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John Wesley Harding - introductory chapter

John Wesley Harding. Some 38 minutes of music, readily available for your delectation on vinyl or CD[1].

Let’s imagine that this artefact appears out of the blue in an alternate, Dylan-free world.

What are we to make of it?

We consider the packaging. The grey border around an over-exposed black and white photograph: the singer in a wood, smiling – or grimacing – surrounded by an odd-looking bunch of men. Above, a title in plain black letters. Turn the sleeve over and it’s slightly less austere, offering a straightforward list of the album’s tracks and personnel. But that is followed by a bizarre and unexplained story, about someone called Terry Shute and Frank and three kings. We start to wonder if we are in the hands of a surrealist.

We take the record out: is this going to be weird? But no, we put it on and hear a succession of short, measured songs. The singer is calm and clear, the melodies plain and the arrangements simple. A muted musical palette, matching the monochrome sleeve. It is a sound outside of any recognised fashion or obvious chronology. From somewhere within the American folk tradition, but where, exactly? There are some country inflections. Some songs have clearly been written with a guitar, some at a piano. The album is self-contained and confident; there is no grandstanding, no ingratiation. It is as if its stories will unfold, timelessly, whether we listen to them or not.

And we do listen, sucked in by the musicians’ steady progress and the songs’ redolent phrases, couched in apparently straightforward language but with a meaning that often seems to skip and weave, moving just beyond the listener’s reach.

Twelve songs come and twelve songs go and as the record finishes we are irresistibly drawn back to the beginning. Its hermetic world demands to be explored.

The more we listen, the more we find that doesn’t quite fit the surface impression, and we’re reminded of those sleeve-notes. We might think we are on solid ground, but a single word can open up spaces beneath our feet.

Let’s try that first song again, the title track, apparently an encomium to an outlaw with a heart of gold. a Robin Hood figure:

‘John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor

He travelled with a gun in every hand’

(Every hand? How many did he have?)

‘All along this countryside he opened many a door’ 

(That isn’t a normal English idiom, is it? Which countryside are we talking about? And opening doors with your hands full of firearms can’t be straightforward…)

So what is going on? The questions start to pile up. We seem to have stumbled into the world of an African praise singer, who finds himself employed by some unpredictable gangster. The imbongi is treading very carefully, avoiding what can’t be said, taking refuge in bland generalities, his tongue forced into some unlikely positions.

Welcome to the world of John Wesley Harding, an apparently solid and straightforward structure with some oddly placed mirrors, some gaps in the floorboards and staircases which don’t come out where you expected them to.

It would be fascinating whoever had built it.

                                                       – o O o –

But back on Earth-Prime, in our normal, Dylan-infused existence, it is virtually impossible to come to John Wesley Harding with no prior knowledge or preconceptions.

Some listeners will have followed every twist and turn of his convoluted fifty-year career. Most will know something and have some pictures in their mind. The protest singer with his harmonica holder and righteous anger. The mid-sixties hipster with his Stratocaster and shades. The thirty-something break-up poet of Blood On The Tracks. The conviction of the born-again gospeller. The eighties ex-champ back in the ring with a broken nose and a cauliflower ear, battling a lack of inspiration and some dubious fashions…

So it goes on. No single snapshot can contain the whole story, as Todd Haynes’ 2007 biopic I’m Not There so wonderfully captured with its cast of different actors representing Bob. “Bob Dylan” was a self-conscious construct from the start, when an old-beyond-his-years Woody Guthrie clone with a dubious accent and a dodgier back story first trod the boards. And the man behind the construct has always been prepared to play with that. Consider his words to the audience at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City in October 1964 (captured on the Bootleg Series Vol 6 release):

‘Don’t let this scare you: it’s just Hallowe’en. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.’

Whatever else it may be, John Wesley Harding is the sound of an accomplished performance artist slipping into a new persona.

But, then, I’m hardly the first person to make that point.

At this stage in the game one needs to justify adding anything to the enormous pile of criticism and comment, speculation and bullshit, that has accreted around this particular artist. It is a pile considerably higher than any other performer of his time has accumulated. Anyone who has read this far in the present volume will either have waded through a lot of Dylanology already, or may be daunted by the heap and wondering what might be the best way in.

Against that backdrop, whatever degree of familiarity you may have with the work and the literature, I think there is a real value in a focus on a single record from a particular time; in gripping just one of the personae. Of course, it cannot tell the whole story. But by this point, what can? There are a succession of biographies out there, along with critical overviews and even a song-by-song examination of his entire catalogue. The man himself has contributed some memoirs, the teasingly-entitled Chronicles Volume One (some nine years after its publication there is little sign of further instalments appearing). Good, bad or indifferent, nothing can be definitive.

A deep dive into one particular record can not only throw new light on work that is worthy of closer attention but also provide a new prism for viewing the bigger picture. But why this particular release?

I have already hinted at its attractions and its depth: it is powerful music on any terms, which amply repays repeated listening. And the closer you look and listen, the deeper it will burrow under your skin.

It does not seem to have had the attention it deserves; it is routinely admired and acknowledged as one of Dylan’s great albums but does not seem to be as cherished as some. This is partly because of its austerity and restraint: it does not flaunt its beauty or make access to it particularly easy – across its 12 songs, for example, there is not a single chorus to hook the listener’s ear.

But, more than that, it falls to one side of the main narrative arc that has become the received wisdom about Dylan’s development as an artist. The first phase from his acoustic beginnings, the protest and the more personal songs, the controversy of going electric, bestriding the world with hit records and sell-out tours – the phase up to Blonde On Blonde – that was Dylan out in front, setting the pace, changing fashions, getting stronger and stronger as a writer and performer, plucking a succession of his greatest songs from the ether. Then came his motorcycle accident and the retreat to Woodstock, a slowing down and a loss of drive and direction. Yes, The Basement Tapes represent an interesting period of experimentation and renewal, but Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Pat Garrett and the nadir of Self Portrait are essentially the lesser works of an artist becalmed, before he got his mojo back by reconnecting with The Band for the Before The Flood tour and warmed up with Planet Waves for the stone-cold classic that is Blood On The Tracks. Against that backdrop, the fact of his taking three days out of his time in the doldrums to pin down so strong and strange and singular a set of songs as John Wesley Harding doesn’t quite fit. So people tend to nod respectfully towards it, without listening to it very often or trying to integrate it with the wider story.

For me, this is a wonderful collection of songs that deserves a wide and attentive audience in its own right. But it is also a crucial part of Bob Dylan growing up and becoming more adult in his writing. That might sound an odd thing to say about a man who had already carved out a career in a way which contrasted the literacy and depth of his language from the Top Forty’s usual bathos, which he had memorably parodied:

‘It was Rock-a-day Johnny singin’, “Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa,

Our love’s a-gonna grow, ooh-wah, ooh-wah”’[2]

There is no shortage of mature songwriting on his first six releases – from ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ to ‘Desolation Row’. But his seventh album signals a new discipline and also shows new doubts – about religion, politics, heroes, and about himself, what he is doing and where he is going.

                                                             – o O o –

A word about my own perspective.

I started listening to Bob Dylan in 1971, aged 13 or 14. I started with Greatest Hits and quickly realised I wanted everything. But records were expensive at that time in relation to disposable income (it took a couple of weeks’ paper round to buy an album) and so it was a while before I got there. More Greatest Hits was the first record I bought on its release. I am still listening 40 odd years later: I think I’ve got all the mainstream records, but the burgeoning bootleg market did for any aspirations to completeness. I’ve seen him live half a dozen times and recognise that his performing prowess is waning: I’m a fan rather than a fanatic.

From the start, John Wesley Harding struck me as something different and special. I was drawn into its particular world and would say that it was my favourite Dylan album (though Blood On The Tracks would subsequently supplant it). As I spent 1971 and 1972 getting to grips with the back catalogue I scanned the music press for signs of new activity and clues to what had gone before. The Concert for Bangla Desh confirmed his command of the headlines and ‘George Jackson’ showed that he had not forgotten how to say something forcefully with an acoustic guitar.

Then I chanced upon Michael Gray’s ‘Song & Dance Man’[3] in a local bookshop, the first bit of real Dylanology I had encountered, and I was hooked by the scope for digging in to the detail of the songs and the fact that they would bear the weight of that exploration. I was particularly taken with Gray’s deconstruction of John Wesley Harding’s title track, which concluded:

‘The clichés of thought exploded so precisely in the song are still in the way today; but Dylan has done battle with them. ‘John Wesley Harding’ joins with the rest of the album of that name to give us, through this ‘battling’, Dylan successfully engaged in the mature artistic attainment of reconstruction and revaluation: Dylan at his most seriously and intelligently creative.’[4]

Those words rang very true to me 40 years ago, as I was getting my ears and brain around Bob Dylan’s music. They will stand very well now as the starting point of a deeper look at this decidedly deep record.

[1] Download it by all means, but the sleeve is worthy of your attention too.

[2] ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’, Freewheelin’ (1962)

[3] Gray, Michael (1972) Song & Dance Man (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon)

[4] op.cit., p40


I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ is a gem: a beautifully controlled and nuanced piece of writing, delivered on record with both power and restraint. Its spare and apparently straightforward language is woven around an ultimately mysterious core. We are left unsure just what we supposed to glean from the apparent vision that the singer describes. But, as we shall see, its ambiguities and ambivalence are a key part of what the song has to say.  

The lyric is not perfect, if judged as a highly polished piece of English. But that is seldom what Dylan is aiming for and – as so often with his recordings – its imperfections are essentially attributable to an unwillingness to edit and revise a recent composition.[1] As usual, the rough edges seem a more than reasonable price to pay for the freshness and vigour of the performance.

The broad subject matter is clear: the singer has had a dream about St Augustine and the experience has left him troubled and sad. The saint has returned to the land of the living and told the singer’s peers that they have no martyrs of their own. But exactly how and why he has been troubled by this message, and just what he and we are to make of the subject matter of the dream, will need a fair amount of unpacking.

The device of singing about a dream is a useful one for a writer. One is less bound by logic and normal expectations of cause and effect and of reducibility to literal sense. Not that the Bob Dylan of 1967 had shown himself to be particularly troubled by those sorts of expectations in the past, but for any writer it can be liberating to be able to answer the question ‘why’ by saying simply ‘that’s how the dream was’. A dream can have all sorts of odd and disparate elements; it does not have to resolve.

We can recall the narrator of ‘Gates Of Eden’ showing contempt for over-analysis in this context:

At dawn my lover comes to me

And tells me of her dreams,

With no attempt to shovel the glimpse

Into the ditch of what each one means

and the sleeve-notes which accompanied the initial release of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ on John Wesley Harding poke fun at listeners who want a key that will explain everything in any song – whether the key might be Frank, faith, froth or anything else.

The dream conceit also means that the writer does not need an answer to the question whether he is talking literally about a particular, historical St Augustine and what may or may not have happened in what is known about his life. Paul Williams goes so far as to say:

I doubt that [Dylan] knew or cared that St Augustine was not a martyr; he needed a saint's name, and "Augustine" fit the tempo, as did "John Wesley Harding" when he needed the name of a historical outlaw. Various considerations do come into play – "Francis" would not work not just for metrical reasons but also because the associations Dylan and the public have with him are too clear and do not fit here.[2] 

Does it really matter? The Catholic church has a number of saints called Augustine. Most commentators who take a view think Augustine of Hippo[3] is the one Dylan had in mind, and there is more obvious relevance in this character than, say, the one who was a missionary to pagan Britain and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury[4]. The former was a privileged young man who eventually put a life of sin behind him and wrote extensively about Christianity as a bishop, having moved on from his famous youthful prayer, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet’[5]. I suspect that general association may have been in Dylan’s mind, but I take Williams’ broader point that this is not of fundamental importance.

A further point to consider in appreciating the ground rules that Dylan has set for his song flows from its opening couplet. This song is not just about a dream that Bob says he has had. He is quoting the opening of the old labour movement anthem ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’, which Joan Baez would famously sing at Woodstock a couple of years later:

I dreamed, I saw Joe Hill last night.

Alive as you and me.

Says I, ‘But Joe, you're ten years dead.’

‘I never died,’ says he. [6]

Joe Hill was the anglicised name of Joel Hagglund, a Swedish immigrant who was a prominent activist in the Wobblies (or Industrial Workers of the World), before being shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915, following a dubious murder conviction. He wrote to a colleague shortly before his death saying ‘Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize...’

There’s an interesting section in Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One where he is talking about starting to write his own songs and thinking about the protest songs he has heard.[7] He recounts Joe Hill’s story and comments:

Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they didn’t know is there. The song ‘Joe Hill’ doesn’t even come close…

After considering other approaches to a song about Hill he concludes:

I didn’t compose a song for Joe Hill. I thought about how I would do it, but didn’t do it.

I am sure that rumination, five or six years earlier, was one of the elements in the mix that became ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ – which is, in some ways, a song for Joe Hill.

So, we have a song that is concerned with martyrdom that begins with a reference back to an earlier depiction of a secular martyr, canonised by the Left, vigorously concerned with social justice. But the primary focus now shifts to one of the founding fathers of the Christian church, who was not himself a martyr, but a contemplative writer…

This is all very fertile subject matter for a writer who came to prominence as a protest-singing darling of Joe Hill’s venerators; who was told he was Judas when he dared to switch to more personal songs in electric settings; and who had then, in his more recent seclusion in Woodstock, begun both to dig into religion and –­ in the basement at Big Pink – to rediscover a taste for more traditional musical forms.

And, in retrospect, it is even more apt subject matter for a singer and writer who went on, twelve years later, to explore overtly Christian themes in the songs of Slow Train Coming and the two albums that followed. He was, at that later point, to bear witness in his own inimitable way and to receive in return a critical stoning from sections of the press and his own fanbase.

It is a song which seems to be charged with meaning for Bob and so it is robably unsurprising that the sketch he subsequently produced to illustrate it for Writings And Drawings is even more casual than usual.[8] The singer is supine, relaxed, with one knee raised, smoking a cigarette; Augustine, with a prominent blanket, is cross-eyed, squinting along a distinctive nose. No shock or awe in evidence here.

Before a detailed look at the lyrics and how the different strands are woven into them, let’s consider the rather simpler issues of the song’s musical structure and arrangement.

It was recorded, according to Clinton Heylin’s analysis of Dylan’s recording history[9], on 17 October 1967, the first of just three recording sessions over a few weeks at Columbia’s Music Row Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, which produced the John Wesley Harding album. Heylin says that four takes were taped and the fourth is the one on the record. Apparently Dylan would take the train to Nashville from his home in Woodstock, upstate New York, and used the long journey to write the songs he was going to record.[10]

As with all but two of the album’s songs (which additionally featured Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar), Dylan is accompanied only by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. Bob plays an acoustic six-string guitar, capoed at the fifth fret to produce the high, ringing sound typical of the album, and also blows some wonderfully effective harmonica, which gives the overall performance a sadder and more rueful tone than it would otherwise have. While the arrangement as a whole is deliberately straightforward and unflashy, the song is beautifully played, with Dylan’s collaborators (both topflight Nashville session-men and veterans of the Blonde On Blonde sessions some eighteen months earlier) gently pushing and probing and self-evidently listening closely to what he is doing.

There are five repetitions of the same chord progression: two sung verses, an instrumental, a third vocal and a final instrumental. The first couple of lines are used for the brief introduction, with the bass slipping in halfway through and then the  drums kicking in as the vocal starts. It is basically a three chord song in F, with the only harmonic twist coming with the addition of a G major chord in the fourth line. The same change can be found in ‘The Ballad Of Joe Hill’, which probably led Dylan’s fingers in that direction. But it is hardly an unusual ploy: Jagger and Richards used the same trick to give a lift to ‘Honky Tonk Women’, with the hint of a key change which doesn’t actually materialise.  ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ also features a nice descending bass line below the last two lines of each verse. But, musically, that’s about all there is to say about the song.

Dylan’s singing is clear and true throughout: the ‘head’ voice he favoured at this time over the harsher, throatier and more nasal versions he has preferred – or had forced upon him – at other stages of his career. The calmness of the delivery is notable, in contrast to the energy and intensity of emotion suggested by the lyrics. St Augustine might be ‘tearing through these quarters in the utmost misery’ and shouting in a ‘voice without restraint’, while the singer wakes ‘in anger, so alone and terrified’ – but you would not be able divine that from the vocal performance if you were not an English speaker. The tone is sombre and regretful rather than anguished. The tragedy is played out at some distance, behind ‘the glass’ which is introduced so effectively in the song’s final lines. This is very much the sort of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, which Wordsworth defined as the starting point of poetry.

A general feature of the language Dylan uses in the song is a deliberate avoidance of any obviously contemporary idioms. There are some specific archaisms deployed (sometimes unconventionally) and some unusual vocabulary. We are a long way from the snappy hipster persona and the conversational asides that were predominant on much of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

The song begins like this:

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,

Alive as you or me,

Tearing through these quarters

In the utmost misery.

We have the opening echoes of the earlier song about Joe Hill, followed by the vigorous verb ‘tearing’ (improbable behaviour for the average saint) and then two clearly unusual word choices – ‘quarters’ and ‘utmost’. The helpfully searchable lyric archive on Dylan’s official website[11] suggests that this is the only occasion that he has used either in writing a song.[12] Then the plot thickens:

With a blanket underneath his arm

And a coat of solid gold,

Searching for the very souls

Whom already have been sold.

It is difficult to avoid looking for some symbolism in the first couplet (any thoughts, Frank?) and I tend to see a picture of haloed saint arrayed like this, portrayed in a stained glass window or an icon. Carrying a blanket could suggest a hobo, taking his bed with him, or it could be something a potential Good Samaritan is carrying in case someone else might need it. (We may be reminded of the, clearly virtuous, woman in From A Buick Six  who ‘if I go down dying’ is ‘bound to put a blanket on my bed’.) And what about the gold coat? It could connote unimpeachable virtue or it could be an accusation of materialism and greed. I vote for the former, given that the next two lines show him as hunting out the very worst sinners – since souls only usually get described as being sold when their owners choose themselves to make the sale, in a Faustian pact with the Devil. I’d say we are supposed to see the saint as both comforting and awe-inspiring, virtuous and trying to help.

‘Very’ is another archaism, which works in this context, but ‘whom’ is very odd. I think Dylan is again striving for an ‘old fashioned’ formalism of language, but most grammar books would say that ‘whom’  should not be the subject of a verb, even a passive one like ‘have been sold’. I would put normally myself with the descriptive rather than prescriptive grammarians, but this jars for me and I wish he had just used ‘who’.[13]

Putting that to one side, we have had a great, scene-setting first verse, evoking a clear picture of this troubled saint, trying desperately to do the right thing. What happens next? We home in on St Augustine and hear his message in his own words:

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud

With [In] a voice without restraint.

“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens

And hear my sad complaint.

No martyr is among ye now

Whom you can call your own,

But [So] go on your way accordingly

And[14] [But] know you’re not alone”

The square-brackets indicate points where the printed version in Lyrics 1962-2001 and what is now on the website differ from what is on the record. It is clearly a drafting improvement to get rid of the unhelpful with/without echo in the second line. The changes in the final couplet, and its intended logic, are less clear.

A few more points about how the message is recounted, before trying to interpret it. We have another archaism in ‘ye’ – and again one that is used slightly oddly. As I understand it, ‘ye’ is more normally found in the nominative, and I think the vocative in the third line here is also unremarkable. But ‘among ye’ in the fifth line is more problematic – ‘among you’ would strike me as more natural, but then Dylan doesn’t want to sound natural here. However, he shuns the chance to use ‘ye’ more straightforwardly in the next line and opts for ‘whom you can call your own.’ But I am sure he will be relieved to know that I have no objection to the ‘whom’ this time… Enough quibbling: suffice to say that Dylan is operating in a deliberately off-kilter register, to one side of everyday contemporary speech, but he has not pitched the song consistently in one particular form of archaic English.

The second verse opens dramatically, with the repeated shout ‘arise, arise’. This does seem to be consciously biblical language. It is a word that Dylan has only used in two other songs, ‘Dead Man, Dead Man’ and ‘Ye Shall Be Changed’, both from his overtly Christian period. In both those other songs he is referring to the dead getting up again. The usage here, if not actually evoking a Lazarus-like resurrection, seems consistent with a saint curing the sick or the lame. And who are these damaged people? ‘Ye gifted kings and queens’ – the talented and the powerful, people like Bob Dylan.[15]

We then come to the heart of the song and St Augustine’s central message: ‘No martyr is among ye now whom you can call your own’. This has to be taken as a criticism of the group he is addressing: it is avowedly a ‘sad complaint’, not some neutral observation. Is he wishing that some of them had been killed? No, I think not. The primary requirement of a martyr is the strength of conviction which can lead him or her ultimately to die for the cause they espouse. The root meaning of the Greek word[16] from which martyr derives is to do with being a witness and giving testimony. I hear Augustine’s message as ‘you are not prepared to stand up and speak out for what is right – you might be kings and queens, but what is the real value of what you are doing?’.

The final couplet of the verse provides a further twist and is capable of different interpretations. Is the injunction to ‘go on your way’ an acceptance that they are going to carry on as they are doing anyway, or an encouragement to behave differently in the future? ‘Accordingly’ doesn’t really help steer us one way or the other, nor does the writer’s uncertainty as to whether ‘but’ or ‘so’ should introduce the thought – is it a contrast or a continuation? Then the final line, ‘you’re not alone’, can be heard as saying that there are a lot of people out there like you, that’s how people are these days or be comforted by the fact that a higher power is looking out for you: I will intercede on your behalf and God is watching over you. I would say the primary meaning is that you can change and that I/God can help. But then the final verse, after the harmonica break, comes back with a fiercer description of the saint which might undercut that interpretation, together with a violent reaction to his words.

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine

Alive with fiery breath,

And I dreamed I was amongst the ones

That put him out to death.

The repetition of the first line of the song’s first verse signals that we are back focusing on the narrator after the second verse’s close-up on the saint. The next line is vivid and seems freighted with meaning: as well as evoking a dragon-like righteous anger the ‘fiery breath’ might, to a bible reader, recall the account of the Holy Spirit coming to the Apostles at Pentecost:

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.[17]

And how, in the dream, has the narrator reacted to the divinely-inspired message the saint has delivered? By helping to kill him.

Historically, St Augustine of Hippo was not murdered. But the song suggests that he might well be, either literally or metaphorically, were he around now, delivering this sort of unwelcome message. ‘Put him out to death’ is yet another odd expression and I have not been able to find an example of anyone else using it. It seems to imply making someone an outcast and leaving them to die, rather than any more sudden and decisive approach to execution. One thinks of the exposure of unwanted babies, or perhaps the crucifixion of another sort of innocent. Ensuring an adult dies from being ‘put out’ would seem to need some further intervention to stop them escaping while exposure takes its course...

However the deed has been achieved, the dreamer has clearly joined with others in rejecting the divinely-inspired message which the saint brought. Then he wakes up to face that realisation:

Oh, I awoke in anger,

So alone and terrified.

Somehow, amongst the anger and the fear, the worst part is the solitude. Augustine had offered the balm of ‘you’re not alone’ but, having rejected that message and got rid of the messenger, the narrator is alone and it hurts. There is a contrast here with Joe Hill and his emphasis on the power of a union and the importance of collective action by working people. Bob Dylan had, briefly and partially, aligned himself with that collectivist, left-leaning world-view in his protest phase and association with the civil rights movement – before changing direction and deciding ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’.[18] The ‘kings and queens’ of the world he had moved into are on their own when they come to their senses.

I put my fingers against the glass

And bowed my head and cried.

Possibly the finest couplet in a very strong song. It is compellingly visual while still offering possibilities of different interpretations. What, exactly, is ‘the glass’? Whatever its precise physical form, it is a beautiful distancing device, taking the narrator further from the action he has described, now gesturing ineffectually and weeping, passive and submissive. It could be his bedroom window, after he has risen, disturbed, from his bed. It could be a mirror, emphasising that the narrator has essentially been thinking and singing about himself. It could – to bring us back up to date – be a television screen, mediating our experience of the world. It could be any or all of those things but, faced with the separation and impotence they imply, the narrator ‘bowed his head’ – in despair or, perhaps more optimistically, in prayer.

There is something child-like about the picture. Bob Dylan already had three young children in his family at the time the song was written and would be familiar with their reactions to disturbed nights and their need for comfort. That parenting experience may well have resulted in reflections on his own upbringing – and I do not know whether his father Abram Zimmerman, who would die in the following summer, was already ailing at this time. In any event, it will have been a stage is life when the father/child imagery and metaphors of Christianity could have impacted with a particular resonance.

And, with that particularly powerful final image in our minds, we have reached the end of a remarkable song. It is one that does not beat its audience over the head with an unequivocal message. It draws on a socialist tradition and the singer’s mixed feelings about the modern-day Movement. It reflects emerging spiritual thinking and exploration and elements of hope, coming to terms with growing up. But the song’s writer is still on the wrong side of ‘the glass’ and fears that he is a sinner with bloody hands.

It is not a song that Bob Dylan or most of his audience seem to feel is in the first rank of his compositions. It is not on Biograph or any of his other compilation albums. He has played it just 39 times live over the years, most recently in 2011. Its first outing was at the Isle Of Wight in 1969 with The Band – and a recording of that has just been officially released in 2013 as part of The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait. There have been a few cover versions over the years, most notably by Joan Baez and Vic Chesnutt and, more recently, the Dirty Projectors ­– with one intriguing near miss: apparently, Jimi Hendrix was considering this as a song to cover from John Wesley Harding before settling on ‘All Along The Watchtower’.[19] One couldn’t say that it has become a standard, and there is something austere about its beauty, which can be a little forbidding. But, as I hope I have explained, it certainly merits close attention and it is, for me, one of Bob Dylan’s very finest songs.

[1] There is a case for arguing that it is an inability rather than an unwillingness. If one considers the songs which Dylan has revisited and rewritten over the years, the results of his tweaks and adjustments seldom produce unequivocal improvements: for example, ‘Caribbean Wind’ was probably as good as it got first time round; and, while I prefer the Minneapolis recording of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ to the initial New York one, all the later concert variations, while interesting, did not, in my view, add a great deal to the original.

[2] Williams, Paul (1991) Performing Artist, The Music Of Bob Dylan (London: Xanadu) p239



[5] St Augustine (c397) Confessions VIII,7 (‘Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo’)

[6] a tribute poem written c. 1930 by Alfred Hayes titled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" was turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson

[7] Dylan, Bob (2004) Chronicles Volume One (London: Simon & Schuster) pp51-4

[8] Dylan, Bob (1973) Writings And Drawings (London: Jonathan Cape) p414

[9] Heylin, Clinton (2009) Revolution In The Air (London: Constable) p362

[10] op.cit. p358


[12] though he was to sing the former in ‘The Boxer’, which Paul Simon wrote in 1968.

[13] The Guardian’s style guide is helpful here and can be found at : ‘If in doubt, ask yourself how the clause beginning who/whom would read in the form of a sentence giving he, him, she, her, they or them instead: if the who/whom person turns into he/she/they, then "who" is right; if it becomes him/her/them, then it should be "whom".’

[14] I’m not sure about ‘and’ – I hear an indeterminate syllable like ‘uh’ on the record, but will give him the benefit of the doubt, since ‘but’ in consecutive lines would be odd – and he wouldn’t have that infelicity so soon after the with/without one, would he?

[15] The phrase has echoes for me of ‘Ye Playboys And Playgirls’ who, in a much earlier protest song from 1962, the singer asserted ‘ain’t a-gonna run my world’. By 1967 he was himself rich and successful, one of his world’s movers and shakers.

[16] μάρτυς

[17] Acts 2.3

[18] His drunken acceptance speech on receiving the Tom Paine Award in December 1963 was probably his kiss-off to the Movement. For an account, see Shelton, Robert (1987) No Direction Home (London: Penguin) pp200-202.

[19] Gray, Michael (2006) The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (London: Continuum) p307


Saint Dominic's Preview: a look at the song

There has just been an intense (and occasionally off-the-wall...) discussion of this wonderful song on the Van Morrison News Blog FB page.

As my contribution, here's the section from my book Saint Dominic's Flashback that looks at the song:


5. Saint Dominic’s Preview


Which brings us nicely to another contender for [the title of favourite song on the album]. When I asked Janet Morrison Minto the same question, she replied:


‘Not that I have the slightest clue what it means, but I am rather partial to "St Dominic's Preview" if I had to pick one from the album. And I'm proud of our contribution. I really loved singing with him and I loved Ellen and Mark – they were wonderful.’[i]


A fair amount of ink has been spilled already in analysing the lyrics of the title track and I will consume a little more: it is, by some distance, the densest and most allusive songs on the record and one of the most striking in the Morrison canon.


Van started the ball rolling himself when he said to John Grissim:


‘I'd been working on this song about the scene going down in Belfast. And I wasn't sure what I was writing but anyway the central image seemed to be this church called St. Dominic's where people were gathering to pray or hear a mass for peace in Northern Ireland. Anyway, a few weeks ago I was in Reno for a gig at the University of Nevada. And while we were having dinner I picked up the newspaper and just opened it to a page and there in front of me was an announcement about a mass for peace in Belfast to be said the next day at St. Dominic's church in San Francisco. Totally blew me out. Like I'd never even heard of a St. Dominic's church.’[ii]


But, just in case that seemed at all straightforward, there was then the following exchange:


‘JG: What did you end up titling it?


VM: "St. Dominic's Preview." You know something? I haven't a clue to what it means.’


Then, almost as if Morrison still felt he had given too much away, he seemed to backtrack in a 1973 interview, getting cross about something the earlier piece had not actually said:


‘I didn’t have a dream. That guy was using his imagination rather heavily. He said that I had a dream about a mass in church. I didn’t have a dream. The only thin[g] that happened was I mentioned to the writer that I’d seen in the paper that there was a service in St Dominic’s in San Francisco. That was all I said, and he did the rest… I just mentioned I saw the name in a paper and he made up the rest.’[iii]


As we shall see, it is hard to claim that the song is ‘about’ Northern Ireland, or any other single topic. But it is also true, as Greil Marcus points out, that at this time, from this singer:


‘The specificity of the bare nod to Belfast went off like a gun.’[iv]


And I think that has led some commentators astray. Stephen Holden’s review said:


‘The dense verbiage (more complex than on any other cut) is disjunctive and arcane, juxtaposing images of mythic travel, with those of social alienation, with reference to James Joyce and Northern Ireland. Within this deliberately obscure but provocative narrative recurs the refrain of Van’s apocalyptic vision which he calls Saint Dominic’s Preview.’[v]


I’m sorry, but I don’t see anything ‘apocalyptic’ about the refrain. It strikes me more as a calming counterpoint to the activity of the verses. ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ is a detached viewpoint that enables the singer to ‘gaze down’ from a safe, high vantage point. As I hear the song, the settled tone, massed voices, repetition and descending bass line all contribute to that sense of reassurance: ‘all will be well’ rather than the end of it all.


So, how would I interpret the song? As a series of largely autobiographical shards from a young man who has travelled the world and achieved a great deal, but doesn’t feel nearly as settled or satisfied as people might expect. If the writer was ten years older one might say that it was a song of incipient midlife crisis – but he had already packed a lot into his life and his homeland was on the brink of civil war so maybe that is still an apt description. There is a kaleidoscope of memories and impressions and an attempt to corral them within a framing vision; a look forward to (or a preview of) a hoped-for time when things will be calmer and make more sense.


The song opens with Van remembering being a young man in Belfast, cleaning windows, but already subject to the transformational power of music, as the sound of Edith Piaf whisks him away to Paris. Then suddenly we lurch up to date in San Francisco and his attempt to make sense of his feelings (‘trying hard to make this whole thing blend’), which is also a neat reference to his activity in writing and recording this song. We are a long way from home – whether that is Belfast or (evocatively and alliteratively) Buffalo, the town Gary Mallaber told Clinton Heylin that Van knew he was missing.[vi] The closing couplet of the first verse is particularly difficult to pin down, but it sounds great and the sense of unease mixed with defiance is clear:


‘I’m hoping that Joyce won’t blow the hoist,

Cos this time they’ve bit off more than they can chew.’


I see no definite reason why it should be a reference to James Joyce, rather than a woman’s name, but like other critics I’ve made that assumption too. Joyce was another Irish writer who spent a lot of time living outside his own country and Morrison himself came to feel some sort of affinity with that: Joyce is one of the Irish figures he was to name-check in ‘Too Long In Exile’ in 1993. On the other hand, Joyce will always be associated with Dublin and has no obvious link to Belfast. In 1972 the hundred miles between the two cities – in two separated countries – would have felt like a chasm.  The rest of the sentence offers no real clues. I’ve never come across the phrase ‘blow the hoist’ anywhere else. (‘Blow’ may well be explosive given the link to Belfast in 1972, and the similarly bomb-related expression ‘hoist with his own petard’ then comes to my mind – but who knows? I don’t make any claim for Morrison having made those connections.)


The next verse opens with Orange boxes and its hard in this context not to assume a Northern Ireland reference. But the boxes are at a Safeway supermarket, which for Van in 1972, would have been a primarily American scene. Then we are given images of self-obsessed people ‘determined not to feel anyone else’s pain’. Such empathetic tears as there are come – memorably – from ‘every Hank Williams railroad train that cries’. Then we’re back to the Orangemen on the streets of Belfast – with ‘chains, badges, flags and emblems’.  And, after this whirlwind, it’s hardly surprising that ‘every brain and every eye’ is under strain…


After the respite of a chorus, we move on to a lush corporate reception and the pivotal, ironic lines:


‘You got everything in the world you ever wanted,

Right about now your face should wear a smile.’


That’s followed by a side-swipe at the journalists he doesn’t want to talk to:


‘Have you got your pen and notebook ready?’


Then it’s back to the false comforts of booze and the company of a jet-set who:


‘Fly too high to see my point of view.’


Van told ZigZag’s John Tobler and Connor McKnight in 1973 that this section was about:


‘All the party people who hang out and make the scene, doing their number on you.’[vii]


The song reaches a flailing, passionate climax before the resolution of a final chorus and a coda of semi-improvised interjections from Van over the Street Choir’s steady, calm repetition of the hookline. ‘Freedom marching’, ‘out in the street’, ‘turn around’, ‘come back’ – something’s happening out there and the singer is in the wrong place… In amongst these dislocated phrases he comes back, three times, to ‘look at the man’… Surely not a conscious appropriation of ‘Ecce Homo’, Pilate’s words in pointing to a beaten Christ crowned with thorns?  That would be taking a premature midlife crisis a bit too far.


The music complements the flashing verbal imagery very well: it is another strong ensemble performance, driven on by the Gary Mallaber drumming which Tom Salisbury rightly praised, and all harnessed within Salisbury’s arrangement. I’m with Doug Messenger in liking the overdubbed pedal steel – and I would say that Doug’s second shot at the lead guitar part nailed it.


‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ has been played live some 85 times over the years and there is another good version of it on It’s Too Late To Stop Now. It is a song with the strength and depth to support reinvention and reinterpretation and attention should be drawn to the folk-inflected version that Van memorably delivered for the Irish TV show Sult in 1993.[viii]


[i] Morrison Minto, op.cit.

[ii] Rolling Stone, 22 June 1972

[iii] ZigZag 36, 1973

[iv] Marcus, op.cit., p159

[v] Rolling Stone, 31 August 1972

[vi] Heylin, op.cit., p257. Gary Mallaber explained to me: ‘I think Van thought it strange of me when I would jump in my car and head back up the Thruway to play a weekend gig in hometown Buffalo NY. It was never personal, just something I was used to doing at a constant rate. Playing 5 or 6 nights a week was normal, not excessive!  When faced with any down time, I filled it in. This was hard for me to adjust to when jumping from the local gig schedule to the big concerts stages!’

[vii] ZigZag 36, 1973



Saint Dominic's Flashback

Saint Dominic’s Flashback:

Van Morrison’s Classic Album, Forty Years On

A new book by Peter Wrench 

Van Morrison is a unique talent: one of the finest and most distinctive vocalists in rock music. He is notorious for his impatience with journalists and analysis, for his grumpiness and his unpredictability – veering constantly between the good, bad and utterly extraordinary, across half a century in the business…

How best to get a handle on him? At the this point in his career a deep dive into some of the specifics can be more illuminating than an overview that skates across the surface.

Now, forty years after the release of his classic album Saint Dominic's Preview, comes an in-depth look at its 42 minutes of music and how they were put together. Drawing heavily on the memories of the musicians and technicians who made the record, the book shines a spotlight on Morrison's art and his working methods – and provides a fascinating perspective on the wider music scene of the early seventies.

This is a record that deserves detailed attention. It is one of Van’s most satisfying and wide-ranging collections with a succession of amazing tracks – from the focused 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’. Each song is closely examined and assessed.

And there are some great stories about how the album came to be made: from the hirings and firings to amazing flashes of creativity – with walk-on parts for everybody from Bob Dylan and the Band to Lee Michaels’ cheetahs. This is a book for everyone with an interest in Van Morrison’s music.

The author runs the Eden On The Line music website and his previous writing includes The Night Of The Round Stable, a novel for children. He is co-owner of the Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate.

The book is published by FeedARead and is available in paperback and on Kindle. (Equivalent links in the US are here: paperback and Kindle.)


Saint Dominic's Preview - an introduction

Here is an early draft of the introductory chapter for the book I am working on about Van Morrison's Saint Dominic's Preview. Further news about the rest of the book to follow... when I've written it.


Van's a real piece of work, but a very talented piece of work.’

Tom Salisbury, keyboards and arranger.[1]


So, let’s talk about the talent and the work of Van Morrison – rather than the accompanying dramas, which tend to get the column inches.


My focus here is on Saint Dominic’s Preview, released by Warner Brothers in July 1972. Forty years old, and counting.


Why should you want to read about it? And why should you want to listen to it now?


It was Morrison’s sixth solo album. He had had hit singles with Them – notably ‘Here Comes The Night’ – and , in the States at least, as a solo artist – ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Domino’, ‘Wild Night’. He was a favourite of the critics and capable of shifting records.


So this was no bolt from the blue announcing the arrival of the latest contender to an unsuspecting world. Nor was it one of those releases that sold a few hundred copies, but everyone who heard it immediately rushed out to form a band. In the first place, there would have been a lot of bands, because it sold very respectably. But, more importantly, the young bucks would have had a hard time replicating the sweep and power and flair of its music – and a well-nigh impossible task in imitating the truly inimitable vocalist.


Van Morrison has had his impact and influence, of course. But he did not kick-start any sort of musical sub-genre, with this or any other of his releases. There is no ‘school of Van’ in rock music. You never read a review hailing an emerging singer as ‘the new Van Morrison’. He has done his own thing through the decades, to greater or lesser acclaim, but has always been one of a kind. He has synthesised elements of blues, jazz, soul, folk and country music. He has also taken elements of the rock singer-songwriter stylings, which have waxed and waned alongside his distinctive career. His peers do not seem to have taken much from him in return. Always well rooted in the past, he has consistently been an innovator – but the results of those innovations have been so distinctively his that few have tried to build specifically upon them.


Rock music likes neat boxes and comfortable judgments. Unpredictable one-offs with unreliable quality control are more difficult to get to grips with.


And rock music has also yet to find a way of coping sensibly with legendary figures with enormous back catalogues who are still making new music fifty years and more after they started.


Think of Bob Dylan.


The popular view still sees him as the protest singer who went electric, doing all his best work in the first five years[2] and now devoting his declining years to frustrating music lovers with perverse live manglings of their favourite tunes, courtesy of a voice that was never up to much but is now completely shot.


Of course there are also the Bob Cats: devotees turning out for all the tours, treasuring the tapes, keeping the faith – and sometimes defending the indefensible. But how much attention can a mass of excellent releases along the way continue to get over the decades, once the initial reviews have been written and read? Where are Planet Waves, World Gone Wrong, ‘Love and Theft’, these days? Is anyone still listening? How can a new listener get to grips with an official discography of fifty or so albums, never mind the uncollected bootlegs…


And so to Van Morrison.


Ah, yes – runs the entry in the Dictionary of Received Ideas – great voice, but unpredictable; cantankerous; tends to go on a bit; Astral Weeks was a classic, but he’s never matched that – though Moondance was pretty good too; and then he did that single with Cliff Richard, of all people, and weren’t there some duets with Lonnie Donegan?


In line with the D___ of R___ I___, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums logs Astral Weeks at #19 and Moondance at #65. But that’s it for Van, apparently: no real longevity or hidden depths, it seems. The implication is that he – or his audience – has run out of steam, or perhaps that his music was of its time, and that time is no longer now.


Of course, there are the devotees of Van too: buying all the records, turning out for the tours, cataloguing what has been played when and where and how often[3].  And a wider press and public stirred, and were properly awed and appreciative, when he revisited Astral Weeks live in 2008 and 2009 and delivered an artistic as well as an economic triumph.[4]


But there is a lot less critical literature and scholarly attention then some of his peers receive. It can now be only a matter of time before some university somewhere finds itself endowed with a Chair in Dylanology, but I suspect one in Morrisonia will take longer. Meanwhile, great and treasurable albums are lurking out there below the radar while such attention as the man gets comprises the standard ageing rockstar questions of whether his latest offering is a ‘return to form’, or provides an opportunity to recycle some entertaining tit-bit from his private life, or simply offers an opportunity to mourn his declining faculties or taste.


Hence this piece. Not a biography. No psychoanalysis. No attempt to trace the full course of Van Morrison’s long and continuing career. Instead, a focused look at one, special album. One which often found him approaching his top form, recorded in the company of a phenomenal collection of individually talented musicians, many of whom have spoken to me. An album which demonstrates his various skills as a singer, songwriter and musician – and his good fortune in assembling fine collaborators around him whose contributions undoubtedly raised his game.


Why this particular album? It is representative and illustrative of a number of different strands in his music; and it was one of his most commercially successful releases, reaching #15 in the US charts. It also has a special place in my affections as the first Van Morrison record I bought, forty years back when it was first released. I am told that it is Van Morrison’s own favourite in his catalogue[5]. And, as we shall see, its highlights fly way higher than most.


But the main point is that Saint Dominic’s Preview deserves your attention entirely on its own merits, as forty two minutes of music which have seldom been bettered. This is fine, fine stuff by any standard. Grown-up music, built to last; conscious of its history while reaching for the future; blending craft and spontaneity; delivered with an irresistible swagger.


For Van Morrison aficionados, this will be a reintroduction to some of his very best music, in a collection which is often under-regarded. For those less familiar with his work, I hope it will provide an encouragement to deeper immersion, through a very enjoyable gateway.


– o O o –


Let’s go back to 1972. I’m a fifteen year-old schoolboy in a small market town in the north of England.


‘Redwood Tree’ was the first Van Morrison song I was conscious of hearing. It must have been on Radio One or perhaps TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test, accompanied by one of their old films or swirly patterns… I’d read about him in Melody Maker and the NME, and I’d noted reverend references to Astral Weeks – but I didn’t know anyone who had any of his records. Which meant, in those pre-internet days, that I hadn’t heard them.


Now, ‘Redwood Tree’ definitely had something: the characterful and supremely confident voice drew me in, the music swept along – assured and grounded, but with a real spring in its step. Radio-friendly, but with nothing to be ashamed of in succumbing to its charms.


For at fifteen, I was snotty about my tastes – Dylan and other singer-songwriters, the Velvets, West Coast rock, some British prog. Music should be intelligent and technically proficient, I felt – though I was clear that I didn’t like jazz. The blues, on the other hand, were fine, in the shape of authentic exponents from the Delta and Chicago. But I thought most R&B was dangerously close to Motown – which I dismissed magisterially as commercial (intended, in those days, as the most wounding of musical judgments). I was similarly suspicious of country music, but had already had to make an exception for Nashville Skyline.


Then I bought the first issue of Let It Rock,[6] a new glossy monthly music magazine in the UK which played perfectly to my sense of seriousness and significance – and which, thankfully, began to break down some of my dafter prejudices over the next few years.


Here was Charlie Gillett, selecting Saint Dominic’s Preview in his monthly Top 10 column:


‘Van keeps making records which fulfil his fans’ hopes… The title track keeps growing as the lyrics come clear, a panoramic view from Van’s mind… ‘Almost Independence Day’ and ‘Listen To The Lion’… are still mysterious and apparently meaningless, defying the listener to focus on the words as acoustic instruments twine round them.’


And here Dave Laing in the review section:


‘He is a great writer and singer, and this is a very fine album… Part of the distinctiveness… lies in the freedom he enjoys from the commercial pressures… he’s one of the few people in that situation… not to succumb to self-indulgence or obscurantism… Each track is allowed to follow its own course, to be built up to climaxes, fall away and build up again, just like a live performance.’


I was persuaded. I took the bus to Blackburn at the earliest opportunity, invested a couple of weeks’ paper round wages and bagged the record.


– o O o –


What was waiting for me?


However may times you drop the needle onto the run-in groove, ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ never fails to deliver its unique lift. Van scat-singing over loose handclaps, the band gradually falling in behind him to shape an exuberant groove. The story of how it all came together is told in Chapter 4. It is guitarist and arranger Doug Messenger’s favourite track on the album and it’s difficult to argue with his overview:


‘That song’s almost a train wreck, there’s so much going on. But it works so well together.’[7]


‘Gypsy’ keeps the up-tempo momentum going, not so strong a song as the opener, but confidently played and sung, the backing vocals and horns combining to push things along nicely through the repeated, wordless, choruses.


Then the first shift of direction, to ‘I Will Be There’ and its playfully retro styling: a bluesy big band feel delivered by a smallish contemporary combo. Lots of space initially for a soaring vocal, Tom Salisbury’s boogie piano and Jack Schroer’s trademark sax before it builds to a stomping climax:


‘Going to grab my razor and my suitcase and my toothbrush and my overcoat and my underwear…’


You’re still smiling as you’re thrown by a handbrake turn. A strummed acoustic guitar announces the peerless ‘Listen To The Lion’, an incantatory meditation over eleven minutes, rooted in the repetition of a few apparently simple and sometimes hackneyed phrases. There’s a lot more to be said about how and why it works in the coming chapters, but work it most certainly does.


On to side two, and the title track sweeps majestically into view. The strongest lyric on the album: stream-of-consciousness, somehow linking vivid and varied vignettes of past and present experiences into a cohesive whole through the chorus’s resolute sense of calm and distanced observation. As we shall see, the dense arrangement took some specific tweaking to produce the record’s wonderful results. The overall feel is more conventionally ‘seventies singer-songwriter’ than what has come before, but it is difficult to imagine that any of Morrison’s peers could have realised its pictures and portent quite so well – or to think of any who had the benefit of such an accomplished band behind them.


It’s essentially the same band for ‘Redwood Tree’, a slighter song, but one which bounds along happily in a romping, user-friendly evocation of childhood.  Fictional, one assumes – though there are some small-scale redwoods in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens[8]


Which takes us to the album’s final surprise: another ten minute plus track, with more mysterious, repetitive lyrics. ‘Almost Independence Day’ sets Morrison’s flailed twelve-string against piano and a six-string guitar, propulsive and probing drums – and a glorious Moog synthesiser, surging in its own space like Moby Dick in mid-ocean.


Pause for a minute to take it all in, then you’re ready to go back to the beginning again…


[1] Tom Salisbury, in correspondence with the author, April 2012

[2] though one is obliged to pause here for ritual obeisance to Blood On The Tracks.

[3] see, for example, Günter Becker’s estimable website

[4] I astonished myself by paying £200 a ticket to see the tour at the Royal Albert Hall; and was surprised, relieved and delighted to get value for my money.

[5] Interview with Doug Messenger by author, April 2012

[6] Let It Rock, November 1972

[7] interview, April 2012