, a burgeoning solo career possibility managed and produced by the notorious Bert Berns. An atmosphere of gangsters and payola swirled around Morrison as it did many others at the time, but he remained the fan, sitting by what he probably called his wireless transistor radio, and he connected with the DJ who himself would attain his own recording fame approximately half a decade later. Watch Morrison’s ecstatic, leg-kicking performance of his 1970 song “Caravan” in the 1978 Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. The only way he and so many others (particularly from the United Kingdom) had for connecting with the United States, this land from which their beloved music blossomed, was through the radio.

If there’s a “hero” in Astral Weeks, a touchstone whose feelers reached so many people of the time and place, it’s Mel Lyman. He and “The Lyman Family” owned rows of houses in the Fort Avenue Community of Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston that for half a century has suffered through some of the worst strains of racism and economic disparity America has known. This self-anointed “God” attracted children of famous portrait painters, future music magazine founders, people in the rolodexes of James Taylor and Carly Simon and Robert Kennedy. Walsh draws heavily from a 1971 Rolling Stone profile of the family, where he pulls quotes from people like Jim Kweskin (a fairly famous jug band musician who left that industry to follow Lyman):

“‘The Manson family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don’t preach peace and love and we haven’t killed anyone. Yet.”

The extensive background story of Lyman’s printed mouthpiece magazine, Avatar, is alone worth a separate volume. It’s hard to know what to make of the present-day Jim Kweskin, who Walsh interviews for modern day perspective: “Listening to him warm up for the show, I think how odd it is that jug music, which he declared ridiculous and unrewarding in 1968, is something he travels around the world doing blissfully today… The whole show is so sweetly upbeat that it sometimes borders on parody…”

This seems to be a recurring and key theme in Walsh’s Astral Weeks. These people believed in their message at the time. Their sincerity was aching, and remains so today — to a point. But it had depth and substance. Another character in this book, a 20-something British import named David Silver, seemed to have landed a dream position commandeering public television station WGBH with his freeform platform for anything. “For two years twice a week, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? Transformed home television into portals for a psychedelic fever dream, uninterrupted by commercials or common sense.”

Many of the plot strands and players in this book have previously been covered in stand-alone narratives (like the fact that WGBH and then Mayor Kevin White worked with James Brown to help quell any possible Boston riots in the immediate aftermath of MKL’s assassination), but the Silver story is a revelation for those of us who were mere children at the time and would not enjoy PBS offerings until the following year, with Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street. The possibility of a visionary and daring program director like Fred Barzyk thriving today, let alone finding a station that would take the risk of something like the television show, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, is likely non-existent:

“I’m trying to create noise in the system because I think noise itself is good.”

Silver meets Morrison, offers him encouragement to stay in the area even though the folk scene was “on life support”, and the world moves on. Morrison had come to Boston after the death of Bert Berns, in the midst of a swirling degree of financial and personal problems, and the music was stirring inside, waiting to come out. Walsh landed major interviews with key players from Morrison’s time in Boston and Cambridge, and he draws connections with all of them. Some are bitter, still angry at Morrison after 50 years for all his mercurial short-tempered transgressions. There are some interesting moments here with such bands as Chameleon Church, featuring future Saturday Night Live star Chevy Chase on drums. His comments about his former bandmates are in keeping with the reputation Chase has made for himself as prickly, insufferable, and unapologetically arrogant.

The biggest revelation for many will probably come with the Velvet Underground section, where Walsh makes a good argument that the band, through their performances at the legendary club Boston Tea Party, owed as much to Boston as New York for developing their character and legend. He quotes critic Wayne McGuire from an August 1968 issue of Crawdaddy:

“It is irrelevant that the Velvet Underground first received significant exposure in their home city New York…t hese two voices [The VU and Lyman] best express the character and spirit of the forces at work in Boston… which in the near future will make Boston the center of the second American revolution, a revolution of the spirit.”

This is typical of the sometimes flowery purple prose that populated rock criticism in its early days, but the late ’60s was the birth of many things in that time — freeform radio, underground newspapers, a resistance to oppressive authority, and mind expansion through drugs and “free” sex. It’s within this context, including the occult and spiritualism, that the basis of Morrison’s Astral Weeks saw its possibility. Lou Reed was his own island, Massachusetts native Jonathan Richman was a sort of proto-punk savant who saw that place, and Morrison’s, and tried to build a bridge between both. Everything swirling would eventually bear fruit in the album Astral Weeks. It’s a difficult premise to build let alone prove, but Walsh beautifully manages all the important sub-plots and supporting players.

The scenes surrounding Astral Weeks are overwhelming and might be unbelievable in any other circumstances. There’s a section on the filming of The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) that glamorous Boston-based bank heist feature starring Steve McQueen. Walsh contrasts that with the grisliness of The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968) and the understanding is clear: exploitive and garish stories were good for a city usually known for its intellectualism. Walsh ventures into the story of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) a film that ventured to tell the story of the disaffected youth of the time but fell short. As with most every narrative strand in Astral Weeks, all strings led back to Mel Lyman.

Walsh brilliantly and effectively balances every character in this narrative, and in less confident hands the results might have given the reader whiplash. Look, there’s Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (AKA Ram Dass), researching with LSD in the early ’60s only to explode in the last years of the decade as renegade drug advocate leaders (Leary) and transformed spiritual leaders (Alpert changing his name and adopting an Eastern persona as Ram Dass). Again, all these names and places have been well documented in other areas, but Walsh’s balancing act here is impressive. They need to be included. They are all satellites in this Astral system that seemed to be in the air at the time.

Walsh’s Astral Weeks keeps building, and the reader interested only in a detailed deep dive about the making of Van Morrison’s masterpiece will be disappointed. There is more to tell. Dr. Martin Luther King, who received his degree at Boston University, is eulogized at Marsh Chapel in the days after his death. As Walsh notes, as early as 1956, then Boston Mayor John Hynes declared about rock and roll: “‘These so-called musical programs are a disgrace and must be stopped. As far as I’m concerned, Boston has seen the last of them.” There’s much to be gleamed from Walsh’s observations here. It wasn’t just that Boston Mayor Kevin White paid off James Brown and helped prevent a likely racial uprising after MLK’s death in April 1968. Across town at The Boston Tea Party, current right-wing ideologue Ted Nugent (then playing with The Amboy Dukes) was playing to a near empty house.

In the end, this book has to be about the promise contained in the music, and Walsh more than delivers on that potential. “For decades to come,” he writes, “Morrison would continue to rely on Boston musicians for his bands…” One of the more touching moments comes late in the book. Morrison was playing Boston’s Wang Theater in the spring of 2016. Bassist Tom Kielbania, one of his old Boston band mates, meets him backstage:

‘”I have the recording of us at the Catacombs,” Morrison said. “It’s very good.”

Walsh, who is as much a character in this narrative as everybody else as he seeks elusive bootleg tapes from such mysterious players as Peter Wolf, seems happy: “In the course of an afternoon, I went from wondering about the secret history of Astral Weeks to listening, jaw on floor, to a show in which Van Morrison became Van Morrison.”

That’s the essence of Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks. It’s about the time (the ’60s), the place (Cambridge, Boston, and the ghosts of Belfast), and it’s about a 22-year-old Van Morrison coming into his own as a mysterious and elusive singer, less poet than a conduit through which something truly mystical would be expressed. Morrison revisited the album as a full song cycle performance, recording a pristine live version in 2008, and the sound remains wondrous (see below). Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was about transcendence, ecstatic brief celebrations like “The Way Young Lovers Do” and quiet ruminations like “Madame George”. (Was it about a drag queen? Was it about something different? Was it autobiographical?) “Cyprus Avenue” was one of many Morrison songs that looked back at childhood, and “Sweet Thing” looked forward. It’s the title track that set the standard for the essence of Morrison’s themes over the next half century, and its opening lines remain elusive and hypnotic, Morrison strumming along to the steady bass support of Richard Davis:

“If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dreams…”

Walsh quotes Boston record producer Lewis Merenstein: “Thirty seconds in, ‘my whole being was vibrating,’ Merenstein said in 2008. ‘I knew he was being reborn… I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.'”

Van Morrison remains an elusive, dark, brooding character, and the essence of that understanding is in the music that blossomed in 1968’s Astral Weeks. Everything he was to be seemed contained in those songs. More epic stand-alone songs would follow: “Listen to the Lion”, “Almost Independence Day”, “And the Healing Has Begun”, “‘Til We Get the Healing Done”, to name a few. These are epics not just in length (averaging ten minutes) but also their deep, prayer-like aspirations towards something stronger, something higher. The template was set with “Astral Weeks”, and Morrison has balanced (more or less effectively) the soul revue bandleader heard in live albums like It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1973) and A Night In San Francisco (1994) with the meditations, the songs he so clearly labeled (from his 1991 album) Hymns to the Silence. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is a brilliant, beautiful tribute to a long-lost era of free-form radio, communal living, underground newspapers, burgeoning musical scenes in their pristine form before being captured by the “star making machinery”, and the birth of a visionary album by a 22-year-old Irish singer/songwriter that remains terrifying in its untouched beauty. Walsh understands there are many characters to consider but he maintains (to take another Van Morrison title) a “beautiful vision” from beginning to end. This book is a masterful end result of research, patience, and love for a time and sensibility sorely missing today.