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PRINT September 2018

books

Cult Classics

Jonathan Richman’s recollection of the Velvet Underground performing at the Boston Tea Party in the late 1960s. Created for this article.

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, by Ryan H. Walsh. New York: Penguin Press, 2018. 368 pages.

WHEN MY FRIENDS and I started a band in 1980s Boston, we weren’t just influenced by the Velvet Underground—we studied their first three albums like a code to be cracked. (The fourth album, Loaded, served to separate true acolytes from false. Bands covering “Sweet Jane” might as well have been shouting “I don’t get it!” into the mic.)

What I didn’t know then was that our liturgical attitude toward the Velvets was rooted firmly in a local tradition. As Ryan H. Walsh points out in his excellent new book about Boston in the ’60s, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, the Velvet Underground played only three proper shows in New York between 1967 and 1970. But during that same period at the Boston Tea Party—a psychedelic club housed in a former Unitarian church in Boston’s South End—they played forty-three times. “There,” writes Walsh, “the band transformed from an Andy Warhol Factory novelty into a musical force.” All their personnel changes happened in the city, including Nico’s and John Cale’s final shows. And while Doug Yule had an echt–Long Island accent and hairdo (according to Walsh, even David Bowie once mistook him for Lou Reed), he was a Boston University grad living in Cambridge when they drafted him to take Cale’s place. The Velvet Underground may have been art-world superstars in New York. But in Boston, they were a band, with a band’s kind of problems and a band’s kind of fans.

Chief among both was the teenage Jonathan Richman, too young to buy a ticket at the Tea Party door but clever enough to show up early with a hand-drawn poster and blag his way in. Eventually he started bringing a guitar, too, which the band taught him to play backstage. He also picked up a version of Reed’s accent, an element of his bizarre nasal delivery on early Modern Lovers recordings and a tone Richman now mocks by slipping into it when he wants to comment on his younger self. In a 1992 song about Tea Party days, he uses it to break into an uncanny chorus of “Sister Ray” (1968) reinterpreted for solo guitar, handclaps, and doo-wop humming. Then in his adult voice he sings:

Both guitars got the fuzz tone on
The drummer’s standing upright, pounding along
A howl, a tone, a feedback whine
Biker boys meet the college kind
How in the world are they making that sound?
Velvet Underground

But this goofy tune named for the band is hardly Richman’s most VU-inflected moment; for that, you would have to turn to his darker and more mystic songs. In fact, Walsh makes the case that the Modern Lovers’ 1976 “Astral Plane”—as well as Van Morrison’s classic 1968 song cycle “Astral Weeks,” also written in Boston—had a common source in one of Reed’s favorite books at the time, theosophist Alice Bailey’s 1934 Treatise on White Magic. And Walsh’s larger story makes it clear that many in ’60s Boston took the collision of reverence and rock ’n’ roll seriously. Some formed bands that behaved a bit like cults, à la Richman’s Modern Lovers. Others formed cults that behaved a bit like bands, à la Mel Lyman’s notorious Fort Hill Community—which occasionally made music but mostly made trouble.

Troublemaking cults go way back in Puritan Boston. The State House on top of Beacon Hill is adorned with statues of generals, senators, and apostates (Anne Hutchinson, banished; Mary Dyer, hanged). Some of those local apostates have managed to flourish—just down the street from what was the Tea Party, the dome of the “mother church” for Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Scientists stands proud as the State House. And directly across the street from that is Symphony Hall.

As historian Emily Thompson explains in her landmark 2002 study The Soundscape of Modernity, turn-of-the-century Boston already took music very, very seriously. Drawing on scholarship by Lawrence Levine and others, she writes of Gilded Age America, “Listening now became a way to worship at the temple of great art,” and “this new way of thinking about music was first and most volubly heard in Boston.” Thompson documents the manner in which Symphony Hall (completed in 1900) became the embodiment of this reverential approach to music. Inside, it resembles nothing so much as a New England church: Devoid of most ornament, stripped of excess cushioning so as not to dampen intended reverberation, it was the first music hall designed with the help of an engineer from the nascent field of acoustics.

Which is to say that when the ’60s counterculture hit Boston, a framework for cults—not least the cultish worship of music—was already embedded in some of the city’s most established institutions. Walsh colorfully recounts how Timothy Leary and the future Ram Dass’s lab at Harvard helped launch the nation’s LSD experiments, and how public broadcaster WGBH ended up producing an acid-splashed television series. This wasn’t the commercialization of the underground, as on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood, where cultural disruption is redirected toward profit. Boston’s most influential institutions are nonprofits, set up to encourage innovation without asserting control over the consequences.

Today, many of those same players in Boston are involved in the development of internet communications, biotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Some may end up banished or hanged as a result. And some may end up founding new religions.

Damon Krukowski is a musician (Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500) and the author of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press/MIT Press, 2017). He recently hosted the podcast Ways of Hearing for Radiotopia.