Nearly forty-seven years ago, in November of 1968, one of the greatest albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, was released.
It remains Van Morrison’s masterpiece, and it shows up in all the ‘best albums ever’ lists.
This past week a fascinating story about what led to Morrison recording Astral Weeks appeared in Boston Magazine,
The story, “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,” was written by Ryan Hamilton Walsh, who also happens to be the leader of an excellent indie rock band, Hallelujah The Hills.
Walsh’s story is particularly interesting because he got nearly all the key players in the Astral Weeks drama to talk: producer Lewis Merenstein. DJ/ J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf, Morrison’s then-wife Janet Planet, guitarist John Sheldon, Bang Records’ Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith and others.
Here’s how the story begins:
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.’”
Read the rest of this incredible story here.
Listen to all of Astral Weeks:
— A Days Of The Crazy-Wild blog post —