Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unrelated Weirdnesses: Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks

Van Morrison performing on Boston Common in 1968. (Photo: Dick Iacovello)

The title of Russell H. Greenen’s 1968 novel It Happened in Boston? would have done perfectly for Ryan H. Walsh’s nonfiction narrative Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin, 357 pp.). Any reader who knows the Greenen book – a comic fantasia about art forgery and one man’s demand that God account for Himself – suspects that Walsh will engage with it sooner or later. He has to: his book is about cultural developments in and around Boston in the late 1960s, with ’68 as ground zero; the confluence of time, place, and weirdness is too good not to pursue. And indeed, Walsh not only talks about the novel; he interviews the nonagenarian Greenen about actual Boston locations used in it. But disappointingly, the meeting of visions catalyzes no real sparks. If something deeper than happenstance connects the respective matter of the two books, Walsh doesn’t dive for it, while the connection he does reveal is quirky but flat, more of a “huh” than a “wow.” The confluence here, we’re forced to realize, is merely one of time, place, and weirdness – and not all weirdnesses are related.

Not that Walsh’s project doesn’t fill a gap that has gone unrecognized by most who study the culture of the sixties. There was a lot happening in Boston in those years, as it turns out, and at the center of it all, Walsh places two men. One is Van Morrison, who lived and worked in Boston and Cambridge in 1967-68, in the interval between the end of his contract with Bang Records (where he’d hit with “Brown Eyed Girl”) and the recording of his masterpiece, the Astral Weeks album. The other is Mel Lyman, harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (a popular folk-revival outfit) and, as the sixties progressed, a mind-control messiah whose cult, the Lyman Family, lived in a complex of old stone buildings in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood. Morrison’s album has been the subject of abundant commentary over the last 50 years, and the Lyman saga was at one time almost as well-known, largely thanks to a 1971 Rolling Stone cover story titled “The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America.” Never before have these two men, or the “works” that define them – Morrison’s album, Lyman’s cult – been proposed as coevals, despite having roots in the same city, in the same two- or three-year period.

But Walsh’s split focus on Morrison and Lyman assumes a commonality greater than mere proximity in time and space; like his use of the Greenen novel, it promises a confluence that never occurs. What do these two really have in common? Post facto, you could rationalize that Morrison was a little crazy, but channeled that particular obsessive energy into his music; while Lyman, after a certain point, used his creativity to feed his craziness. But beyond that? We read through the book waiting for a scene that will bring them together, physically, spiritually, or symbolically; that will show them as skewed reflections of each other, twin visionaries who share some fundamental motive or meaning. That scene never comes, and no sense of kinship accrues in the big picture. At book’s end, Morrison and Lyman have passed like night ships at either end of a mile-long harbor, neither having come within sight of the other. Given that the narrative is structured around their concurrent journeys, that they are alone together at the center of all the other historical hurlyburly, this absence widens into a thematic void.

Yet the Lyman material is very good – so good that one would prefer, in retrospect, to read it for its own sake, unencumbered by the other material which it doesn’t serve, and which doesn’t serve it. A gifted blues harpist, visual artist, and fledgling filmmaker before he became a messiah, Mel Lyman is a fascinating figure, his cult a sobering phenomenon (as all cults are, though each one in its own way). Walsh constructs an intense history of the Lyman Family, their works and days; he visits their still-existing compound and talks to its members, noting their entrepreneurial success and lingering presence in Boston. His research constitutes a significant look at not only one leader and one family, but also the cultish capability of the whole era – how a few charismatic figures cross-fertilized with the counterculture, exploited the anguish and psychic vulnerability of a generation of runaways, and in the end always devolved, whatever their holy rhetoric or social protest, to one predatory madman’s glorification of himself. (A complementary read worth noting is Jeffrey Melnick’s upcoming Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family, a contentious, revisionist, often obnoxious, but thorough and undeniably important cultural-historical study of the era’s other major American cult leader.)

Walsh is guileless in his appreciation of the odd, the unknown, the unexpected. Some frisson arises in a chapter on the unlikely beginnings of WBCN, which, before it became Boston’s top “free-form” radio station, was the last remaining link in a chain of FM classical outlets owned by T. Mitchell Hastings, a devoted student of the occult. A key quote from Susan J. Douglas’s Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (2004) segues nicely into a replay of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” written by Jonathan Richman about the night scenes and sounds of his suburban Massachusetts haunts. Walsh produces interesting background on such dwellers at history’s threshold as Alice Bailey, a proto-New Age writer whose mystic texts seem to have been a documented influence on Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, and Van Morrison himself. I’m not familiar with Clinton Heylin’s Morrison biography (2002’s Can You Feel the Silence?), but Walsh paints the fullest picture I’ve seen of how vital producer Lewis Merenstein was to creating Astral Weeks – hiring the musicians, realizing the sound, even influencing the song sequence. The book also gives a decent if basic understanding of the politics behind a city that was rubbed raw by the frictions of the sixties, with deep traditions in Puritanism and racism on one hand, and on the other, no embedded bohemian or experimentalist subculture of the kind that existed in New York or San Francisco.

Up to now, few have known much about, let alone deeply interrogated, Van Morrison’s Boston period – his “Astral Sojourn,” as Walsh titled the 2015 Boston Magazine article of which the present book is an expansion. Astral Weeks, the album, remains the thing Walsh cares about the most in this whole history, the talisman that calls the rest of it into being. Writing about its songs – the processes by which they were composed, rehearsed, first done live, and finally recorded – he conveys an enthusiasm and creates a momentum that are missing in other parts of the book. “Astral Weeks is my favorite record of all time,” he writes, alluding to personal travails which the record helped him to comprehend and absorb. “At some point I learned that part of the album’s origin story lay in my own backyard – which struck me as beyond coincidence. Over the years, I came to believe that if I could piece together the story of Van Morrison’s time on my native soil, in those months before the album came out, I would understand something vital about the music that had buoyed me in those dark days.” With Astral Weeks Walsh experiences the kind of bonding that inspires intellectual obsession, that drives us out of our daydreams and into the world, makes us hungry to gather facts and find affinities between things, people, and histories – not so much to vindicate our private fantasies as to find where they might fit in some grander scheme of facts and dreams.

Walsh’s excavations led him to some very interesting, rather dimly-lit areas. 1968 saw Van Morrison at sea after an acrimonious break with Bang Records and the death of his producer, Bert Berns. Berns had owed fealty to a low-level mobster named Carmine DeNoia, who took over Morrison’s contract; later, when Warner Brothers sought to sign Morrison, DeNoia affected the necessary transfer of interests by way of a late-night money drop at a Manhattan warehouse. Meanwhile Morrison was working up his new songs – Astral Weeks touchstones like “Madame George” and “Cypress Avenue” – with local musicians (the mother of one allowed Morrison and his wife to crash in a spare bedroom). Tuning in to the overnight show on WBCN, Morrison heard a fast-talking DJ who called himself Woofa Woofa and played vintage R&B; that turned out to be Peter Wolf, lead singer of a local group soon to morph into The J. Geils Band. The road to Astral Weeks was nearly complete when Merenstein auditioned Morrison at a tiny side-street studio in Boston’s Fenway district.

Most of this backyard dirt was included in Walsh’s original magazine article, though it is augmented here with a great deal of other stuff worth reading (such as the author’s delicate courtship of Peter Wolf, whose recording of a 1968 Morrison show at a Boston club called The Catacombs becomes the book’s Holy Grail). Beyond this and the Lyman Family material, the book expands in many other directions. One chapter is about David Silver, an Englishman and Tufts University professor who by odd twists became the host of What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, a wildly experimental show on Boston’s public television station. Another chapter concerns the bands – Ultimate Spinach, Earth Opera, Orpheus, Chamaeleon Church, The Bagatelle – that made up the misbegotten “Bosstown Sound,” an infamous record-company hype designed to sell Boston as the next San Francisco. A chapter on the local residencies of The Velvet Underground focuses on their many dates at The Boston Tea Party, the city’s prime rock club. (Lou Reed once called Boston the band’s “favorite place to play in the whole country.”) Less successfully, the city’s racial battles are almost all squeezed into a single chapter, about James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

But these supplementary chapters, from best to less-than-best, read more like self-contained articles than integral pieces of an overall structure. It was while reading the chapter on films shot in or near Boston in 1966-67 – Titicut Follies, The Boston Strangler, The Thomas Crown Affair – that I began to doubt that Walsh’s book was holding together as a book should, irrespective of its genesis in a much more limited magazine article. None of these films has anything to do with Van Morrison, Mel Lyman, or the Boston counterculture; nor is there anything very secret about the history that Walsh recounts around them. They were, indeed, all shot in or near Boston in 1966-67; but the entire chapter begs the question of whether those shared facts are enough to justify grouping them together and including them here, as if they also shared some thematic, historical, or other significance. I hate to use the word “padding,” but . . .

There’s hardly a page in Astral Weeks that isn’t fun, informative, insightful, or all three; hardly a finding or factoid that doesn’t leave you richer for knowing it. Yet even after having a fine time with it, I can’t help but feel that it’s not really a book with holistic weight, something conceived and executed as a unity. Rather, it’s two markedly different and much shorter books – each one deeply researched, well-written, and valuable on its own terms: one on Van Morrison and the gestation of Astral Weeks, and one on the Lyman Family. But both books-within-the-book lose impact by being offered as parallel narratives when the parallels really don’t exist, and the remainder of the text likewise goes to support a central presumption that never materializes, in fact or in feeling. The presumption, or hope, is that all of these strange, funny, historic, perplexing, fascinating stories truly belong together – not just on a map or calendar, but as pieces of an organic history.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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