Van Diagram

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 BY Ryan H. Walsh. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.

The cover of Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968

IN ASTRAL WEEKS: A SECRET HISTORY OF 1968, Ryan H. Walsh pursues the story behind the inspiration and creation of the now-classic Van Morrison album of the same name, searching for the unexplored answers that have been hiding in plain sight. But the mystery of why and how the singer-songwriter came to be in Boston—a faltering Belfast phoenix landing in a fizzled folk scene—is merely the entry point for Walsh’s romp through the city’s countercultural history.

Which is to say, it’s a Van Morrison book that is also about the Velvet Underground (whose White Light/White Heat was released in January ’68), LSD seers, the making of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point as it relates to a hippie cult and its messianic leader, and the messy relationship between Boston’s chaotic underground and its repressive mainstream. These intersections created pathways in music culture that are visible to this day. The result is a portrait of a time and place so expansive it makes the creation of Astral Weeks, one of the most transcendent and lasting albums of the ’60s, seem nearly incidental.

The secret history unspools like an endless bar yarn, an almost-impossible tale in which obscure and famous figures are tethered in conspiracy and coincidence. Walsh’s voice is casual, his prose accessible, and his humor occasionally eviscerating. We follow the author as he hunts for witnesses who can explain a heretofore unexamined and mysterious time in Morrison’s career. And why Boston? As Secret History outlines, Morrison knew no one in Boston, which was effectively dead as a music city (sorry, Ultimate Spinach fans) when he arrived.

Walsh sources intel from dozens of folks, though not from Van himself. Morrison is a notoriously unreliable narrator of his own musical history and has changed his tack on the meanings and inspiration behind Astral Weeks, especially as its reputation has gone from flop to fan and critical favorite. (Widely misunderstood and even panned upon release, it’s now accepted as a change-your-life masterwork.) In lieu of the cantankerous legend, we get the idiomatic reminiscences of Morrison’s Boston-era BFF, a cagey Peter Wolf, former frontman of the J. Geils Band. The author spends months trying to get a handle on Wolf before successfully plying him with a selection of miniature cheesecakes. In exchange, Walsh gets a walk down weird-memory lane with Wolf, rife with ancient anecdotes and buddy photos, and caps the night by confirming his possession of what is considered to be the rumored Rosetta stone of VM: the only recording of Morrison woodshedding what was then about to become Astral Weeks. Walsh is undone by his encounter with Wolf: “After having seen what I consider the Holy Grail of musical artifacts I’m absolutely useless.”

In the moment when Van Morrison becomes Van Morrison, he’s got a pickup band of local students, one still in high school, with two members fresh out of psychiatric commitment. Teenage guitarist John Sheldon dressed like a “preppy vampire”; drummer Joey Bebo was a Berklee jazz nerd who recalls tossing a Frisbee with Morrison between rehearsals for what was to be Morrison’s American tour, playing gigs at local “rock clubs, roller rinks, high school gyms, amusement parks, and outdoor festivals.” That summer, they’d back Morrison as an electric trio as Astral Weeks, along with “Domino” and “Moondance,” all took shape.

What Walsh limns about the singer’s time in Cambridge goes a long way in explaining the searching and transformative clarity of Astral Weeks, an album of sensual longing “to be born again,” as Morrison sings on the title track. This is the city and space of that artistic rebirth. Morrison’s post-Them prospects were a bust, so he “toiled in Cambridge trying to jumpstart his career.” He’d been lured to Boston by an inexperienced manager’s promises and his own enchantment with the city’s folk scene, which was in fact dead (or at least moldering) at that moment. He needed to extricate himself from his contract with Bang Records, an enterprise that had evolved into a going mafia concern; handguns were waved in attempts to assuage Morrison’s artistic temperament. Warner Brothers, which had recently signed the Grateful Dead, Jimi, and Joni, assumed Van Morrison’s contract after delivering a bag containing $20,000 in cash to some sketchy guys in a local warehouse.

The book delivers Morrison to us in this tentative time, a newlywed holed up in a tiny apartment with his young American bride, who collects and catalogues his lyrics in a binder. (As Morrison’s ex-wife Janet Planet Rigsbee tells Walsh when he locates her via her Etsy bead store: “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy.”) He is dispirited and broke, an Irishman far from home, focused solely on making Astral Weeks, an album that eventually restored him to glory.

The vast majority of historical recollections of Morrison, both in and outside of these pages, feature him either extremely drunk, elusive, or explosive (commonly, shades of all three). Joe Smith, the Warner Brothers executive, describes him here as “a hateful little guy.” Walsh’s rendering of the vituperative Morrison as occasionally tender—and, hell, vulnerable—makes him at least seem to be the artist we hear on Astral Weeks; he’s a Van you want to believe in.

Yet just as we glimpse the softer side of Van, Walsh pans to the other pieces of his book’s grand puzzle. The next hundred-plus pages chronicle the other charismatic, rebellious white men in Boston’s psychedelic scene. At its center-that-would-not-hold is Mel Lyman, the spellbinding father of a cultish commune, and the Fort Hill Community he leads.

Lyman and the denizens of Fort Hill, though forgotten relics now, were famous—or infamous—as the 1960s dragged to a close. Lyman had been a formidable folk-scene fixture, known for his harmonica skills in a nationally noted jug band. He became disenfranchised when Dylan went electric, and was further undone when he lost his true love—a woman who participated in one of Timothy Leary’s Acid Tests and never came back down from her trip. Lyman, believing himself to be the one and only big-G God, cultivated an intentional community with other hippies and dropouts in a series of connected houses on a run-down block in the Roxbury neighborhood. In a time when freaky kids living communally were the thing, Fort Hill and Lyman were the subject of a massive two-part Rolling Stone profile, with attractive young members claiming the cover. (As one devotee explained, “People on the Hill have to learn to put Melvin and the community ahead of themselves.”) Lyman’s MO was a kind of “acid evangelism”; he confronted and manipulated people after dosing them, “augmenting his natural charisma with LSD, wielding the drug to foster devotion.” Lyman’s rules, according to residents, were arbitrary, ever changing, and astrological in nature. Commune scofflaws could find themselves locked away in a basement cell.

The community’s primary public-facing endeavor was a biweekly party-organ hawked in Harvard Square; it featured Lyman’s profanity-laced proclamations alongside political writings and rants from Hill members. The paper’s free-speech clashes with Boston’s notorious censors are by far the most compelling exploits of the sketchy personality cult. Lyman’s redeeming characteristics are rarely evidenced here, and the chapters revisiting his abusive deceptions of his followers (including filming a very freaked-out pregnant woman he had dosed) had me longing for Van Morrison and his band of teen dorks to wander back in with their Frisbee and their flute. Morrison’s mercurial weirdness has long been excused in the name of his art; Lyman on the other hand was just a mystical dick with a bunch of wives and a homemade jail.

Walsh’s story continually connects seemingly disparate events, creating a Day-Glo Venn diagram of ’60s countercultural history. Fort Hill’s story intersects with the birth of Crawdaddy, which was also the birth of American rock journalism. Boston as the site of Leary and Richard Alpert’s legendary Acid Tests fractures into two stories: Alpert’s rebirth as Ram Dass and the introduction of Eastern spiritualism to stoned college kids in the West, and a young Dr. Andrew Weil (of Oprah fame) narcing on Leary and Alpert for (supposedly) not dealing him in on their pharma-grade hallucinogens. We also get the birth of free-form rock radio at the legendary WBCN; the founding of Boston Tea Party, one of the first legit American rock clubs; continual raids on and censorship of every youth endeavor in the city; possibly the invention of music video; the Boston Strangler; the mayor’s crass attempt to stanch potential riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with a live TV broadcast of James Brown’s performance that night in the city, in the hope that Boston’s black populace would be inside watching instead of in the streets. Meanwhile, teenage Jonathan Richman chauffeurs Lou Reed around in his parents’ car. It’s a cavalcade of every Boston moment of import at the ass-end of the ’60s, though, generously, Walsh stops before he gets too far into Aerosmith.

Walsh unearths a lot of revelatory rock lore, but ultimately the story functions as a map of how organic culture worked in that place and time, the weird kids and their weird ideas that eventually codified into industries and institutions. The characters in Walsh’s book are by and large Boomers who came up with alternatives to American mainstream hegemony, some erected on impossibly utopian hopes, others on thinly disguised capitalist savvy. There is plenty of enterprising, wholly uncynical community-building—in venues, publications, music scenes—that laid the groundwork for a sustained rock ’n’ roll youth culture. While much of it was comically awash in psychedelically tempered decision-making, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is another right-on-time reminder of how crucial participation is in keeping art and music alive.

Jessica Hopper is a music critic and author based in Chicago.