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Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968

Doug Collette By

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Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968
Ryan H. Walsh
368 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0735221345
Penguin Press

Before thoroughly delving into Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a reader can thumb randomly through its three-hundred fifty-some pages and find nary a reference to Van Morrison or the epochal album after which this story of a pivotal year in Boston, Massachusetts is named. But that perception is as deceptive as the garish, amateurish art adorning the dust cover of a book that is the antithesis of kitsch. The brilliant album by the so-called 'Belfast Cowboy' is more deeply steeped in mysticism than most of his records and the level of detail the author includes about the environs of 'The Hub" at that time accentuates that factor rather than detracting from it. This musician/journalist's writing is more learned than its winning, casual tone would suggest.

For instance, as the author frames his pursuit of a rare Van Morrison live recording, owned by frontman of the J. Geils Band Peter Wolf, all of sudden (it seems), the author is ensconced in the latter's apartment, deep in conversation and regaled with stories from this 'member of Boston rock royalty' during his days at WBCN, plumbing the depths of the radio station's music library with the young and volatile songwriter/performer, sharing their mutual love of blues and r&b.

Such an incursion into contemporary history is a marked contrast to the on-again off-again examination of cult leader Mel Lyman's presence in the music scene around the city, a motif that carries increasingly ominous undercurrents and also allows Ryan H. Walsh the latitude to relate the (d)evolution of folk music of the period. That sequence of events is a precursor to the dissolution of Morrison's tempestuous business and personal relationship with famed record business mogul Bert Berns following the dissolution of the Irish rockers Them, in subsequent solo work that brought no small measure of success (in one form, the now-classic "Brown Eyed Girl") and, in turn, Van's marriage. Readers of A Secret History of 1968 doesn't need to be aware of the Irishman's recurring expressions of bitterness on this front in his original songs, but anyone cognizant of his running commentary over the years can only become further enlightened before hitting the one-hundred page mark and the novice gets a graphic depiction as well.

It's crucial to emphasize Astral Weeks is definitely not merely a dissection of Van's history, but much more than that. Ryan H. Walsh uses Morrison as a jumping off point to investigate a panoply of subjects that, taken together, posit Boston as an epicenter of cultural shifts within which the creation of this pivotal record seems predestined. And the author doesn't just skim the surface of any of his subjects including spiritualism or the contrived 'Bosstown Sound' hype of the era: he goes far beneath the surface of the city's distinction as a fountainhead of research into psychedelics and its less-than-savory reputation on race. In doing so, Walsh transcends truism and preconception.

And, by inserting at least cursory mention of Van Morrison throughout discussion of all these subjects, the writer retains his readership's interest, at the same time creating suspense. As a result, the return to this topic in some detail at the home stretch of Astral Weeks, resounds, at least to some degree, like a band returning to its intro of a song after a lengthy improvisation. Meanwhile, Ryan's early mention of Rolling Stone Magazine's thorough examination of Lyman and his cult/community is telling. The publication's in-depth articles function as a template for this book. The author's discerning persistence is that of an ace reporter, as exemplified by how he tracks down former sidemen of Morrison's to confirm the facts rather than rely on mere rumor or hearsay.

Thus, the regular recurrence of asterisked addenda to his story are not so much peripheral as 'tidbits' that more fully illuminate the subject at hand and give Ryan H. Walsh credence as an authority on his subjects (as do nearly twenty pages of notes at the end plus a very extensive bibliography). For instance, in the context of Walsh's search for recordings of Van The Man and company, sans the electric instruments they used during their summer tour of 1968, it's a provocative reference indeed to Victor "Moulty" Moulton of Beantown garage band the Barbarians. An early lineup of the Band backed the one-handed drummer in recording sessions around the time that group was backing Bob Dylan in 1966. And sharing the sequence of events leading to the metamorphosis of once all-classical WBCN into an FM rock station par excellence, simultaneous (not merely coincidental!) with the burgeoning success of the Boston Tea Party as a live music venue, is something of a microcosm of rock's evolution in the Sixties.


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