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Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 Hardcover – March 6, 2018
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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“One of the finest books written about Boston. . . . Walsh weaves the stories of luminaries who had crucial experiences in Boston—Morrison, Lou Reed, Timothy Leary, James Brown—around the forgotten and often astonishing history of the city when it was old, weird, and grimy.”—Boston Magazine
“Astral Weeks unearths the time and place behind the music. . . . A book full of discoveries. . . . A fantastic chronicle.”—Rolling Stone
“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. . . . 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.”—Jon Michaud, NewYorker.com
“Wonderfully oddball.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times Book Review
“Walsh describes Boston as ‘the true birthplace of American hallucinogenic culture.’ By the end of his colorful, highly illuminating history of the city's late-60s freak scene, it’s hard to argue. . . . Astral Weeks is a book worthy of the name.”—Uncut
“A ‘secret history’ of a proud old city caught in the throes of cultural hysteria. . . . Walsh’s book recreates a time and place that attracted an impressive array of characters.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
“The secret history unspools like an endless bar yarn, an almost-impossible tale in which obscure and famous figures are tethered in conspiracy and coincidence. Walsh’s voice is casual, his prose accessible, and his humor occasionally eviscerating. . . . Astral Weeks is another right-on-time reminder of how crucial participation is in keeping art and music alive.”—Jessica Hopper, Bookforum
“The book is rich with details on what was then an incredible fertile time for the arts. . . . Walsh was drawn to write this book because he was so moved, as is anyone with a soul, by what became Morrison’s masterpiece. He honors that art with his own.”—Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
“Walsh’s book recaptures much that might otherwise fade away. . . . The mini-histories embedded throughout are often entertaining.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Walsh does a strong job of dramatizing the interpersonal tensions informing the album’s creation, adding grit and depth to a story often transmitted with a more facile investment in the notion of individual genius. . . . Walsh is a chatty and engaging writer, and his research is impressive. . . . The most compelling reason to read Astral Weeks is not to learn about Van Morrison or his vaunted record. This is a book about the hub of a very weird universe.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“The story Walsh has unearthed is so mind-boggling, so full of extraordinary detail and coincidence, and strange, now impossible ambitions, that one can only share in his delight at the sheer improbability of it all. . . . Possibly if you were to spend years investigating a crucial period in the life of your city, you would find stories as good and as rich as these, but even then you would have to have an eye as keen as Walsh’s, a nose as sharp, an ear as sensitive and as attuned to the frequency of the times. This is a wonderful book, I think, funny and interesting and completely absorbing, if you have any interest in just about anything this magazine holds dear—art, politics, fun, music, chaos.”—Nick Hornby, The Believer
“A rich evocation of the momentous year when Van Morrison, feeling from the breakup of his R&B band Them, found himself in Boston. . . . The music book of the moment.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
"You don’t have to be a fan of Van Morrison’s staggeringly unique, near-perfect album to appreciate Walsh’s strange, engaging history of a time and place in America (Boston, 1968), and what it reveals about the forces (political, cultural) altering the fabric of the entire nation. (If you do happen to like Astral Weeks, this book is definitely for you.)"—Jonny Diamond, Lit Hub
“That Walsh has taken on the milieu surrounding a beloved album is impressive—and his holistic approach, encompassing a host of countercultural figures and groups in late-1960s Boston, offers a bold blend of the familiar and the unknown.”—Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“Walsh writes with the enthusiasm of a fan and the precision and depth of an expert. A first-rate book about a piece of music and the time in which it was created.”—Booklist
“An energetic history. . . . A fine-grained and wide-ranging portrait of the album’s gestation. . . and of life in the city’s counterculture in that raucous year. . . . Offers deep insight into the creative process of this mysterious work. . . . The late ‘60s counterculture in New York in San Francisco is a well-known story. What happened in Boston ‘has gone largely unremarked.’ Astral Weeks fills that void with gusto.”—Shelf Awareness
"Astral Weeks is many things: a deeply-reported illumination of the Boston underground of the late '60s; an investigation of a mysterious cult leader; the skeleton key to a canonical album by Van Morrison. But at its heart is a journalist's quest to understand the very air that was breathed in a single moment in time, a personal reading of the poetry of history, and a yearning to trace the invisible byways of inspiration itself."— Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
“The lost story behind a timeless album—a wandering Irish songwriter named Van Morrison, stuck in a strange town called Boston in 1968. Ryan H. Walsh digs deep into all the moment’s cultural and spiritual chaos, with a bizarre cast of characters—making the music sound even weirder and more beautiful than it already did. There’s no rock and roll story quite like Astral Weeks.”—Rob Sheffield, author of Dreaming the Beatles and Love is a Mix Tape
“Astral Weeks is a veritable time machine to the folly and ferment of 1968 Boston—a time when James Brown could stop a riot, a movie star could get mixed up in bank robbery, and a high school kid could find himself backing one of rock’s great bands.”—Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century
“In this incredible new book, Ryan H. Walsh takes us through late ‘60s Boston in all its splendid morning glory. The forgotten hippie band Ultimate Spinach. The psychedelic TV show What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? The story of how Don Rickles’s mafia connections helped Van Morrison break a contract. Astral Weeks is filled with fascinating new information and page after page of mind-blowing, psychedelic revelations.”—Kliph Nesteroff, author of The Comedians
“A magical mystery tour into an untold chapter of countercultural history—the ivy-walled, lace-curtained city of Boston, it turns out, concealed an underground scene as offbeat as anything found on the Haight or the Lower East Side. Ryan H. Walsh takes us down all of its rabbit holes in this lushly told historical portrait.”—Mitch Horowitz, PEN Award-winning author of Occult America
About the Author
Ryan H. Walsh is a musician and journalist. His culture writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Vice, and Boston Magazine. He was a finalist for the Missouri School of Journalism's City and Regional Magazine Award for his feature on Van Morrison's year in Boston, from which this book developed. His rock band Hallelujah the Hills has won praise from Spin magazine and Pitchfork; collaborated on a song with author Jonathan Lethem; and toured the U.S. extensively over their 10-year existence. The band won a Boston Music Award for Best Rock Artist, and Walsh has twice won the award for Best Video Direction. He lives in Boston with his wife, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler.
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After reading AWASH1968 I realized how easy it is to live on the periphery of events, even when living through them. I was 18 years old in 1968 and Walsh’s cataloguing of this amazing year in a series or interwoven ‘happenings’ and people, some tragic, some deranged, some cryptic, some menacing, many joyous, makes for a year of edited and fractured experience. I participated in, or was familiar with, a lot of what he writes about, but was hardly privy to the context of what was happening. I don’t know why, but it may be the burden of retreating to a bloodless suburb just when things got too interesting. I guess this is what happens in an asylum, another term for a big American city.
AWASH1968 is, of course, his love letter to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—a record whose magnificence is still lost on me to this day; it’s also an attempt to understand Morrison as an artist and hothead. But both are minor features of this book, serving to stitch, or rather, cut and paste together a dozen other stories that, to me, are far more interesting: The chronicling of the Mel Lyman—Fort Hill—Avatar Magazine phenomena takes center stage, and then is quickly upstaged by PBS’s pre-Frank Zappa Uncle Meat psychedelicatessen, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver—a chapter that can stand by itself as the greatest evocation of Boston as the asylum I previously mentioned.
Forays into the chilling tale of the Boston Strangler, the cathartic James Brown concert at the Boston Garden in the service of peace that eluded most of the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King; the devotion of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground to Boston as a the place to find its footing; and the investigation into Boston for its proclivity for Puritan spirituality and psychedelic mysticism conjure the notion that maybe meaning escapes us because we do not embrace life as the fractured mess it is. Nothing fits, but everything works.
Not unlike a puzzle consisting of a dozen different puzzles, Walsh somehow does fit them all together, pursuing an anecdotal path to a larger meaning. And he does this through obsessive research, a personal search for an elusive spiritual connection between events and individuals, and a wild appreciation for the ebb and flow of eccentricity. His use of film theory’s cardinal belief in the suspension of disbelief serves him well, as he never shorts circuits his story through the cool skepticism of hindsight.
He may actually be asking: What is a year? Is it just a period of time that has corners and can be packaged handily into something that can be understood? Of course not. Does a year—every year—begin with promise, but knowing itself as a replication of a formidable past, quickly dissolve into the chaos of an unknown future. At every turn, the characters in AWASH1968 walk time’s tightrope, challenging the norms of behavior, intent, consequence, jubilation, regret, and endurance.
Just as the Fort Hill Community thrived on conflict, as Walsh states, the entire cast of characters and events mobilize conflict into some kind of larger pastiche of understanding time and space, which is where we wind up with the author’s loving tribute to an album that makes whole the fracturing of a broken heart. Ryan invokes space at the end of his impressive effort. Soon, in another year, we would be walking on the moon and we’d be forever dazzled by what the astronauts saw as a world under the sun, under the clouds, glorious dust, a shimmering blue globe surrounding by brown firmament—a reflection of the grand collisions of the universe.
As a musician who loves the album and knows quite a bit about Boston, I found lots of surprises and revelatory details unearthed here. A great read - enjoy!
The idea that we are all connected in this world (to strangers, to our "other selves") is not new, but when we actually read a book detailing how synchronicity actually might work, it will truly blow your mind.
Sure, this is not just about one of the greatest albums ever. But that is not a bad thing. I read this entire book today and it will probably be sticking in my brain for the next week or so. There is so much to digest after reading. I highly recommend this to anyone who has felt like something/someone "else" is guiding them to make art, or guiding you to make a life changing decision. The universe is a strange place. Or maybe it is us who are so caught up in the monotony of daily life, to not pay attention to the guides within us. It is a beautiful thing when we open ourselves to these guides....well maybe not if it causes us to think we are a god. Read the book to find out more on this....
It is captivating, thought provoking and will leave you wanting more. The tales surrounding 1968 Boston and the overall history of spiritualism in Boston were so well researched and written. It took you to those amazingly important moments in American history, like you were witnessing it yourself....or maybe your past self did in fact witness it....yeah....I got too much Astral Travel on the brain right now....
But, believe me, this is truly unique. It is full of high energy. There are no slow parts at all. If you love Astral Weeks (the album), then you must have this book, to fully realize the depth of that album and how it came to be in the mind of a genius. Or maybe geniuses?