By Peter Wolf
Back in 1968, the Boston Tea Party was the premier club for rock bands. My band, the Hallucinations, composed of art-school dropouts heavily drenched in R&B and Chicago blues, used the club as a rehearsal hall whenever it was available. The music we played could be described as primal, raw and heavy on attitude. We were in the midst of rehearsing one day, getting ready to open for the great bluesman Howlin' Wolf, when something caught my eye, and I looked over to see a stranger looming in the doorway. I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there, so I went over to find out what he wanted. In a thick brogue, he asked about places to play in Boston.
Once I figured out who it was, I was both excited and perplexed. Excited because I'd known and admired Van Morrison's work from his debut on the charts with his group, Them. Perplexed because he seemed so lost and adrift. Despite the recent Top 40 success of his song "Brown Eyed Girl," he'd been having difficulty establishing his identity as a solo artist, but that couldn't account for the bleakness of his mood.
As we talked, it became clear that we shared a passion for the same kind of music. Van gradually loosened up, and we made plans to get together again. He started dropping by the FM station where I used to do an all-night radio show. Soon we began to hang together, going out carousing in the night and sometimes getting into more mischief than we bargained for.
Van was living in a small, street-level apartment in an old wooden house on Green Street in Cambridge. He, his new wife, her young son. They were flat-out broke. The place was bleak and barren, with little more than a mattress on the floor, a refrigerator, an acoustic guitar and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. They had no phone and little food. It was hard times: He was in exile, with a family to feed, no money, no band, no recording contract and no promise of any safe or legal way out. Even the reason he moved to Boston remained a mystery.
Whenever Van had to make business calls, he would walk several blocks to my place to use the phone. It seemed that my apartment also offered him a break from the near-despair of his complicated and unresolved life. He would spend endless hours going through my records. Over and over, we would listen to what he called "the gospel" of Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Louis Jordan, Billy Stewart, Elvis and John Lee Hooker. "They're the real deal," he'd say. He played Gene Chandler's live version of "Rainbow '65" so much, I had to get a new needle for my turntable.
Many nights were spent checking out different clubs, but few people knew who Van was. Sometimes he would show up at my band's gigs. One night, as we started the intro to his song "Gloria," I called him onstage even though he was reluctant to sing it. When he came up, he went into a brilliant scat that rivaled King Pleasure himself. Unfortunately, the audience didn't want this "unknown" singer changing the familiar delivery of a song that was fast becoming a true rock classic.
Eventually, Van managed to assemble a two-piece acoustic band and booked himself at a coffeehouse/jazz club that could only be described as subterranean. It was located three stories below a pool parlor and was deep, damp and dark. Egyptian motifs were painted on its yellow smoke-stained walls. The club justly deserved its name: the Catacombs. I borrowed a tape machine to capture the evening's music. What he performed that night later turned out to be the song cycle that made up the groundbreaking Astral Weeks. Though only a handful of people showed up, when Van finished playing, there was no doubt that the few present had witnessed something extraordinary.
When I see Van now, I still see the same raw power and passion that he displayed more than 40 years ago in the long-forgotten Catacombs. I admire the strength and mysterious ability to transcend the despair and chaos that could have so easily trapped and overwhelmed him. He has created a body of work that reflects without imitation. The gospel according to Van: "Turn it up, turn it up, a little bit higher/You know it's got soul" and "it's too late to stop now!"