Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968
By Ryan Walsh
Released March 6, 2018
Review by Roy Peak
When I was quite a bit younger and living in my first apartment I had a Sunday morning ritual. I would clean house while listening to two albums: Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. This went on for a number of years, eventually shifting to Monday when that became my one regular day off.
For some reason, in my mind, these two albums complemented one another. They were both completed within a year of each other—one by one of America's most important songwriters, the other by Ireland's latest in a long line of poet-mystics. Both of these albums had a similar sound to them. A trifle flat-sounding, not much in the way of studio trickery in either of these, which is interesting since they both came from an era where many bands were going nuts with multi-tracking and psychedelic ambience. Both of these albums were rather sparse in instrumentation, yet full of meaning and potence. Lots of words backed by mostly acoustic instruments. These songs weren't country, nor actual folk music, but still very rock 'n' roll in their approach—albeit a severely mutated and on the loose version of rock 'n' roll, which seemed to almost come from an alternate universe where Elvis, the Beatles, and electric guitars didn't exist. Also interesting is the fact that both of these albums were crafted after their respective artists had gone through great turmoil. Dylan was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, while Morrison was trying to restart his career after getting out from under a heinous recording contract with mob ties which had left him broke and stuck in the states. He was living in Boston for a short time before he recorded Astral Weeks, writing the songs and working with the varied musicians who would influence the sound on that album. This is where writer and musician Ryan Walsh—a most definite Astral Weeks fan—decided to use that information as a jumping off point for a book that is chock full of intriguing anecdotes about the Boston music scene in the late 1960s.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 references and ties together such amazing stories such as the discovery of LSD, the filming of The Thomas Crown Affair, the Velvet Underground's residency at the Boston Tea Party concert hall, Mel Lyman and his cult of acid-crazed non-hippies, a television show which was decades ahead of its time, and Walsh's own search for the lost tapes of Morrison and his band as they worked out the intricacies of the songs that would make up Astral Weeks as well as several of Morrison's later albums.
Walsh has done his homework here as every account is well researched and he interviewed everyone who would talk to him about events that occurred fifty years ago, including such Boston luminaries as Jonathan Richman, Peter Wolf, David Silver, Morrison's former girlfriend—Janet Planet, Morrison's former Boston-based band members, and even one of the mobsters who was holding Morrison's contract hostage—who explains to Walsh that the real reason Morrison left New York to hide out in Boston was "because I broke his guitar on his head."
We get unbelievable and obscure details in this book: Did you know that Chevy Chase played in prog-rock bands in Boston before becoming a comedian? Or that the city of Boston televised a James Brown concert in the hope it would stave off any potential riots the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr? What about the fact that a sixteen-year-old Jonathan Richman hung out with Lou Reed so much that he began to talk just like him, which apparently irritated Reed to no end. We get interesting tid-bits about the mystical side of Boston: spiritual photography, the popularity of planchettes. Is it a mere coincidence that both Van Morrison and Jonathan Richman wrote songs with the word "astral" in the title, or was there a spiritual reason, involving the town of Boston which inspired them both?
This is a hard to put down tome of information from first-time author Walsh, full of dizzying stories and wild anecdotes, which never fails to intrigue. Part detective story, part celebration of all things Bostonian, part wild ride through a wild time in America's history.
Walsh, when you're done with the book tour for this one, do me a favor and start working on 1967: A Secret History of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding. If there's a story there, you can find it, and I'm dying to read it.
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville.