Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh, Penguin 2018
Where to start? How about a bit of trivia? In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was looking for a drummer. Now think for a second. Who is the most famous drummer ever from Boston? Yes! You’ve got it! Moulty, the one-handed timekeeper from The Barbarians! Moulty, who told the story of his pipe bomb mishap in an eponymous 1966 single! That guy auditioned for Van Morrison. The Irish singer was not impressed by the hook-handed drummer’s warlike style and the relationship ended there.
Or what about this one? The story of Van Morrison’s break with Bert Berns’ Bang Records is well known but I didn’t know that after Bert died suddenly in 1967, Van was at the contractual mercy of a minor gangster called Carmine ‘Wassel’ DeNoia. He might have been small time but his father was the model for Nicely Nicely in the musical, Guys and Dolls. His son, not so nicely, broke a guitar over Van’s head. It’s possible that Morrison only moved to Boston to hide from the thug. Eventually, Wassel demanded twenty big ones in unmarked bills to sever his connection with the singer. The drop had to be made in a dark underground carpark. No, really…
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh is a fascinating book that places one of the most celebrated albums of all time in a particular time and space: Boston, 1968. Van Morrison’s album was, as you are no doubt thinking, recorded in New York with Jay Berliner on guitar and Richard Davis on bass, neither of whom are from Boston. But this was not Van’s band and the Belfast native was not living in New York at the time. He had spent the previous year in Massachusetts, playing gigs and writing the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks and Moondance. Walsh recreates that period in Boston and makes the case that some elements of the record’s atmosphere might have something to do with a particularly dramatic summer in that city. Walsh’s story is akin to a longform version of an episode of This American Life in its rich detail and wholehearted embrace of the uncanny.
Let’s start with Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community. Mel was the harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, which also featured Geoff and Maria Muldaur. He appears at the beginning of Murray Lerner’s film Festival, chatting amicably with the interviewer but, from my perspective, making no sense whatsoever. Somehow, this guy became the leader of a cult that continues to this day. In 1968, the group was everywhere in Boston. They published a popular newspaper called Avatar, made films, hosted gigs, and appeared on television. Lyman made the cover of Rolling Stone and Mark Frechette, a member of the community, appeared in the film Zabriskie Point before ending up in prison for armed robbery. The Rolling Stone magazine feature tried to pin the ‘east coast Manson’ label on Lyman and hinted at dark deeds behind the walls of its properties in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city. The truth seems to be more Sponge Bob than Jim Jones. Mel’s sprees involved indulging in large quantities of chocolate fudge, which cost him his teeth. Former members have also complained that his astrological work was flawed. He moaned about being God and what a drag it was but he was no Manson, fortunately.
Walsh points out that Boston already had some form in the occult game. The city had been a hotbed of spooky fun during the great age of American spiritualism in the late 19th Century. The Fox Sisters opened a branch of their New York operation there in the 1870s. According to Walsh, one of their first customers was former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. She had already visited pioneering ‘spirit photographer’, William Mumler over on Washington Street for a photo of her with Abe’s ghost. The Boston Planchette, a prototype of the Ouija board, appeared in the 1860s. Walsh makes an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, connection between the spiritualist Edgar Cayce and the rise of the progressive ‘free form’ FM format on the legendary WCBN. Radios appear throughout Van’s lyrics and they often have a slightly mystical resonance. Watch the clip of Caravan from The Last Waltz where he begins to riff on the idea of The Band as a radio. Walsh doesn’t suggest there is a direct link – there is a significant and much earlier radio in 1967’s TB Sheets – but late night FM was an important part of Van’s life in Boston and radio seems to have been imbued with a certain spiritualist quality in that city.
But 1968 was also a key year for The Bosstown sound. The label might have been an industry driven attempt to steal some of San Francisco’s thunder but the bands were real and the music still sounds pretty good. What’s remarkable is that many of these bands have an ethereal proto prog fabric that transcends psychedelia. Ultimate Spinach, named for an acid trip mishap with a green felt tip marker, Earth Opera, who recorded on Elektra, and Chamalaeon Church, featuring a drummer called Chevy Chase. Dismissed at the time by the rock press as bubblegum, a lot of these records sound anything but, in retrospect. Peak Impressions by The Freeborne is a good example. It’s ambitious, melodic, and beautifully recorded.
Walsh’s point is that Van arrived in Boston on the heals of his career with Them and subsequent hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. He emerged to record Astral Weeks. What was he hearing? What was happening there? How does one get from from ‘laughing and a’ running’ to ‘venturing in the slipstream’? Walsh is not suggesting that Astral Weeks should henceforth be placed in the ‘Bosstown Sound’ bin at the record fair but he does present a convincing case for the influence of those bands. A quick glance at the schedule for the legendary Boston Tea Party venue in the summer of 1968 places the ‘Van Morrison Controversy’ playing on the same stage as legendary Boston bands like Bagatelle and The Apple Brotherhood Society. Another band that Van ran into around the traps was the earliest version of the J. Geils Band – and therein hangs a tale…
Walsh builds his book around a search. He’d heard that Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) had a reel-to-reel tape of a performance by Van Morrison from the summer of 1968. The show was at a venue called The Catacombs and it featured Van on acoustic guitar backed by his bass player, Tom Keilbania, and John Payne who later played flute on Astral Weeks. The rumour is that the tape contained early performances of the songs on that album along with things like Moondance and Domino. The story has always been that Berliner and Davies were more or less improvising in the recording sessions for Astral Weeks. Keilbania has maintained that the ideas on the record were developed during the summer of 68 in the gigs they played in Boston. Critics are always banging on about rosetta stones in rock and roll but this would be the real deal. So what happens? Does Walsh find the recording? You’ll have to read for yourself. No spoilers here but don’t bother hitting up your favourite source of bootlegs. It aint there. Yet…
I thought Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 was a top read. He takes the story in a number of Bostonian directions. Tim Leary, Ram Dass, the Boston Strangler, Titicut Follies, and James Brown’s dramatic show in the wake of MLK’s assassination are all in the frame. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unwieldy story indeed. Walsh maintains his focus, returning regularly to the album at the center of the story. The result is a snapshot of an American city in one of the most turbulent years in recent history, along with an entirely credible back-story to an album that is never far from the top on any list of essentials.
While reading, you’ll track down some of the Bosstown bands and listen to some Jim Kweskin albums. You’ll revisit late Them, early Van, Astral Weeks and Moondance. But more than anything, you’ll pine for THAT recording of Van in The Catacombs.
Teasers: What happened to Mel Lyman? Did he really die in 1978?.
Madame George 1968, from Astral Weeks:
Madame George, 1967. The book is about what happened in between:
If you skip to the 2:30 mark, you can marvel at how this likeable but daft fellow ever came to lead a cult: