Behind the Masterpiece: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks at 50

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Van Morrison on Boston Common, April 20, 1968

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If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me?
Would you kiss-a my eyes?
To lay me down
In silence easy
To be born again

So begins Astral Weeks, the sublime, eight-song album released in 1968 with little fanfare, though it endures 50 years later as Van Morrison’s very finest achievement.

Why does it strike so many as almost perfect?

“Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend,” the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote on the 10th anniversary of its release. “It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim … one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”

And that is enough to know for enhanced listening.

But we revisit the album as part of an ongoing look at all things about the United States as it was in 1968. In what milieu was this singular, much beloved album born?

One of the most particular answers is offered in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a newly published book by Ryan H. Walsh that takes readers back to the beginning of that year, when Van Morrison began living and working near Boston. The Irish-born singer, then 22, had fled New York City with his new wife, Janet Rigsbee. He was frustrated at his failure to break though in its music scene––he was mostly unknown despite recording his first hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”––and eager to escape the mob-connected men who owned a bad record contract he had signed.

Boston was attractive in part because of its famous folk music scene, though that turned out to be a shadow of its former self by the time Morrison moved into his Cambridge apartment. One local favorite, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, wasn’t the same once Mel Lyman quit and dedicated himself to leading an eccentric hippie commune. Other acts broke up or decided to try their luck in New York City or on the West Coast.

And rock and roll was ascendant.

The zeitgeist was arguably shaped most that year by events in San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. And yet, greater Boston was not insignificant.

Noam Chomsky of MIT and Howard Zinn of Boston University were outspoken participants in the movement against the Vietnam War. Timothy Leary had earlier embarked on his LSD experiments through the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and Boston remained a hotbed of attempts at psychedelic enlightenment. Richard Alpert had returned from a sojourn to India as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

~~~  KEEP READING  ~~~

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