In his very fine book, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” Boston writer/musician Ryan Walsh shares the backstory of Van Morrison’s celebrated album “Astral Weeks,” which was written, at least partially, while the Irish singer was holed up in an apartment on Green Street in Cambridge.
The centerpiece of Walsh’s book, which was released to considerable acclaim earlier this year, is a never-before-heard recording of a few “Astral Weeks” songs during a 1968 performance at the Catacombs, a cramped, wood-paneled jazz club in the basement of a building on Boylston Street. Morrison, just 22 at the time, debuted the “Astral Weeks” songs that night, joined onstage by Tom Kielbania, a student at Berklee College of Music, on upright bass, and John Payne, a Harvard dropout, on flute.
In the book, Walsh writes about trying to track down the 50-year-old recording, which was captured on reel-to-reel tape by Morrison’s friend, the future J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, but no one, including Kielbania and Payne, had ever heard it.
On Wednesday, quite unexpectedly, the legendary “Catacombs Tapes” became available for download via the UK iTunes store.
“What I went through hell to find and hear is finally out there, and people can finally hear it themselves, which, in the end, is what I always wanted,” Walsh said.
Why now? Morrison, who’s nothing if not idiosyncratic, isn’t explaining himself. But Walsh has a theory, which he shared it in an interesting thread on Twitter.
This is totally bananas.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
Today, @vanmorrison unceremoniously released the '68 "Catacombs Tapes" as a live album on iTunes UK. This is the legendary recording I spend the whole #AstralWeeks1968 book trying to track down & hear...and, uh, now YOU can too! https://t.co/AKvyJw3xnE pic.twitter.com/rFg4jYqfYD
1) The most sensical interpretation of the terrible cover art & UK-digital-only distribution is that this release is a "copyright dump," i.e. its main function is to preserve Morrison's copyright of the recording (otherwise, come January, it would become public domain).— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
2) Tom and John (the Boston musicians who appear on this recording) let me know they signed releases for Van's lawyer this fall, so we suspected some kind of release was imminent. I guess we just thought, oh you know, maybe you'd design a nice cover and/or CREDIT Tom & John!— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
3) To hear this you will need someone in the UK to buy it for you, which is insane, I understand. I'd also imagine these files will be on...all kinds of sites now that they've been officially released.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
4) This is the exact recording I heard and played for Tom and John except that the audio has been further cleaned and boosted, AND there's one extra song ("Sit Down Funny Face"), but, yes, this is Peter Wolf's recording.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
5) Tom Kielbania (bass) is over the moon about this release. This is the only audio proof he had anything to do with any of this (and settles the debate about whether he indeed wrote the bassline for 'Cyprus Avenue' (and other AW songs) as he has long claimed)...— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
6)...as well as demonstrating that the Boston trio really did develop the acoustic, pastoral sound of Astral Weeks in the weeks before they were replaced by jazz musicians in New York. You'll agree when you listen, I'm sure.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
7) I still can't tell you who slid me a copy.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
8) The digital liner notes don't mention the venue name, the other musicians, or even that it was Wolf who recorded it. They left the cool tape-unspooling noises in there instead of fading songs out, which was the right choice.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
10) Maybe the ownership of Astral Weeks is set to change-over to Van and he's planning on a better release of this material as part of a box set package? Or maybe not. This whole thing is VERY Van Morrison.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
11) The lone, surviving Astral Weeks studio outtake, "Train" remains unreleased still, of course. This is the song in which Van sings about Cambridge, MA like its the most mystical place you ever did encounter. It's very cool.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
12) "Train" IS on this live bootleg, but gets cut off before the verses about Massachusetts.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
13) I truly am so happy you all get to hear this now. I didn't mind getting pestered about it, but I did start to worry when ppl started asking Marissa about the tapes.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018
14) Now all we need is a death certificate for Mel Lyman.— Ryan H. Walsh (@JahHills) November 8, 2018