You’re trapped in an elevator. Assaulting your ears with merciless blandness is a song, a soulless, treacly instrumental version of “Year of the Cat.” This canned performance, cruel and sinister by virtue of its very existence, bears little resemblance to Al Stewart’s moody and literate 1976 original, but your impulse is to curse the songwriter and, after spending a day with those horrid Muzak-ish strains holding your brain hostage, to blame him for all of popular music’s sins. I quite understand. But you would be wrong.
For one thing, once the companies have paid royalties for their use, artists have no control over what elevator-music miscreants do to their songs. Don’t hate the players, hate the game – carry an iPod or a Walkman and provide your own soundtrack.
More importantly, though, there is another thing to consider. Over the past 40-plus years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Al Stewart has created and continues to make sonic art that showcases what’s best about popular music: stellar musicianship; evocativeness; intelligence; relatability and relevance; uncompromising vision that encompasses past, present, and future. Stewart’s music propels both body and brain into motion. Whether his song exposes a young man’s romantic (or not-so-romantic) longings during the swinging ’60s; laments the fate of a strung-out, washed-up, never-was ’70s girl singer; presents the love of a couple nearly a century ago against a backdrop of impending world war; notes the steel-gray loneliness of present-day political candidates, it kick-starts one’s senses.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, chart-following Americans had their first introduction to Scotland-born Stewart’s work, a rich, innovative blend of fact-based history; fully drawn characters; realistic and real-life situations (and equally plausible reactions); a smattering of sex or politics or war; the artist’s own genuine empathy for the all-too-human foibles and follies of people powerful and ordinary, celebrated and unnoticed; and gorgeous music performed by musicians committed to their craft. Through the 1960s and early 70s, Stewart achieved success as a recording artist and performer in the UK folk-pop scene, but his respective 1974 and 1975 LPs Past, Present and Future and Modern Times grabbed the interest of stateside listeners. By 1976, Stewart was living in sunny California and the US was enthralled by the intoxicating musical strains and sensuous lyrical lines that brought the “Year of the Cat” — and its felinelike femme fatale — to life:
Oh, she looks at you so coolly
And her eyes shine like the moon and the sea.
She comes in incense and patchouli,
So you take her to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat…
“Year of the Cat,” Year of the Cat, 1976
Are you enticed by the intrigue and romance, drawn in by the woman’s eyes and her luxuriant aromas and by the sense that something sure to be life-changing and memorable is about to occur? Millions around the world were, and they made and kept Stewart a celebrated artist, something more than a mere pop star, through the mid-1980s, when legal matters put the kibosh on his major-label recording career for a number of years. At that point, for too many, hearing an Al Stewart song became a painful event that happened in an elevator or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.
But more than a few listeners stayed connected to the real Al Stewart, listening to his UK and US catalog releases, keeping up with new minor-label releases (which appeared every few years or so), and catching up with his performances in small American and European clubs. And as time rolled on, an interesting development occurred.
Most radio stations are programmed by a few massive, impersonal, money-focused corporations. People are hipping themselves to the fact that quality music is rarely found on big-time commercial airwaves – much of the best stuff is found off the beaten path. The few independents — college radio, noncommercial stations, unaffiliated small outlets, satellite — tend to deal with so-called “niche” markets, specific genre – or demographic-focused groups of listeners, and it is on these out-of-the-mainstream stations where musical excellence beyond Britney and blink 182 is most commonly found.
Thanks to these smaller radio outlets and the word they spread about his concerts, his new-album releases and his music, listeners again discovered Al Stewart and took flight with him on musical journeys picturesque and unforgettable. And many, previously mired in the uninformed notion that he was some milquetoast, unhip ’70s relic, found themselves enlightened (perhaps, goddess forbid, even educated), certainly entertained, and enormously well-traveled:
A single byplane in the clear blue sky
No enemy was seen
High above the fields of France.
Oh she looks,
But there’s nothing to see.
Still she looks,
Saying come back to me.
“Fields of France,” Last Days of the Century, 1988
This is the day you disappeared
Your hand was steady and I know that your mind was clear
You left a note up on the shelf
Saying “I would rather be anyone but myself.”
You took a simple ride across the Great Divide
You left the television on in your room.
“Anniversary,” A Beach Full of Shells, 2005
Now the thunder rails in the great mainsails
And the stars desert the skies
And the rigging strains as the hands of rain
Reach down to wash your eyes.
And your oarsman stands with his knife in hand
And his eyes spell mutiny…
“The Dark and the Rolling Sea,” Modern Times, 1975
Inside the lonely building
Sits the candidate.
His speech is typed and ready.
The hundred-dollar plates
Sit on deserted tables
Beneath fluorescent light.
But no one comes to hear him;
No cheers disturb the night.
“The Candidate,” Russians and Americans, 1984
The subway station’s closed again
Sleeps beneath its veil of rain.
My footprints broken trail behind,
Steals the nightlights from my mind.
The dark deserted streets stand clear.
Today has lived and died in here.
So I leave the chapel gloom
To find the shelter of my tiny room.
But it’s all right while the lights of the city shine so bright.
It’s all right till the last winding train fades from sight.
“Bedsitter Images,” Bedsitter Images, 1967
Ah, softly we move through the shadows,
Slip away through the trees,
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields
On our hands and our knees.
And all that I ever was able to see –
The fire in the air, glowing red,
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze.
“Roads to Moscow,” Past, Present and Future, 1974
Woodrow Wilson has his 14 points,
But Clemenceau turns to Lloyd George
And says, “You know that
God himself had only 10.”
“League of Notions,” Between the Wars, 1995
I must be losing my shine, like an old dusty burgundy wine
In a cellar cool and damp, dull beneath a yellow lamp
No one turning the key to come and get me today
The more I think about you now, the more I’m feeling that way.
“Optical Illusion” 24
The sun goes down on a neon eon
Though you’d have a job explaining it to Richard Coeur-de-Lion
Animation, bar conversation, anticipation, disinclination.
Poor old wino turns with dust in his eyes,
Begs from the dregs from the bottom of the kegs.
Man, you’ve never seen a lady lay down and spread her legs like…
“Soho,” Past, Present and Future, 1974
Uncool? Out of date? Done? Hardly. Al Stewart’s music, old and new, made listeners — again, old and new — excited, and for much more than the sexy stuff. His skill on the guitar, inspired by heroes like Robert Fripp, Bert Jansch and Django Reinhardt and inspiring to artists like Jim Capaldi and Tori Amos, made senses soar. His grasp of the human condition set to memorable melodies touched hearts. And while he may be seen as an artist of a certain era, his music demonstrates otherwise, skipping through genres, creating moods, keeping a firm finger on the pulses of numerous times, modern and otherwise, and maintaining a laserlike focus on the connections that exist between loves, between the wars, between the decades.
[ADBLOCKHERE] Since the late 1990s, the Internet-shared experiences of the Stewart faithful combined with renewed attention that came to the artist by way of his increasingly heavy concert schedule in the US and Europe and growing support from independent radio has led to an Al Stewart resurgence. I first interviewed Al in 1998, and in the years of our acquaintance, it has been pleasantly surprising to see his recognition grow from a bare simmer to a rolling boil. The gradual but still-rising gains in media attention, a brisk market for collectibles and rarities, the 2003 publication of an Al Stewart biography, the fact that he is playing increasingly bigger venues – and more of them than he has in ages – to overflow crowds of passionate fans who come from all ages and backgrounds: All point to Stewart’s talent, to his personal professional perseverance, and to the ongoing and justified relevance of his art to the larger world.
We’ll explore the man’s voluminous discography in a future article, but this one’s job is nearly done: to present for your consideration an artist who was for too long overlooked. If you’re seeking music that’s hip (yeah, I said it), challenging, enlightening, meaningful and all-encompassing, music that connects us and what we experience today with lives lived in times gone by and in places or situations either unfamiliar or all too recognizable, by all means avoid elevator music and, in particular, the Muzak rendering of “Year of the Cat.” But do check out the works of Al Stewart – whether they come from the past, present or future, they are sure to be among the best of what popular music – genre be damned – is all about.
Originally published as part of Blogcritics‘ April 2000 celebration of Al Stewart as its Featured Artist of the Month.