Belfast Telegraph

Story behind Van's 'Astral Weeks' to be told in new book as author visits Belfast

By Mark Bain

It has long been viewed as one of rock's greatest albums.

And now half a century since Van Morrison's Astral Weeks was recorded, the full story of how it became such a seminal work is to be told.

The Belfast singer had already hit the big time with pop songs like Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria, but when Astral Weeks was recorded in Boston, USA, in 1968 it was initially met with a mediocre response by critics.

The LP's critical standing improved greatly over time and, when Boston-based journalist and musician Ryan H Walsh discovered one of his greatest loves was recorded in his home city, he simply had to find out more.

The result of Ryan's efforts is Astral Weeks - A Secret History of 1968, a book charting the making of the album.

Ryan has made his first trip to Belfast this week as part of Belfast Book Festival to chat about the legends and myths that surround the recording.

"I was a lifelong Boston resident who was also obsessed with the album Astral Weeks," Ryan told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The album just gave me so much joy and helped me through a very difficult time in my early 20s.

"To learn that the album and my home city were somehow connected, well, that just blew my mind.

"It made no sense. I'd assumed as Morrison was from Belfast, the album was recorded there. I had to find out more.

"The late 60s and early 70s were a wild time in the music industry and there were some crazy stories to tell."

The result was an iconic rock album shrouded in legend, a masterpiece that has touched generations of listeners and influenced everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese.

Despite Ryan's best efforts, the only person still alive who was involved in making the album he couldn't get to talk to was Van Morrison himself.

"I tried to talk to Morrison, I really tried. But it was a series of dead-ends," Ryan added. "Everyone knows he doesn't like to do too many interviews and I guess that adds to the mystery and legend. But I spoke to every other living person who worked on Astral Weeks.

"Over the decades though, Morrison has said so much about the album.

"Sometimes he says things that contradict his other statements about the record. In that way, he became like a ghost or a unreliable narrator in this story. I'd still be very open to speaking with him, but I don't think it's in the cards."

Since the release of his book, Ryan has been amazed at the reception.

"You could say I'm more than a little surprised and overwhelmed. I can't believe how strongly people have reacted to it," he added.

"I worked with my editor for years on it and I'd almost convinced myself no-one was going to read it. But people wanted to share their story about how they first heard the album with me and that's something I'll never tire of hearing about.

"The Boston musicians who played with Van that summer were so grateful to get their side of the story out there too."

Ryan added: "With Belfast, well, I've imagined it so long, it will be surreal to actually walk down Cyprus Avenue, for instance, which looms so heavily on the Astral Weeks LP."

Astral Weeks: The Music And The Myths Of Van Morrison will take place at Strand Arts Centre on Saturday from 8pm to 10pm

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