It’s been a weekend of highlights … but the best event among them has been my first reading of Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.
Walsh’s book is chiefly about Van Morrison’s period of exile in Boston and Cambridge, during which he wrote the music on his celebrated album Astral Weeks.
Walsh frames the Morrison saga by writing about a dozen individual social and cultural streams also surfacing in the city at the time — everything from avant-garde experimental TV, to spiritualism, to Boston’s most prominent cult, to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. (The Velvets were basically in residence in Boston at the time, playing there considerably more often than their hometown of New York City.)
It would be a fascinating book even if I didn’t have connections to Boston. Still, it seemed like I kept running into people, places or things I knew when I lived there. A few examples:
–Walsh’s book touches on Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies, banned in the state of Massachusetts shortly after its release in 1967.
As a freshman at Boston University in 1991-92, I went to either the first or second public screening of the movie in Massachusetts in a quarter-century. The ban had just been lifted, and the film was being shown at (if I recall correctly) the Boston Public Library. I read about it in the Boston Phoenix, which college kids could get for free, and decided to go check it out. It was as grim as described.
(My older son is about to go to college in Boston, and is interested in getting out and seeing the city. I wonder what his Titicut Follies will be.)
–Mention is made of an incoherent performance by Morrison at Wayland High School. My second-ever job as a newspaper reporter involved covering the town of Wayland, a leafy, affluent, everything’s-just-fine-here sort of town in Boston’s western suburbs. I was in Wayland High a couple of times; never would have guessed that Van Morrison had played there.
(Wayland is the northern neighbor of Natick, which is also mentioned in the book as Jonathan Richman’s hometown, and where I also lived for a year and a half, once upon a time.)
–WBCN-FM’s transformation from a classical station to an anything-goes hippie-rock hoedown gets mentioned. I wrote almost exactly three years ago about finding a relic from the original WBCN right here in Allentown — which opened my eyes to the station’s backstory, which I’d never heard.
–The second person mentioned in the thank-yous, after Walsh’s wife, is a former colleague of mine on the early-’90s Boston University Daily Free Press. I knew him pretty well to speak to at the time, though we probably wouldn’t recognize each other if we walked past each other on Comm. Ave. now. He later became the editor of the aforementioned Boston Phoenix, and I believe he’s still in the media business somewhere.
(Forgive me for running Walsh’s book through a self-centered lens. I’ve figured myself for dead, gone and boring since I left Boston for Allentown 16 years ago. So it’s an ego boost to read a really cool book that has a bunch of things I recognize in it. Convinces me I wasn’t always so lame.)
Another fascinating thread in Walsh’s book involves “the Bosstown Sound,” a 1968 hype campaign orchestrated by MGM Records and producer Alan Lorber promoting Boston as the new epicenter of youth music.
By all tellings, the (often unwitting) Boston bands recruited into the campaign did well for a short while. But when Rolling Stone and other underground press outlets unmasked the hype, sales plummeted, and the bands were dumped.
I decided to look up the three most commonly cited Bosstown Sound bands in the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts, just to see who was spinning them, in 1968 and further on:
Ultimate Spinach: I used to have a bootleg recording of these guys that was just awful; they sounded like the most pretentious asses in the world. I used to play one song in particular to my young children and make fun of it, which perhaps reflects poorly on my notion of fatherhood, but so be it.
Anyway, the Spinach’s first album produced a cut, “Ego Trip,” that landed on two charts at the Hobart and William Smith College radio station in Geneva, N.Y., in March 1968. Meanwhile, spring 1969’s “(Just Like) Romeo & Juliet” landed on five local airplay charts — four of them in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the record peaked at No. 13.
The band’s first album shows up on only eight local charts — but it did very well on two of them, with Top Ten placements at stations in New Haven and St. Louis. The second Spinach LP, Behold & See, shows up on one local chart from Salisbury, Md., near the end of the summer of ’68.
And that, friends, was the end of America’s love affair with Ultimate Spinach.
Orpheus: The ARSA database doesn’t necessarily paint a full picture, because what’s in there is just the surveys people saved, not all the surveys that came out.
Still, based solely on ARSA, Orpheus appears to have been the champs of Beantown: Their singles show up on roughly 110 separate local charts.
The song “Can’t Find The Time,” in particular, kept bobbing up and getting play on different stations every year between 1968 and 1971.
On its first go-round, in early ’68, it was Top Ten on the Hobart and William Smith station and in Worcester, Mass. It popped up again on 37 charts in the late summer and early fall of 1969, this time going Top Ten at stations in Wichita and Fort Lauderdale.
In April 1970, it hit Number One at a station in Honolulu. And as late as July 1971 — when the Bosstown Sound was buried, gone and forgotten — “Can’t Find The Time” was once again getting regular spins on a station in New Haven.
Beacon Street Union: I’ve written about these guys before (and had the pleasure of getting a kindly comment from their lead guitar player).
The BSU’s first album crept onto charts in Philadelphia, Orlando, and Storrs, Conn., the home of the University of Connecticut.
(If there’s anything noteworthy about the ARSA results for these Bosstown bands, it’s how few Boston radio charts they show up on. Either a lot of those Boston charts have gone missing, or the local stations weren’t so sold on the Big Local Sound.)
The band’s most successful tune, “South End Incident (I’m Afraid),” reached 17 charts in late 1967 and early ’68 in Cleveland, Columbus, Orlando and Geneva, N.Y. (Apparently the kids at Hobart and William Smith really bought into the Bosstown Sound.)
Their cover of the venerable “Blue Suede Shoes” made nine additional local charts in May and June ’68.
And the very last BSU song to show up on a local chart, “Mayola,” appears as hitbound on exactly one chart … the one from Nov. 17, 1968, from none other than WAEB 790-AM here in Allentown.
I’m not gonna put that one up, just because I still think the title track of The Clown Died In Marvin Gardens deserves all the spins it can get: