12   Rock Around the World NOWIriber, 1976

Al Stewart Pounces with

The Year of the Cat

Al Stewart’s manager Luke O’Reilly ceremoniously poured the bubbly into longstemmed glassed for after-set well-wishers backstage at the Roxy. Stewart seemed closer than ever to breaking beyond his cult here in the States—he had just pulled an awesome response from the audience’s collective gut—so O’Reilly had good cause to break out the grape.

With glass precariously in hand. Stewart stood in the doorway trying to pull his mind back to the present. Somebody commented that his cult-figured days were numbered. “You really think so?” he said. inadvertently emptying half his glass on a guy from St. Louis standing next to him. The guy was a diplomat and dismissed the honestly amusing accident, in spite of Al’s profuse apologies. It’s a fact that one’s mind tends to stay onstage longer than one’s body, and backstage scenes didn’t help. so we adiosed—there’d be time for articulation later. Stewart’s human. And so it goes.

Al and I got together a few days later at the Old World restaurant across from Tower Records on the Strip, and he was anything but inarticulate. “The principle behind what I do,” he was saying between mouthfuls of low-rent crabmeat with a big pricetag, “which because I can’t think of another name I have to call ‘folk-rock’, is to achieve a fifty-fifty mix between lyrics and music. and to try to wherever possible to find original things to write about. I don’t think I’ve shifted that ground in eight years of songwriting.”

Stewart’s affinity for history. literature, and folk storytelling surface in his lyric, which he combines with acoustic/electric instrumentation and an immediately identifiable vocal style; somebody likened his voice to Ian Anderson with a clothes-pinned nose. Close. but no cigar.

Seven albums ago, back in the late sixties, Stewart was working the club circuit in Great Britain with various nondescript groups. Eventually. with a bunch of original material and an acoustic guitar. he signed with English Columbia, and between ’68 and ’71 recorded four albums. Only one of them, “Love Chronicles” (’69). was released in the States; Melody Maker tagged it their folk album of the year for 1969. The album. his second, featured Jimmy Page’s post-Yardbirds pre-Led Zep electric guitar on the title track.

I recorded that album in mid-’68, and I think Jimmy was in the studio doing Led Zeppelin’s first album at the same time,” Al recalled. “He wasn’t widely known then, so he wasn’t on the album for that reason. He was just one of the few electric guitarists I knew at the time.”

Al did two more albums after “Chronicles”, neither of which were released in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1974, with the release of Past, Present, and Future in the U.S. and Great Britain that Al Stewart created a masterwork both he and the critics were satisfied with.

PP&F contained a series of forays into lyric history that approach timelessness. “Old Admirals” traces the life of Admiral Lord Fisher from his status as turn-of-the-century naval warfare expert to his status as an anachronism during the first World War. “The Last Day of June 1934” recounts Hitler’s final—and total—consolodation of power in Germany. “Roads To Moscow” is a painstakingly-researched vision of the Russion front from the eyes of a German soldier taken prisoner during the second World War; the story is so electric that the listener should not be surprised to watch his feet turn cold and blue. And the album’s closer, “Nostradamus”, threads past, present. and future together—the song’s subject was a 16th-century seer who had an uncanny insight to the future, first published in 1555:

fif • • • An emperor of France shall rise who will be born near Italy. His rule cost his empire dear. Napoloron his name shall be. From Castille does Franco come and the government driven out shall be . . .”

And: “. . . One named Hister shall become a captain of Greater Germainie. No law does this man observe, and bloody his rise and fall shall be . . .”

And: ” . . . In the new lands of America three brothers shall come to power. Two alone are born to rule but all must die before their hour . . .”

“Not many people combine rock with literature,” Al observed. “which to me is even more obvious when you consider how gross most of the lyrics in rock and roll really are. And yet all the inspiration is there under everybody’s nose that wanted to use it. There’s no reason why Led Zeppelin couldn’t have good lyrics, you know—except for a general bowing to the common consensus of opinion that rock people have to be stupid, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

“It just occurred to me that there was a gap. History is just something I use for a backdrop—for instance, A meets B can

be considered as two-dimensional, but if I say ‘A meets B in 1934’, all of a sudden it’s become a stage—there’s a whole backdrop behind it, and it becomes three-dimensional.”

And it’s precisely Stewarts’s Michnerian ability to paint a wholistically accurate portrait of his subjects that makes songs so powerful; the listener is there, in the present.

“Modern Times” was Stewart’s next three-dimensional album, which got to number 30 in the national album charts without benefit of a single, although “Carol” got a good share of FM airplay. While Modern Times wasn’t the exercise in historical perspective that PP&F was, it was a strong followup that helped to solidify Stewart’s following in the States.

Stewart’s “Year Of The Cat”, produced by Alan Parsons, shipped a mere year and a half later. “It just seemed to be a very long, hard process,” he laughed. “We got the basic tracks down in August of ’75, and we hoped to have it finished by last Christmas—we were trying to rush another album out after Modern Times. Then first I didn’t have all the lyrics together and secondly I didn’t like some of the songs, so we thought we’d leave it awhile and give it more thought. We ditched two of the tracks completely, and I started writing some others, and by springtime I had gotten those together. Then I developed laryngitis and lost my voice for six weeks, so we did the rest of the basic tracks but still had no vocals on the album. And it was until last July or August—almost a year after we’d started—that I was ready again, but then Alan was doing John

Miles, Ambrosia, and we never seemed to be able to get together. Luke freaked totally—it looked like the album wouldn’t be ready for this Christmas—but finally we came over to Los Angeles and told Alan we were going to sit on his doorstep until he gave us some time. We did the vocals quite quickly, really—a week later we had a record.”

Through that eighteen months, there was some concern Stewart would lose momentum, but “Cat” was well worth the wait. PP&F never stopped selling, anyway. “There’s been a broadening of support all the time,” he said between bites of rice pudding. “If I didn’t do anything else, that would continue, because there are places ‘Past, Present, and Future’ is reaching for the first time. All of a sudden stations add ‘Roads To Moscow’, which is three years old.”

“Year Of The Cat” opens with ‘Lord Grenville’: ” . . . Our time is just a point along a line/that runs forever with no end . . .” Stewart shares a thinking man’s awareness of the eternal paradox of man’s insignificance among all things and man’s ability to make lasting contributions. “I’m concerned with it all being part of a constant process of development that will hopefully last another fifty years, and I take day to day (album to album) ups and downs within that context. One of the most important criteria is whether or not my albums will stand the test of time. Five years ago, I said I expected my tenth album to be my best, and I still feel that way at number seven.”

—Stephen Peeples

Al Stewart by Nell Ztozower