The making and production of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks becomes a flashpoint around which this book investigates the peculiar counterculture of Boston, where Morrison lived and recorded the acclaimed album.
In documenting the milieu out of which the album came, Walsh...argues for Boston as an underappreciated hub of late-sixties 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.
In Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Ryan Walsh...treat[s] the work as a social text, an LP that can be 'read' as a legible part of a career, a cultural moment, a scene, a product of an industry with recognizable protocols ... Walsh does a strong job of dramatizing the interpersonal tensions informing the album’s creation, adding grit and depth to a story often transmitted with a more facile investment in the notion of individual genius ... In this book, Walsh facilitates a long overdue reading of Morrison and his early work in the appropriate hardscrabble context ... It is a mistake, though, to imagine that Walsh intends for all of these smaller set pieces to add up to some master tale of 'How Astral Weeks Came to Be.' This book works, rather, as a sort of decentered collective biography. Van Morrison is important to the larger story Walsh wants to tell about questers and malcontents in the Boston area, but really only as one signpost of the confusion of the moment — a miserable young man (a 'stranger in this world' is what the narrator calls himself on Astral Weeks’s first song) struggling to find his own voice amid the cacophony.
Astral Weeks was recorded in New York City, but it was 'planned, shaped and rehearsed in Boston and Cambridge ... This fact has been a secret kept in plain view.' What exactly this secret yields is a question that the book never quite answers ... the book reads...as the record of an obsession, with the surfeit of granular detail, the loose anecdotal structure and the numerous cul-de-sacs that implies. This is not to say that Walsh’s book lacks charm. It opens with a fresh angle on one of the stalest scenes in music history ... The mini-histories embedded throughout are often entertaining ... Given that it was 1968, it’s a yearbook with some momentous pages. But there’s a reason people don’t read yearbooks start to finish.