Saint Dominic's Preview - Forty Years On

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

[x] ibid.p256

[xi]Rolling Stone, 31 August 1972

(photographs courtesy of Mark Bittner)


Views: 1204

Comment by RP N10 on November 17, 2012 at 10:25am

St Doms was the first Van Morrison album I owned and it's still my favourite (Veedon Fleece runs it close) so  I'll be ordering a copy of your book on the basis of what's down here.

It's one of the records which I didn't think made the transition to CD so well, principally because you don't get the break from getting up and flipping it over you got with the vinyl.  As 2 sides of music, each almost self-contained, it is impeccable.  The first - wild - side goes from the punch of Jackie Wilson said through to the growl of Listen To The Lion; and I think I Will Be There, possibly a contender for Van's finest song works as 3 of 4 but doesn't have the same impact as 3 of 7.  Side 2 is real California Morrison, more laid back, sunnier out in the country not in an urban basement club.  His lyrics for the title track are  among the most interesting he's done with a sense of narrative knitted from a series of impressions.

I look forward to reading it.

Comment by Peter Wrench on November 17, 2012 at 10:42am

Thanks - I think that's a good point about the two sides of the vinyl album: side two is beautifully sequenced (but I've always seen Gypsy as a bit of a weak link on the first...)

Comment by WIndieCityJoe on November 19, 2012 at 4:10pm
A favorite of mine but I couldn't agree more with the "either you get it or you don't" point of view. I often I haven't the slightest idea what Van is singing about but it touches me. The same for Veedon Fleece. On slightly different note, the haphazard manner his back catalog has been treated is almost criminal.
Comment by Bill Frater on November 19, 2012 at 9:13pm

Thanks Peter, nice reminder of one of my favorite Van LP's. I head heard from his bass player, David Hayes,  that the he posed for the picture in front of St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco... and it even looks like it... but he did live in Marin around that time... oh well, it's the music that counts!

Comment by John Graveling on November 20, 2012 at 9:05am

It's long been one of my favourite Van albums and I was so disappointed when it didn't come out as part of his re-release series of a few years ago. I got "Tupelo Honey" and "Veedon Fleece!" as part of that series, along with a few others but this and "Hard Nose The Highway" never came out. The title track is stellar with that great pedal steel part locking in with the horns. I also love "Almost Independence Day" and "Redwood Tree" making that second side on vinyl one of THE GREAT sides of music to be released.

Comment by David Pritchard on November 20, 2012 at 4:03pm

first Van album i ever bought when i was 17, still listen to that vinyl copy. one of his best

Comment by Sue Dunham on November 20, 2012 at 10:23pm

It was a sad day when I heard that No Depression would no longer be available at the magazine stand. I still have many of my copies. As for Van Morrison, he played Halifax awhile back, can't remember what year, but Jackie Wilson Said was in his set. Not exactly as on the album, but my ears perked up when they played it.

Comment by Eric Warner on March 15, 2013 at 2:54pm

Hi Peter & Everybody, I'm wondering if anyone can help me with this: I am looking for the moog synth track by Bernie Krause on "Almost Independence Day" with no vocals or other instruments, plus a vocals only track for "Listen to the Lion", without any of the other instruments. Does anyone know how I could find or create these? 

Thanks so much!


Comment by Peter Wrench on March 17, 2013 at 1:47pm

So far as I know, you could only get individual tracks like that from the master tapes. I presume Warner Bros still have them (though the fact that Saint Dominic's is currently out of print may suggest there is some dispute at present between them and Van about the album...) I'd be surprised if Warner Bros gave you access, but no harm in asking. Good luck!

Comment by RP N10 on March 17, 2013 at 1:59pm
I thought Morrison got all the recordings back for the reissues he started putting out a few years back.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.