Saint Dominic's Preview: a closer 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