When those interested in the history of the Sixties are considering cities that were centers of countercultural art, music and communities, Boston is not near the top of their lists. If one is looking at radical politics certainly, but not hippies, communes and psychedelic culture. This is despite the genesis of the LSD movement at Harvard under the guise of psychology experiments conducted by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. It is also despite the hundreds of thousands of students who populate the city from September to June every year as they attend the numerous colleges and universities in the town.
Ryan H. Walsh’s new book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, should change this perception. Named after the album composed in that year In Boston and Cambridge by the Irishman Van Morrison, Walsh’s book tells a story of a developing counterculture community in a city known for its sexual and cultural prudishness. The cast includes a few capitalist entrepreneurs with an ear for the future, a couple of familiar names including Howard Zinn, Van Morrison, James Brown, and a folk musician turned LSD guru named Mel Lyman.
Indeed, it is Mel Lyman who is the catalyst of the story told in these pages. Walsh begins the tale with a vignette that took place after Bob Dylan’s controversial and ground-breaking electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Mel Lyman, who played a pretty damned good harmonica, is bleeding out a long blues solo of the hymn “Rock of Ages” on his harp as the crowd thins and attempts to make sense of the history they just witnessed. Of course, there were probably less than a handful who knew they had seen history, but pretty much everyone knew that had seen something out of the ordinary. Then again, not many people know they are watching history being made until it truly is history a few years later.
Lyman experienced some kind of epiphany during an LSD trip and began to gather followers who shared his vision and accepted him as their guru/god. Among those who joined Lyman were Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur of the folk music ensemble The Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Like many others, it was through their music that I first heard of Lyman. Other notables who ended up with Lyman were the daughter of American painter Thomas Hart Benton, the actor Mark Frachette from the Antonioni film Zabriskie Point, and the rock journalist Paul Williams. With funds provided by the Benton family and other wealthy advocates, Lyman and his new family bought up a number of buildings in Boston’s Fort Hill. They proceeded to turn the buildings into an intentional community centered on Lyman and his teachings.
The Fort Hill Community published one of Boston’s two underground newspapers. Called The Avatar, the paper featured several good writers and was a fairly trusted source of news and commentary regarding the counterculture community in Boston and Cambridge. Its politics were antiwar and pro-marijuana, but the primary purpose of the paper seemed to be spreading the gospel of Mel Lyman. Boston’s other underground, The Old Mole (inspired by Karl Marx’s statement “We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.”), was a serious leftist paper that served the more politically-minded.
While Lyman and his followers function as Walsh’s foci throughout the book, the author does not forget Van Morrison. He skillfully weaves details of Morrison’s personal and musical life into the text, describing the various musicians Morrison works with during the year and detailing the legal issues faced by Morrison as he extricated himself from his less-than-beneficial contract with the mob-connected Bang Records label. More importantly, he shares the memories of those who worked with Morrison that year as they describe the development of the work that would become the album Astral Weeks. Almost as a side note, one is presented with delightfully colorful descriptions of the shows Morrison and his band, the Van Morrison Controversy performed that year. The overall result is a story of a musician searching for a new and different means of composition. Virtually no one involved at the time seemed to understand that a masterpiece was being created. That in itself is part of the magic that ensued.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is a superlative read. Walsh’s narrative of Boston’s countercultural community is sympathetic yet objective and, in its telling, is the story of a much larger phenomenon now known as the Sixties. Familiar tales of antiwar protesters, draft resistance and how James Brown helped prevent massive rioting in Boston after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. are interwoven with descriptions of rock shows, underground radio broadcasts and drug use. Through meticulous research, personal interviews, an understanding that belies his age and a captivating writing style, Mr. Walsh has written a text that stands with the best of the histories of the period.