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Staff Pick: Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh

If you’re in need of a reading recommendation for the summer, you’ve come to the right place! Check out our latest staff selection. Happy reading!

As a fan of popular music (rock, jazz, blues, soul, etc.) and twentieth-century American history, a book centered on Van Morrison’s landmark 1968 LP Astral Weeks struck me as a perfect fit. I knew going in it would venture beyond chronicling the album’s making, but I may not have been prepared for just how far it does venture, or how well it ties the cast of characters into a compelling narrative.

Cover art for Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. The cover has a singer at a microphone with other famous musicians in a collage.
Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks.

And what a cast! Beyond the moody and mercurial Morrison, Walsh profiles, to varying detail, other famous and infamous people living in or passing through Boston in 1968 (or thereabouts): TV host and pioneer David Silver, messianic musician Mel Lyman, Harvard LSD researcher Timothy Leary, seminal NYC underground band The Velvet Underground, future alternative music hero Jonathan Richman, “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, a serial killer called “The Boston Strangler,” and more.

Mixed into the historic narratives is the story of Walsh himself in 2016 trying to track down a legendary bootleg recording of “The Van Morrison Conspiracy” at the Catacombs in 1968. At that performance, Morrison debuted some of the Astral Weeks songs that had been germinating during his year living in Cambridge. Near the conclusion, Walsh finds the recording and shares it with two musicians who had performed with Morrison that night almost 50 years earlier but hadn’t heard it since. It is a revelatory moment for the author, musicians, and reader alike.

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 received a lot of positive press when it was published in 2018, and rightly so. Walsh brings a journalist’s desire for details, a fan’s passion for the subject matter, and a storyteller’s knack for making connections in unexpected places.

Reviewed by Joel Minor, curator of Modern Literature Collection/Manuscripts