How Boston Brought Together Rock Legends Van Morrison and Peter Wolf

May 8, 2018

Boston skyline circa 1960-1968
Credit City of Boston Archives / Flickr Creative Commons

The book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is an in-depth look at some famous and-not-so-famous figures that all seemed to converge in and around Boston in that one year. 

The catalyst for author Ryan Walsh’s book was the author’s love for Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album- what many consider the singer-songwriter’s masterpiece- and the little-known fact that Morrison wrote much of the songs for it in Boston.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Ryan Walsh by Skype to learn more.

  (Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

I know much of your book focuses on the convergence of events in 1968 in Boston, you know how a nationally known a commune movement I think you could say was getting started in the city with Mel Lyman, how James Brown played that legendary show at the [Boston Garden] the day after the assassination of [Martin Luther King, Jr]. And you talk about how the folk scene, which was so big in the region was quickly dissolving and you know band oriented rock was coming into play. And you would argue I think that Boston really should get its due along with you know New York, London and San Francisco, don't you?

Yeah, that's kind of one of the ideas of the book. I mean I always joke that once you're about 30 you've accidentally seen about a dozen documentaries about the 60s, and one of the things you'll notice is that Boston has never even mentioned. So to find that the story here was just as interesting as those other cities in the same year, I thought well that's worth putting this together.

And the catalyst for this book was your love for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album. What about that record really inspires you?

It's such a hard thing to say. It's kind of almost like a magic trick that album, and I found it at a time when I was very sad in my life. And it just seemed to be almost kind of like a medicine for me. And even after flipping over every rock and finding every detail about how it was made, miraculously I can still listen and feel those good feelings.

And the origins of Astral Weeks began in Cambridge, in Boston when Van Morrison was spending about a year of his life there. And he came to Boston, my understanding is he was looking for that kind of that folk movement that was going on, or it was different. It wasn't a rock town per se.

Exactly. There's a couple reasons why he left New York and came here. One is that New York was the home of Bang Records, his label, which was increasingly associated with the mob and people were scaring Van and his wife, Janet. And the second was he wanted to restart his music career. He just didn't want to be a garage rock band, and a manager in Cambridge reached out and gave him a lifeline. And yes, he loved Bob Dylan so much who was associated tangentially with the Cambridge Folk Scene. So I think all those things come together into how this stranger shows up in early 1968 and spends about eight nine months here really trying to figure out how to fix his faltering career.

And he meets up with Peter Wolf. Peter Wolf is the legendary front man of Boston-based J. Geils Band, of course. But before that, he was the original late night DC for WBCN. That was the pioneering underground FM station in the city. And this was something that wasn't widely known in rock circles. This is one of those really interesting coming together of rock royaltyPeter Wolf and Van Morrison. Can you talk about that relationship and how that came to be?

Sure, at the time Peter Wolf had a band called The Hallucinations, and they were doing well in Boston locally. And you know Morrison was just trying to meet people and figure out how to get shows, how to get a band together. And you know Wolf was such a man on the scene. You didn't have to look hard to bump into him. So they became very close friends. Peter had an overnight shift at WBCN where he played records all night long. And him and Morrison would stay up together, sitting in on the shifts there, and it's this relationship you wouldn't expect. And it's one of those truly, kind of cool, before they were famous moments for me, just to think of them staying up all night playing records at [WBCN] is a beautiful thing.

Did you ever get to talk to Van Morrison himself, or did you try to contact him?

I certainly tried to contact him and never got close. So unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you look at it, I did not get to talk to Van Morrison.

I know he's notoriously kind of a prickly guy, especially in interviews. I'm curious to see what kind of reactiondid you get anything from his PR people at all?

Van rarely does interviews, but he has a new album out this month. And he did a BBC interview last week I believe, which may contain the only reaction we'll get out of him to this book. Because unprompted he just starts kind of talking about fake news and how the media makes things up, and that he recorded Astral Weeks a long time ago when he was a kid, and he didn't know he'd have to answer for it the rest of his life. So I don't specifically know if that's a reaction to the book, but I kind of think it might be.