In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was a rock & roll refugee, an Irish blues poet on the run from his homeland after a bitter fling with pop stardom. He wound up down and out in Boston, where he wrote the songs that became one of rock's most beloved masterworks, Astral Weeks – and then blew town as suddenly as he'd arrived. It's a mysterious album that stands apart from the rest of his music – or anyone else's. It didn't sell squat at the time; for years, it was practically impossible to find. But 50 years after its birth, Astral Weeks lives on. The moment when Morrison chants the line "You breathe in, you breathe out" sums up the sound – an acoustic groove tuned in to some kind of cosmic throb.
Ryan H. Walsh's new book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 unearths the time and place behind the music. Morrison has always refused to explain the mysteries of Astral Weeks – as ornery as ever, the Celtic bard doesn't give his secrets away. But no matter how well you know him or his music, Astral Weeks is a book full of discoveries. In this fantastic chronicle, Van falls into a Boston underground scene full of outlandish characters – like Mel Lyman, the folkie harmonica player turned cult leader with a tribe of acid-crazed worshippers. Future rock legend Peter Wolf was a radio DJ spinning the blues on the graveyard shift. Lou Reed was often hanging around town, sharing hippie tracts on ritual magic with friends like Jonathan Richman. Walsh even catches up with Morrison's long-lost flower-child bride Janet Planet, now selling her love beads on Etsy, who tells him, "Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy."
Morrison was reeling from his years on the rock scene, leading the tough Belfast band Them, who blew up with "Gloria." Under the tutelage of manager Bert Berns (who also brought us Neil Diamond), he came to New York and scored the pop hit "Brown Eyed Girl," which is probably playing right now at a mall somewhere in your town. Berns saw his protégé as "a rock & roll version of the Irish poet Brendan Behan." But when Berns died, Morrison found himself owned by the mob. His new bosses were not sensitive to his creative ambitions. One of them, Carmine "Wassel" DeNoia, explains to Walsh why Van left New York: "I broke his guitar on his head."
So Van fled to Boston, and the city is the real star of Walsh's tale – a town overflowing with students, music freaks, crackpot artists and aspiring messiahs. Much of the book is devoted to Mel Lyman, forgotten today but a notorious guru in his time – a 1971 Rolling Stone cover story tagged him and his Fort Hill Community as an East Coast answer to the Manson family.
Another charismatic figure on the scene: honorary local hero Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground were far more popular there than in their native New York City, playing Boston 15 times in 1968 alone. On the back of White Light/White Heat, the Velvets pose in front of their spiritual home turf, a ballroom called the Boston Tea Party. Lou was surprisingly open about his occult interests at the time, raving to friends (and interviewers) about Alice Bailey's 1934 A Treatise on White Magic. He passed a copy on to his biggest local fan, a 16-year-old Natick kid named Jonathan Richman, which is how the punk pioneer who wrote "Roadrunner" ended up doing a Modern Lovers song called "Astral Plane."
This environment is where Van lived in exile in 1968 – drinking hard, requesting blues oldies on Wolf's late-night radio show, writing the poetic sketches that became Astral Weeks. He recruited a band of local kids and scrounged for gigs at local skating rinks or high school gyms. He also had to wriggle out of his contract with his old label. Warner Bros' Joe Smith tells Walsh how he got the mobsters off Morrison's back – showing up at an abandoned warehouse with a bag of $20,000 in cash. As Smith says, "I got the signed contract and got the hell out of there, because I was afraid somebody would whack me in the head and take back the contract and I'd be out the money."
Morrison finally brought these songs into a New York studio one night, with jazz pros who'd never heard of him. To the musicians, this was just another session – guitarist Jay Berliner had spent the day playing ad jingles for Noxzema and Pringles. Instead of introducing himself, Morrison just holed up in the vocal booth and started playing his guitar. "He's a strange fella," bassist Richard Davis says. "We were not concerned with Van at all; he never spoke to us."
But what Van and those musicians created has been the stuff of myth ever since. He broods over childhood grief in "Madame George" and "Cyprus Avenue," death in "Astral Weeks" and "Slim Slow Slider," love in "Sweet Thing" and "Beside You." (The one dud is "The Way Young Lovers Do" – naturally, that's the one Van perversely remakes on his new album You're Driving Me Crazy.) Yet what brings these songs to life is his wounded voice and the spacious groove – Connie Kay's brushed drums, Berliner's guitar, Warren Smith Jr.'s vibraphone, most of all Davis' stand-up bass. As the man said, you breathe in, you breathe out.
Astral Weeks didn't conquer the charts or trouble the radio, vanishing as soon as it came out in November 1968. For years, it was a word-of-mouth phenomenon, more talked about than heard. You couldn't find a copy in stores – the music got passed from friend to friend, mostly via mix tapes. When Rolling Stone championed it in the 1987 "Greatest Albums of the Past 20 Years" list, hardly any of the magazine's readers would have been able to hear it. (Astral Weeks came in at number seven, between Springsteen's Born to Run and the Beatles' White Album.) But that legend never faded, because everyone who heard this music just had to pass it on.
Van left Boston and decamped to Woodstock with his bride, who he renamed Janet Planet – "probably because it rhymed," she tells Walsh. He'd changed his sound by his next album, Moondance, although he's revisited the astral spirit many times since, in gems like Veedon Fleece and Saint Dominic's Preview. Many writers have plumbed the mysteries of Astral Weeks – Lester Bangs' 1978 essay, Clinton Heylin's bio Can You Feel The Silence? or Greil Marcus in his 2011 Morrison study When That Rough God Goes Riding. Walsh approaches it as a detective story. Morrison still isn't talking – he's never tried to explain it away, probably because he finds it as mysterious as the rest of us do. (He once said the songs were "just channeled. They just came through.") But one listen to Astral Weeks will tell you everything you need to know about why it still enchants and perplexes to this day.