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Astral Weeks

A Secret History of 1968
Narrated by: Stephen Hoye
Length: 12 hrs and 11 mins
3 out of 5 stars (3 ratings)

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Summary

A mind-expanding dive into a lost chapter of 1968, featuring the famous and forgotten: Van Morrison, folkie-turned-cult-leader Mel Lyman, Timothy Leary, James Brown, and many more.

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is an iconic rock album shrouded in legend, a masterpiece that has touched generations of listeners and influenced everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese. In his first book, acclaimed musician and journalist Ryan H. Walsh unearths the album's fascinating backstory - along with the untold secrets of the time and place that birthed it: Boston 1968.

On the 50th anniversary of that tumultuous year, Walsh's book follows a crisscrossing cast of musicians and visionaries, artists, and hippie entrepreneurs, from a young Tufts English professor who walks into a job as a host for TV's wildest show (one episode required two sets, each tuned to a different channel) to the mystically inclined owner of radio station WBCN, who believed he was the reincarnation of a scientist from Atlantis. Most penetratingly powerful of all is Mel Lyman, the folk-music star who decided he was God, then controlled the lives of his many followers via acid, astrology, and an underground newspaper called Avatar.

A mesmerizing group of boldface names pops to life in Astral Weeks: James Brown quells tensions the night after Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated; the real-life crimes of the Boston Strangler come to the movie screen via Tony Curtis; Howard Zinn testifies for Avatar in the courtroom. From life-changing concerts and chilling crimes, to acid experiments and film shoots, Astral Weeks is the secret, wild history of a unique time and place.

©2018 Ryan H. Walsh (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic reviews

“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)

“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-60s 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)

Astral Weeks unearths the time and place behind the music.... A book full of discoveries.... A fantastic chronicle.” (Rolling Stone)

“Walsh’s book recaptures much that might otherwise fade away.... The mini-histories embedded throughout are often entertaining.” (The New York Times Book Review)

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    3 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for D. Lichtenstein
  • D. Lichtenstein
  • 25-04-18

Not what I expected

If you are looking for a book about Van Morrison, this is not it. I should have looked closer at the information and reviews prior to making this purchase. Although interesting at times, there was minimal coverage of Van Morrison and the production of Astrel Weeks. It is mostly based on the times, and heavily based on Mel Lyman and his "family". It did hold my interest, most of the time, as this time period is something I enjoy learning about. I would have preferred more about Morrison though, less about the commune and people. The minimal history of Morrison and the production of the Astrel Weeks recordings were insightful and at times surprising. So it wasn't a complete waste of time.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 16-04-18

Loved it!#

I have lived in Boston since 1970 and been involved with various bands and entertainment venues and I never heard anyone ever mention the amazing overlapping stories in this book. A compelling and eye-opening chapter in Boston's history that I knew nothing about. Wow!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Graham T.
  • Graham T.
  • 15-10-19

Engaging and intense history!

Such an amazing story and look into the history of music and counterculture in Boston. There’s a wealth of information here, and a great many characters.

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Profile Image for Robert Stevens
  • Robert Stevens
  • 12-09-19

Disappointing

Meandering and unfocused. If this were a 5 episode miniseries about the course of events leading Van Morrison to Astral Weeks, he would have appeared in only 2 episodes. The book covers a broad swath of 1968 in Boston, in strokes following fleetingly interesting moments. It focuses its energy on Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community to depict the cultural atmosphere of Boston at the time. But the book indicates minimal cross-pollination of the Lyman and Morrison. The resulting text feels highly disjointed and unsatisfying.

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  • Patrick King
  • 27-07-18

If you lived it you will probably want to read it.

I enjoyed reliving my youth in Boston but I found this book and the reader a bit too sarcastic. Both author and reader lack, in my opinion, a foundation for the culture around which the book is written.

While it's true Van Morrison never achieved the artistic heights of Astral Weeks again, he frequently came very close. Veedon Fleece, Common One, Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, No Guru etc. and Sense of Wonder are all as beautifully constructed as Astral Weeks. What they lack is the erotic element. I think the real power of Astral Weeks is that it may be the most erotic album of all time. Without being vulgar it expresses the passion of erotic love and its apparent spiritual component in a way no one has ever matched. It's predecessor, Brown Eyed Girl, and successor, Moondance, both contain much of the same power but the operatic quality to AW makes a work like Tommy seem contrived. Nobody's done it better.

I knew Mark Frechette personally and owed him $10 at the time of his death. I never had the impression that he really believed Mel Lyman was god. There was an element of goof to the whole Fort Hill experience. A friend of mine, fresh from Billerica house of correction btw, went up there to see what was going on. He was quickly assigned to "the vault," escaped and returned to Cambridge. His assessment was that the vault was very easy to escape and served as a type of initiation to determine how badly one really wanted to be in that community. There was a huge element of fun to that whole group until they started make real money at construction. I don't know how the author can take their religious and political commentary so seriously as he seems to. Watch Bob Dylan's film, Don't Look Back, for a better understanding from where Mel Lyman's attitude was coming.

On the whole I enjoyed the book but wish the reader was not so breathlessly snide and the author a little older and closer to his subjects.

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  • William M.
  • 05-07-18

Like Boston? Then maybe this book is for you.

More like the Boston history of Boston in 1968 Boston. I obviously didn't read the summary. The starting chapter about Van Morrison also made me quickly dislike Van Morrison. Then there was a lot of information about Boston.

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  • Steven Fitzgerald
  • 17-06-18

long and fantastic exploration of a musical scenew

great story

filled in some gaps and offered up some new ones of an era that influenced and shaped so much without realizing they were doing so

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Profile Image for Strobinski
  • Strobinski
  • 27-12-18

Misleading Title

Thought I was buying a book about Van Morrison and the making of Astral Weeks. Wrong! Unless you have a hankering for local Boston politics and music 50 years ago, this book is probably not for you.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful