In May of 1969, Belfast, Northern Ireland-born songwriter Van Morrison performed a single record in its entirety over the course of a three-night stint at Boston venue The Ark. He was introducing a personal song cycle called Astral Weeks, which saw him backed by jazz musicians and repeating single phrases, looking to blues artists in the way that he did while leading R&B outfit Them a couple of years previous. In lieu of the warbling organ tones and spidery guitar that underpinned his old band, however, Morrison is unplugged on his second solo album, riffing in songs like “Sweet Thing” on love and his youth over acoustic guitar, upright bass, flute, and strings:
And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they’ll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain
After the Ark sets, Astral Weeks became a taboo interview subject for Morrison and would barely be a part of his live repertoire until he played it again in full at Hollywood Bowl 40 years later.
When he started work on his 1968 album, the Irish artist was hiding out for more than a year in Boston’s Cambridgeport neighborhood. He fled New York City when an already-shady record contract eventually found his work under the control of gangsters. How that happened—as well as other insanely weird and fascinating things behind Morrison’s LP—is laid bare in journalist and musician Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.
“With its roots in tempers, outbursts, gangsters, and violence, it’s ironic that Astral Weeks ended up being an album completely preoccupied with notions of transcendence and the sublime,” writes Walsh.
Not unlike 2016 Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, a nonfiction work by writer (and friend) Jesse Jarnow that technically “stars” The Grateful Dead but is a study of much more, Walsh goes long on context in A Secret History. Look no further than to his award-winning 2015 magazine feature for a glimpse of the story that gave way to the book (“It was an obsession before it was an article,” said the author during a recent launch at Brooklyn’s WORD bookstore).
The stories about Peter Wolf’s famed live tapes of the Morrison, flutist John Payne’s determination to contribute to the Astral Weeks sessions come hell or high water, or the chronicling of Van—with support from then-wife Janet “Planet” Rigsbee—writing Astral Weeks at the kitchen table will hook fans of the LP, but Walsh also looks closely at the era’s alternative press, racial unrest, and cult (commune? nah) the Fort Hill Community along what is sometimes a dizzying timeline that leaps all over the place. But as the album and era have long held my interest, any work I had to do in order to keep names and dates straight over the course of reading this book was well worth it.
“While researching the album’s half-buried local connections, my curiosity about Boston in the late sixties grew into obsession,” writes Walsh in A Secret History. “The music scene from which Van Morrison stocked his band, and the deeply strange tale of Mel Lyman’s Fort Hill Community, suggested an incredibly rich artistic past forgotten by all but a few present-day residents.”
Walsh’s effort won’t land on Morrison’s “Favorite Books of 2018” list, and that’s too bad. Some secrets just shouldn’t be kept.