Astral Sojourn

The untold story of how Van Morrison fled record-industry thugs, hid out in Boston, and wrote one of rock’s greatest albums.

One day in 1968, when John Sheldon was 17 years old, a short, dough-faced man in a button-down shirt showed up on the doorstep of his parents’ house in Cambridge. It was the Irish songwriter for whom Sheldon, a guitar prodigy, had recently auditioned. Now here the guy was on his porch, all 5-foot-5 of him, with an upright bass player looming over his shoulder.

“I didn’t really know quite what to make of him,” Sheldon remembers. “He didn’t say very much, he had no social, kind of, ‘How you doing?’ There wasn’t any of that. We played for a while, and the first thing I remember him saying was, ‘Are you available for gigs?’”

And so it was that John Sheldon became, briefly, the guitarist for Van Morrison.

Morrison was riding the success of his first single, “Brown Eyed Girl,” but he hadn’t yet become a household name. And Boston wasn’t rolling out any red carpets upon his arrival. “There was a gig at the Boston Tea Party,” Sheldon says, “but we had no drummer. I remember going out in a car with Tom [Kielbania, the bass player] and Van. We drove by Berklee [College of Music] and saw this guy on the sidewalk. Tom said, ‘Hey, it’s Joe. Joe, do you want to play drums?’ This is the kind of level that things were happening at then.”

Morrison quickly became a constant presence in the Sheldon household. He would tie up the family phone, carrying on epic arguments over the royalties for “Brown Eyed Girl.” “My parents would come in for breakfast on Sunday,” Sheldon recalls, “and it would be a bunch of people they didn’t know.” One day, Sheldon says, “Van came over to the house in Cambridge and he said that he had a dream and in the dream there were no more electric instruments. So he got rid of the drummer and rehearsed with just me and Tom. Tom played a standup bass, me on the acoustic guitar. So that’s when we started playing songs like ‘Madame George.’”

After a few weeks, the trio went to meet a producer named Lewis Merenstein at Ace Recording Studios, across from Boston Common. At the time it was one of the few professional studios in Boston, the place where the original “Charlie on the MTA” had been recorded.

Thirty seconds in, “my whole being was vibrating,” Merenstein said in 2008. “I knew he was being reborn…I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.”

Sheldon remembers the producer telling Morrison, “I think you’re a genius, and I want you to make a record for Warner Brothers.” It was clear to Sheldon that Merenstein wasn’t talking to any of the other band members.

The song Van Morrison played that day, the one that so unhinged the producer, was called “Astral Weeks,” and it would become the title track on the album that would redefine Morrison’s career. That audition of sorts at Ace was the last moment Sheldon was involved in the recording. His hunch had been correct: When Morrison left to record Astral Weeks in New York, he didn’t take Sheldon with him.

These days, when he looks back, what Sheldon remembers best from that summer is Morrison sitting in the yard of his parents’ house in Cambridge, playing those songs from Astral Weeks. “It’s sort of a shining memory, I’d guess you’d say. He’s out in the sun, he’s playing those songs, and they’re very melancholy. They’re mournful songs. Years later, maybe 10 years later, a friend of mine got me stoned and put on Astral Weeks, and I went, ‘Hey, man, this is good.’”

 

Astral Weeks is widely regarded as one of the best albums in the rock ’n’ roll canon. Martin Scorsese claims the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver are based on it. Philip Seymour Hoffman quoted it in his Oscar acceptance speech. Elvis Costello called it “the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.” Legendary music critic Lester Bangs declared it the most significant record in his life, a “mystical document.”

It is also an album that was planned, shaped, and rehearsed here, in and around Boston and Cambridge. This fact has been a sort of secret kept in plain view. After all, the first clue is printed right there on the back of the album sleeve:

I saw you coming from the Cape, way from Hyannis Port all the way,
When I got back it was like a dream come true.
I saw you coming from Cambridgeport with my poetry and jazz,
Knew you had the blues, saw you coming from across the river…

Morrison has claimed, preposterously, that he wrote this poem years before ever coming to Massachusetts. In the intervening years, it’s almost been as if he were covering his tracks. The city, for its part, hasn’t done much to claim the album as its own. When I first heard that Morrison composed Astral Weeks here, the information was disorienting: It didn’t make any sense. Why wasn’t this a bigger part of Boston’s well-groomed rock folklore—right up there with, say, the fact that Bob Dylan workshopped songs at Club 47, in Harvard Square? Hell, why was Morrison even in Boston in the summer of 1968?

The last question, it turns out, is the easiest to answer—and one of the most outrageous rock ’n’ roll tales ever told. Astral Weeks was born out of sheer desperation, conceived at a time when Morrison was trapped in the world’s worst recording contract and evading record-industry thugs.

Just a few years before, Morrison had been aimless in Belfast after dissolving his affiliation with his band, Them. He was offered a recording contract by an American music producer named Bert Berns, a man described by his own biographer, Joel Selvin, as reeking of “Pall Malls, cheap cologne, and hit records.” Berns was a hitmaker; he wrote “Twist and Shout,” and Them had recorded his song “Here Comes the Night.” Morrison barely read the contract before signing it. That’s how he wound up in New York, living with his girlfriend, Janet Rigsbee, in a series of cheap hotels while he worked on tracks for Berns’s label, Bang Records.

But things between Berns and Morrison soon soured. At 22, Morrison thought of himself as a singing Irish poet. Berns, meanwhile, wanted to ride the late-’60s wave of psychedelia, and he released Morrison’s debut solo album under the title Blowin’ Your Mind!—with a cover sporting trippy fonts and patterns, and a photograph of a visibly sweaty Morrison, clearly meant to convey that the drugs had just kicked in.

Morrison was furious. It was a cheap marketing ploy meant to sell him as something he decidedly was not. Worse, he was still broke, even though “Brown Eyed Girl” was a huge success. Morrison and Berns argued constantly over royalties. Then, on December 30, 1967, Berns—his heart weakened by childhood rheumatic fever—died of a heart attack at just 38 years old.

It turned out Bang Records had some unsavory connections, and now that Berns was dead, Morrison’s main contact at the label was Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, whose father was the inspiration for the character Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. Wassel was an even less forgiving boss than Berns. Legend has it he once threw Tiny Tim off a boat because he didn’t like the look of him.
Even today, Wassel hasn’t lost any of his tough-guy shtick. “Hello, City Morgue” is how he answered his phone one night last October when I decided to ring him up. He was friendly, forthcoming, and a little scattered, but readily agreed to meet in person to talk about Van Morrison. “I helped that guy out,” Wassel insisted. “If he ever sees me again, he better stand up and salute me!”

Wassel lives in a Manhattan building called the Franconia, on West 72nd Street. When I arrived, he was wearing a loose white undershirt and blue pajama pants. His thick-rimmed black glasses were giant windowpanes that framed his eyes. “Didn’t I meet you once before?” he asked me. He said he’d been living at the Franconia for 56 years.

Wassel told me he “got Bert Berns started in the music business.” Of course, Berns had been involved in the music business long before he met Wassel, so what he actually meant was that he introduced Berns to full-blown gangsters like Genovese family member Patsy Pagano—and to the quick results that brute force yielded when applied to the creative industries. Back in Berns’s day, this included everything from bullying performers back into studios, dismantling local record-bootlegging operations with a sledgehammer, and finding ways to borrow money that didn’t require a credit check. In the unpredictable world of the record business, these connections gave Berns and Bang Records an advantage that could level the playing field with bigger and more-established labels.

In August 1967, Berns organized a belated record-release party for “Brown Eyed Girl” on a boat that departed from 50th Street in Manhattan. Morrison attended with Janet. There’s a picture from this evening hanging on Wassel’s wall. The framed photo shows Morrison sporting a rare smile. Janet looks pleasantly taken aback by all the fanfare, Berns is glancing over at Janet, and Wassel is in back, a giant cigar stuffed in his mouth, his eyes closed, head tilted back.

I asked Wassel to tell me more about what happened with Van Morrison right before Morrison fled New York. For a moment he looked stumped. “Oh,” Wassel suddenly remembered, “I broke his guitar on his head.”

This is true. Here’s what happened.

One night, Wassel visited Morrison at the King Edward Hotel, where Morrison and Janet were staying. They were already anxious: Morrison’s papers were not wholly in order, and he was worried he’d be deported. Also, Morrison was severely intoxicated. Wassel asked about a radio he had given Morrison, which now appeared to be broken. Morrison’s temper flared up, worsened by the booze, and Wassel put an end to his incomprehensible Gaelic swearing by smashing Morrison’s Martin acoustic guitar over his head.

All of this may have had something to do with why, in early 1968, Morrison and Janet hastily married and moved to Cambridge.

 

“My band then was called the Hallucinations,” Peter Wolf tells me over bourbon and pastries at his home in downtown Boston. “A kind of neo-punk thing. We practiced at the Boston Tea Party, on Lansdowne Street. One day during rehearsal, this guy came into the club asking for the manager. He was looking for a gig. He was speaking real funny.”

When Morrison arrived in Boston in 1968, few people were more dialed in to the rock counterculture than Wolf. Not long after, Wolf would make Boston rock history as the frontman of the J. Geils Band, but back then he still had his overnight shift DJing at the legendary rock station WBCN, where he’d take on a persona he called the Woofa Goofa, a hyperfast, stream-of-consciousness combination of total jive and rock ’n’ roll minutiae. “At the time, Them’s ‘Gloria’ was like the national anthem for every garage band in the country. Of course I knew him,” Wolf says. But even for an established musician like Morrison, “the gigs and opportunities in Boston weren’t coming easy.”

  • David Lee Preston

    Great piece, and I even forgive the Philly quote.

  • aidanm

    great work Walsh. Reading this brought smiles and tears, thank you for treating this story with care and passion, it comes through

  • Simon Gee

    Some of the songs were written in Belfast before Van went to the States,

  • blrghh

    In 1968 the Boston Tea Party was still on Berkeley Street.

  • Brian Gillespie

    Great story! Thank you! Listened to Astral Weeks as I read. Just subscribed to Boston Magazine a month or 2 ago and now I know why. There must be many more great music stories. I used to rehearse in the space you called the Catacombs, after it was the Catacombs. Never knew it was a formative place for this amazing record. Being Irish I heard him in Dublin a couple of times in the 70’s. Great to hear we shared the same space!

  • Gumby

    I vividly remember being at the Catacombs when Van played.Boston and Cambridge had an amazing choice of venues and musicians to enjoy.

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  • http://johnstephendwyer.com/ John Stephen Dwyer

    The line about Morrison’s ” incomprehensible Gaelic swearing” gives me doubts. Morrison is Protestant from Belfast and it’s likely he spoke neither Irish Gaelic nor Scots Gaelic at this point in his life. RHW, did you find evidence otherwise?

    • JGat

      John, you’re nitpicking a slightly poorly chosen adjective. Nothing more.

      • http://johnstephendwyer.com/ John Stephen Dwyer

        It isn’t “slightly” a poor choice, it actually creates a factual error in the article by saying that Morrison spoke Irish when he was actually speaking English. I’m not nailing the author to the cross over this; my comment was entirely appropriate.

        • kimbarator .

          Collins Eng Dictionary 2012 defines the adjective “Gaelic” as follows: “of, denoting, or relating to the Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, or the Isle of Man or their language or customs”

          So “Gaelic” can be used to mean “Irish” in a very broad sense, one that has nothing to do with the speaking of a Celtic language.

          Knowing of VM’s Belfast roots, that’s how I took the meaning when I saw the word in the article.

          • Nora Hollywood

            I’m Irish, and that’s how I took it too. Not even a ‘slightly poor choice’, it’s a fine, funny choice that conveys some of the wildness of the situation, and VM’s strong accent and strong views. Factual error my foot.

          • http://johnstephendwyer.com/ John Stephen Dwyer

            I still don’t like the word choice, but that’s a decent rebuttal.

          • kimbarator .

            “I still don’t like the word choice” — that’s understandable, as the phrase “Gaelic swearing” can easily be taken as leaning more on the language end of the adjective’s definition than on the cultural end. As it happens, my modest level of familiarity with VM’s life & music led me to read “Gaelic swearing” the way I read the term “Gaelic football.”

            So . . . not a factual error, just a debatable issue of minor semantics and style, with a general sharing of viewpoints, and finally no great harm done all the way around.

            That sort of outcome is rare these days, when it seems like the slightest difference of opinion on a blog about knitting and crocheting usually leads to F-bombs and death threats within two or three exchanges!

            Here’s a large portion of what I know of the Irish language . . . . .

            Slán agus beannacht leat,
            Barry

    • S.I. Rosenbaum

      The swearing may not have been in Gaelic, but the sentiment was. -Ed

  • JP Bean, Sheffield, England

    Terrific piece, loved it. JP Bean, Sheffield, England

  • just2digitall

    Another interesting piece to read after many others over the years but it says virtually nothing about the music itself, par for the course these days. Thanks for the article Ryan, but this story needn’t be personally romanticized and saying that AW was written in Boston is conjecture by someone who is so obviously not a songwriter. What the principals endured while this was going on is really no one else’s business. Every day musicians are taken advantage of. Talking about how someone personally involved reacts to a song from their past is really beyond the pale.

    What about talking on the real story about the big unmentioned part of the Astral Weeks puzzle: why has this record, one of the top 100 albums on most everyone’s list, not been released in a remastered format here in the US? There is a Japanese import from 2008 (a must hear for any Van/AW/Richard Davis/Connie Kay fan) but the WB CD for sale in America is the same abominable mix from the first wave of CDs of the 80s and has never been worth the price of the plastic it’s pressed on. Order the import and then read beyond this he said, she said personality puff piece. A different article about AW for musicians, fans and deep listeners is Merenstein’s own recollections I found online several years ago and linked here: darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-full-lewis-merenstein-producer-of.html

    • tacknaf

      um it’s not an article about the album, dummy, of course there’s not going to be in depth discussion of the music. It’s the story of Van Morrison living in Boston during the time the album was written… “What the principals endured is no one’s business” So basically you’ve discredited EVERY BIOGRAPHY EVER WRITTEN.

    • Ryan H Walsh

      Hi there, thanks for reading! 1) Sorry I don’t come across as a songwriter in the piece (why would I?) but for the record, I am. 2) Of course, parts of the album were written elsewhere and if I had the space, I would’ve detailed that and much more. 3) During my research I interviewed the Astral Weeks engineer and a Warner Brothers archivist who gave me a lot of insight as to why there’s been no reissue, no remaster, and why the outtakes (yes, there are outtakes in the vault) have not seen the light of day. This section was cut from the article, but I hope these unused parts of the piece will see publication in the future. There’s lots more here. 4) You may notice that I quote the Merenstein interview you linked above in the piece itself. It’s a wonderful interview! 5) I could write an entire article on the music itself, and I’d like to, but that wasn’t the intent of this story. Safe to assume I completely adore the album and this was meant to be a love letter of sorts. Again, thanks for reading.

    • Wheez Von Klaw

      Jesus, lighten up, Francis. It’s about the circumstances leading up to the creation of the lp. Here’s an idea, why don’t YOU write an article about why it hasn’t been remastered for the U.S.? I’m sure that’s the REAL story fans are excited to read! The suspense is killing us. The drama! The intrigue! The usage of the word ‘conjecture”! The hiding behind just2digitall as a moniker for someone who is obviously not a rock writer!!!

    • bigyaz

      Shorter version of judt2digitall: “You didn’t write the story I wanted to read, so you suck!”

  • dankennedy

    Terrific story. Thank you.

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  • abelson

    This is almost as good as the album itself. Cheers to you for writing it!

  • http://none.com NH Lineman

    Thanks for the article Ryan Walsh. Really enjoy it.

    I live in New Hampshire/USA, and have seen Van perform live many times in New England and New York. Saw him on the waterfront in Boston, late June/1995 (6th row center/both nights). Peter Wolf showed up at at least one of these shows, in his traditional all black get-up. Prior to the show, Wolf pranced around the audience to make sure everyone saw him…lol (wondering if that wasn’t when he and Van went to the old Cambridge apt address, after the show?). Anyway, I happened to be parking the car during Van’s soundcheck on the first night (thought they were playing a Van tape, at first). After Van got done, Shana Morrison, who imho did NOT inherit her dad’s vocal pipes, gets up and belts out a great version of “Wild Night”. There was nobody in the audience section, and nobody else in the vast empty parking lot, but me. Great memory.

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  • Leggy Mountbatten

    What a great piece! Very colorful, filled with all sorts of characters, emotions and real places. Fills in a lot of blanks.

  • Jeannie

    Love, love, love this piece!

  • chapbrook

    I might have missed this in your piece but who is the other guy in the ‘smiling Van’ photo? He’s on the left as I recall

  • tillzen

    Great art seems to be about reach instead of grasp. “Astral Weeks” in general and “Madame George” in particular are amongst music’s greatest moments as much for what they attempted as for what they achieved. In both art and life audaciousness moves me. Van’s work here personified that leap into the void that great artists must do. My favorite Bob Dylan song is “Visions of Johanna” for exactly the same reason. It is not perfect but my god it is a leap at the sun upon unfinished wings. Perhaps art lives within the will to dare?

    • http://www.chuckhughesmusic.com Chuck Hughes

      audacity

  • Jeff gold

    Excellent story, but Joe Smith had zero to do with signing Jimi Hendrix. Mo Ostin, then president of Reprise, and later longtime chairman of Warner Bros. signed Jimi. I worked for Mo for years and was exec vp/general manager of WB. Mo deserves all the credit for Jimi, while Joe made many great signings like Van.