Book Review: Astral Weeks by Ryan H. Walsh


Author:Ryan H. Walsh
TitleAstral Weeks
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

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.

 

 

Recommended booksBaby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Rating: ****

Advertisements