Montgomery Chapel, San Anselmo. The doors look familiar, don't they?
Forty years ago Van Morrison posed on the steps with an acoustic guitar and a ripped pair of jeans and Michael Maggid's iconic photograph became the front cover of Saint Dominic's Preview.
It has always been my favourite of Morrison's albums and I've been surprised it hasn't had greater recognition. It never seems to make the 'best album' lists. The CD is even out of print at the moment. It needs a bit of a push, I feel...
So, to mark its fortieth birthday, I embarked on an in-depth look at the music and how it was made. I've had a fascinating six months or so talking and corresponding with a lot of the musicians and technicians who made it, digging into the history and honing some critical judgements. The end product, Saint Dominic's Flashback, is now complete.
If you're scratching your head at this point, trying to remember the record, or muttering that you've never heard of it, let me assert that it is one of Van’s most satisfying and wide-ranging collections with a succession of amazing tracks – from the focused R&B drive of ‘Jackie Wilson Said,’ through the glorious emotional workout that is ‘Listen To The Lion’, to the synthesiser-rich tone-poem ‘Almost Independence Day’. It deserves your attention.
Go on, give it a listen and see what you think...
To get things going, here's what listening to the last of its songs, 'Almost Independence Day', produced for the book:
And on to the final twist in the tail of this remarkable album’s tale: another ten minute epic, and one that stands apart within Morrison’s catalogue.
It begins with the singer alone, conversing with his guitar, trading lines in a wordless duet. It could be the album’s cover coming to life.[i] The first 45 seconds are mesmerising in themselves, but then a firmer down-strummed E minor chord from Van and a splash of Lee Charlton’s cymbals announce the arrival of the band: sinuous, sensitive and questing. Seconds later the unexpected Krause/Naftalin Moog part begins its deep, majestic modulation and then the first words:
‘I can heeee-aarr them calling… waaaaay from Oregon’.
Van is in the zone: confident, soaring, stretching and chopping his words to tell his story. And he and the band stay in that zone through the length of the song.
There is little harmonic movement in the song: a steady, tidal alternation between the chords of E minor and G major, until the E minor becomes a C major to mark a distinct shift of mood when the lyric eventually establishes that it is indeed ‘almost Independence Day’. In context, that shift feels significant, almost dramatic. The shift is made briefly, for the first deployment of the title line from 1.52 – a taster for where the yearning inherent in the minor might end up; then, more conclusively and strikingly when Van returns to that line at 6.18. The song then stays with that alternation between the two major chords for the remaining four minutes, with a clear sense that something has been resolved. It is the same sway between the root chord of the song’s key and the subdominant as was deployed in the coda to ‘Listen To The Lion’ and there is a comparable sense of a steadiness and a certainty achieved after effort.[ii]
But, as in the earlier song, the chords here are a very small part of what is going on in the music. The dynamics are compelling. At the start of the third (‘I can hear the fireworks…’) verse, the band back away leaving Van’s voice and guitar alone, before a new, high, synthesiser part kicks in. The rest of the band eases itself back into the fray, as Morrison fires off jabs and slides from his 12-string to illustrate what he is singing. From there it is a building of volume and intensity through the fourth verse (‘I can see the boats…’) to the release of the chord change with ‘almost Independence Day’.
The concluding section is beautifully done: a gradual calming as Van repeats ‘way up and down the line’ and returns to occasional pyrotechnic interjections from his 12-string; the rest of the band give him more and more space but allow subtle contributions – cymbal shimmers and piano runs – to flash through here and there; and finally a glorious scatted duet between Van and his guitar before he leaves the stage to a synthesiser modulation and the curtain comes down.
It is probably best to see the piece as a tone-poem and an exercise in moods rather than trying to extract too much literal meaning from its lyrics.
Unusually, we have some explanation from Morrison himself of what he was aiming for. He told Ritchie Yorke:
‘It wasn’t my concept to write a sequel to “Madame George”. I like the song though. It was just contemplating organ and the Moog synthesiser. Everything was recorded live except that one high part on the synthesiser. I asked Bernie Krause to do this thing of China Town and then come in with the high part because I was thinking of dragons and fireworks. It reminded me of that. It was a stream-of-consciousness trip again.’[iii]
There probably was a memory of a real-life trip to San Francisco’s China Town to buy jewellery which underpinned that section. Van apparently also told Yorke that the opening lines of the song come from receiving a phone call from Oregon.[iv] He may well have waited to watch fireworks explode over the harbour on a particular 4 July. But the specific origins of the lines are less important than the pictures they build in the sense of the song, and of the album as a whole. Peter Mills talks of that call ‘from Oregon’ being:
‘more of a kind of metaphysical calling, the senses heightened, attuned, listening, hearing all, seeing all. The emphasis in the song is very strongly on heightened senses, almost supernaturally keen, with a great flood of visual and aural stimuli and data flowing in.’[v]
I think that is right, and the mood is complemented by the sense one has of the care with which the musicians are listening and responding to one another. But I don’t share Mills’ drawing of a distinction between this song and ‘Listen To The Lion’, on the basis that this is:
‘a song more concerned with stillness than the pushing forward of “Lion”’[vi]
I hear yearning and movement in ‘Almost Independence Day’ before it reaches its resolution. And in the context of this album, evocations of sailing and the sea are loaded with that sense of search and a goal still out of reach. I find it interesting that the title is ‘Almost Independence Day’ – not there yet, in other words. And interesting that, after the journey in ‘Listen To The Lion’ from Denmark to Caledonia to the New World, the singer now finds himself looking out onto the Pacific and then draws in references to China and Hong Kong: there is always another horizon and another voyage in the offing.
But, for me, it is the sign of successful art that it can simultaneously hold and draw out a range of personal responses. Once I heard something whale-like in the movement of the synthesiser part, I started associating ‘hear them calling’ with the song of some migratory pod away to the north. And then the synchronicity became almost unbearable when I read Bernie Krause’s account of the part he played in rescuing Humphrey the humpback whale when he got stranded in the Sacramento River in 1985, luring him seaward with remixed recordings of whale songs…[vii]
Mark Naftalin, however, hears it differently. The co-creator of the synthesiser part on the track told me:
‘To my mind the sonic connection between those long low notes and the sense of being near the water wasn’t through the thought of waves. It was through the sound of a foghorn. I have a long past with foghorns.’
As a child, Mark had spent part of each summer in Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior, where his grandmother ran a development of holiday cabins:
‘The foghorn went off all the time – there was a harbour there and the foghorn was necessary. It was a very poetic sound… something you don’t hear in Minneapolis.’[viii]
I can hear the foghorn now, but the whales are still there too…
This is a number which divides the critics. Clinton Heylin is distinctly underwhelmed:
‘Unfortunately, ‘Almost Independence Day’ is a grand failure, the first of its kind. That it was a “stream of consciousness trip again” was obvious to all – with those boats returning to the harbour, and the cool night breeze, and… er, “it’s almost independence day/way up and down the line’ ad infinitum. Time to change channels. The stock of imagery was becoming ragged and worn.’[ix]
He goes as far as to say:
‘It is hard not to surmise that this eleven minute jam was a filler for when inspiration failed.’[x]
But Stephen Holden had got the other side of the argument on the table from the start, saying in his initial review:
‘Music like this is so personal and private you either relate to it or you don’t. It can be faulted on so many grounds – formlessness, self-indulgence, monotony – by those who are unwilling to listen long and hard. For me, the deeply compelling quality of Van Morrison’s trips is embodied in their very evanescence – in the fact that the forces he conjures are beyond precise articulation and can only be suggested.’[xi]
À chacun son goût, but I agree with Holden.
[i] Except – to be pedantic – for the fact that he is now playing a 12-string guitar.
[ii] There are of course thousands of other songs which rely on an extended sway between the I and IV chords of a key – but I do hear some real similarities between the album’s two magna opera.
[iii] Yorke, op.cit., p97
[iv] Mills, op.cit., p247
[v] ibid. pp238-9
[vi] ibid. p170
[vii] Krause, Into A Wild Sanctuary, pp107-128
[viii] Naftalin, op.cit.
[ix] Heylin, op.cit., p258
(photographs courtesy of Mark Bittner)