Astral Weeks — A Secret History of 1968

I embarked on this literary journey not expecting to derive any pleasure from the experience. While it seems hard to imagine given his status as a musical legend, I have never owned anything that Van Morrison recorded because I never really liked his voice or songs. I have never had a friend or acquaintance who was a fan; I have never even had a neighbor who played his music too loud. At the same time I know he is a very successful, popular, critically-acclaimed artist. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO LIKE VAN MORRISON? So when my girlfriend brought this book home I thought, “Oh great…that guy.” But after reading just a few pages of this startling, impressive tome I realized that I was really holding a portable archaeological dig in my hands and Astral Weeks, the album or concept thereof, was the legend; that rumored underground prize — the literary, rocka rolla equivalent of King Tut! What a discovery! I have seen reviewers complaining that this isn’t a VH-1 style story of the album, so Boo! Boo! Boo!, because that is what they were expecting, but the book IS the story of that album placed contextually within a much larger, much more informative and entertaining “whole”. The book is a veritable hodgepodge of beanbags, black lights, bad trips, freakouts, and old laundry but history isn’t always comprised or composed of easily-digestible bites. A reader will also encounter highs and giggles, sunshine and success if the book is approach-eth-ed as one approaches a jigsaw puzzle: quietly, thoughtfully, and unburdened with preconceived notions. DISCOVERY was the spirit of the times after all.

When anyone tries to explain or quantify 1968, “Boston” does not come to mind. One reason this book is so out of left field is readers have already been “taught” the important points of the “story” of the decade and a fair amount of the info from Astral Weeks has been forgotten or was never public knowledge. The Standells had a hit with Dirty Water in 1966 and the Red Sox won the pennant in 1967, but 1968? Haight Asbury was hippie central. Los Angeles and New York had their music scenes. Chicago was put on the map because of the political turmoil of the Democratic Convention and many other cities exploded into flames and riots because of Martin Luther King’s assassination and ongoing anti-Vietnam War protests. But Boston? Probably most people would say: “I’m drawing a blank on that one!” Author Ryan H. Walsh returns to those days, ostensibly to find early performances of tracks that would become the legendary Van Morrison album, only to discover a whole strata of other people, events and connections, connections, connections. It’s like everybody knew everybody! And they were all complete weirdos in that lovable way that was 1968. We meet the shadowy Mel Lyman, who drifted from harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s jug band to Timothy Leary acid eater to an East Coast guru with a whole lot of power and a bigger family than Charles Manson. Luckily, he never killed anyone. Maybe. There are many a lurid tales of the ridiculousness of the music business at that time; the mob involvement, overwrought producers who thought they were geniuses and blatant attempts at thievery and swindling like sending multiple “C” level (one local hit record) type bands on tour in different areas of the country to maximize profits…and what happened when some of those bands crashed into each other. (Hilarity ensued!)

There are many tales of “The Bosstown Sound”, The legendary Boston Tea Party Club, the Velvet Underground, Jonathon Richman, Peter Wolf and all of the many bands who blew through Boston that year making it a great rock and roll place to be. Besides lots of rock and gurus we also encounter hippies, early experimental television with WGBH’s What’s Happening Mr. Silver?, Black Power, James Brown, The Boston Strangler, The Thomas Crown Affair, MK-ULTRA, legendary record executive Joe Smith (who also makes a few appearances in the Grateful Dead movie I reviewed and is the guy who made the payoff to get Van Morrison out of his “contract” with “the mob”), Yoko Ono, Avatar Magazine, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, drugs, revolution, disillusionment, and death and at least 25 other items I don’t recall at the moment. The author’s dogged inquisitiveness and desire to organically tie together all of the connections he encounters on his trip into the subsoil presents a startling whole; a fascinating tale and a secret history. Boston was the right-sized city to become one giant scene / dysfunctional family and there was much overlap on how all of these seemingly diametrically opposed forces interacted with and affected each other.

You may have noticed by now there are no links to anything in this review because you should read this book. I always read now with my phone in hand so I can look stuff up as I go along and because this book 1/4 story, 1/4 Police Gazette, 1/4 Encyclopedia and 1/4 Gemstone File I had lots to look up and I learned a lot and you’ll learn a lot too! By then you will also be on the edge of your seat and want to know what happened with Van Morrison and Astral Weeks; and did Mel Lyman die or did he fake his death and move to the South Pacific; and why did Lou Reed eat huge amounts of wheat germ before gigs when he was singing about heroin; and was Albert DeSalvo really The Boston Strangler or was it someone else; and will the loss of the power of radio, predicted by Edgar Cayce, usher in the age of Armageddon; and is this related to that one-eyed celebrity cult thing? And many more questions you never knew you had but now know that you NEED answered. Have Fun!