And that is enough to know for enhanced listening.
But we revisit the album as part of an ongoing look at all things about the United States as it was in 1968. In what milieu was this singular, much beloved album born?
One of the most particular answers is offered in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a newly published book by Ryan H. Walsh that takes readers back to the beginning of that year, when Van Morrison began living and working near Boston. The Irish-born singer, then 22, had fled New York City with his new wife, Janet Rigsbee. He was frustrated at his failure to break though in its music scene––he was mostly unknown despite recording his first hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”––and eager to escape the mob-connected men who owned a bad record contract he had signed.
Boston was attractive in part because of its famous folk music scene, though that turned out to be a shadow of its former self by the time Morrison moved into his Cambridge apartment. One local favorite, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, wasn’t the same once Mel Lyman quit and dedicated himself to leading an eccentric hippie commune. Other acts broke up or decided to try their luck in New York City or on the West Coast.
And rock and roll was ascendant.
The zeitgeist was arguably shaped most that year by events in San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. And yet, greater Boston was not insignificant.
Noam Chomsky of MIT and Howard Zinn of Boston University were outspoken participants in the movement against the Vietnam War. Timothy Leary had earlier embarked on his LSD experiments through the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and Boston remained a hotbed of attempts at psychedelic enlightenment. Richard Alpert had returned from a sojourn to India as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass.
And on local television, WGBH had given over its airwaves twice a week to an experimental program called What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, a show that “transformed home televisions into portals for a psychedelic fever dream,” Walsh wrote, “uninterrupted by commercials or common sense.” As he described one episode:
A swarm of inkblots. Cut to a circular logo bouncing across the screen. A child announces the title of the show, then looks confused. A Jim Kweskin song plays as the inkblots return. A half-second clip of a woman in a red dress, staring off into the distance. Edits happen without warning and truncate sentences throughout. Host David Silver sits on the floor and asks the woman a question, but her answer goes unheard—cut to stock footage of a man talking about producing high school yearbooks. Cut back to the woman telling Silver about a impending “cataclysmic event.” Microcuts to old commercials.
Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” starts to play.
Behind Silver and the lady in the red dress, a dozen young people dance wildly. Seated to their left and right are an extremely old man and woman, watching. Backward sequence of Silver eating a banana. Stock footage run through an effects module rendering it new in an array of psychedelic color patterns. Black-and-white scene of samurais fighting. The editing pace quickens. Four distinct audio tracks play at once, often at odds with one another. Silver, all in black, fences with a woman dressed all in white. Inkblots overlay the duel. A woozy pattern spins as we hear news reports on the Vietnam War. “You could be frozen for several hundred years,” a woman in a floral-pattern dress tells Silver while the dancers clap in time behind them. “That would break up the monotony of eternity.”
The elderly pair looks confused.
Many a viewer was as confused. In its writeup, the Boston Globe quoted a local woman who said, “I never miss it. I never can believe it makes me as mad as it does.” And yet, the program was innovate and successful enough to attract Andy Warhol, Bill Cosby, William F. Buckley, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi among its guests.