If the mystic wanderings of Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks have any geographic setting at all, it’s their creator’s native Belfast, and, of course, the viaducts of his dreams. But as Ryan H. Walsh’s excellent recent book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 reveals, Morrison actually conceived the album in — of all places — Boston, Massachusetts, where he was essentially hiding out after leaving behind the record deal that yielded “Brown Eyed Girl” the previous year. On our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Walsh broke down the unlikely backstory of one of the greatest albums ever made – with influences ranging from the J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf to Morrison’s childhood out-of-body experiences to the editing of his then-girlfriend Janet Planet to the general madness of Boston in 1968. Musician John Payne, who played flute and some saxophone on the album, also calls in to the show explain what making it was actually like. (The album’s percussionist, Warren Smith, recently talked to Rolling Stone as well.)
“It was the first recording session I’d ever done,” says Payne, who used a borrowed flute on the title track. “We were in a live room, and Van was in a vocal booth with his guitar. I’m not sure he ever talked to the musicians.” The musicians were given chord sheets, but Morrison didn’t always follow them. “I think on ‘Ballerina,'” adds Payne, “[bassist] Richard Davis very confidently plays the wrong root on a chord because he’s reading the sheet but Van just decided not to do it that way.”
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