UNCUT - - Books - Graeme Thom­son

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

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