Boston’s Edgy Media of 1968

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

We can all agree that San Francisco was the center of American psychedelia in the late 1960s, but Boston might have been the East Coast capital of the movement, albeit with a darker twist.

Ryan H. Walsh’s new book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History, lays out the case by focusing greatly on the music scene of that period, but the book also shows that the Boston media of those days—more perhaps than the music— has had an enduring impact on American culture.

Before I delve into all of that, understand that this article is my take on one particular aspect of Walsh’s book, and I encourage you to read the entire book for a full sense of its depth and scope in describing the Boston of 1968. (Listen to my podcast for an interview with Walsh about the book.)

It’s a complex narrative featuring a host of odd characters who sometimes displayed wide-eyed spirituality and forceful creativity and sometimes strange ideas and bad behavior. At the center of it is one of the greatest songsmiths of any time; we see Van Morrison skulk about Boston and Cambridge while he’s refining the songs and sound of his influential second record.

The photo above, rendering as part of the WBUR link, shows the 22-year old Van Morrison performing on Boston Common 4/20/68 with guitarist Rick Philp, who was murdered by a roommate in Boston less than a year later.

We meet a moody young artist, already establishing the bifurcated identity he is well known for today, that is, a maker of beautiful music who seems to treat most people, in a, let’s just say, less-than-friendly manner.

The story gets really strange when you meet the other young musician featured prominently in the book: Mel Lyman. He’s a world-class harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist in Jim Kweskin’s band who took a sidestep from his career to build a cult-like commune in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood. Lyman declared himself God and guru of this community, whose aim was murky, reports Walsh, after having asked surviving members about it. Far as I can tell, the Fort Hill community aimed to combine living in the moment and worshiping Lyman with dominating the mass media.

Ignoring for a moment that Lyman’s community took some dark turns, it also helped advance one of the key movements in 20th century media, the spawning and spreading of alternative newspapers. Lyman’s Avatar acted on what the Village Voice started in 1945, and helped encourage a national movement of alt-newsweeklies that continues to have an impact.

Walsh writes extensively about Avatar in his book and on a Tumblr page packed with info and media relating to his book research. While doing his research, Walsh bought as many issues of Avatar as he could (23 of 25 were available) and describes the upheaval that brought down Avatar. The publication became more and more about Lyman and his messianic ideas and utterings, which sometimes ran into pornographic and mysogynistic territory on the pages of the publication.

Avatar eventually splintered into two factions—the Lyman-centric group on the Hill and “the Valley” crew, working in a South End office with a staff more interested in covering news and culture in Boston than it was in providing a mouthpiece for its publisher.

The Fort Hill Monument, where Mel Lyman’s crew stashed thousands of stolen copies of the first issue of the retooled Avatar made by the Valley staff. (Photo by Nora Donnelly)

Lyman decided that the 25th issue of Avatar would be its last, and after a bumpy transition, the Valley staff, led by Charlie Giuliano, executed a short-lived relaunch as Avatar II, joining the ranks of other Boston-based counterculture publications of that moment such as the Liberation News Service, Boston After Dark, and Boston University News.

Just as print newspapers have faced struggles to stay afloat in recent years, so too have alternative media. Boston, however, still has some serious muscle, thanks to DigBoston, a weekly boasting a reported readership of 40,000 that takes on important, under-reported stories while doing a thorough job of covering the city’s arts, cultural, and other news.

By the end of the third chapter of Walsh’s book, it’s clear that it is about far more than Astral Weeks. Fewer than 20 of the first 73 pages focused on Morrison. The first chapter was Van’s, the second belonged to Lyman, and the leading man of the third chapter was British media innovator David Silver, who hosted What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? a show on Boston’s public television station, WGBH.

In the clip below, Walsh explains why WGBH launched the show, drawing a connection to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Walsh described several episodes, providing a lively and often hilarious narrative about Silver’s biweekly experiments. I summarize a few below:

  • “Madness and Intuition,” winner of a National Educational Television award—an episode that, in Walsh’s description, is so filled with oddities it seems as fascinating as it is seizure-inducing;
  • An episode that asked viewers to tune to two different programs on two different channels at the same time, creating a number of interesting clashes and symetries, including a passage when Silver is conducting an interview on one channel while snarkly criticizing his interviewing persona at the same time on the other channel;
  • One featuring interviews with adolescents about the future of media;
  • Various episodes featured interviews with figures such as Andy Warhol, Frank Zappa, and Bill Cosby;
  • A live episode that parodied and skewered the TV magazine format and nearly prompted station executives to cancel it; and
  • The show following the live episode, dubbed “The Trial,” during which those same executives joined the host and producer to debate the relative merits of the live episode and the future of What’s Happening, Mr. Silver.
Author Howard Zinn, a Boston University professor at the time, comments on Vietnam during the live episode of What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?

Two episodes—the live magazine show and the subsequent trial episode are available for viewing online, via the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Anyone who watches these, as I did, will not only get a glimpse into our media history, but also realize how tame censorship and freedom-of-speech issues of 50 years ago seem in comparison to debates taking places on college campuses and in mass media today. Level of offense nothwithstanding, the Trial episode featured an extraordinary conversation about the roles and ethical responsibilities of everyone involved, from host to administrators, in the making of a TV show.

I had never heard of David Silver before reading Walsh’s book, but after watching those two episodes, I am convinced that Silver helped spawn an age of experimentation in television. He created a template for what we now see on late-night TV and in countless web series.

Among Silver’s fans was Mel Lyman, who wrote about the show in Avatar. In early 1968, a full episode focused on Lyman, Avatar, and the Fort Hill community. A link below provides the full transcript of Silver’s interview of Lyman, thanks to the staff of Avatar and trussel.com. It was a conversation that wound up being exactly as strange as you would expect.

Below is an excerpt relating to how Lyman and Silver think about ways we communicate. At one point, Lyman talked about how impossible it was to “speak the truth” and “be real” in life and in the media. After praising Marlon Brando’s capacity for expressing real-ness on film, Lyman told a story about how he shook Johnny Carson out of his typically non-real state:

M: I met [Carson] one time before, on television, it was a very strong, strong moment.

D: How do you mean strong?

M: We were doing the Steve Allen Show on the West Coast, and he came on with us. I had a little hassle with him that was televised. He’s a strong cat.

D: He’s got a good technique.

M: Yeah, but that was what happened, you see, his technique didn’t work on me, and that’s why it was such a strong moment. I made him real, because I wouldn’t be NOT real which is what he was trying to get me to do. Trying to get me into some kind of a bag where he could work with me, and I just couldn’t be formed, I was just right there looking at him, which put him through alot of changes and while he was going through those changes, he was being real, you see.

Lyman’s dissection of real-ness lurched into hippie speak at times, but his point is one that gets at the core of the purpose of media: to tell stories that reflect the human experience as authentically as possible.

Seems to me that’s what Silver, Lyman, and Morrison were all about at that time. They were hell-bent on making their own version of something true and beautiful. In terms of quality and quantity, Morrison succeeded better than the other two.

But Silver has been no slouch. His decades-long career in film and media includes such highlights as writing The Compleat Beatles, the first full-length documentary on the Lads from Liverpool. He continues to work in documentary and publishing, and a few years back, launched a podcast, Mindrolling, focusing on meditation, spirituality, and related topics.

On episode 102 of Mindrolling, Silver tells a story about meeting Morrison that Walsh also recounted in Astral Weeks. About 15 minutes into the episode, Silver describes a scene in which the two spent several hours together on Morrison’s first day in Boston. “He could not possibly have been more timid,” Silver said of the 22-year-old Morrison. This and scenes Walsh described after interviewing Boston rock legend and then-DJ at WBCN Peter Wolf also contribute to building a portrait of Van Morrison who is more sensitive and warm than we often see.

Video of a 1968 Velvet Underground performance at the Boston Tea Party.

While I am most grateful for Walsh’s book having alerted me to Boston’s media influence, music is the thread that serves as the connective tissue of the overarching tale. It is fascinating to read about the rapid rise and fall of the Bosstown Sound bands—three psychedelic groups selected by record company executives to compete with the Bay Area bands mentioned earlier.

And the ways that the city’s big rock venue, The Boston Tea Party, provided a hub for not only the local scene, but national acts as well. The Velvet Underground apparently spent nearly as much time in Boston as New York in 1968, visiting Boston to perform a night of music on average once per month.

So, again, read Walsh’s book to learn more about all of this. What I’m most struck by is how those 50-year-old ideas and innovations continue to resonate.

Alternative press is surviving and waging wars; radio shows as art abound on terrestrial and digital airwaves; The Eric Andre Show, The Daily Show, and many others bear Silver’s influence; and musicians continue to surprise us in the ways that Van Morrison and Peter Wolf’s Hallucinations did in those days.

Maybe I’m right that Boston’s media of 1968 has had a more enduring impact than the music. Maybe not. Regardless, all of it is worthy of study and emulation.