APRIL 3, 2018
IF ROCK HAS a canon, Van Morrison’s 1968 LP Astral Weeks contributes its gnostic gospels — a marginal, weird, eruptive text, full of leads for songs never sung, sermons never preached. It has a reputation as something of a sacred text of Rock and Roll Mystery, a journey into the mystic that has scores of devoted fans, but virtually no artistic heirs. Two generations of rock critics and fans have enshrined Astral Weeks as a sui generis work of wonder and borderline madness.
Lester Bangs’s characteristically gonzo-Romantic 1979 essay on Astral Weeks is the locus classicus in this tradition, with its description of the healing powers of this “mystical document.” Dave Marsh, too, wrote ecstatically about Astral Weeks when he was a practicing critic, even making reference to it in 1978 in his review of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as one of the few records that “changes fundamentally” how we hear rock music. Completing the trinity of influential rock critics enamored of Astral Weeks is the (holy) Greil Marcus, who has constructed a temple of fog around a record that he says he has listened to more than any other: “You can hear these moments of invention and gasping for air, and you reach your hand and you close your fist and when you open your fist there’s a butterfly in it.” Of the first generation of major rock critics, only Robert Christgau has remained relatively lukewarm about Astral Weeks, and he has been badgered pretty regularly by his own fanboys for the apostasy.
If Astral Weeks is all the things its supporters claim it is (protean, mystical, transcendent) it would also seem to offer up few new avenues of exploration: what more can be said about the album that 50 years of criticism hasn’t already exhausted? In Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Ryan Walsh gets around this problem with the novel idea to treat the work as a social text, an LP that can be “read” as a legible part of a career, a cultural moment, a scene, a product of an industry with recognizable protocols. In doing so, the book cuts through the mystifying mythologies of individual genius (some co-authored by the singer himself) that have made it hard to hear how the informing contexts of Belfast and Boston and New York and the grungy realities of the music industry in the late 1960s fed the creation of Astral Weeks.
Walsh does a strong job of dramatizing the interpersonal tensions informing the album’s creation, adding grit and depth to a story often transmitted with a more facile investment in the notion of individual genius. Van Morrison came of age as a working-class Belfast Protestant, a self-conscious misfit who grew up in a row house in East Belfast’s Hyndford Street, just minutes away from the tony Cyprus Avenue he memorializes in two different songs on Astral Weeks. By the late 1960s, Morrison had moved to the Boston-area neighborhood of Cambridgeport, more or less as far from the Charles River as he lived from Belfast’s River Lagan. Down-and-out in Boston, wondering if he would ever match the success of his band Them, Morrison was “totally broke” and approached the making Astral Weeks on a “basic pure survival level.” In this book, Walsh facilitates a long overdue reading of Morrison and his early work in the appropriate hardscrabble context.
One of the underappreciated achievements of Morrison’s album, something Walsh calls attention to, is that it staged a meeting of a very green singer, some densely allusive songs, and a simpatico ensemble of actual jazz musicians. A central performative drama of the record (and of Walsh’s book) has to do with how producer Lewis Merenstein and engineer Brooks Arthur set the visionary, impatient singer in productive tension with the gorgeous arrangements played by a master set of musicians. Walsh gets especially rich anecdotes from several of these supporting characters, including the great bassist Richard Davis and Boston’s own John Payne, who traveled to the Astral Weeks recording sessions with Morrison but had to beg to get a place for his flute on the record. For all the loose talk about Astral Weeks over the years, about the seamless way Morrison and his band interact, Walsh reminds us that the singer had virtually nothing to do with the playing itself. In striving to capture how Morrison found his voice for Astral Weeks, Walsh also makes it clear that for all the praise heaped on the record over the years, very little attention has been paid to what the young immigrant singer actually sounds like. The singer’s timbre is a bit thin on the album; he sounds brittle, and a little rushed. By the time of Moondance, two years later, Morrison had already developed a richer and more complex voice to bring to his explorations into the mystic.
Walsh is a chatty and engaging writer and his research is impressive; he is especially good at describing how little power Morrison had over the making or distribution of his music. First Walsh shows the artist trying to free himself from the control of producer Bert Berns, who oversaw the early days of Morrison’s solo career; as Walsh narrates it, Ilene Berns’s believes that her husband’s death from a heart attack was caused at least in part by how relentlessly the singer badgered the producer. But post-Berns, Morrison continued to struggle to find his place in an industry that seemed defined as much by leg breakers as by musical visionaries. Walsh has talked to most of Astral Weeks’s main contributors (save for the singer himself) and read deeply in the literature of the counterculture — some of which he found in an archive of popular culture materials only recently established at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
It is this contextual approach that breathes new life into Astral Weeks, as it suggests that Morrison’s record will only gain more resonance if we pay attention to all of its possible contexts in and around Boston, circa 1968. In many ways, those contexts are the book; this is a work of allusive local history. Walsh’s “1968,” I should note, has nothing to do with Paris or Prague and everything to do with what happened to the Boston-area counterculture after the so-called “Death of Hippie” in 1967.
It is a mistake, though, to imagine that Walsh intends for all of these smaller set pieces to add up to some master tale of “How Astral Weeks Came to Be.” This book works, rather, as a sort of decentered collective biography. Van Morrison is important to the larger story Walsh wants to tell about questers and malcontents in the Boston area, but really only as one signpost of the confusion of the moment — a miserable young man (a “stranger in this world” is what the narrator calls himself on Astral Weeks’s first song) struggling to find his own voice amid the cacophony.
As such, Walsh’s Astral Weeks does not aim to be comprehensive or linear. Inspired by the psychedelic moment of its subject, his approach is fractal and inductive. Prepublication reviews of Astral Weeks have, bizarrely, taken the book to task for failing to “fully cohere” and for not being able to “weave […] narrative threads into a seamless chronicle.” But the shambly form of the book is purposeful; it acts as an allegory of the era’s chaos, the instability of Boston’s cultural landscape, the formlessness of Morrison’s peculiar record.
What comes through most clearly in Walsh’s Astral Weeks is that Boston was a hotbed of social and cultural experimentation. The political valence of all this innovation ranged wildly: from the bottom-up insurgency of the rock-and-roll club scene to the failed top-down efforts by MGM records to rebrand some of that music as the “Bosstown Sound,” from the antiwar activity centered around Boston University’s Marsh Chapel to the “acid fascism” of cult leader Mel Lyman (so named by Rolling Stone’s David Felton), Boston hosted an anarchic set of conversations about how to move the culture forward. The book is equally compelling when it is introducing relatively forgotten characters such as David Silver, host of a wildly innovative talk show on local public television station, or recontextualizing more familiar figures (e.g., Timothy Leary, Andrew Weil). The narratives rarely converge, though Lyman’s Fort Hill Community does form one important node of activity on this chaotic landscape.
One of the most fascinating insights to emerge from Ryan Walsh’s book is that Van Morrison was not really involved in of any of this social and cultural innovation. Aside from some late-night bonding with Peter Wolf, then a disc jockey at WBCN, and his romantic relationship with Janet (Planet) Rigsbee, Morrison does not seem to have developed much in the way of consistent human connection to the emerging counterculture. In this light, Walsh’s book might be productively read alongside Barney Hoskyns’s recent Small Town Talk, which shows Morrison to have been as reclusive and miserable in Woodstock, New York, as he was earlier in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A generation of rock critics romanticized in the artist what is read here as shyness and an ornery personality — what Walsh calls Morrison’s “default mode of noninteraction.” Greil Marcus has consistently read Morrison’s self-imposed marginalization as something like a heroic Celtic vision quest, bearing down hard on Morrison’s invocations of a mythical Caledonia. But Ryan Walsh reminds us that in these years Morrison was deeply conscious of his roots as an Irish subject of the Crown and aware of how his ongoing impoverishment shaped his art.
But the most compelling reason to read Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is not to learn about Van Morrison or his vaunted record. This is a book about the hub of a very weird universe, a city where an act called the Van Morrison Controversy played intense sets at a club called the Boston Tea Party, which Mel Lyman’s Family had investments in. This is a dark tale of Boston in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, to quote another Irish Protestant mystic, it seemed as if “mere anarchy” had been “loosed upon the world.” Walsh’s fine book could just as well have borrowed its title from a work of speculative fiction by Russell H. Greenan, also released in 1968, that he briefly glosses: It Happened in Boston? In standard narratives of his career, the making of Astral Weeks represents the moment Van Morrison discovered his mission: leaving behind the relatively straightforward rock and roll of Them and the false starts of his early solo career, Morrison launched his true musical mission. But if Astral Weeks is any kind of beginning it is a cursed one, the work of an alienated young man who could not find a place in any of the collective experiments surrounding him in Boston. With a light but sure touch, Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks helps us understand why Van Morrison’s justly celebrated work begins with a youthful-sounding narrator exulting in rebirth but ends with the singer brooding on the death of his beloved, as Richard Davis’s bass and John Payne’s saxophone carry the song into the abyss.
Jeff Melnick directs the graduate program in American Studies at UMass, Boston. His Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family will be published in July 2018 (Arcade).