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.

Still, the two proved to be kindred spirits. Shortly after Morrison moved to town, Wolf began to receive postcards at WBCN requesting a myriad of obscure blues artists. Meanwhile, the two would run into each other at gigs around town, and Morrison began telling Wolf about this great Boston DJ he was listening to late at night. Wolf revealed his identity as the Woofa Goofa, Morrison explained he had been sending the postcards, and the two became fast friends.

“He’d come over to use my telephone,” Wolf says. “It was all business. Calls to clubs, producers, and managers.”

Wolf shows me a stack of photographs and postcards, all related to his friendship with Morrison. He hands me a Polaroid of the two of them, side by side, in the throes of inebriated, bellowing laughter. You almost get drunk just looking at the image. Wolf says you get really close with someone once you’ve thrown up on each other.

By late August 1968, Morrison had already impressed Merenstein and experienced the prophetic dream that dictated his new sound. He booked several shows under the name “The Van Morrison Controversy” to hone the new material.

Those gigs took place at a subterranean nightclub called the Catacombs, at 1120 Boylston Street in the Fenway, two floors below a pool parlor. (Today, it’s a stack of rehearsal studios beneath a pizza joint.) Hieroglyphs and Egyptian motifs decorated the walls. The club mostly hosted jazz, but Morrison’s poet rock fit right in.

Sheldon, the 17-year-old guitarist, had been ditched by this point. The band consisted of Morrison, bassist Tom Kielbania, and drummer Joey Bebo. But it was missing something. At a jam session, Kielbania recruited a flute player named John Payne.

Payne remembers meeting Morrison in the back of the club: “This guy comes out, a short guy with a pageboy haircut, kind of a blank look on his face. Tom [Kielbania] says, ‘Van, this is the guy I was telling you about.’ And he sort of goes, ‘Uh eh,’ and gives me a limp hand. He was just—I wouldn’t say antisocial. Just…in his own world.”

As Payne watched from the audience, Morrison and Kielbania began to play. “I listened to the first set and I didn’t like it,” Payne remembers. “I was kind of thinking of leaving. I thought, The guy doesn’t seem like he wants me to be here, maybe the bass player is forcing me on him. And until I’m on the stage with him, I don’t get it.”

Then, in the second set, Payne joined them onstage. “I started playing a little and I could tell he had heard everything I had played and he was reacting to it. His phrasing was not independent of what I was doing, and I had never experienced that. This was alive. Then he starts the next song and it’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’” Payne was shocked: He was playing with the man whose voice he’d been hearing on the jukebox for weeks. “I could still play, but it was like, Oh my God.”

In the audience, a writer named Eric Kraft was spellbound. Kraft wrote for an underground weekly called Boston After Dark—a precursor to the Boston Phoenix—and had been assigned to cover Morrison’s string of shows. Decades later, he still recalls it in vivid detail. “It was so amazing,” he tells me. “It changed my life, actually.”

Kraft managed to get the taciturn Morrison talking the next night. “We sat on the club’s kitchen floor,” Kraft recalls. “It was the only place to sit, really, and we talked for a while. We’d talk about what we wanted to do with our lives.” Morrison spoke of his troubles with Bang, the songs he was writing, his hopes for himself. In turn, Kraft talked about his own ambitions. It was the first time he had ever told anyone that he wanted to be a fiction writer. Morrison told him to go for it. “The fact that it interested him was very propulsive for me,” Kraft says. “It pushed me forward.”

During one of these Catacombs performances, Morrison’s new friend Peter Wolf set up a tape recorder in the corner, capturing the entire concert on a reel-to-reel. Morrison performed nearly all of Astral Weeks these nights with the Boston trio, and Wolf has the audio to prove it. The existence of the tapes has become, for Morrison fans, a kind of holy grail. When I asked Wolf if anyone has ever heard the recordings he made, Wolf paused for a moment. “Not,” he finally said, “for a very, very, very long time.”

 

So much happened at the Catacombs: the essential addition of John Payne’s flute to the songs, Eric Kraft’s life-changing experience during the first show, and, of course, Wolf’s audio documentation. But one more significant event happened there: It was also where Van Morrison first met the man who would extricate him from the mob.

His savior was a Chelsea native and former Boston DJ named Joe Smith, a legendary Warner Brothers executive; he’d already signed acts like the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, he was at the Catacombs on a tip from Merenstein, who’d raved about Morrison’s audition at Ace Recording Studios.

Smith wasn’t impressed with Morrison’s personality: “He was a hateful little guy,” he recalls. “His live performance? He may as well have been in Philadelphia. There’s no action from him. But his voice! I still think he’s the best rock ’n’ roll voice out there.” Smith immediately decided to sign Morrison to Warner Brothers.

But that turned out to be more complicated than the label had hoped: Smith had to figure out a way to get Morrison out of his contract. “There was a guy in town named Joe Scandore, who was Don Rickles’s manager. And he was connected,” Smith says. “I had to go to him and say, ‘How can I get this deal through so I can release this guy?’ And he set up the arrangement.”

The “arrangement” sounded completely terrifying. At 6 p.m. on 9th Avenue in Manhattan, Joe Smith entered an abandoned warehouse with a sack containing $20,000 in cash. Smith remembers how it went down: “I had to walk up three flights of stairs, and they were four guys. Two tall and thin, and two built like buildings. There was no small talk. I got the signed contract and got the hell out of there, because I was afraid somebody would whack me in the head and take back the contract and I’d be out the money.” Did he ever hear from these people again?

“No,” Smith says. “They weren’t in the music business.”

 

With its roots in tempers, outbursts, gangsters, and violence, it’s easy to forget that Astral Weeks is an album completely preoccupied with the notion of love. The album and the events that surrounded its creation, at their core, are a love story.

Morrison first met Janet when she was 19, in San Leandro, California, during Them’s 1966 U.S. tour. “I looked at him, he looked at me, and it was alchemical whammo,” Janet once explained. Morrison began calling her Janet Planet, “probably because it rhymed,” she says. A few years later they met up again in New York City, and just before fleeing to Boston to escape Wassel and his cronies, they married in an understated civil ceremony.

“Scary men were indeed banging on our door [in New York], swearing to Van his career was over,” Janet tells me. They moved to an apartment in a disheveled little building on Green Street in Cambridge. “It was not a wonderful place to live,” she remembers. The couple was broke, desperate, and hunted. But it was there, sitting at their tiny kitchen table, strumming an acoustic guitar, that Morrison wrote much of Astral Weeks.

Janet kept track of Morrison’s songs and lyrics for him, listened to the demos, and helped him revise. “Van liked to work in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way back then,” she says, “letting the tape recorder continue to run while he just sort of played guitar and improvised, trying various things for 20 minutes or so at a time.”

The years immediately following Astral Weeks’ release seemed like a fairy tale: Morrison and Janet moved to Woodstock, New York, and then to California. They had a daughter named Shana. As Morrison’s muse, Janet was in press photos and images accompanying the Warner Brothers albums; she even wrote the liner notes for a few releases. But somewhere along the way, something in the relationship seemed to shatter irreversibly. In November 1972, Janet left, filing for divorce a few months later.

These days, Janet’s last name is neither Rigsbee nor Morrison. When I find her via her Etsy shop, Lovebeads by Janet Planet, she’s listed as Janet Morrison Minto out of Sherman Oaks, California. “Do you still listen to Van Morrison’s music?” I ask her.

“No. I don’t listen to Van’s music anymore,” Janet tells me. “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy…. No one loved his artistry more or believed in his greatness more than me. So I suppose it could be considered unfortunate that hearing the intro to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ come over the grocery store’s speaker system is my signal to hit the checkout counter and get out, ASAP.”

I invite you to imagine a world in which your memory of an early, intense, turbulent relationship is constantly triggered by something as ubiquitous and iconic as the song “Brown Eyed Girl.” Nearly 50 years later, Janet is just as likely to encounter that song as she might have been during the fall of 1968. Can you imagine the mechanisms you might put in place to protect yourself from repeatedly re-experiencing that pain?

As for Morrison, his personal thoughts on Astral Weeks change from interview to interview. He’s said it was originally planned as an opera, and also that it’s just a random assortment of songs. He’s said that the arrangements are “too samey,” and—most unbelievably—he’s claimed that it’s not a personal record. “It’s not about me,” he told NPR in 2009. “It’s totally fictional. It’s put together of composites, of conversations I heard—you know, things I saw in movies, newspapers, books, whatever. It comes out as stories. That’s it. There’s no more.” Morrison, who has a new album out this month, declined to be interviewed for this story.

If Janet Morrison Minto has to walk out of a store when “Brown Eyed Girl” starts playing, perhaps Morrison’s claim that these songs have nothing to do with his own life is his strategy for dealing with painful memories. After all, Morrison earns his living by singing those songs into a microphone every night. What would you do?

The evening I interviewed Peter Wolf, he told me a story about one of the nights Morrison came back to town. He wouldn’t clarify the approximate date or give me any additional context. All he told me was this:

It’s late at night. Van Morrison is exhausted after his performance in Boston, but there’s one thing he still wants to do while he’s here. He gets into a car with Wolf and requests to be taken to an address. Wolf drives. They amble down Mass. Ave., headed out of Boston and into Cambridge. Nothing looks like it did in 1968, but then again, neither do the two men in the car. They turn onto a series of side streets. Once they’re close, Wolf slows down to a crawl, because neither of them has been here in a long, long time, and it looks barely familiar. Just past the intersection of Bay and Green streets, Wolf points out the window, to the left, where Morrison and Janet lived in 1968. Morrison sits there for a moment, gazing into the past. And then, without a word, they drive off.

Special thanks to David Bieber for assistance on this story.

  • 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.