In Astral Weeks: A Secret History
Of 1968, Ryan Walsh describes Boston as “the true birthplace of American hallucinogenic culture”. By the end of his colourful, highly illuminating history of the city’s late-’60s freak scene, it’s hard to argue. The first LSD experiments occurred in Boston’s hospitals and universities during the 1940s and ’50s, and some powerful residue seemed to remain in the water for the ensuing two decades.
A musician with Boston band Hallelujah The Hills, Walsh uses two primary narratives to make his case. The first is the unfolding creation story of Van Morrison’s
Astral Weeks. Written as a dreamtime evocation of post-war Belfast, and recorded in autumn 1968 in new York, the songs grew wings during the period when Morrison and his wife Janet Planet were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the river from Boston.
Former bandmates recall Morrison playing hour-long, feedback-drenched versions of “Domino” until a powerful dream tells him to “ditch electricity” and perform solely with acoustic instruments. He changes tack, honing the fragile musical and lyrical sensibility that evolves into his lauded second album. Walsh’s focus on this historic transformation is framed partly as a treasure hunt. Following a series of leads, he seeks a mythical tape of Van playing embryonic songs from Astral Weeks at the Catacombs club in August 1968. It’s as though hearing it is the only thing that will bring the Boston of that era fully into bloom.
His other main protagonist is Mel Lyman, a banjo player formerly in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and the man who followed Bob Dylan’s infamous electric set at the 1965 newport Folk Festival. In 1966, Lyman founded the Fort Hill Community in Roxbury, a run-down Boston locale. Promoting the cult through his Lyman Family Band and the hip, semi-deranged Avatar magazine, Lyman referred to himself as God and instigated a “private basement prison” for members who transgressed. His devotees included
Zabriskie Point stars Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette – the latter staged a bank robbery on his behalf – and Crawdaddy journalist Pete Williams.
A darkly charismatic figure, Lyman becomes Boston’s freak-in-chief. Around the nexus of Fort Hill, the city incubates a vibrant dissident arts scene. The Boston Tea Party, writes Walsh, is where The Velvet Underground “found their second life as a band”. They perform at the venue 43 times between 1967 and 1970 (as opposed to three appearances in new York) and are regarded by locals as a Boston band. They teach the 16-yearold Jonathan Richman to play guitar backstage at the Tea Party; after leaving the group, Reed writes poetry for local arts magazine Fusion. Meanwhile, on WBCN radio, a young Peter Wolf DJs under the guise of Woofa Goofa, and the “Bosstown Sound” craze offers a brief moment in the sun for bands like Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach. A detour into the seamy tale of the Boston Strangler murders – and their
instant commodification as a book and a film – jars somewhat, and the conclusion doesn’t quite tie together all Walsh’s disparate strands, but Astral Weeks is a book worthy of the name.
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull once defined prog rock as “music for people who are bored easily”. It’s a line positively demanding of a withering put-down, yet Jerry Ewing’s suitably epic tome, Wonderous Stories: A Journey Through The Landscape Of
Progressive Rock, might persuade even the most trenchant unbelievers to hold their tongues. Ewing, the editor of Prog magazine, climbs the peaks and valleys of progressive rock, from its hydraheaded origins – The Beatles/Beefheart/ Stockhausen – to its indulgent heyday in the ’70s; from its degraded status as a post-punk pariah to its current position of venerable respectability, assisted by prog outliers like Muse and Radiohead and the below-radar success of Steve Wilson.
Thick as a brick, Wonderous Stories is crammed with vibrant visual content, much of it exposing some truly shocking sartorial choices. With a foreword by Steve Hackett, it’s an easy-to-read, easy-onthe-eye chronological journey, its series of relatively minor movements stitched together into a satisfying larger piece.
Ewing efficiently tells the stories of prog’s big six: Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP and Genesis. Elsewhere, he unpicks a dozen albums that have defined prog, from The Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed to Opeth’s
Blackwater Park. In between, there are useful primers on some connecting spokes: the Canterbury scene, jazz fusion, krautrock, and a neat essay on cover art. Many dots are joined; prejudices are confronted; Marillion are talked about in hushed tones. Job done.
Prog: more than “music for people who bore easily”
One of prog’s big six: Keith Emerson in ELP, 1970