Van Morrison put this album out in the summer of 1972. It was his prolific period when he was still on a red-hot tear since his masterpiece Astral Weeks in 1968. Unfortunately, he was about to jump the shark just a couple of years later. One could even begin to see how all that was going to come about when listening to a couple of cuts on this album in '72.

I hesitate to use "jump the shark" because making music is not drama; it's not television. There are no episode numbers in real life. However, when used as a metaphor for "peaking," it's become so ingrained a term as to achieve relevance to almost any artistic endeavor.

He had followed up Astral Weeks with what might be just as good a record in its own way, Moondance. Moondance has a lighter feel but the texture runs just as deep. It's based more on a love of people (or one specific person) than on the love of an idea. It's the love of an amorphous idea that makes Astral Weeks the more trance-like work, but it's the love of the humans that makes Moondance warmer. {By the way, when you read a writeup here by garryowen, like the one for Moondance or Fleetwood Mac, I would like for you to know that is an alias account created by my old friend wharfinger for reasons so psychologically complex that I am glad I do not understand them.}

Van carried that moondance warmth into his next album in 1971 called His Band and Street Choir. And then the tenderness turned almost sappy in Tupelo Honey, also released in 1971. This is when he was in full swing with some girl he called Janet Planet. That might have been her actual name; I'm not sure. But I am sure that when you start letting your significant other pen the liner notes to your albums, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Think of Larry David and his relationship with his save the whales, save the planet wife. When she finally dumps him for a younger and more concerned activist (because I can guarantee you Larry David doesn't really give a damn about the manatees) he's not going to be nearly as funny any more. At least not for a long while.

It seems that when St. Dominic's came out in '72, Van's relationship with his hippie goddess might have been on thin ice. The next year he released one of my favorites but one which, like St. Dominic's, went mostly overlooked: Hard Nose the Highway. Then, in 1974, he released another vastly overlooked but eminently satisfying album, Veedon Fleece. That one contained such bittersweet tunes as "Fair Play" and "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights." You could tell he was in pain, as opposed to the giddy euphoria (wait; is that a cliché? How about "as opposed to the teen-like puppyness") in a work like Moondance, but he was still on top of his game. Unfortunately, the game was just about in the fourth quarter and almost everything since Veedon Fleece has been shark bait.

But let's get back to '72 and see what else was going on in the music biz that year. Paul Simon's self-titled masterpiece which spawned the radio hit, "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," came out. Oddly enough (since this seldom happens), my favorite from that album, Mother and Child Reunion, was a more popular selection according to Billboard. Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" from his wonderful album Madman Across the Water was on the radio. (Sir Elton was jumping his own shark around this time. I had some adjectives in there prior to "shark," but I took them out because they sounded snarky. I don't want Elton to think me snarky. No sir.) Don McLean had American Pie and Neil Young had "Heart of Gold." Elvis had hunk-a-hunk of "Burning Love" and America had "Ventura Highway." Jackson Browne had "Doctor My Eyes" and that wonderful "All the Young Dudes" by Mott the Hoople might have been the weirdest tune of the year to become popular.

All in all, a pretty good year for music. The ugly caravan of 70s and 80s music hadn't quite come around the corner of that filthy alley where it was germinating. Not yet. But you could smell the fumes. Perhaps one indicator was that fact that the Number One song that year was that godawful mess from Led Zeppelin called Stairway to Heaven. Yes, the more I think of it, that was the genesis of all the bad music of the 70s and 80s. It might have even caused disco. Even though I have no solid proof, I'm going to go ahead and blame disco on Led Zeppelin.

The first song on St. Dominic's may be the best. "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" is just a fantastic pop tune, in the mold of Brown-Eyed Girl or Domino. It opens with some handclapping and some doo-wops that have all the energy Van can summon. The rollicking horn arrangements carry this tune like an aircraft. "Watch this," Van says before the bridge. Indeed.

Dexys Midnight Runners had a hit in England with a cover version of this opening tune in the early Eighties. The funny story is when they performed it live on Top Of The Pops and the BBC staff decided to put up a big picture of darts player Jocky Wilson as a backdrop to their performance. Can you imagine the BBC being clueless?

I'm not all that fond of the middle portion of this album. "Gypsy" and "I Will Be There" are OK, but (as I said) you can begin to hear the unenthusiastic meandering that would (in just a couple of years) dominate almost all of his lesser works. The fourth song, "Listen to the Lion," is heralded by many Van fans as "just as good" as anything on Astral Weeks. I am here to call bullshit on that, and I call it in a loud and resounding voice. Why is this not as good a song as "Madam George" or "Beside You"? It's not something you can put into words; it's just the electricity that exists between the singer and the listener. When a singer like Van Morrison is getting down in the emotional trenches with you, there is no doubt whether he's ready to fight the battle. There is no faking a worn-out emotion. There is not a false note on Astral Weeks. Not one. Was he insincere when he recorded the eleven plus minutes of "Listen to the Lion"? That may be too strong a word. But he is not committed. That much is certain. Side note: Ronnie Montrose plays the guitar on this cut, as he did on Tupelo Honey. He died on 3/4/12.

The title song which comes next is a better effort. It's primarily a song about immigrants and it contains a great intro line. "Chamois cleaning all the windows." That's a theme that comes up again in one of Ryan's favorite songs, "Cleaning Windows," on a later album. And this song does contain the best couplet ever written about fame and fortune. He's speaking of himself here, but I think of this phrase every time I see a disgruntled millionaire or a petulant rock star or a depressed supermodel or an alcoholic insane Hollywood superstar.

You got everything in the world you ever wanted
Right about now your face should wear a smile.

So I'm not sounding too upbeat about this album so far, am I? Well, the next song along with the very first song are plenty of reason to go out and buy this album. Hell, almost any CD I buy these days has a maximum of two good songs on it anyway. But just give a listen to Redwood Tree and tell me you don't get chillbumps. This short tale about a boy and his dog is right up there with any song Van Morrison ever wrote. The hymn-like piano contrasted to the bluesy guitar, with another sterling horn arrangement, is as uplifting as music gets. Never have doobie doos been more emotionally sincere.

The album closes with another ten minute rambling piece called "Almost Independence Day." Again, it focuses on San Francisco. It's neither sincere nor tight, but it does mean that you can lift the needle and put it back on "Jackie Wilson Said" and remember why you paid good money for this.

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