Sound Advice: Boston's 5 Most Defining Rock 'n' Roll Locations

Discover the sites where music history was shaped by the Boss, Van the Man and other key players.

Paul Simon's "Graceland" tells the story of a man who feels his life coming apart. Hoping to set things straight, he and his son embark on a pilgrimage down the highway to Graceland, the hallowed home of Elvis Presley. Exactly what they’ll find is unclear, yet one thing feels certain: whatever it is can surely be found in the place where rock ‘n’ roll incarnate lived and died. To many, rock ‘n’ roll holds a spirituality akin to religion, the power to uplift, to redeem, to transform and deliver; and like all great faiths, rock too has its holy lands.

Historians and archeologists differ, but most contend that the rock ‘n’ roll Garden of Eden lies somewhere within Memphis, New York, Detroit or Chicago. However, with the publication of Ryan H. Walsh’s “Astral Weeks” and the upcoming book about rock photographer Barry Schneier’s experiences, “Rock and Roll Future,” that contention is being rewritten to include a crucial element: Boston. While Paul Simon and his son travelled south to find their musical salvation, pilgrims of rock ‘n’ roll passing through Boston need look no further than the sidewalk beneath their feet. Here are five of the most important Boston landmarks in the history rock ‘n’ roll.

Van Morrison in Cambridge, 1974
Van Morrison in Cambridge, 1974 (©Barry Schneier)


In 1967, as “Brown Eyed Girl” poured out of radios across the country, Van Morrison was in hiding. His label, Bang Records, had gone over Van’s head and released his album “Blowin’ Your Mind!” as a psychedelic compilation of radio-oriented pop hits. Enraged, Van told Bang he was through with them; in response they broke a guitar over his head. Fearing further physical persuasion from Bang, Van and his wife fled Manhattan to Boston, settling in small apartment on the corner of Green and Bay Streets in Cambridge. With a visa soon to expire and Bang Record’s lackeys baying at his doorstep, Van set out to write the album that would put his life in order. The vision came in a dream: a world where there were no electric instruments. What ensued was an eight-month whirlwind of upright bass lines, acoustic strumming and flute accompaniments, while Van wrote his seminal work, “Astral Weeks,” right there in the kitchen of that Cambridge home.

Club Passim
Club Passim (©John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)


In 1958, a BU student named Joan Baez took her acoustic guitar and descended the stairs of Club 47. Hidden beneath the bricks of a Harvard Square alleyway, this literal hole in the wall would spend the next six decades filling its four walls with the chords and vocals of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Buffett, and countless others (and deny Springsteen a set along the way). Called Club Passim today, this Boston icon has changed little since Baez first descended those steps and ascended the stage sixty years ago.

The "Rock and Roll Future" arrives, 1974
The "Rock and Roll Future" arrives, 1974 (©Barry Schneier)


Though spring had found Boston in May 1974, for rock critic Jon Landau it seemed that the cold of winter might never lift. At 27, his music career was succumbing to stagnation: his bands had gone nowhere, production stints failed, and most disturbing of all, the music that once held such spiritual power suddenly did little to excite his passion. In a story fully detailed in the upcoming book “Rock and Roll Future,” Landau dragged himself to the Harvard Square Theatre—now a vacant cinema—to see an acclaimed but equally desperate rocker named Bruce Springsteen. The ensuing concert changed everything: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” Landau wrote after the show. “On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” As the review caught fire and catapulted Springsteen into the national spotlight, the pair forged a close bond that would not only change their lives, but would shape the course of rock ‘n’ roll history. 

Kenmore Square
Kenmore Square (©Henry Han/Wikimedia Commons)


Where now stands Kenmore Square’s Eastern Standard restaurant once lurked a dark and dirty venue with an apt nickname: The Rat. Once awash with physical depravity and joyous debauchery, the Rathskeller is remembered as one of the cornerstones of the country’s punk and grunge scene. The next time you’re slurping shucked oysters at Eastern Standard, take a moment to picture the salutes of spit flying from the crowd at The Ramones, or the body-bruising elbows thrown in a Mighty Mighty Bosstones mosh pit.

Esplanade Hatch Shell
Esplanade Hatch Shell (©Abhi Suryawanshi/Wikimedia Commons)


During the early 2000s, three-man onevan band Dispatch built an international fan base by embracing Napster while most fought it. By 2004 the three friends were calling it quits (not forever—they’re back together now), but not before one last show. The location was the Esplanade Hatch Shell, and admission was free. Estimates of 10,000 expected attendees fell way short of the mark; instead Dispatch played to around 150,000 fans boiling out of the Hatch Shell lawn, up trees and across Storrow Drive.