A new book about Van Morrison’s album “Astral Weeks” unearths the largely forgotten context from which it emerged.
Photograph by Ed Caraeff / Getty
Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” has always seemed like a fluke. In November, 1968, the irascible songwriter from Belfast released a jazz-influenced acoustic song cycle that featured minimal percussion, an upright bass, flute, harpsichord, vibraphone, strings, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being transported to “another time” and “another place.” The album was recorded in three sessions, with the string arrangements overdubbed later. Many of the songs were captured on the first or second take. Morrison has called the sessions that produced the album “uncanny,” adding that “it was like an alchemical kind of situation.” A decade later, Lester Bangs called the album “a mystical document” and “a beacon, 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 the album to Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long-jump performance at the Mexico City Olympics, a singular achievement that was “way outside of history.”
Ryan H. Walsh’s new book, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” takes up Morrison’s sui-generis masterpiece and unearths the largely forgotten context from which it emerged. Though the songs on “Astral Weeks” were recorded in New York and are full of references to Morrison’s childhood in Northern Ireland, they were, in Walsh’s words, “planned, shaped and rehearsed in Boston and Cambridge,” where Morrison lived and performed for much of 1968. In documenting the milieu out of which the album came, Walsh also argues for Boston as an underappreciated hub of late-sixties radicalism, artistic invention, and social experimentation. The result is a complex, inquisitive, and satisfying book that illuminates and explicates the origins of “Astral Weeks” without diminishing the album’s otherworldly aura.
What was Morrison doing in Boston? The short answer is that he was hiding out. Stymied but full of ambition, the twenty-two-year-old songwriter had come to New York, in 1967, burdened by an onerous recording contract with the Bang Records producer Bert Berns, who’d worked with Morrison’s band Them, and who had also produced Morrison’s hit single “Brown Eyed Girl.” When Berns died of a heart attack, in December, the contract came under the supervision of a mobster friend of Berns named Carmine (Wassel) DeNoia. One night, Morrison, whose immigration status was tenuous at best, got into a drunken argument with DeNoia, who ended the conversation by smashing an acoustic guitar over the singer’s head. Morrison promptly married his American girlfriend, Janet Rigsbee (a.k.a. Janet Planet), and escaped to Boston.
In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was a rock & roll refugee, an Irish blues poet on the run from his homeland after a bitter fling with pop stardom. He wound up down and out in Boston, where he wrote the songs that became one of rock’s most beloved masterworks, Astral Weeks – and then blew town as suddenly as he’d arrived. It’s a mysterious album that stands apart from the rest of his music – or anyone else’s. It didn’t sell squat at the time; for years, it was practically impossible to find. But 50 years after its birth, Astral Weekslives on. The moment when Morrison chants the line “You breathe in, you breathe out” sums up the sound – an acoustic groove tuned in to some kind of cosmic throb.
Ryan H. Walsh’s new book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968unearths the time and place behind the music. Morrison has always refused to explain the mysteries of Astral Weeks – as ornery as ever, the Celtic bard doesn’t give his secrets away. But no matter how well you know him or his music, Astral Weeks is a book full of discoveries. In this fantastic chronicle, Van falls into a Boston underground scene full of outlandish characters – like Mel Lyman, the folkie harmonica player turned cult leader with a tribe of acid-crazed worshippers. Future rock legend Peter Wolf was a radio DJ spinning the blues on the graveyard shift. Lou Reed was often hanging around town, sharing hippie tracts on ritual magic with friends like Jonathan Richman. Walsh even catches up with Morrison’s long-lost flower-child bride Janet Planet, now selling her love beads on Etsy, who tells him, “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy.”
Morrison was reeling from his years on the rock scene, leading the tough Belfast band Them, who blew up with “Gloria.” Under the tutelage of manager Bert Berns (who also brought us Neil Diamond), he came to New York and scored the pop hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” which is probably playing right now at a mall somewhere in your town. Berns saw his protégé as “a rock & roll version of the Irish poet Brendan Behan.” But when Berns died, Morrison found himself owned by the mob. His new bosses were not sensitive to his creative ambitions. One of them, Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, explains to Walsh why Van left New York: “I broke his guitar on his head.”