Joe Smith

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!

Long Strange Trip — Movie Review

Update: I have decided to use a new rating system for everything I review. So I am putting the 4-star rating on this post even though it has been up for a week. I re-watched parts of this documentary and it is definitely as good as it gets. I can’t recommend enough!

Thanks to friends in the business, I was able to watch the “sprawling” Grateful Dead Documentary, Long Strange Trip over a few nights last week. Most people will need a few nights as the movie, or collection of long video chapters, totals over four hours in length! Holy Cow, just like one of those versions of Dark Star in the mid-70s! The film is directed by Amir Bar-Lev, who I have never heard of prior to this, but he is originally from Berkeley, is a total Dead Head, favors 1973 and Dark Star as Best Year/Cut and specializes in Documentary-type films so basically…he was a natural to assemble? create? manufacture? this film. Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers as is Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann’s son, Justin. All of the remaining members of the Dead are also involved in the film and are interviewed as are many others who were involved with the organization. Of course, Jerry Garcia makes many appearances in “celluloid” only, but he is there nonetheless…(as he would have to be).

I have to say, I think everyone involved did a masterful job and the movie is interesting, moving, inspirational, informative, entertaining and evocative. In some spots Long Strange Trip is also funny as hell and it doesn’t matter if you’re laughing “with” or “at”… or “both”. It’s as grand and expansive as the United States of America and it is a tale that really could only be set in this country. I don’t think one necessarily has to have been (or be) a Deadhead to enjoy the film, because the documentary nature allows for the focus of movie to shift constantly, yet always be contained within the larger world that even the Dead and their insular organization had to inhabit. Plus, it IS a pretty interesting story, especially if you as a viewer find anything about this era, style of music, or culture interesting.

The film begins in the 60s: the early days of the Beats, bluegrass, beginnings and such. We are introduced to Jerry Garcia and some of his early influences, musical and otherwise that will keep reappearing throughout the film. One is a girl (Barbara “Brigid” Meier), another is a movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which plays directly into his conception of and affection for “the weird” side of life. Garcia remains the primary focus within the larger story of the band for the duration of the film and even casual fans of the band are cognizant of this truism; the story of the band is the story of Garcia and it begins and ends with him. As the film moves into the hippie years and the Acid Tests, the final coming together of a cohesive musical unit, early recordings and a plan for future world domination, the viewer is introduced to a second set of visions for the future that originate with Garcia, but will affect everyone in the Grateful Dead: Jerry wants to have fun, business is for businessmen, six different people from different musical backgrounds will play fantastic, spontaneous in-the-moment music by listening to each other, and no one will be in charge. As the band comes together and is ALIVE, the movie uses the Frankenstein motif of creating a monster, tying together these sets of influences and early motivations that will continually appear throughout the rest of the movie.

The six chapters that make up the movie focus on these early beginnings, success in Europe in the early 1970s, the roadies and others within the Dead organization, things get out of control in the mid-70s, a triumphant return as a completely professional band, the band’s fans including the tapers, the success and downfall of the 1980s and 1990s. This breaks the long film up in an effective manner, especially if viewed on disc. Given the ambitious amount of material that the director set out to cover and all of the threads he needed to pull together to effectively illustrate how The Dead succeeded, sort of, kind of, but then it all went wrong (and was always destined to go wrong) had to have been pretty daunting task, but he pulled it off. I’m not sure I agree with the movie’s conclusions, but that will be discussed in a separate post because I’m trying to avoid spoilers if someone reads this and still hasn’t seen the movie. But you’ll see and hear Phil, and Pigpen, and Bob, Mickey, Egypt, the drugs, Bill, the wives and girlfriends, everyone on the set of Playboy After Dark getting dosed, The Wall of Sound, the endless tours, the good years and the bad, the laughs and the highs and lows, and well…everything. It’s all there and a lot of the footage is new and some of it is pretty amazing. There is one session of Garcia, Lesh and Weir working out their vocals on an early version of Candyman and that was way cool. I’d watch hours of clips like that, believe-you-me.

I was never a Deadhead; but I did see them once and I count American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead as two of the best albums of the 1970s (and some of the band’s best work) and they obviously occupy a special niche in music history. There really was no one else like them and there couldn’t be anyone else like them for the simple reason that it’s a miracle the project ever got out of the garage. I think the film does a good job at avoiding over-sentimentalizing some of the more mythical or dangerous aspects of the scene and some of my favorite moments include monologues and thoughts from Sam Cutler, road manager to the Dead, (and the Rolling Stones on their ’69 tour). He is a dissenting, ornery, voice of the outsider throughout the movie and indicative of characters of that time. (He seems to be the guy who lives in a van down by the river these days? But likes it?). He and Warner Brothers president, Joe Smith provide much-needed blasts of oxygen to counter the overkill Nitrous high of Grateful Dead weirdness, hippy fan adulation, roadie enthusiasm and Al Franken. Yes, Al is in the movie too and is a righteous Deadhead. I did not know that.

So the takeaway should be: See this movie because you’ll enjoy it. Grab your favorite sweets or sweetie, refreshments, *favors*, and flavors and boogie on down that grand highway of life like the band did all of those years ago. They were a special collection of people and it was a special time in history that will soon be gone forever.