Fenster’s readership is, to put it nicely, narrow. But it is deep. And so in keeping with that narrow and deep theme here is a book that may appeal to some UR readers: Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh.
It is narrow, covering The Sixties through the lens mostly of one year, 1968, and, narrower, through the lens of one city, Boston. It is as fragmented and multi-faceted as the times though in the end, narrowing further, it is mostly about two people.
Since I know some of the lurkers on this site personally, and since I know that like me they spent time in and around Boston in 1968 they may find it appealing for that reason as well.
Me, I left my hometown 40 miles west of Boston in 1967 for college and did not move to the city until 1973, at a time when, whether we chose to face facts or not The Sixties was wheezing and bombing its way into its terminal cul-de-sac. But I was then as I am now mostly a loyal son of the Commonwealth. So Boston was much on my mind even when I was several hundred miles away. Plus, there were always the summers back in the area. I was no stranger to many of the goings on described in Walsh’s book, and neither were the others in the merry band I hung out with.
That familiarity extends to the title of the book. Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s first solo album, written and recorded during his time in Boston and Cambridge in the late sixties. He was familiar to me back then as a member of the British Invasion band Them (Gloria, Here Comes the Night).
Them was never a first rate British Invasion band but it was, to paraphrase Richard Strauss on his composing, a first rate second rate band. Even after splitting from Them and starting a solo career Morrison himself had to deal with his place in the pecking order. This is how a nasty patron confronted him at a gig, asking if it was true he had written Brown Eyed Girl:
“When I first heard it on the radio I thought, man, the Rolling Stones have really gone downhill.”
Ouch. But Van was not deterred and he spent his time in the Boston area either perfecting his art or obsessively polishing his brand, depending on whether you see him primarily as a mystic, brooding, poetic genius or a nasty and disturbed careerist. Maybe both.
My friends and I saw him during one of his few shows on Cape Cod, performances he wrote about in the liner notes to Astral Weeks:
I saw you coming from the Cape, way from Hyannis Port all the way
When I got back it was like a dream come true.
I don’t remember a lot about the performance and think of it as I think of Woodstock: as something that burns brighter layter in life, after memory has been burnished by later tales of the thing. In Morrison’s case the trigger was to be the later release of Moondance, the album that catapulted him to fame in a way that the more introspective Astral Weeks had failed to do. “Hey”, I thought, “I saw that guy!”
Morrison figures fairly prominently in the book but there are many other stories to be told:
–the abysmal effort by record companies mimic the San Francisco sound in rock by marketing Ultimate Spinach, The Beacon Street Union and Orpheus as “the Bosstown Sound”
–how WBCN went from a classical music station to a countercultural icon in no time
–the success and impact of underground music rock clubs, most notably the Boston Tea Party
–the beginnings of psychedelic culture, with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert’s pioneering LSD experiments at Harvard and at their homes in Newton
–the night James Brown saved Boston from riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination
–the success owed Boston by the Velvet Underground, which performed far more often and to more acclaim in Boston than it did in its home city of New York
But the biggest competitor to Morrison in column inches in the book is one Mel Lyman. Indeed for the most part the book is about Morrison and Mel, even though their paths did not really cross.
The music scene from which Morrison stocked his band, and the deeply strange tale of Mel Lyman’s Fort Hill Community, suggested an incredibly rich artistic past forgotten by all but a few present day residents.
Stories about Lyman open and close the book and, unlike Morrison who kept to his artistic self, Lyman is all over the scene in chameleon fashion.
On the day Dylan went electric at Newport is was Lyman on stage at the end of the day doing an acoustic solo performance of Rock of Ages on harmonica, rallying the faithful who had felt betrayed.
Lyman was an accomplished member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, playing a style of music now down the memory hole, though Boston and Cambridge were hot spots during the critical period when folk music played with old forms and took on new ones.
Continuing the Americana theme Lyman married the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton.
Mostly, though, Lyman is famous for founding one of the more famed communes of the era—the Fort Hill Community in the Roxbury Section of Boston.
There he more or less declared himself to be God—
. . . though he was always elliptical and ambiguous about what that meant.
And he was the founder of one of Boston’s pre-eminent underground newspapers, Avatar.
Lyman’s Fort Hill crowd served as models for one of Benton’s last paintings, The Sources of Country Music.
His community commanded a ton of local, and then national attention. At least until the Manson murders, which quickly cast a pall over the fascination that had been growing over what amounted to fascist mini-communities.
The Community attracted a lot of interesting (and often well-educated, talented and privileged) individuals. The pre-Rolling Stone founder of Crawdaddy magazine, Paul Williams, was a resident for a time, until he felt compelled to sneak out in the middle of the night for fear of facing Mel’s discipline.
Then there’s the story of Mark Frechette,
. . . .the nobody in the crowd that Antonioni cast in his wild and woolly flop about America, Zabriskie Point.
Frechette was a Lyman devotee who ended up robbing a bank while a member of the community and dying in prison several year later, giving it up to a suspicious set of heavy barbells around his neck.
There was an ominous glow cast by Fort Hill back then. From time to time my friends and I would drive to the Community, which sat atop a hill in Roxbury, with a dilapidated tower surrounded by falling apart townhouses and Victorians. The perceived danger of going into Roxbury as lily-white college educated hippie wannabes was only reinforced by the perceived dangers of the Fort Hill crew: choose your poison. But if you wanted a heavy atmosphere you got a heavy atmosphere.
Lyman himself was no stranger to drama–as in performance and film, as opposed to the harrowing life dramas concocted daily on Fort Hill. In fact he was friendly with the experimental filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas. With Mekas he sought to create a Boston Film Collaborative, which existed side by since in the same building as the now-legendary rock club the Boston Tea Party.
Little did I know when I moved into 53 Berkeley Street while working for the Paul Tsongas Senate Campaign in 1978 that the newly renovated building I was to live in had housed the Tea Party and the Film Collaborative just ten years before, and that my second floor apartment had been the setting for the stage for numerous concerts by the leading lights of underground music.
Lyman keeps popping up like this throughout the book. Playing the famed folk club Passim with Kweskin. Ties to the Velvet Underground via Mekas. An interview on WGBH’s groundbreaking head-trip “educational television” show What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? Links to the LSD crowd in Cambridge and Newton. A key person in the underground press, and in the fights in the community over whether Mel Worship should play a leading role in the alternative media.
Once Mel fell, as he more or less did after Manson, communes were transformed in the public mind into cults and things were never the same. And that’s what I mostly remember: the memory of Lyman as a nutty, fascistic and dangerous cult leader. Walsh’s book is if nothing else a reminder that we mostly remember our memories fixed at a given place and time, and that much of the past really is another country.
Walsh entitled the book Astral Weeks out of respect for Morrison’s talent and because Astral Weeks is his favorite album of all time. But the book itself, and 1968 in Boston, is much more the story of Mel Lyman than it is Van Morrison.