Released in 1972, Van Morrison’s sixth studio album would gift a song that stands to this day as a great example of the stream of consciousness style that runs through the majority of his work. Taken from the record of the same name, ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ is a song drenched in a grand cacophony of genres. We hear jazz, folk and even classical music with a tinge of Americana. Overall, it is the booming voice of Van Morrison as he brings us on a trip through a different time and place.
Recorded in San Francisco in the spring of ’72, the song heaves with imagery that rivals Bob Dylan’s way with words. As with so many of Dylan’s song’s, you need to be something of a musical archaeologist in order to dig deep and find the meaning of ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ because, just like Dylan, Morrison’s lyrics hang heavy with mystery. The song’s conception arose from the then situation in Morrison’s native Belfast. The city of his birth was a war zone in 1972 while he was out of harm’s way gigging his way across the United States. Morrison was playing at the University of Nevada where, during a break, he picked up a newspaper and read about a mass for peace in Northern Ireland which was to take place at St. Dominic’s church in San Francisco. A lightbulb went off in Morrison’s head and he promptly wrote a long winding set of lyrics that would become ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview.’
Unlike your normal run of the mill pop song, ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ fails to provide us with a straight-up story. Instead it registers as a jumble of images, and like a jigsaw you must piece it together to see what it really is. As previously mentioned, Morrison was far from the conflict engulfing his homeland. His distance comes across strongly in the song. His viewpoint is from a safe vantage, just like those in San Francisco who are attending the mass for peace in Ireland. ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ begins in Belfast, where we meet the young Morrison cleaning windows to the sound of Edith Piaf before we cross the divide and find him in modern day San Francisco “trying hard to make this whole thing blend”.
Throughout the song we are dragged around the lyrics by different images, from the Americana “Hank Williams railroad trains” to the boiling point situation in Belfast with its “chains, badges, flags and emblems”. It would make you dizzy twirling from one image to the next but somehow the music keeps you calm as it plays out. ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ also provides an insight into the career of Morrison at that time, which was in superstar mode. He tells himself that “you got everything in the world you ever wanted, right about now your face should wear a smile”. Yet the moody Morrison was surrounded by the trappings of false friendships through journalists and record company big wigs, the sort of people he described as flying “too high to see my point of view”. As there was turmoil on the streets of his homeland, there was a conflict bubbling up within himself and Morrison pours this out across the song’s six-and-a-half minutes.
The June 22, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone carried an interview with Morrison in which he was asked about its origins. Morrison stated he had been working on a song regarding what was unfolding on the streets of Belfast. He also noted that he had the idea of a church as the central image of this song he was trying to piece together but it was only when he picked up that newspaper in Nevada and read about the prayer vigil to be held in St Dominic’s that all the right ingredients fall into place for him to create it. Putting sound to this tapestry of images is the tenor saxophone of Jules Broussard, the bass of Gary Mallaber, the drums of John McFee and the steel guitar of Doug Messenger. The trombone of Pat O’Hara and the organ of Tom Salisbury make the perfect accompaniment to Jack Schroer’s baritone saxophones while the backing vocals of Morrison’s then-wife Janet Planet put the final sheen to the track. Of course, without the bellowing of Van Morrison’s voice, this very song wouldn’t have had that extra punch to it. Though usually somewhat underrated among his considerable body of work, ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ never fails to keep sounding vibrant and full of spirit.