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Grand Ideas, Rock Wizards, And The Silent Scorn Of Van Morrison: The Inspiring Dumb Confidence Of Ryan H. Walsh

Ryan H. Walsh, Hallelujah the Hills

Jamaica Plain is dreamy in the rain. The gray sky in late summer accentuates the greens and blues of Jamaica Pond. The white and red brick apartments across Jamaicaway loom over the pond with a gentle confidence. Most of them are three story buildings with pretty balconies; shades of indigo and yellow florals pop in the sky. There’s a zesty, fresh taste to the Jamaica Plain air, certainly the purest in all of Boston. It’s unlike any other neighborhood in the city, and it's an idyllic place for a creative.

It was on the first day of August I met with author and musician Ryan H. Walsh at his Jamaica Plain apartment that he shares with his wife, musician Marissa Nadler. As he came down to retrieve me from the front porch, I mentally skimmed through the questions I had prepared. There was an intimidating amount of information to organize about the prolific artist with successful careers in both music and journalism.

Walsh is the frontman and chief songwriter of Hallelujah The Hills, a band that radiates the essence of Boston indie rock. In a little over a decade, the band has released six full-length albums, two EPs, and a b-side compilation, all receiving critical praise. Walsh is also the author of Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, a fascinating adventure into the bizarre world of late '60s Boston counterculture, but more specifically, the creation and inspiration behind Van Morrison’s masterpiece Astral Weeks. The book has been championed by many, with notable praise from Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. I was struggling to organize my thoughts as Walsh answered the door, but my edge began to fade as we walked up the several flights of stairs.

His apartment was spacious and warmly lit with candles and orange tones from a halogen lamp. I immediately noticed his record collection. It was shrine-like, the record player sitting on top of a large shelf loaded with hundreds of LPs. Walsh got me a beer and I asked what he was listening to these days. He produced a stack with Robert Pollard selections, Not In My Airforce laying on top and followed by others from Guided By Voices. I asked Walsh if the common comparison between Pollard and himself ever got to him. “No, it’s a really nice comparison,” he said. “I mean, we have our own thing. But I know where people get the comparison. His story was like, anyone can do it. So not only did his story help me, but I do also adore his music.”

I noticed another shelf in the foyer full of unmarked CD and tape cases. I would later find out they were DIY recordings Walsh made over the last fifteen years. His black and brown calico cat meandered from behind the shelf and sprawled out next to me in front of another stack of records.

“I felt like I needed someone’s permission to be creative at first; it just seemed like a club you couldn’t just waltz into. That’s my hang-up, I know that.”

Walsh described himself as having a “dumb confidence”, a trait that expressed itself early in his life when growing up in Dedham. The modest town bordering Boston came into a significant sum of money from a cable company lawsuit when Walsh was in his late teens, a sum that was converted into the form of artist grants. The only stipulation behind receiving one was for the recipient to create a piece using the town's resources. He jumped at the opportunity to make several surrealist short films, earning the distinction as the first Dedham resident to use the grant money for its intended purpose. With his hometown indebted to his good word, Walsh asked for a larger grant with the intention of making an album.

“We asked for ten grand to make an album of original songs, and any Dedham musician that wants to play on it can. We recorded a marching band, a church choir… kids made the artwork in schools. It started as an excuse for me to get enough money to start a band. My friend Evan and I literally walked into a Guitar Center with four grand and said ‘What do you need to be a band?’

Employees on commission happily suited Walsh, and his new group The Stairs, with the proper equipment to make good on Dedham’s grant. The album Miraculous Happens debuted shortly after. Nashville Scene wrote, “Imagine if Langley School's music project made the recording of its own Pet Sounds."

Walsh's tenure with The Stairs extended through his time as a film student at Boston University, and many of the demos from that time are in the blank CD cases on his the shelf in his foyer. They were recorded at his apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston, a brief walk to a venue he would later call home base. “I could walk to Great Scott in a snowstorm”, he recalled with a shrug.

The apartment served as a makeshift laboratory where Walsh would make his first breakthroughs as a songwriter, an idea that initially seemed far-fetched. “I made a collection of songs on a four-track that I mixed and burned to a disc," he said. "Listening back to it, I was trembling with fear at the idea of anyone hearing it. I felt like I needed someone’s permission to be creative at first; it just seemed like a club you couldn’t just waltz into. That’s my hang-up, I know that.”

But The Stairs dissolved in 2005, just as they managed to get a buzz going around Boston with the release of their sophomore album On Sleep Lab. The experience of being an early twenty-something exposed to the world of art had driven Walsh's interest to several places at once.

“There was just this crazy thing that happened in the second half of the aughts where a hype-y blog entry about you was worth more than a Rolling Stone review.”

While serving as the music editor at the Boston University Free Press, Walsh was invariably creating either films or music demos for his friends. He dove into the metaphysical world of David Lynch, consuming his uncanny output with a hungry mind. He credits the director with his plunge into an artistic endeavor.

But what remained a constant for Walsh was music. Though The Stairs had retired, he and drummer Eric Meyer pushed forward, forming the group that would serve as the keystone in his music career.

“We rolled over that slight interest in us. We thought it was fun and wanted to keep it going. So we chose Hallelujah the Hills, grabbed some different friends, and in late ‘05 started practicing.”

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Courtesy of Courtney Brooke Hall

2007’s Collective Psychosis Begone, a zany collection of songs brimming with the jangling energy of radicalized, sugar-high beatniks, was the first full-length album released by the band featuring David Bentley, Matthew Brown, Joseph Marrett, Eric Meyer, and Brian Rutledge. Walsh's proclivity to abstract poetry, found sounds, and orchestral instrumentation, attracted the interest of nationally recognized writers and record labels. A single review from Pitchfork Magazine spearheaded the momentum.

“There was just this crazy thing that happened in the second half of the aughts where a hype-y blog entry about you was worth more than a Rolling Stone review. It was bananas. So when we finished our album, I sent it out to a dozen labels and we had three or four serious offers.”

Misra Records signed the band just after their first release, and would go on to release their more grounded sophomore album Colonial Drones in 2009. A national tour followed, and Walsh found camaraderie with members of the New Jersey indie rock band Titus Andronicus. The tour mates stayed up all night enthroned in debaucherous drinking during a camp out outside of Chicago. They’ve remained friends ever since.

“It’s a tough gig opening up for a band that people love.”

Walsh has a proclivity for chasing grand ideas, an attribute he shares with with one of his biggest influences, musician David Berman of the Silver Jews. Berman’s influence on American indie rock is profound, having released seven full-length albums and indirectly sparking the flame for band mate Stephen Malkmus’ iconic side project Pavement. Berman is a sort of mythic figure in indie rock lore, shrouded in a deep spiritual faith following a life-threatening bout of drug abuse and debilitating mental illness. The band’s last show was performed in 2009 for an intimate audience over three hundred feet underground in the Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, TN. In short, he’s an unorthodox creative, both highly idiosyncratic and complex.

“[Berman] does this thing called 'Google Purity’ for all of his lyrics, where each line he searches in Google to make sure no one has ever said it before,” Walsh tells me.

Berman struck a particular cord with Walsh’s imaginative sensibilities, particularly with the Silver Jews’ album The Natural Bridge. Channeling the most Berman-ian of gestures, Walsh covered the entire album and recorded it himself, presenting the burned CD to Berman at a poetry reading in Amherst. “He was so impressed and confused and taken aback”, he said. “I thought it was a good way to say ‘hello’. And then he signed my book ‘Jesus Christ, I can’t believe it'."

The two remained in touch through snail mail. “He was just patient and kind enough to be a light touch mentor. He would just give me advice and talk to me about his writing process.”

As their relationship progressed, Berman became savvy to the music of Hallelujah the Hills. There was also a family bond between the two camps - his wife and band mate Cassie is the sister of Hallelujah the Hills bassist Joseph Marrett. Much to Walsh’s excitement, Berman asked the band to support the Silver Jews on a brief tour through Canada. But their first show didn’t exactly go as planned.

“It’s a tough gig opening up for a band that people love”, Walsh sighed. “The first night in Toronto, we biffed it. It was a huge room, and from the first note we were just out of sync. We just had an off night and I was devastated. So the next night we were in Montreal, and I noticed as I was tuning up that Berman had set up a folding chair on stage right and sat there and watched our whole set. He was so complementary and I had such confidence that night.”

Their mutual respect grew into friendship. Berman even succumbed to Walsh on one of his purity tests. “On the first song on our first album, there’s a lyric: ‘My life laid out in dictionary format/ Got a lot of entries under the M’s/ And they say that Z is not the end’. So Berman emailed me one day and said ‘Ryan, I wrote a song with ‘Z is not the end’, but you got it first so I can’t use it’, and I was just blown away.’”

Walsh found himself as a contemporary of one of his heroes. Not unexpectedly, he was giddy telling me that story.

“When you figure out your own band, it has to break up.”

As time progressed, things became turbulent for Hallelujah the Hills. Misra Records had undergone staffing changes and the band found themselves without a label. “We were hurt by it," Walsh said. “But then there was this new way for us to do it ourselves. It was a lot of work, but it worked.”

The band’s 2012 album No One Knows What Happens Next was entirely crowdfunded on Kickstarter and they managed to raise as much as their previous label advances. It was their most melodic album to date, and perhaps their most subdued as well. It appears as the forces beyond their control shifted and waned, so did their creative compasses.

Just one year later, the group released Portrait of the Artist as a Young Trashcan, an assortment of b-sides, unreleased singles and some new material compiled into a twenty-one track double album. “It had felt like we had been through a lot and thought it would be cool to put a mile marker down.” He shrugged and sipped his beer.

Then came 2014’s Have You Ever Done Something Evil?, an album that Walsh speculates is the group’s most liked. “It was surprising to me, because No One Knows was a self-release, and we didn’t quite know what we were doing”, he explained. “We had a lot of good reviews, some middling, and a lot of people who had been covering us up to that point had started ignoring us. When we put out Have You Ever Done Something Evil?, some people had left the band, it was different, and I didn’t expect much. With No One Knows I expected that people were really going to respond to it, and then it was ‘Is there anybody out there?’ So the way people reacted to Evil really surprised me, it was really encouraging.”

Then Hallelujah the Hills released 2016’s A Band Is Something To Figure Out, which was accompanied by the EP Movement Scorekeepers. The band returned to Kickstarter to fund the album, a process Walsh found to be far less stressful than answering to a label. “It felt good to be working for a couple hundred of people. That felt like less pressure to me than working for one.”

Based on the title, I asked Walsh if his band was something he had figured out. He explained that it’s more of a testament of fandom.

“I was at a Built To Spill show, and I was just watching people watch Built To Spill. I was watching how everyone was taking in the band, and then I started thinking about my favorite bands and my relationship with them. I started to think of fandom as being a detective. If you love a band, you want to hear everything, and how does it fit together, and what are their tricks, and how are they achieving these cool things that make you feel amazing. And so that phrase (a band is something to figure out) became a cool way to be like ‘I love music’. And then we took it to an extreme. When you figure out your own band, it has to break up (laughs).”

Walsh often smiled as he remembered these things, and I kept in mind his self-diagnosed dumb confidence. There was certainly nothing dumb about him though, or even anything overtly brash. He was reserved and kind, yet subtly audacious, maybe even cheeky. I had almost forgotten that this was the man who chronicled Van Morrison’s most feral period of creativity, and I wondered if perhaps Morrison would describe himself as dumbly confident (although let’s be honest, he would never be so humble). Walsh and I had so much more to cover, so I sat back, sipped my beer and listened.

"I saw you coming from Cambridgeport with my poetry and jazz...”

While Hallelujah the Hills were writing A Band Is Something To Figure Out, Walsh was working on a book proposal that would undoubtedly change his life. There are two people that would later define his literary success: Boston Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief Carly Carioli, and Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison. Let’s start with the latter.

In a way, Morrison's Astral Weeks was destined to be damned being released between his 1967 debut Blowin’ Your Mind! with its mega-hit “Brown Eyed Girl”, and the revolutionary 1970 album Moondance. Despite the album being lauded by critics, it was a commercial flop. It went on to rank in the top 20 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and is included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. But the album remained overlooked by the public and Morrison, who chose to barely acknowledge its existence. His dismissal created intrigue regarding its creation in 1968 when the singer was living in Cambridge. Boston served as the album's creative incubator, with Morrison composing and performing the work to dumbfounded audiences across the city.

A twenty-two year old Walsh discovered Astral Weeks during a breakup in college. He describes it as a “mystical document”, a phrase he shares with the famous rock critic Lester Bangs who happened upon the album in a similar state in the late ‘60s. Astral Weeks' long, cyclical forms are hypnotic and conceptual, propelled by chunky strums of acoustic guitars assisted by Jay Berliner, and churned by rhythm section Richard Davis and Connie Kay on double bass and percussion respectively. Morrison’s role on the album is that of a wailing poet, unhinged and without boundaries, and it's arguably the most honest piece of work in his catalog. Astral Weeks spoke to many who felt lost at sea, including Walsh who described it as his “life raft”.

Carly Carioli enters Walsh’s story in the late aughts when he was serving as an editor for the now defunct Boston Phoenix. Carioli often showered Walsh and Hallelujah the Hills with praise. He extended the sentiment and offered him some freelance work. “It’s hard to imagine how a local band builds a following without something like The Phoenix”, Walsh stated. “They literally wrote something about us like every week for a long time. The Phoenix was instrumental in hammering home who they thought was great by doing a little something every week. I was super grateful to them.”

During his tenure, Walsh obsessively researched any information concerning Astral Weeks. He knew that Morrison lived in Boston during its conception, but couldn’t understand what brought him here. This poem in the album’s liner notes buzzed in Walsh's brain for some time;

“I saw you coming from the Cape, way from Hyannis Port all the way,

When I got back it was like a dream come true

I saw you coming from Cambridgeport with my poetry and jazz,

Knew you had the blues, saw you coming from across the river…”

Several years went by. The Phoenix folded and Carioli went to Boston Magazine. Walsh continued to freelance, earning bylines from the Boston Globe and Vice. But what hadn’t changed was his unrelenting curiosity for Astral Weeks. So when the two crossed paths again at an industry party, Walsh cornered Carioli to pitch an idea for a piece about the album. Walsh continued to badger him for months after and eventually his persistence paid off. He got a green light to start working on the project.

Walsh compiled a list of key players in Morrison’s inner circle from 1968. It included his estranged ex-wife Janet Rigsbee (Janet Planet), J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, and Morrison’s mobster record executive Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. He contacted Planet through her online Etsy shop where she sells handcrafted jewelry. And when he rang DeNoia from his number listed in the New York City phone book, DeNoia answered: “Hello, city morgue.”

The piece aimed to explore the question that had stumped Walsh for so many years: Why had Van Morrison been bumming around Boston in the first place? Through his interviews he gained access that revealed a more scintillating history than previously imagined.

DeNoia told Walsh the infamous story of how he broke an acoustic guitar over Morrison’s head during an argument about the singer’s unapproved immigration papers. Wolf presented Walsh with the rare Catacombs Tapes, a bootlegged recording of Morrison’s set at a Back Bay nightclub called The Catacombs in 1968. And when Walsh interviewed Joe Smith, the former record executive who saved Morrison from his tumultuous contract with the mob, Smith recalled the frightful tale of meeting the gangsters in an abandoned Manhattan warehouse to pay them $20,000 for the singer’s contract. Planet gifted Walsh with his favorite quip in the piece: “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy.” The tales told by DeNoia and Smith were revealed as significant factors in Morrison’s swift getaway from New York up north to Boston.

In short, Morrison was essentially on the lam.

“Something about me not precisely being a journalist disarmed people. So many people talked to me, and talked so candidly," Walsh explained. The interviews with Janet Planet, Peter Wolf, Carmine DeNoia, and Joe Smith would all make it into his piece for Boston Magazine.

Astral Sojourn was published on March 24, 2015. One month later, Walsh received an email from Penguin Books. It turns out Penguin editor Ed Park shared Walsh's obsessive adoration for Astral Weeks, and was interested in turning Walsh's piece into a book. He encouraged Walsh to dive deeper into Morrison’s time in Boston to look for contrasting stories to weave with his narrative. Fortunately, there was no shortage of total weirdness happening around town in 1968.

“Once I dove into the Bosstown Sound and learned about Lyman and the Fort Hill Community, I realized it was a real story, like a quilt, and I think I can tell it.”

Walsh selected musician Mel Lyman to co-lead the book. Lyman, not unlike Morrison, was a rambunctious figure and a provocateur, gaining fame with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band as their harmonica player. In 1965, he had the insurmountable task of following Bob Dylan’s infamous electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival, and countless folk heads can recall his 20-minute interpretive rendition of “Rock of Ages”. But what made Lyman so intriguing to Walsh was his involvement and leadership of the Fort Hill Community, a familial commune in Roxbury. They gained notoriety for their dubious association with Timothy Leary and his LSD troupe, and it was Lyman’s liberal use of psychedelics as a form of manipulation that lead many to refer to him as the “Charles Manson of the East Coast”. The commune remained entrenched in drug use for a number of years and were particularly fond of astrological readings, taking great pleasure in reading the cosmic standings of any bystander willing to offer their palm.

Another aspect of the late ‘60s in Boston that piqued Walsh's interest was a scene of psychedelic bands that were labeled by money-grubbing music executives as the “Bosstown Sound”. The aim of East Coast music marketers was to appropriate the innovative (and commercially successful) sound of West Coast rock and roll bands and package them for New England listeners. Though the Bosstown Sound scene dissipated in the early ‘70s amidst critic and commercial backlash, its serendipitous existence with Lyman and Morrison gave Walsh even more insight into Boston’s surreal, often bizarre counterculture.

“My perception of the city is just far weirder. I had no idea all this had happened here fifty years ago. It seemed like everything started with Aerosmith, or The Cars. It was such an awesome and incredible surprise.”

Walsh was sweating bullets when Penguin bought his pitch for Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 later that year. His enduring appreciation for this landmark album had manifested into something much bigger than himself. There was a great story to be told, and Walsh would bear its torch. And after condensing his Astral Sojourn piece into the book’s first chapter, Walsh underwent the endless task of collecting data and interviewing over one hundred people with personal accounts of Boston in 1968.

He found himself in a snail mail chain with Jonathan Richman, the eccentric musician behind seminal New England proto-punk group The Modern Lovers. “Sometimes he would think of something after he sealed the envelopes, so I have answers from him on the back of envelopes.” He also spoke in depth with Astral Weeks flute player John Payne. When Payne described his experience getting his astrology read to him at the Fort Hill Community, Walsh found the link between his two main characters. “That really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because that was a direct connection that I figured I’d never find.”

“When we sent the book off to print I said, ‘Well let’s see if I just ruined my favorite record.’”

Walsh’s deadline for the book was in April 2017, a year and half after the deal with Penguin went through. The idea was to edit and roll out copies in time for the album’s fiftieth birthday in 2018, and for that reason his deadline was firm. Walsh kept his day job doing marketing for ArtsEmerson, supplementing his writing time by waking up at the crack of dawn and staying up late into the night. He was candid when glossing over his unwavering discipline; “I figured that I can do anything for a year and a half," his sentence passing as a mere afterthought.

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(Jay Gabler/MPR)

There were several characters from the book that he would never speak to again. DeNoia died several weeks after their interview. Wolf mysteriously fell off Walsh's radar after their interview for Astral Sojourn. He speculated that “the article came out and [Wolf’s] good friend Van said ‘Why the fuck are you in an article where my ex-wife also spills the beans?’ I could see that causing some friend-friction.” There may be some truth behind that hypothesis. “The day the book came out, I did a reading at the Brookline Booksmith. It was downstairs, and the room was full, and after I finished signing books, people told me that Wolf was there, but he just listened from the top of the stairs.”

I asked Walsh what his fabled anti-hero had to say in all of this. Apparently it was nothing at all. He made several attempts to contact Morrison for an interview but never received a response back. It seemed that Morrison’s attention on Walsh had been perpetually absent until the BBC published an interview with the singer a month after the book’s release. “He was talking about how journalists these days just make everything up and how he’s always been against fake news. Then he immediately segways into talking about Astral Weeks and how he didn’t know he’d have to be talking about it all these years later. I took it to be that the book was on his mind.”

In a sense, Walsh had once again crossed paths with an idol. And despite Morrison’s obvious reluctance for any rediscovery, Walsh remembered that his reason for the book wasn’t to pay homage to the man behind the album, but to the album itself, a relic of Boston’s counterculture that impacted people around the world. I asked him if learning so much about the album had taken away some of its magic. “When we sent the book off to print I said, ‘Well let’s see if I just ruined my favorite record’," he said with a laugh. “I put it on and nothing had changed. It was still incredible, and still kind of mysterious to me too.”

“People respond to it so strongly and I’m just really grateful.”

So what’s the difference between touring Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 and a Hallelujah the Hills album? Set up time, mostly. “To waltz into a book store five minutes before an event starts with a book in your hand, I was laughing my ass off,” he said. The crowds also seem to be more manageable. “You know, people have questions and I know the answers to them, and people are so nice and interested. People respond to it so strongly and I’m just really grateful.”

But don’t count on him unpacking another secret history. “I don’t think I can repeat this trick”, he explained. “A) [The book worked] because I lived here and knew the city so well and loved it, and b) it’s just the perfect storm. It will never happen this way again, at least for me.”

Though Hallelujah the Hills was put on the back burner for the duration of the project, Walsh's two worlds collided again recently when rolling out their new album in an unconventional, but very Ryan H. Walsh way. The band announced their seventh full-length album I’m You, with the surprise release of their sixth full-length album Against Electricity, an instrumental piece that will act as a soundtrack for the Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 audiobook. Against Electricity features performances by some of New England’s finest, Dave Curry of the Thalia Zedek band, Tanya Donelly of Belly, Dana Colley of Morphine, Marissa Nadler, and famed Fenway Park Organist Josh Kantor.

Walsh took a government grant and made an album for his hometown. He presented David Berman with a burnt CD of Silver Jews covers and scored an opening slot for his band. He took an opportunity from Carly Carioli and turned the heads of music fans across the country. He uncovered the precious mysteries of a revered album. Walsh has continually transformed his dumb confidence into an art form, taking the smallest of opportunities and turning them into big treasures. “I have a dumb confidence. As soon as I have an idea, I’ll believe in it so much.” Isn’t that the truth.

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