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The Miracle of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

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Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” has always seemed like a fluke. InNovember, 1968, the irascible songwriter from Belfast released ajazz-influenced acoustic song cycle that featured minimal percussion, anupright bass, flute, harpsichord, vibraphone, strings, andstream-of-consciousness lyrics about being transported to “another time”and “another place.” The album was recorded in three sessions, with thestring arrangements overdubbed later. Many of the songs were captured onthe first or second take. Morrison has called the sessions that producedthe album “uncanny,” adding that “it was like an alchemical kind of situation.” A decadelater, Lester Bangs called the album “a mystical document” and “abeacon, a light on the far shores of the murk.” Bruce Springsteen said that it gave him “a sense of the divine.” The critic Greil Marcus equated thealbum to Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long-jump performance at theMexico City Olympics, a singular achievement that was “way outside ofhistory.”

Ryan H. Walsh’s new book, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of1968,”takes up Morrison’s sui-generis masterpiece and unearths the largelyforgotten context from which it emerged. Though the songs on “AstralWeeks” were recorded in New York and are full of references toMorrison’s childhood in Northern Ireland, they were, in Walsh’s words,“planned, shaped and rehearsed in Boston and Cambridge,” where Morrisonlived and performed for much of 1968. In documenting the milieu out ofwhich the album came, Walsh also argues for Boston as anunderappreciated hub of late-sixties radicalism, artistic invention, andsocial experimentation. The result is a complex, inquisitive, andsatisfying book that illuminates and explicates the origins of “AstralWeeks” without diminishing the album’s otherworldly aura.

What was Morrison doing in Boston? The short answer is that he washiding out. Stymied but full of ambition, the twenty-two-year-oldsongwriter had come to New York, in 1967, burdened by an onerousrecording contract with the Bang Records producer Bert Berns, who’dworked with Morrison’s band Them, and who had also produced Morrison’s hitsingle “Brown Eyed Girl.” When Berns died of a heart attack, inDecember, the contract came under the supervision of a mobster friend ofBerns named Carmine (Wassel) DeNoia. One night, Morrison, whoseimmigration status was tenuous at best, got into a drunken argument withDeNoia, who ended the conversation by smashing an acoustic guitar overthe singer’s head. Morrison promptly married his American girlfriend,Janet Rigsbee (a.k.a. Janet Planet), and escaped to Boston.

Boston was home to the other major figure in Walsh’s book, Mel Lyman, amusician who reinvented himself as the messianic leader of a commune inthe Fort Hill area of Roxbury, where he and his followers, known as theLyman “Family,” commandeered an entire neighborhood of houses. As Walshnotes, the Fort Hill Community “attracted followers of a pedigree farmore impressive than that of your run-of-the-mill sixties commune,”including Jessie Benton, the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton; MarkFrechette, the star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Zabriskie Point”;Paul Williams, the founder of the music magazine Crawdaddy; twochildren of the novelist Kay Boyle; and Owen deLong, a formerspeechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Lyman controlled every aspect of lifein Fort Hill. Members who had trouble following the rules might be givenan LSD trip, guided by Lyman himself, or subjected to a riggedastrological reading. Commune members were also expected, among otherduties, to distribute the provocative biweekly underground newspaperAvatar. Lyman died in 1978, but his death was kept secret until themid-eighties. The Fort Hill Community, unlike so many other sixtiescommunes, still exists.

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