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.
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 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. 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.
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. 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, 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.’
‘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…
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…
 Tom Salisbury, in correspondence with the author, April 2012
 though one is obliged to pause here for ritual obeisance to Blood On The Tracks.
 see, for example, Günter Becker’s estimable website http://ivan.vanomatic.de/
 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.
 Interview with Doug Messenger by author, April 2012
 Let It Rock, November 1972
 interview, April 2012