Musical legend Van Morrison lived in Marin County, California, once one of the area’s most celebrated rock star residents. Belfast, Ireland born Van Morrison moved his family from Woodstock, New York to Fairfax, California in 1971. During the next few years in and around San Francisco, he would write about his Bay Area life in his songs, grounding his mystical and abstract lyrics with splashes of local geography and color. Capturing the feelings of a Northern Irishman living in an adopted home.
On side two of 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, that thread is most explicit. The album’s last three cuts stitch together scenes from the Bay Area, effectively forming a nineteen-and-a-half-minute suite. I don’t think it’s an accident Morrison put the songs together that way: one ebullient stream-of-consciousness cut whose concrete images add up to an abstract whole, one imagined personal history of an idyllic youth, and one elongated, expansive breath of nighttime summer fog and wonder. It works as half a concept album: a traveling soul’s rumination on landing somewhere new, imagining himself in its past, and learning to live in its present.
After Morrison's breakup, he would hang around the Bay Area for a few more years. Crowe found him living in Brentwood, Los Angeles, in 1977, and although a Rolling Stone interview from 1978 said he had been living in Sausalito, Morrison was mostly farther afield: “Nowadays I go between two places: the United States for recording, working and organizing, and Ireland — Belfast and the South — for inspiration and composing,” he said.
Morrison would return to record at Sausalito’s Record Plant repeatedly. He cut a live album at the Masonic Auditorium in 1993, and perhaps most memorably, he leg-kicked his way into moviegoers’ memories with his electrifying performance of “Caravan” in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, documenting The Band’s Thanksgiving 1976 farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom on Post Street.
"It ain’t why why why, it just is." - Van Morrison"
He continued to write about the Bay Area after Saint Dominic’s Preview too. The follow-up, Hard Nose The Highway, begins with the heavily orchestrated “Snow in San Anselmo,” with its discussion of rare frigid weather in Marin over breakfast at the local pancake house. Veedon Fleece’s subtler “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” paints a somber picture of a hard-drinking expat whose life is turned upside down by an act of vigilantism in the City.
It appears that 2016’s nostalgic “In Tiburon,” feels more like a list of remembrances than a complete song; despite the title, it spends a fair amount of time around the City, and even has a nod to the Outer Richmond.
On 1971’s Tupelo Honey, Morrison sketched out his feelings on his family’s cross-country move: “When I hear that robin’s song, well, I know it won’t be long--Find out where we belong--And we’re starting a new life.”
On Saint Dominic’s Preview, we hear the next chapter of a Bay Area story: finding a place to belong on a hilly street, setting aside the past and imagining a new version of one’s life, seeing and hearing and feeling and breathing the misty night, trying to make the whole thing blend. It’s a tale that’s been sung, told, or at least contemplated, by many San Franciscans, new and old.
Morrison, who now lives in his native Belfast, has kept close ties to Marin over the years and visits often, maintaining a home and office in Mill Valley.