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The St. Dominic’s connection

MUSIC | James DeKoven

Considering that my favorite bands in high school were the likes of Black Sabbath, Mountain and Thin Lizzy, it made little sense that I was also buying Van Morrison records.

His songs didn’t include blistering guitar solos or prophesies of nuclear Armageddon. Yet as a music-obsessed teen, I recognized that he deserved investigation. First I tried Astral Weeks, then His Band and the Street Choir, then Saint Dominic’s Preview, which became my favorite of the bunch.

Years later, when I moved to San Francisco, I ended up living a few blocks from St. Dominic’s Church. And I began to wonder whether there was a connection between the album and the imposing Gothic church at Bush and Steiner Streets.

Morrison certainly had links with the Bay Area. In 1968, he married Marin county native Janet Planet and eventually they settled in Fairfax. He played the area’s funky dives, hung out with the locals, and even brought his parents over from Ireland and gave them a record store to run on Bolinas Avenue. According to legend, the store’s patron was a secret, the only evidence being an entire wall devoted to their son’s album covers.

His iconic album, Tupelo Honey, was recorded at the famed Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, and a number of sessions for Saint Dominic’s Preview, his next album, took place there in 1971. Released in July 1972, Saint Dominic’s Preview climbed as high as number 15 on the Billboard charts.

With his Bay Area ties a few years strong, you’d think there could indeed be a connection between the song and the church. But no proof appears in the album’s liner notes. The album cover shows Morrison sitting on the steps of what appears to be a church, but it’s actually the Montgomery Chapel at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.

Morrison himself offered conflicting accounts about the song’s origins. In one article, he said he was inspired to write the song “Saint Dominic’s Preview” after seeing an ad for a peace vigil to be held in the neighborhood at St. Dominic’s.

But an interview in the June 22, 1972, issue of Rolling Stone reveals a different take. There he is quoted as recalling: “I’d been working on this song about the scene going down in Belfast. And I wasn’t sure what I was writing, but 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. A few weeks later I was playing at a gig in Reno, Nevada. I picked up a newspaper, 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.”

Such is the nature of rock and roll history, a blend of alternating fact and mythology. Many believe that the Eagles’s “Hotel California” was a commentary on the excess of the 70s in the Golden State. Some reports, however, have the band claiming it was to honor Jackson Browne’s wife Phyllis, who committed suicide as they were recording the album. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” was supposedly a tribute to southern rock deity Duane Allman. But other accounts say the song’s roots come from the girlfriend of Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins, who asked him one day, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” — which, years later, became the song’s memorable opening line.

Morrison had similar confusion even about his own inspiration. As he said in that same Rolling Stone interview: “I’m not surprised that people get different meanings out of my songs. But I don’t wanna give the impression that I know what everything means ’cause I don’t.” In fact, when asked why he named the song “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” he replied, “You know something? I haven’t a clue what it means.”

On November 25, 1976, Morrison performed two songs — “Tura Lura Lural” and “Caravan” — at Winterland Ballroom at Sutter and Steiner Streets, now home of an apartment complex just a block away from St. Dominic’s Church. He was there as one of the special guests performing in a six-hour concert honoring The Band’s final performance, famously known as The Last Waltz.