Step back to the ’60s with this acclaimed book from a Boston musician

"Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968" dives deep into the history of the city’s counterculture.

04AstralWeeks

Images from Astral Weeks by Ryan Walsh.

17. Van Morrison, smiling, confident, and clad in a striped suit. Spring Sing on Boston Common, April 20, 1968.
Van Morrison on Boston Common on April 20, 1968. –Courtesy of MONTUSE/Dick Iacovello/https://www.facebook.com/diacovello

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Ryan Walsh is a local musician and author of the recently released “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” a critically lauded book chronicling Boston’s late 1960s counterculture that Walsh named after the album Van Morrison wrote in the city during that time. As it turns out, it wasn’t a passion for history, but the end of a romance, that originally sent Walsh on a journey to explore an overlooked chapter of Boston’s past.

“This all started when I tried to get over a heartbreak with music,” Walsh said. “In my early 20s, at a very low point, I was buying a lot of records, attempting to feel less lonely. I came across [Van Morrison’s] ‘Astral Weeks’ in a Newbury Comics and bought it on a whim.”

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As the music provided some solace, Walsh became curious about a poem with references to Cape Cod and Cambridgeport that was etched on the album’s back sleeve.

“Why was a singer from Belfast talking about places from Massachusetts in the liner notes of his masterpiece breakthrough LP?” Walsh said. “I had to find out.”

Walsh dove deep into the history of the Boston-area music scene, focusing on the time when Van Morrison and other musicians were contributing to a politically charged arts movement in the city.

“I discovered a whole forgotten countercultural scene that hadn’t been passed down to my generation of local music makers and fans,” he said. “Like most major cities in 1968, Boston was full of chaos. It was a hotbed for antiwar protest, a resurgence of interest in the occult, and battles for the right to free speech.”

Researching and writing “Astral Weeks” didn’t just expose Walsh to Boston’s history. Among the counterculture, Walsh said he was surprised to find the origins of alternative media outlets like The Phoenix and WBCN in “a very strange late ‘60s scene that was started by just a handful of people.”

“It helped me better comprehend what’s happening in the city today,” he said.

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Go back in time and visit the Boston-area counterculture landmarks Walsh discovered while writing “Astral Weeks.”

The Boston Tea Party
53 Berkeley St.

A Harvard Law student converted this Unitarian Meeting House into a music venue called The Boston Tea Party in the late 1960s. Although it now houses condos and a 7/11, it was once a place where MIT students converged with biker gangs for live music and light shows, according to Walsh.

“Future legends like The Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, and The Byrds performed for diverse Boston audiences [here],” Walsh said. “Look for the Star of David-shaped window, which you can also spot a glimpse of in a local interview with Andy Warhol.”

Ace Recording Studio
1 Boylston Place

Though the recording studio is long gone, the location at the end of a dead-end alley at 1 Boylston Place is where Van Morrison first auditioned for Warner Brothers Records before recording “Astral Weeks” in August of 1968.

“When producer Lewis Merenstein heard Morrison sing the opening lines of his new song, ‘Astral Weeks,’ they left that night to go make a record,” Walsh said. “The alley has a rich history, too. In the late 1800s, it was also home to the American Society for Psychical Research, a kind of real-life ‘X-Files’ department devoted to investigating things like ESP, precognition, and hypnosis.”

Walsh suggests taking a quick walk down the alley to see where it all started.

“With the right sense of imagination, you can still picture the scene,” he said.

Marsh Chapel
735 Commonwealth Ave.

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“The stairs leading up to Marsh Chapel’s entrance [are] the scene of several pivotal moments in [my] book,” Walsh said.

Multiple sides of Boston’s countercultural and political movements converged on the Boston University chapel plaza, he said.

“Tim Leary and Walter Pahnke conducted their famous ‘Good Friday Experiment’ there in 1962, in which they gave divinity students hallucinogenic drugs during a church service,” Walsh said. “It’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. had one of his first triumphs, and where Boston University students mourned his passing in April of 1968. It’s also the site of a brutal capture of an AWOL Vietnam soldier.”

The chapel and the plaza are open to the public.

Fort Hill Tower
22-98 Fort Ave.

This Victorian-era tower in Roxbury’s Highland Park became a symbol of 1960s counterculture when a group of young people calling themselves the Fort Hill Community moved into a cluster of houses on Fort Avenue Terrace, overlooking the park. While the Fort Hill Community, led by eccentric musician Mel Lyman, is often referred to as a cult, the group was a fixture in Boston’s countercultural movement, and it published one of the city’s most influential underground newspapers, called Avatar.

“[The Fort Hill Community] cut off the City of Boston’s lock on the tower, replaced it with their own, and used it as a set piece for the dozens and dozens of pictures they’d run of their community in Avatar,” Marsh said. “When in-fighting shattered the team behind Avatar, Lyman and his crew stole an entire run of an issue of the newspaper and locked it inside the tower as ransom. Local bands would also stage their promotional photos in front of the tower, cashing in on its mystery and cool factor.”

The city restored the tower in the early 1980s, and once a year the public is allowed to visit the observation deck for view of the Boston skyline. Information on that becomes available annually on the City of Boston’s website.

Correction 4/17/2018: A previous version of this article identified The Boston Tea Party, the former music venue at 53 Berkeley St., as a former synagogue rather than a Unitarian Meeting House. Boston.com regrets the error.

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