Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Astral Weeks' follows Van Morrison through Boston circa 1968

'Astral Weeks' by Ryan H. Walsh.
'Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968' by Ryan H. Walsh. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

When you think of Boston music, first off you probably think of Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band. Next, you think of the college rock scene that produced the Cars, Jonathan Richman, Mission of Burma, and later the Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. If you think back to the '60s, you probably think of "Dirty Water," the garage rock classic made famous by the Standells...a band from California.

Ryan H. Walsh's new book Astral Weeks is subtitled A Secret History of 1968. It's "secret" in the sense that the story of Boston in that epochal year — now 50 years past — hasn't really been part of the rock history canon. Walsh is a lifelong Bostonian (and a musician, with the band Hallelujah the Hills), and his favorite album is Astral Weeks.

Walsh has long known that classic had its genesis in Boston, an under-recognized fact he wanted to explore and bring to light. Being from Minneapolis, an analogue that strikes me is Janet Jackson: people here know that she made all her most famous music in Minnesota with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but the general public doesn't really associate her with the area the way they would Bob Dylan...who's from here, but actually created relatively little of his art here.

The question isn't just a point of regional pride. Even a superficial listen makes clear that Astral Weeks is a unique album not just in Van Morrison's oeuvre, but in rock history. Morrison, being a rock star, likes to aggregate all the credit to himself, but Walsh argues that the time Morrison spent gigging around Boston in 1968 was crucial to the sound of the record he cut in New York City in fall of the latter year.

The book more or less begins and ends with the story of Morrison, who came to live in Cambridge (Boston's immediately adjoining city) after splitting with Them, and in the wake of his breakout solo hit "Brown Eyed Girl." He collaborated with a few local musicians as a group called "the Van Morrison Controversy," playing a series of shows to try out the new material that would become Astral Weeks.

Walsh discovers that only one tape of those shows exists, and it's owned by...that's right, Peter Wolf, then a DJ at WBCN and later, famously, the frontman of the J. Geils Band. If that tape were ever released, the world would know just how Morrison's greatest album came together in Boston. Can Walsh get hold of it? He leaves us with that cliffhanger for the bulk of the book.

Boston circa 1968 was a city whose music scene was in transition. The Harvard Square coffeeshop folk scene, which produced Joan Baez and brought her together with Bob Dylan in the early '60s, was petering out. "College rock" as we know it wasn't really a thing, but future alt-rock darling Richman was following the Velvet Underground like a puppy dog. The Velvet Underground? Yep, they played a club called the Boston Tea Party 43 times from 1967 to 1970 — while playing only three, yes, three, shows in all of New York City.

Meanwhile, record labels were trying to promote something called "the Boston Sound" (or, alternately, "the Bosstone Sound"). Haven't heard of it? How about bands like Beacon Street Union, Orpheus, and Ultimate Spinach? Still no? Yeah, it never really took off, but those garage-rock bands were part of the story Boston was telling about itself in the late '60s, and their influence would bear fruit a decade later when bands like the Del Fuegos, Human Sexual Response, and the Lyres made the city one of America's most exciting places for independent music.

If there's one person who tied this all together, it was Mel Lyman. He's also not a household name, but he has a claim to fame in a little corner of '60s music history: he was a folkie with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band who played a solo harmonica set to close out the day at Newport when Dylan went electric.

In Boston, Lyman ran what might be best described as a commune with cultish overtones: the Fort Hill Community. It was Boston's take on the whole '60s cult phenomenon, with more legitimate music cred and fewer murderous impulses than the Manson cult, but still more or less a cult. Lyman, for example, dictated when members were and were not permitted to have sexual intercourse, and even the "Women's Issue" of the Fort Hill publication Avatar was full of Lyman poems with lines like "I am a giant erection."

Lyman didn't have any friends at the level of the Beach Boys, but nonetheless, Fort Hill remained relevant to the Boston arts scene through the late '60s. The experimental WGBH show What's Happening, Mr. Silver? (replaced after MLK's assassination with the black-focused program Say Brother) featured Fort Hill. Lyman married Jessie Benton (daughter of famed painter Thomas Hart Benton), who helped make the connections for a Warhol-endorsed Boston Cinematheque that quickly folded and turned into the VU's favorite rock club (and yes, Van Morrison played there too). Zabriskie Point stars Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin joined Fort Hill after shooting Michelangelo Antonioni's experimental landmark, and needless to say Lyman was closely tied to the Harvard crowd exploring LSD.

Finally, Walsh gets back to Morrison. When the Irish star went to go record Astral Weeks in New York, he took two of his Boston bandmates: flutist John Payne and bassist Tom Kielbania. Morrison cut the actual record with pro session musicians from the jazz world, but Payne talked his way into the studio.

Did Walsh ever get to hear that Boston tape? He did.

Wolf, who dusted off the tape when Walsh asked about it, had it digitized and gave a copy to Morrison, who was blown away by the quality of the recording and the playing. The recording hasn't been released — even Kielbania doesn't have a copy — but an unidentified source let Walsh take a listen, and he says it's extraordinary. It also supports Kielbania's claim that although he didn't play on Astral Weeks, he devised some of the bass parts and taught them to session player Richard Davis.

Astral Weeks, the book, may not be compelling enough to recommend to the casual fan, but for anyone interested in taking a deeper dive into the musical history of Boston, 1968, and/or one of the greatest albums ever made, it's well-worth a read.

The Current's Astral Weeks giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Astral Weeks giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $27.00

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, March 29, 2019.

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This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2018 Official Giveaway Rules.

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