A few years ago, I had the very exciting job of answering phones at a student loan company. On the bright side, it was a job with a lot of downtime. That same summer, I discovered the music of Van Morrison and whiled away the time reading everything I could about him: I read about Morrison’s start in the band Them, and his early brush with pop success with “Brown Eyed Girl.” I read about Van’s year of 1968, which he spent playing music in poverty in Boston, living on Green St. in Cambridgeport, and playing at the now-legendary (and defunct) Boston Tea Party in the South End and the Catacombs in the Fenway. I thought I knew all I needed to about Van Morrison’s time in Boston, until I started Astral Weeks; A Secret History of 1968, the new novel by Ryan H. Walsh. I would come to learn that I knew hardly anything at all.

Walsh first wrote about Van Morrison’s Boston year for Boston magazine in 2015. Three years later, and he’s released his frenetic and captivating portrait of 1968 in Boston’s musical history, Morrison and all. The title and tagline about Van Morrison are a false lead, however. He figures heavily in the introduction and conclusion and makes periodic reappearances, but it is Boston’s countercultural history that takes the main focus.

The book is more about musician and commune (read “cult”) leader Mel Lyman and his Family that lived atop Fort Hill in Roxbury and ran the underground paper, The Avatar. Lyman and Morrison are the locus of a story that weaves itself in and around the Velvet Underground, LSD pioneer and former Harvard professor Timothy Leary, the ill-fated Boston Sound, LSD, Jonathan Richmond, LSD, the Boston Strangler, actor Steve McQueen (AKA “The King of Cool), LSD, the infamous flop Zabriskie Point, bank heists (both real and fictional), and a nark named Dapper O’Neil. It’s an enthralling, if somewhat scattered, story—doubly captivating if you live where all the events took place.

Astral Weeks is highly accessible and, to a degree, intimate. I have a hard time imagining faces and locales in detail when I’m reading—having walked in or past or even having been inside the sets of these (sometimes legendary) scenes made the book come alive to me in a way that few books have. Most readers will likely not have the same experience reading Astral Weeks as I did, however. (It also turns out that I have friends who live on the same street as the remaining Lyman Family members, in a house that was formerly part of their commune. This discovery made the book for me.) But I say all of this to point out how well Walsh renders the city. Boston is a character as much as Morrison or Lyman, and it is as nuanced and complex as a human character would be. He pinpoints the atmosphere of the different musical locations of the time. The fact that I, as a local reader, found it to be so speaks to how well it was pulled off.

Each chapter in Astral Weeks focuses on a different musician or artistic product made in Boston in 1968—or made by people connected to the music or counterculture scene in the city. Throughout these stories, the webs of connection are woven between Van Morrison or Mel Lyman, and the other key players.

One chapter takes a deep dive into the controversial, countercultural touchstone, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, which aired on WGBH in the late sixties. Another documents the Velvet Underground’s residency at the Boston Tea Party, post-Andy Warhol and before their demise. And there are many, many tales of the manipulative exploits of Mel Lyman, who started off as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band that played at the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival, who became a manipulative cult leader and LSD guru and had run-ins with everyone from actor and failed bank thief Mark Frechette (Zabriskie Point) to Timothy Leary.

Each story is deeply researched, multilayered, and erudite. Walsh tracks down and speaks to nearly everybody still living, from radio DJs to Morrison’s session musicians who played with him for just the summer of 1968. Everyone except Morrison.

Astral Weeks; A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh is released on March 6, 2018. Order a copy here and stop by Brookline Booksmith on at 6 PM on March 6th to hear Walsh in conversation with Carly Carioli.

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