Though it garnered scant attention at the time of its release, Van Morrison's 1968 album Astral Weeks gradually entered the pantheon of rock music's greatest works over the next half century. Taking as his starting point Morrison and his iconic disc, Boston musician and journalist Ryan H. Walsh paints a fine-grained and wide-ranging portrait of the album's gestation during the several months the Irish singer-songwriter lived in Cambridge, Mass., and of life in the city's counterculture during that raucous year.
In early 1968, Morrison moved to Cambridge to escape his ties to a New York City producer and record label with serious mob connections. The chapter in which Walsh describes the Astral Weeks recording process in that fall offers insight into the creative process of this mysterious work, and reveals how closely the final product was tied to Morrison's Boston area performances.
Walsh also devotes considerable attention to life in a commune known as the Fort Hill Community, in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. The group, which bore some superficial resemblance to the Manson family (fortunately without its homicidal streak), was started by a folk musician named Mel Lyman. Walsh's re-creation of life in the Boston of 1968 is affectionate but exhaustive; there are moments when some readers may find their attention flagging. But he succeeds in rescuing the book from tedium at those times with lively anecdotes about the numerous colorful characters. As Walsh notes, the late '60s counterculture in New York and San Francisco is a well-known story. What happened in Boston, "has gone largely unremarked." Astral Weeks fills that void with gusto. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer