To Be Born Again in Cambridge

Van MorrisonRyan Walsh. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Ryan H. Walsh’s Quest To Document (And Become) Part of Local Music History

In 1968, Van Morrison found himself with a clean slate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Irish singer-songwriter had just gotten married (partially out of love, partially for a green card) and cut himself from a shady record deal he made back in New York, leaving him to quietly enjoy the continued rise of his latest single, “Brown Eyed Girl.” Morrison spent the better part of that summer in Cambridge, contracting local musicians to help him finish “Astral Weeks,” an album that would later become one of his most critically revered.

Forty years later, a scrawny New Jersey punk named Patrick Stickles boarded a Fung Wah bus, aiming to start a new life in Somerville. His band, Titus Andronicus, had garnered critical acclaim, but Stickles was restless. He had an album brewing that would unify Brooklynite tastemakers, eager suburban fans wishing they were in Brooklyn, and the raucous, DIY punk scene from back home. The album would be called “The Monitor,” a reference to one of the Civil War’s first ironclad warships and a fitting title for his new, history-ridden surroundings. All he needed was some local players.

Local writer/musician Ryan H. Walsh, who served as one of Stickles’s local players during his stay in 2008, is the illuminating tie between Morrison and Stickles’s brief but career-defining stays in Cambridge and Somerville. With his debut book, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” Walsh is now both a part of Boston’s obscure music history and one of its documentarians.

“I just don’t think I give off much of a journalist vibe,” Walsh explains modestly over coffee at a café outside of Boston Common. “Anything I’m going to write about comes from a genuine curiosity, so I don’t think I’d give off the vibe of trying to snag the story. I’m just story-obsessed, and I think people pick up on that.”

Courtesy of Ryan Walsh.

“Astral Weeks,” which Walsh refers to in the book’s introduction as his “favorite record of all time,” was tied to the author’s coming-of-age in Boston even before he learned of its Cantabrigian origins. After helping him out of a heartbroken slump in his final year at Boston University, “Weeks” was the record that Walsh’s now-wife, fellow musician Marissa Nadler, happened to put on at the end of their first date.

Walsh unknowingly began his book in 2015 while working on a Boston Magazine article, “Astral Sojourn,” in which he compiled accounts of Morrison’s summer testing out “Astral Weeks” iterations on townie venues and session musicians.

“By the time you’re 30, even if you don’t seek it out, you’ve accidentally seen 12 documentaries about the ’60s,” Walsh says. “Whether it’s through the topic of the Beatles or Haight-Ashbury, it’s weird that Boston never comes up, because what I found about it was just as rich.”

Between unveiling forgotten local lore and Walsh’s humorous attempts at interviewing J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, who reportedly had a rare bootleg from one of Morrison’s 1968  Cambridge sets, “Sojourn” made enough waves to catch the attention of Ed Park at Penguin Publishing. Park would begin helping Walsh rework “Sojourn” as the overture to a full-length book.

“The first idea was ‘Astral Weeks’ with a band in Boston [as] a whole book,” Walsh recalls. “We tried to flesh it out and it kind of worked, but neither Ed at Penguin or I were jumping up and down about it. And then we stumbled upon [the idea of] Van and Mel as our history guides for Boston in 1968, linking that year in the city back to them.”

“Mel” is Mel Lyman, a harmonica player from Cambridge’s folk scene that became the LSD-influenced leader of a cultish commune atop Roxbury’s Fort Hill. Lyman steals the spotlight from Morrison regularly in “Weeks,” with his omnipresent reputation for being the self-proclaimed God-incarnate and having his disciples distribute his gospel around Harvard Square in the form of a radical, arts-influenced newspaper. Lyman reportedly died in 1978, but a portion of “Weeks” contends that, because a death certificate was never filed, the local figure might have faked his own death to roam the world unbothered.

“Morrison and Lyman were both obsessed with making perfect music and somehow finding it through spirituality,” Walsh says. “One became super famous in that moment, the other one’s obscure and was completely forgotten … many people truly believed that [Lyman faked his death]. I was like, ‘I think I could figure this out if I just am dogged enough,’ [so] I went on a quest to figure it out.”

Although Morrison and Lyman serve as the muses, the book is equally a platform for oft-forgotten characters and scenes from a time where Boston’s underground arts scene threatened to boil over into the national spotlight. There was the brief hiring of an experimental TV host on WGBH who tapped into psychedelic culture and produced experimental broadcasts that required multiple television sets. A beloved, law-skirting live music spot cheekily called The Boston Tea Party became The Velvet Underground’s “favorite place to play in the whole country” and ground zero for the brief, critically quashed “Bosstown Sound” scene.

As Walsh’s book swings its spotlight wildly from the likes of acclaimed Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman (who, in 1968, was simply known as the most devoted Lou Reed fanboy in Boston) to accidental film actor Mark Frechette (who was discovered by associates of director Michelangelo Antonioni after getting into a profane altercation at a Roxbury bus stop), the author’s framing of Morrison and Lyman as archetypes of Boston’s youth culture comes into focus. Some, like Morrison and Richman, find storied careers after spending time stewing in the city’s underground scene. Others, like Frechette and Lyman, have a similar artistic intensity and circle of influences, but ultimately fade as the years pass and drugs wear off.

Many of the book’s other interviewees, which include mobsters, cult followers, and key “Astral Weeks” players, hadn’t spoken of their involvement with Morrison or the Boston scene for over 40 years, giving an urgency to Walsh’s research.

“The producer of ‘Astral Weeks,’ [Lewis Merenstein], died six months after I talked to him. I was the last person to interview these folks … that was another level of ‘get this right,’” Walsh says. “I got better at interviewing throughout the book. I found that the less I could recite questions like a third grader, the more interesting the conversation got.”

Noticeably absent from the book (but not for a lack of trying) is Morrison himself, which Walsh now accepts is for the best.

“It might have been really bad for this project if I did talk to him, because it seems that he loves to be contradictory,” Walsh says. “I know he hates interviews, so I would try to just have a conversation with him.”

Van Morrison

Van Morrison. Photo by Art Siegel.

Considering the reverence with which Walsh regards Morrison, I tread lightly when comparing his time in Cambridge to Patrick Stickles’s in Somerville. Walsh laughs warmly, having made the connection himself a couple years ago on Twitter.

“I think that’s a fun idea to think about,” he admits. “Maybe there’s something in the water here that’s good for a temporary visit before making your album.”

Although the Titus Andronicus frontman was already friends with Walsh after playing a few shows together, Stickles belatedly announced his move by showing up to a local gig one night in 2008. The Titus singer and Walsh’s band, Hallelujah the Hills, quickly became such regular fixtures in the local scene that Stickles often made the claim that Walsh and Hallelujah bandmate Joe Marrett were his “only friends in the city.”

“When he sent us the demos for ‘The Monitor,’ it did not sound like it was going to be great,” Walsh admits, “but I believed in this guy and I thought he was onto something. That’s not to say anything about what we did … it’s just that some things, you can’t figure out their power until you dot the last ‘i’ and cross the last ‘t.”

Hallelujah the Hills helped flesh out Stickles’s sprawling, beer-soaked rock opera vision, adding trumpet, cello, and piano, while Walsh received direction from Stickles to model himself as “the voice of Boston” on backing vocals.

Like Morrison, Stickles turned to somewhat eccentric sources of inspiration for his work. While Morrison found deep guidance from early New Age pioneer Alice Bailey’s writing on astral planes in the naming of his album, Stickles’s fixation was on the Battle of Hampton Roads, a major naval confrontation in the Civil War that resulted in the USS Monitor holding off advances from the Confederate Army’s warship, the CSS Virginia. In addition to naming the 14-minute album closer after the battle, Stickles announced via MySpace that the album would be released on March 9, 2010, exactly 148 years after the battle’s conclusion.

Stickles’s exit from Somerville, much like Morrison’s from Cambridge, came so quickly after his arrival that his stay hardly receives mention in write-ups about the band. With lyrics detailing a “brutal Somerville summer” and “cruel New England winter” on album opener “A More Perfect Union,” Stickles retreated closer to his New Jersey home before the album was finished, landing in Brooklyn at some point in 2009 as a ticket taker for DIY venue Shea Stadium.

“We ended a long tour in New York and were packing up our tour bus back to Boston when [Patrick] gave us a CD-R of the finished album,” Walsh recalls. “It had a map from New York to Boston that he had handwritten. I think we listened to it three times on the way home, we couldn’t believe how good it was.”

Neither could critics. “The Monitor” landed raucous praise from the likes of Spin, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork, the last of which put the album at number 30 on its round-up of the best albums of the last five years. The musicians of Titus Andronicus became unlikely punk heroes, invading pop-centric festival stages and commanding crowds from Pitchfork’s yearly Chicago gathering to Barcelona’s Primavera Festival to sing along to songs about Stickles’s lost year in Somerville.

Whether he’s recounting the handful of conversations he had with “Astral Weeks” session musicians or his recent, longform interview with Stickles ahead of Titus’s latest album, Walsh remains both a humble fan and a likable avatar of the area’s under-sung musical past. When asked about his place among all the stories and myths, he’s perfectly willing to let fate decide if there’s enough room for him and his beloved city in rock’s history books.

“Look, it’s not up to me if people want to do that,” Walsh says with a smirk, assumedly not opposed to the notion of becoming a part of local music history. “That’s how music and myths work, I guess. I’m fine entering a myth, especially if it pays my bills.”

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