Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968

by Ryan H. Walsh

Hardcover, 2018

Call number

909.82 WAL



Penguin Press (2018), 368 pages


Documents the story of the creation of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" album against a backdrop of the political and cultural turmoil of 1968 Boston, examining how other artists raised awareness about key historical events and issues.

User reviews

LibraryThing member froxgirl
Add an extra star if you lived in Boston in the way back, when it was gritty, completely Catholic in religion and tastes, and segregated (oh wait...). This is a loving tribute and a cool reckoning of two barely related ships that passed for a few weeks: Van Morrison and Mel Lyman, the mystic and controlling father figure of the Fort Hill Family. Morrison is as evil tempered and mercurial a man as ever lived, but his Astral Weeks album represented a quieter, lyrical side of him that gained tremendous recognition as the years piled up, especially from other musicians. Mel Lyman was a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, as were Maria and Geoff Muldaur, and he founded a commune based on the LSD experiments being conducted locally by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). The author, a member of the band Hallelujah The Hills, is an ardent student of the events and of the vibe in the city, and he lays out his obituary of 1968 with precision, sweeping up Peter Wolf, James Brown, Kevin White, The Boston Tea Party, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Janet Planet (on the album cover of Tupelo Honey), the debuts of WBCN and WGBH, and Albert DeSalvo in his story that's both far-ranging and narrowly focused. The best parts are the in-depth recollections of the musicians and producers whose varied skills and experience/lack made possible this unique, one shot album.

Quote: "The hand on the meta-meter is going in circles at this point. Here is a show that's airing an episode in which the show itself is on trial - and within that episode is a serious investigation into whether the host of said TV show is a real person or a character."
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I chose to read this book because I thought it would be about Van Morrison and the making of his signature album, Astral Weeks. But it really isn't. Rather, it's a narrative about the Boston (aka Bosstown) arts and music scene in the late 1960s. Morrison, who lived in Boston for a short time, makes a few cameo appearances, but I wouldn't say this book is about him. Instead, the reader learns a lot about Mel Lyman, the malevolent leader of a Boston commune/cult that the author compares to the Manson Family, and a bunch of local musicians and TV personalities. This heavily-researched book, which was obviously a labor of love for its author, would be of interest primarily to those who remember that place and time.

Please note that I received an electronic copy of this book to review from NetGalley, but I was not financially compensated in any way. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this book.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
This book's title is named after Van Morrison's seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks. The Irish singer/songwriter and his newlywed wife Janet Planet spent much of 1968 living in Cambridge where he wrote many of the songs that appeared on Astral Weeks as well as latter releases such as "Moondance." The connecting thread of this Secret History of 1968 is Morrison touring New England with a band of Boston musicians, shifting from rock & roll to a folk jazz sound, and being awfully cantankerous and drinking too much while doing so. The actual album was recorded in New York City with jazz session musicians, Morrison's Boston band mates only allowed to observe what was happening in the studio, as much as Walsh tries to sell this as a Boston-based album.

A better title for the book might be Things that Happened in and Around Boston in 1968 (and a Few Years Before and After for Context). What the book lacks in having a cohesive narrative it makes up in having lots of interesting stories of Boston in the age of the counterculture. This history is often overlooked compared with what was going on in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere that year, but it is no less interesting for being forgotten.

The other major thread of this book is the Fort Hill Community, a commune or cult based around the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury lead by the messianic Mel Lyman. The Lyman Family seemed to have their finger into every aspect of the Boston counterculture including the folk music scene (Jim Kweskin was a member), avant guarde filmmaking, and the popular underground newspaper Avatar.

In addition to Van Morrison, Walsh covers the Boston/Cambridge music scene which was shifting from the folk revival to psychedelic rock. Unfortunately, MGM executives targeted Boston as the next big music scene and marketed a number of Boston bounds as the "Bosstown Sound." Fans and critics saw through the cash grab and roundly rejected the Bosstown Sound.

While Boston bands were flopping, a New York band, The Velvet Underground gained a large following in Boston and played many shows in the area. A teenage Jonathan Richman recognized Lou Reed on the street and became the VU's superfan/mascot. Walsh notes that in later years as original members of the Velvet Underground left the band they were replaced with Boston artists so that the final Velvet Underground album in 1973 was actually the work of a Boston bar band.

The Velvets home away from home was the South End night club The Boston Tea Party (pictured on their White Light/White Heat album). The Boston Tea Party became the go-to place to see the latest and best music acts of the late 60s. At the same time WBCN-FM began experimenting with a freeform rock format, first on overnights, then 24-hours a day, playing many of the same bands that performed at the Boston Tea Party and broadcasting concerts.

On television, WGBH broadcasted the experimental television program "What's Happening, Mr. Silver?" which was part talk show, part film collage, and featured an episode that could be watched on two stations at the same time if you happened to have two TVs.

Boston also played a role in four widely diverse films in this period:

The Boston Strangler - a real crime drama starring Tony Curtis filmed at the time the case against Albert DeSalvo was still active.
The Thomas Crown Affair - a heist film with lots of scenes shot on location in Boston and vicinity.
Titicut Follies - a controversial documentary exposing the poor conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (or would have if the movie hadn't been banned for two decades).
Zabriskie Point - Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's attempt at a American countculture drama that cast a non-actor found at a Boston bus stop as a lead character. Both the youthful leads in the movie ended up associated with the Fort Hill Commune.
Late in the book, Walsh recounts the night James Brown saved Boston by playing a concert at Boston Garden broadcast live on WGBH. The negotiations with the square Boston mayor Kevin White and his young assistant Barney Frank are particularly amusing. This plays into the bigger story of racial tensions in Boston and a shift to more radical civil rights actions in the African-American community. The Lyman Family ties in once again as the all-white commune had strained relations with their Black neighbors in Roxbury. Surprisingly, Walsh does not cover the Tent City protests in the South End which were one of the most significant events in Boston in 1968 (unless I dozed while listening or something).

If you're interested in Boston history and/or the counterculture, this is a good book that will fill in some overlooked parts of history.
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LibraryThing member Darcia
This book is weird, interesting, disjointed, and probably not what you expect.

First, if you're a Van Morrison fan and you're expecting this book to center around him and the 'Astral Weeks' album, you'll be disappointed. What we have is a hodgepodge of stuff going on in the Boston area during the year Van Morrison lived in Cambridge. The author attempts to tie Van Morrison's presence and the album into everything else, or maybe the other way around, but it doesn't work. Van Morrison and the making of the album is actually a small part of this book, in part because his time in Cambridge was mostly irrelevant to the songs. You'll find almost all this content in the opening and closing sections, with tidbits and conjecture sprinkled now and then throughout the rest of the book.

What this book really amounts to is an overview of everything that was happening in and around Boston in 1968. It feels like Walsh took a series of articles he'd written, grasped for a common thread that would get attention, and then crammed it all together.

The major focus is actually on Mel Lyman, a musician who claimed to be God, and the small Fort Hill cult he organized. Even that aspect, however, is told in a haphazard way, in bits and pieces throughout, with no coherence to the storytelling method.

Other topics touched on include music groups that either came from or wound up in Boston in 1968, including quite a bit about The Velvet Underground; true crime stories such as The Boston Strangler; movies and producers, including The Thomas Crown Affair; the Harvard Psilocybin Project, MK-Ultra experiments, Leary, Richard Alpert, and Andrew Weil; and a section about the Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane and a documentary made there (which was actually filmed in 1966.) The book is only 304 pages without the end notes, so that's a whole lot of content jammed into a short space.

I found much of the content interesting because I grew up south of Boston, in the town of Bridgewater, not far from the prison. I was only 6 in 1968, so I don't remember any of this from personal experience, but the shadow of it all remained throughout my childhood. If you have no interest in the area, then I'm not sure this book will hold much appeal at all.

*The publisher provided me with a review copy, via Amazon Vine, in exchange for my honest review.*
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