Come for Van, but stay for everything else.
1968 was the annus mirabilis in which Van Morrison recorded and released Astral Weeks, one of the most inexplicable and transcendent albums of all time, and all at the mind-boggling age of twenty-three.
It is well known enough that the album was recorded in a few poorly rehearsed sessions with musicians Morrison, for the most part, barely knew. But it is less known that the origins of the album reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Morrison lived for nine months and wrote much of the album’s material—a Cambridge you’ve never quite read about like this before.
What Ryan Walsh does so beautifully in his book about this period in Morrison’s life as an artist is not only paint a vivid portrait of where Morrison wrote his history-making sophomore album, but also and especially what else was going on at the time that gave Astral Weeks its context.
Populated by such near-forgotten characters as the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community, TV host David Silver of WGBH’S What’s Happening Mr. Silver?, Howard Zinn, and many other avatars of Boston-area counterculture, the book offers readers an engaging and fascinating look into a forgotten chapter of the 1960s.
One of the great achievements of Walsh’s narrative is showing us how the “major” scenes most readers know about were importantly dependent on and fed off of more “peripheral” scenes that, in their own way, had just as much to offer in terms of alternative and forward-thinking ways of thinking and experiencing the world as anywhere else.
Elsewhere in the book, we learn of the importance of Boston-area gigs for the Velvet Underground (otherwise linked to New York and Warhol’s Factory) and their seismic impact on a young Jonathan Richman. There is also an interesting excursus devoted to the Boston connections of movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, Titicut Follies and Zabriskie Point. Indeed, the book is not really so much about Morrison, which becomes clearer and clearer as the book goes on, though not to its detriment.
But there’s still plenty for Van fans to sink their teeth into. Ch. 7, “I Saw You Coming from the Cape,” is a fascinating portrait of the musicians who performed early versions of the Astral Weeks material as it was being worked out and were subsequently left behind (except for one) when Morrison went to New York to record the album, thus being deprived of the opportunity to play on one of the most influential records of all time.
Then known as the Van Morrison Controversy, the group would play a series of partly erratic and partly visionary shows led by their often quite intoxicated, mercurial frontman, who seems to have been hell-bent on alienating just about everyone in the greater Boston area.
Rounded out by sections on drug experimentation, the civil rights movement and the political scene, the book ultimately ends with the recording of the album itself, which is, oddly, a bit anticlimactic, at least compared to the sections on what became of Mel Lyman that follow. Indeed, in a sense, this is a book about Lyman—a kind of dark counterpart to Morrison—as much as it is about Van, whose music and personality remain just as mysterious as they were at the start.
In other words, come for Van, but stay for everything else, which is where the good stuff really is. Walsh is at his best as a cultural historian, and does a magnificent job of giving us a portrait of Boston that puts it back on the map, as it were—an emotional cartography of individual and collective freedom as its new forms were being discovered, invented and fought over.