Forty years from now, I like to think that some young nerdy-ass nostalgia monger will reach out to me wanting to ask a couple of questions about Ryan H. Walsh. The inquirer will likely be reporting for a book about the Boston music scene circa 2008, and someone will have told them to hit me up because Walsh wrote some of the beloved songs for his band Hallelujah the Hills at the lunch spot where I worked in the aughts. I’ll invite the interviewer over to my nursing home to smoke a joint, and tell them all about when I was making sandwiches for Walsh. For an encore, I’ll gush all about the part of his career when he was calling sources and compiling his own critical arcane Hub rock history.
The year was 2014, and the songwriter and budding author was sitting on several longtime curiosities about his favorite album of all time, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, which, as legend had it, but few details were available regarding, was unceremoniously written in the time the famously elusive artist lived in Cambridge. With encouragement from editors at Boston magazine, Walsh unearthed previously hidden gems galore about that fascination for the 2015 feature “Astral Sojourn,” billed as “the untold story of how Van Morrison fled record-industry thugs, hid out in Boston, and wrote one of rock’s greatest albums.”
From the popularity of that spelunking mission, a book deal came into the picture, leading Walsh to seriously consider what tangential yarns were worth unraveling at length, and to navigate the intersections. The resulting new book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, goes leagues beyond extended album review fanboy territory and illustrates in full kaleidoscopic fashion a post-folk avant-garde rock scene that was expressly centered around the Greater Boston region, but which resonated far and wide for decades after. The characters who surface and in many cases have their stars align along the way are some of the most stunning influential personalities of their whole generation—from Peter Wolf to Andy Warhol to less frequently acknowledged icons like Hub nightlife honcho Don Law—and Walsh connects the dots to reconstruct a time when they were all within a few degrees of separation, if not crashing in the same apartment as each other. As the author told me over beers, “Imagine seeing Fleetwood Mac on the third floor of a South End apartment building. What the fuck!?!”
[Music writer and magazine editor Robert] Somma socialized with the [Velvet Underground] whenever they performed in Boston, often joining them afterward at the Cambridge apartment of Ed Hood. The star of Warhol’s 1965 film My Hustler, Hood was a balding, intellectual, entertainingly bitchy man who was taking a stab at an English degree at Harvard. The gatherings contained the feeling of a transcendental Salon—“seances,” Somma calls them. … Over Chinese food, [Lou] Reed would hold court and rave about the theosophist Alice Bailey; Hood would balance a cocktail on his head and recite the opening of Paradise Lost. -R.H. Walsh, Astral Weeks
CF: If you walked down the street in Central Square 50 years ago, would it look like a freak show? Was there some kind of open revolution going on?
RHW: In [some of the research materials for Astral Weeks], there is a lot of footage of Harvard Square, and it’s a mix.
CF: Were most of the people you interviewed referrals from other people you spoke with? Are a lot of these people still in touch with one another?
RHW: Most people were really thankful and grateful that I was doing this. I had a long list after my initial research, but that grew, and here’s the other thing—some of these people still have grudges against one another, and sometimes I was a pawn in like a 50-year-old band grudge. Which was sweet, because I know where they’re coming from, I know what it’s like to have a band grudge. But very few people said no or ignored me. [Doug Yule] from the original Velvet Underground initially said yes and then ghosted me, [music producer Alan Lorber] was pretty hostile from email one and never spoke with me. … Most interviews and photos, though, people have been sitting on this shit for years and were happy to share.
After interviewing Walsh for nearly two hours at the Green Street Grill in Central Square, just blocks away from where Van Morrison put pen to pad and feverishly sweated over demos that would later on evolve into his mysterious classic, I couldn’t decide whether to publish an excerpt from Astral Weeks, run parts of our interview verbatim, or write my own reflection of his dutifully executed project. So in the spirit of the era that he mined to build his time machine, I hastily threw all of the above onto the page together in a single tapestry that I hope in its own way reflects the chaotic but incredibly inspired year in question.
It’s no coincidence that Lyman’s acid evangelism took root in Boston, the true birthplace of American hallucinogenic culture. -R.H. Walsh, Astral Weeks
Nearly every page in Astral Weeks might lead a reader in 2018 to ask, What the fuck was in the water back then? But there is a simple and obvious answer to that question throughout Walsh’s book—LSD. The hallucinogenic trials of the likes of Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil, and Timothy Leary are woven right into the backdrop, all the way down to the juicy prehistoric campus politics around such experimentation. But the most intense trips come when Walsh explores the Fort Hill Community compound in Roxbury, where musician turned embattled movement leader Mel Lyman made enemies and headlines as a prolific polygamist publisher of the alternative newspaper Avatar. You’ll have to flip through Astral Weeks for all the dirt on Lyman and Fort Hill, but his massive footprint, even among the much better-known exalted giants who roamed Boston at the time, is a testament to his enormous impact in the moment.
CF: What were your rules in writing the book for what to include?
RHW: A major part of the story had to happen in 1968 in Boston, and if it was somehow related to Mel [Lyman] or Van [Morrison], that bumped it up.
CF: So after all this, what are your prevailing thoughts on Van, the man himself?
RHW: Van Morrison can’t take full credit for Astral Weeks—it’s such a collaborative thing. I think this drives him insane. It was a slow burner. It took years, but then it kept selling and selling and selling. So finally around 2009, he decided to reclaim it. …
Lewis [Merenstein], the producer [of Astral Weeks], in [our] interview outside of a coffee shop in Manhattan, said, “Van is a beautiful poet, he has no right to be this mad.” … No matter what, if you write that [Astral Weeks] was about [something in particular], [Morrison] will reject it. It’s a good cat-and-mouse game. …
I literally spoke with everyone alive who was involved with the album—except Van. I would talk to Van in a heartbeat, but he’d probably just scream at me. …
The book is about a lot more than Astral Weeks, but it also has a lot more about that album than any other book ever will.
CF: Are Van and Mel of equal importance here?
RHW: I think they’re the two main characters of the book, and this is how I see it: They were on the same [record] label, they lived a mile away from each other, they both had a really important year in ’68, and they were both searching for something spiritual through music. I thought that I could tell the larger story on two tracks. …
Everyone I spoke to [about Lyman] was either like, “That guy is so charismatic,” or, “What a fucking fraud.” It was right down the middle. It was enough of both perspectives that [I came to understand] that he was a pretty divisive figure in Boston who was then totally forgotten.
Morrison was still riding the buzz of “Brown Eyed Girl,” but he certainly wasn’t a household name. His adopted hometown didn’t pay him special attention. “I remember one gig at the Boston Tea Party,” Sheldon said, “but we had no drummer.” With Van and the bass player, Tom Kielbania, they drove by Berklee School of Music and “saw this guy on the sidewalk. Tom said, ‘Hey, it’s Joe. Joe, do you want to play drums?’ This is the kind of level that things were happening at then.” -R.H. Walsh, Astral Weeks
Indeed they were. In another chapter, Mark Frechette, a gorgeous lost soul searching for the meaning of life, is discovered by a Hollywood producer on the street in Roxbury and tapped to play the lead in the anticipated debut American film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. If that sounds absurd, or unbelievable, then brace yourself for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground holding a residency in the South End—where a teenage Jonathan Richman often hung out backstage—all as the Boston Strangler ran amok and the most intriguing new voice in music jammed with his own ragtag band, the Van Morrison Controversy, nearby on Boylston Street.
CF: Do you pine for venues like the legendary Boston Tea Party? Or are you just fine with the venues that we have these days?
RHW: I’ll put it this way—I would have loved to go and check that out. It sounds just amazing. I love Great Scott, but this seems like something else.
CF: For someone like Van Morrison, whose every move and lyric fans obsess over, why hadn’t the time that he spent in Boston and Cambridge been examined like this until you came along?
RHW: It’s easy to think that his time here was insignificant. He’s certainly not going to tell you that it was [significant]. … The truth is I am not a fanatic about his life, or even his whole career. Just one five-year period with a focus on like eight months. … Both music-wise and story-wise, I find it really weird how unremarked on this all was.
CF: Is there anyone who listens to Hallelujah the Hills and hears a lot of Van Morrison influences?
RHW: I don’t think it comes through there. Anyone can make the case I guess, but I just don’t have that kind of voice to croon and jazz it up. It’s my favorite album, but I love a lot of music, and the music I make is more noisy, punky, anthemic.
By February 1968, everyone under thirty in Boston had an opinion on [the “Bosstown Sound” phenomenon that had big imprints signing Hub-based psychedelic rock acts willy-nilly]. The Boston Globe tirelessly covered the topic, noting gamely if stiffly, “What has happened is a ‘pop’ explosion with our beloved old Beantown square in the middle.” More bands were forming practically overnight: Puff, Quill, Ill Wind, the Improper Bostonians, the Apple Pie Motherhood Band, Eden’s Children, Phluph, A Warm Puppy, Bead Game, Bo Grumpus, Listening, Butter …” -R.H. Walsh, Astral Weeks
CF: Being in and around the Boston music scene yourself all these years later, what’s the closest thing you’ve seen to the artificial hype that was built around the so-called Bosstown Sound?
The reason [Hallelujah the Hills] were signed was because cool blogs wrote about us. Suddenly I was dealing with four labels that wanted to put out our first album. I understood the kids in that story because I was in a similar position, only theirs was amplified. Guys were standing on corners in Boston [in 1968] asking people things like, “Hey kid, you know bands?”
CF: What came of all the Bosstown Sound bands all these years later? How much had you heard of Orpheus or Ultimate Spinach before getting into this?
RHW: None of it. … MGM lost big time with what they spent on marketing versus sales. But the kids, they were pure. A couple of those bands, if they were just left alone to incubate, they could have been great. Every one of those albums has one or two songs that are worthwhile.
The Fort Hill Community … wanted to keep Club 47 alive. They threw a benefit concert on March 24, 1968, but instead of music, they played tapes of Lyman talking. The audience felt tricked. When Avatar editor John Wilton showed up, he saw that “total insanity had erupted, beginning with Eben [Given] breaking up furniture and ending with a free for all on stage.” A huge brawl ensued. People sobbed uncontrollably. It was Mel Lyman’s birthday. -R.H. Walsh, Astral Weeks
CF: So did you accomplish what you set out to accomplish?
RHW: Once I immersed myself, I did feel a continuity. I could see how the past connected to what I’ve been doing here, music-wise, creativity-wise.
Here’s the deal—when we started the book, me and the editor were saying the best-case scenario was to hear those [lost] Van [Morrison] tapes [from Boston], and to figure out what happened to Mel. And both of those things happened.
A Warner Bros. archivist let me hear an outtake from the album, the first [recording of] Astral Weeks, and that’s where Van is singing about Cambridgeport. It’s all in the epilogue.