Last fall, I spoke with veteran singer-songwriter Al Stewart by phone shortly after the release of his terrific Appleseed Records album A Beach Full of Shells, which presents a treasure trove of songs and stories sure to delight smart people who love music. In the course of our long chat, the Scotland-born Californian and I covered a lot of material: the CD and its songs and how A Beach Full of Shells fits into the outstanding Stewart catalog, which includes classic LPs Year of the Cat, Love Chronicles, Modern Times, and Between the Wars; how songwriting — though serious — can be a game; airports; love and aging rock and rollers. We also laughed a hell of a lot and talked football. Yes, the sensitive folk-troubadour-slash-wine connoisseur is a devoted gridiron fan. Surprised? Keep reading, you’ll be amused and fascinated. Note: There was very little wine involved in the making of this interview.
Natalie Davis: Al?
Al Stewart: Is that Natalie?
ND: Yes, it is.
AS: I haven’t seen you in a long time! How are you? Are you still in Baltimore?
ND: I am, and we’re all well. How are you?
AS: I’m OK… I think. I’m a little shaky today because of a big dinner party last night. (He laughs.) But generally, I’m alright.
ND: Happy birthday. The big day was not too long ago. Did you have a good time?
AS: I was 90. (We laugh — he actually turned 60.) You know, it’s a very strange thing. For whatever reason, my birthday was on Labor Day. And I’m here in L.A. and pretty much everyone that I knew was, like, gone. I mean, it was like a deserted town. So I had a very, very quiet birthday, which I really enjoyed. I took myself out to dinner and a movie.
ND: That’s great!
AS: Sometimes that’s just a really nice thing to do for your 60th birthday. It’s bad enough that you’re 60 and having it rubbed into your face by everyone you know. So, I had a very quiet birthday.
ND: Sometimes that’s for the best.
AS: Yes, it was for the best. It was thoroughly enjoyable, really.
ND: I understand you’re actually going to perform a birthday concert.
AS: Yeah, I’m doing a show in London at the Barbican.
ND: A magnificent place…
AS: Have you been there?
ND: No, but people I know have told me great things about it.
AS: Yes, it’s modern enough. And it’s sold out — 2,000 people. Pretty damn good for a Tuesday night. I’m impressed. (He laughs.)
ND: (Also laughing) I’m impressed, too.
AS: I should play the Barbican every night.
ND: I understand your other UK tour stops [Fall 2005] are selling well.
AS: We seem to be on a roll at the moment. I just did a run in the northeast and in Texas, and they were all good. I guess. We’ve got to get back to Baltimore.
ND: I agree.
AS: Have you heard the new record [A Beach Full of Shells]?
ND: (Giggles.) Oh, you’re going to interview me? All right. I love the new record.
AS: (Impishly) Oh, good!
ND: It’s a wonderful record. There’s just so much depth in what you do, and when you compare it to most of what you hear in the mainstream marketplace… It’s just a refreshing change, something that makes you think and feel.
AS: What are your favorites?
ND: My favorite song on the album is “Katherine of Oregon.”
AS: Oh, that’s great, ’cause I like that one. It’s the simplest one, in a way; it sort of wrote itself, but it has a certain charm to it.
ND: What led you to write that song?
AS: (The sound of Stewart’s trademarked tenor comes through the phone as he sings some of the opening lyric.) “When I get even more old than I am now / I’ll have a house overlooking the water…”
I don’t know if I will ever have a house overlooking the water. Well, it’s the onset of old age, isn’t it? Sixty was looming at me and I thought, well, I just might move down to L.A. (from his previous Marin County residence). Then I thought that we’re running out of time here, and I wondered what could I possibly do that I haven’t done. And I thought it would be nice to sort of sit on a beach somewhere in a comical hat and be, as I say in the song, “an ancient curmudgeon.” (We laugh.) It seems that’s the most obvious future I can think of.
ND: Well, I’m a bit of a grayhair myself, so this song resonated with me on a lot of levels. I kind of see myself becoming the curmudgeonly grandma.
AS: That’s our duty in life, to become curmudgeonly.
ND: I suppose. But perhaps we aren’t too old to shake things up. Who knows? Perhaps we can.
AS: There you go. But yeah, it’s a straightforward song about growing old — or about thinking about growing old.
ND: It’s the latter — neither of us have reached the former yet. (Al cracks up.) I also liked “Mona Lisa Talking.” That ought to be a single. Are you thinking about radio at all?
AS: You know, it should be a single, in the fantasy world. Probably if I was still living in, um, 1974, it would be a single. But in the real world of Eminem…
ND: Well, that’s true only if you’re limiting your thinking to Clearchannel, Infinity Radio and the like – the corporate mass-market terrestrial radio conduit. But the thing about it is, radio is changing.
AS: I just got a new car and it has this new satellite radio in it — XM — and that’s a revelation. They’ve got an entire channel devoted to singer-songwriters. It’s kind of impressive.
ND: Between XM and Sirius Satellite — and people’s iPods and iTunes — people are finding and programming their own radio. Whole new market.
AS: Well, “Mona Lisa Talking” is indeed the most instantly catchy song on the record. My label, Appleseed Records, is I think geared more toward promoting albums. If we’re talking Warner Brothers or something like that, then the radio single route is the way to do it. That takes a lot of money, and Appleseed is a small label.
ND: But it’s a wonderful little label; they have some talented artists on their roster.
AS: Yeah, yeah, I’m pleased with it. They’re young, they have a lot of folk-related artists. I guess they specialize in ancient curmudgeons. (We laugh.)
ND: Another song I really enjoyed was “The Immelman Turn,” yet another entry into your fine catalog of flying-related songs. There’s “Flying Sorcery,” which has the story of ace Amy Johnson; the tragic tale of a flier who crashes into the “Fields of France” before he can reach his waiting true love; and now, this. Which leads me to something I’ve never asked you, strangely enough: Do you have some particular connection with flying or daredevil pilots?
AS: No, not really. My connection to flight is that 90 percent of my job is spent sitting either in airports or on airplanes. I, what, spend 75 minutes on stage and I usually clock up about 12 hours flying and traveling and waiting in order to get to those 75 minutes on stage. The other day it took me 19 hours to get from L.A. to Albany. Left at 7:00 in the morning and got there at 2:00 the following morning. It drives me nuts, because the gig is not what I’m paid for — what I’m paid for is pushing around baggage and sitting in airports. So I write about airplanes because that’s where I spend so much of my time.
Having said that, I just liked the name…Max Immelman was, I think, a World War I German pilot, and there was just something about the Immelman Turn as a phrase that I liked. A long time ago, I was trying to get the Immelman Turn – just that phrase – and the word “aileron” into “Flying Sorcery,” when I wrote that. I managed to complete “Flying Sorcery” without including either. I had in the back of my mind that I still needed to use “aileron,” the word, in a song. In fact, I think at one point when I was writing “Flying Sorcery,” I wanted to call it “The Immelman Turn”…
AS: …but it became “Flying Sorcery,” because it was actually a better title. But it left me with a title and with a word that hadn’t been used, and so I had to construct another song in order to put them to use. (He chuckles.)
ND: Can’t let it all go to waste.
AS: Of course, it took 30 years to do it. (More laughter.) Musically, it’s an homage to Fairport Convention [the classic British progressive-folk-rock group; members Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, and Martin Lamble — being under contract to another record company — performed under pseudonyms on Stewart’s 1969 LP Love Chronicles].
ND: Yes! You can definitely hear the Fairport influence in all that intricate fretwork… soooo pretty. I really love that one.
AS: I experienced the craziest coincidence, I think it was last week, or two weeks ago, when I came back from Texas after playing the Cactus Café in Austin. When I got off the plane, I’m coming out of LAX and I need a cab. So I go to stand in a long line for taxis, and I notice that the person in front of me has a guitar case. So I just stand there not paying attention to it for about a minute when it occurs to me that the back of his head looks familiar. So I walk around the side of him and, lo and behold, it’s Richard Thompson.
ND: Oh my! (Al is cackling.)
AS: Whom I haven’t seen in 20 years! So I go, “Richard?” He looks at me and it takes him about a second to realize who it is. So, that was great: We had a long conversation while we waited for a taxi. And then he came round and had tea, so it was fun. It was just extraordinary. If I had been, maybe, three people behind him, I would never have known he was there, but he was literally right in front of me. So, I thought, having done this mock Fairport thing, how amazing that God has seen fit to place Richard Thompson right in front of me in the airport taxi line.
ND: Did you mention the song to him? Do you know if he has heard it?
AS: Oh, no. We were just talking at random; I think we were talking about gardening or something.
ND: Makes sense. I’ve talked with Richard before and it turns out he is a fan of gardening. Well, I guess his Mock Tudor hints at that. And, of course, he is English.
AS: (Laughs.) Quite true. We also got to talk about his son Teddy [Thompson, an up-and-coming singer and guitarist] — you remember, he toured with me a few years ago. Anyway, I thought the whole thing was interesting. Highly unlikely, but interesting, when you think about it. Richard does the same thing I do, and all these other musicians — of course you’re going to bump into them in airports, where they all are.
ND: Yeah, airports or rest stops. I remember running into John Wesley Harding in a rest stop along I-95 one time, oh, this was a couple years ago or so. It was just like, “Oh, hello.” I was working with Julian [Dawson, British singer and songwriter; opened for Stewart at the Bottom Line in New York in 1998] at the time and he had just done a double bill with Wes in upstate New York. He split for his next gig; we split for Julian’s. Two days later, we’re going in different directions along the east coast but bump into each other at the Joyce Kilmer in New Jersey. Too much.
AS: You know, Wes has become an author now. He had a book published.
ND: Yes, I heard. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. He’s so talented and he has an interesting way with words.
AS: Yeah…he didn’t tell anybody about [the book project]. I see him every now and again and I talk to him on the phone, but he never mentioned it until one day when he said, “I’ve written a book.” (Laughs.) It was out of the blue, you know? Lo and behold, he has. And lo and behold, I hear it’s getting good reviews. Actually, I feel a little guilty because I haven’t read it yet either. The very next time I see him, he’s going to want to know if I’ve read his book. I probably should.
ND: I should too, and I will.
AS: The trouble with knowing people is that when they do things like make records and write books, you feel obliged to try and keep up with them.
ND: I’m in the habit of making lists of things that I will get to when I have some time, but unfortunately, things keep piling high…
AS: I know…
ND: … and the list just grows and grows.
AS: I reached a point where I thought of at least 50 books that I was supposed to have read. Eventually, I gave up and said, this just isn’t gonna happen. What are you going to do?
ND: In terms of playing with words, I have to bring up “Royal Courtship.”
AS: Yes! (Laughs heartily.) That’s exactly what it is — my assault on the English language.
ND: A loving assault…
AS: Oh, yes – a loving assault. I always try to put at least one or two words in my songs which, as far as I know, have never been used in songs before. It’s like you’re walking into a football stadium that’s full of words instead of people. Some of them are popular – they’re Madonna or whatever. “Love,” that’s a really popular word; it appears in about, say, 50,000 songs. And then there’s “plenipotentiary.” (Both AL and ND erupt into laughter.)
AS: My take on it is that Love is sitting in the first row on the 50-yard line, surrounded by admirers. All the team players and the press are gathered around Love: “Oh, you’re the greatest thing!” “Can you be in my song?” “No, can you be in my song?” “I want you in my song!” And Plenipotentiary is sitting in the very back row of the stands, totally ignored by everybody. Poor Plenipotentiary has never been in a song; it never even gets used in casual speech. Plenipotentiary is sitting there wondering, “Why can’t I be like Love? Why can’t I be in a song? Help, help, I’m growing old without ever having been used!” And, of course, I march right past Love…
ND: You’ve spent plenty of time there.
AS: Yes… (both laugh) but today, I march past Love and go right to the back row. “Plenipotentiary, I’ve come to put you in a song.” And Plenipotentiary is so happy about this. Plenipotentiary throws its arms around me and kisses me and says, “Oh, this is fantastic! I’ve waited all my life for this moment.” I planned to do it!
ND: (nearly in tears) You performed a linguistic service!
AS: (still laughing) There you are. That’s what I do.
ND: But, all joking aside, the fact remains “Royal Courtship” is a wonderful song.
AS: When I wrote it, I was sitting there thinking of Austria in the early 19th century, but it doesn’t have to be there, it could be anywhere. I mean, a king… Getting married is such palaver: You can’t just walk up to the nearest girl you meet on the street and say, “Hi, honey, you wanna come to the movies?” It just doesn’t work that way. You have to send your people to meet her people. Well, what happens is that everything gets lost in translation when messages are passed between 34 different people. (laughs)
ND: It’s not quite so romantic.
AS: It doesn’t work. It’s like trying to deal [reasonably] with the cable company or something; it just can’t be done. It’s really [about] the breakdown in communication. When I wrote it, I was probably trying to get something repaired in the house. I was probably dealing with people who turn up seven times, but each time they turn up, they don’t have the right equipment or they didn’t get the message or they don’t know ’cause it’s their first day on the job or whatever… There’s just a total breakdown of communication in modern life, I think. Much of it doesn’t work. So, I had all this is the back of my mind and wondered: Has it always been this way? And then I thought, well, in terms of “Royal Courtship,” it pretty well had to be this way. It’s amazing anyone married anybody.
ND: Well, at least for love.
AS: Yes, at least for love. And, in this case, nobody got any satisfaction whatsoever.
ND: Certainly not the amanuensis.
AS: Oh, I like the amanuensis.
ND: That’s a great word. I’m glad to see that someone took it out to dinner.
AS: Along with “acolyte.”
ND: And “vizier.” (Both dissolve in waves of barely controlled laughter.)
AS: The “vizier” only would have worked in Turkish society, but I couldn’t resist the word.
ND: Oh, but it absolutely worked.
AS: Yeah! I think “Royal Courtship” is just a song that nobody else would write. If I didn’t write it, it wouldn’t get done and Plenipotentiary would still be sitting in the back row of the stadium being ignored by everybody, so I just thought it was a valuable service that I have performed.
ND: Absolutely, and a grateful, word-hungry world thanks you. The song from A Beach Full of Shells that I hear most people talking about is “Class of ’58.”
AS: There’s a long version of that.
ND: Yes, I finally heard the long version two days ago, and Al, it was such great fun.
AS: I wrote it as a 13-minute epic about the early days of English rock and roll. The story behind that is — well, it’s interesting to me — back in the beginning, there were session musicians backing cabaret singers masquerading as rock and roll stars. That’s exactly how, in England, it began. In America, it was a long, slow evolution. You had R&B and the country thing, western swing, and these things gradually evolved into different forms that eventually merged into rock and roll. But this took an awfully long time — you can trace rock and roll back into the 1930s and ’40s, “Rocket 88”, and what everybody talks about and whatever. In England, that tradition was completely absent. We had, I don’t know, “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and all these terrible 1950s Doris Day songs and whatever, Patti Page…
And then one day, we woke up and there was Elvis Presley. And then a lot of English lads thought they were going to copy this — notably, Cliff Richard. The early people who tried to do rock and roll all came from this sort of cabaret background, and they didn’t understand it. Worse still, all the English musicians had never played it. They had no idea; they mostly were dance-band guys playing jazz guitars and all of a sudden, they had to play this stuff they detested. These musicians hated rock and roll — even more than the Parents Music Resource Council or something. (They laugh.) “I’m not playing that!” “Here’s five pounds.” “Well, all right, I’ll play it, but I won’t like it.”
This, compared with guys like Eddie Cochran in the States who played because they loved it. They were real rock and rollers. The people who were trying to do it in England were B-movie stars and cabaret singers. And then in 1958, all that changed with one guitar riff. It wasn’t the song that matter, it was the intro: The record was “Move It” by Cliff Richard. It was a hit single, and the song was actually pretty good; it was written by Sammy Samwell. It’s a pretty good early rock and roll song, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the 10-second intro, where the guitar actually sounded like a rock and roll instrument. Up to that point, they’d all sounded like jazz players. This was twangy and it was echo-ey and it was absolutely…It erased the blackboard. It was like someone had taken a cloth and erased everything on a blackboard to start all over again.
Within six years, and this is what I find incredible, from the release of “Move It,” England conquered the world with the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Zombies, bang. It all came from different sources, but in my simplification of it, I think everybody who became a star between 1958 and 1964 probably heard that riff from “Move It” and probably learned it and probably played it. So what I’m doing in “Class of ’58” is examining the impact of that riff (which actually opens the long version) and the life of one person who was inspired by that particular riff.
Now, there are references in the song that I love — because they’re really inside references that no one will get. I think you’ll like this one, Natalie: The guy in the song signs to Oriole. Oriole? Baltimore Orioles?
ND: That hit me when I heard the long version. Nice of you to recall.
AS: It occurred to me when we were setting up the interview. I thought of you and of this song and I thought you would find the reference amusing. Anyway, in England, there were two big record companies, EMI and Decca, and EMI won the Battle of the Bands because they signed the Beatles while Decca got the Rolling Stones. EMI got most of the others — [among them] Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. [For the record, Stewart’s first label was Decca; he was signed in 1966.] Then there was, like, a secondary level, which were Pie and Philips. Pie signed the Kinks and Philips signed Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders [“Groovy Kind of Love,” “It Was Easier to Hurt Her”].
ND: Oh, my god…Fontana fan…I must be old…
AS: (laughs) Right at the very, very bottom of the record-label heap was Oriole Records, which I love, because they had no money and no publicity department and they never made hits. They signed all the people who were left. I cannot put it more simply than to say that Oriole Records signed Rory Storm and the Hurricanes after Ringo left. (Resounding laughter.)
ND: (through tears) Oh. Well.
AS: That was the uniqueness of Oriole. I loved them, because I always love underdogs. My local band in Bournemouth [an English resort town where Stewart spent his teen years], a duo considered to be the English Everly Brothers signed to Oriole and I had all their records. I went out of my way to buy Oriole singles because, though they were never hits, they were interesting. It was a label that just couldn’t win. They only had one Top 10 single, which was “Orange Blossom Special” by the Spotnicks, but I’m digressing.
It’s just one line in the song [the extended 13-minute version, not the CD edit]: “The song came out on Oriole / And it did not make the charts…” Now, to a lot of people, that’s a meaningless line, but to me, that’s almost the soul of the whole song: If your song comes out on Oriole, it’s probably not going to be a hit. The long version is filled with these references, which a lot of American people probably wouldn’t get — a lot of English people wouldn’t get them. But for me, the song is dense with references of the time period and I loved it. I gave it to EMI [Stewart’s present English label] and they hated it. They said, “This is not what we like. We want you to write ‘Roads to Moscow’ and ‘Trains.’ What is all this rock and roll shit? And I said, “Well, I love early rock and roll; it’s what I grew up on. It’s a historical song.” And they said, “It’s not a historical song; it’s dreadful. Go away and don’t do it again.”
AS: They basically made me truncate it into the four-minute version for the album. But I like the long one.
ND: I do, too. And from what I hear, a lot of people do. We’re digging through and working to figure out the references we don’t know. [The extended single — a decided rarity — may be available through NevilleJudd.com.]
AS: There’s Andrew Loog Oldham, who of course did some great books, and Cathy McGowan, who was the host of [Brit TV pop show] Ready Steady Go!. And my favorite line — it’s not even a line in the song; it’s from a spoken part — is: “I may not know much / But I do know I’m partial / To an E-major chord / Through a stack of Marshalls.” The first thing any guitar player from the period did with a stack of Marshalls amplifiers was to play E-major with the speaker on 10 or 11, if it’s Spinal Tap. (Laughter.) So many guitar players going, “CRA-A-ANG.” In fact, if you go to any guitar shop, you will see kids who are 19-years old, or even 15-years old, playing E-major chords through stacks of Marshalls. It never stops.
ND: God, I taught myself to play guitar, started right before I turned 40. First thing when I got my electric…E-Major through a wall of speakers, probably the Marshalls they have hooked up at Bill’s Music, here in Baltimore. So normal…you nailed that feeling.
AS: For my money, I thought I captured it perfectly. EMI thought otherwise; I just don’t think they got it. But that’s fine, because now we have the short version, which works on its own, on the record, and the long version has become a collector’s item. Only about 1,000 printed.
ND: I’m telling you, people are talking about it. And down the road, they’ll trade them over the Internet, hawk them on eBay, you never know. Anyway, here’s a question, Al: Do you actually have an Egyptian couch?
AS: No, I do not have an Egyptian couch, but I can imagine one.
ND: In fact, you did imagine one for “My Egyptian Couch.”
AS: Yeah, in that one, I’m looking at photographs of my grandparents, imagining their lives. In the song, they’re looking back at me and trying to fathom the time that I live in. It’s almost like a movie, that song.
ND: Interesting times.
AS: Yeah, that’s a Chinese proverb which I’m sure you know, but there are many people in the world who probably don’t.
ND: It’s actually a curse.
AS: Yeah: “May you live in interesting times.” And they don’t mean what you think they mean.
ND: Indeed, in fact, I wouldn’t want to say aloud what they’re really wishing. (Much laughter.) What’s your favorite song on the album?
AS: There are two I like particularly. There’s “Somewhere in England, 1915″…
ND: Yeah…the epic. Just lovely.
AS: I think that one just nails it. I read a biography of Rupert Brooke and it was through this that I realized that when you start reading about the period prior to World War I in England, all the characters connect because they all kept voluminous diaries and wrote lengthy letters to each other every day; so all this correspondence exists and they all mention each other. It’s one of the little literary worlds of that period where everyone knew each other.
So when I started reading the book on Rupert Brooke, I looked at the pictures and saw Virginia Woolf in there and Lytton Strachey and wow, you know. But the new information that I didn’t know was that Violet Asquith had a crush on Rupert Brooke. It got me to thinking: She was probably the last civilian to see him alive, because she was standing on the beach when his troopship sailed off for the Dardanelles campaign, which he didn’t get to because he died [from blood poisoning on his way to battle]. So, I thought, what if Violet Asquith had married Rupert Brooke? As it happens, she married a fellow called Bonham-Carter, and her granddaughter is now a successful actress. Helena Bonham-Carter would be a different person if her grandfather had been Rupert Brooke. You get started on these paths and it can lead to madness (laughs), but it’s still an interesting conjecture.
So, I thought, there’s Violet Asquith standing on the beach waving goodbye to Rupert Brooke. Whatever happens, their lives are never going to be the same, in the way that World War I changed the world. In my way of thinking, World War I is the dividing line between the old world and the new, modern one we’re still living in. In the way it changed the world, it also changed the lives of these two people. Brooke hadn’t got long to live, even though he didn’t know it. Violet Asquith was destined to live for a very, very long time, to become best friends with Winston Churchill and then, eventually, a leading figure in the Liberal Party. And, as I said, her granddaughter grows up to be an actress. Rupert Brooke becomes the first rock and roll star.
ND: (Cracks up.)
AS: Well, he wasn’t a very good poet. He wrote one poem that I really like and two more than I did quite like, and then a load of terrible stuff that is very dated. But he looked absolutely great. He looked like a rock star, a godlike figure — he looked exactly like what a poet is supposed to look like.
ND: He was beautiful, yes.
AS: Rupert Brooke sets this mold into which everybody comes, from Nick Drake to Jim Morrison.
ND: Golden gods.
AS: Brooke was the first of the James Deans; the list goes on and on and on. So I tend to look at him as the first rock and roll star. “Somewhere in England, 1915” is an interesting lead-in to “Class of ’58.” You’re dealing in a way with the same sort of thing, but from a radically different angle.
ND: Substance falling second to image…
AS: There you go. The other song I really like, which no one else seems to like, is “Out in the Snow.”
ND: I admit, it took me a bit to warm up to that one, but over time, “Out in the Snow” — its moodiness, the strings of images — well, it’s become endlessly intriguing to me. I wanted to ask you: What were you thinking of when you wrote it?
AS: Its language. Musically, it’s Beatle-y. But I loved this line that came to me: “The exhalation of an Arctic god…” It was like, whoa…
ND: It’s beautiful and speaks to so many things, like the coming of winter. And so visual — you can actually see that picture so clearly.
AS: Yes! It’s exactly how I’ve always thought of winter. That one did it for me. It’s one of those songs — “Optical Illusion” [from 1980’s 24
PCarrots] is another one…
ND: You probably don’t remember, but that is my hands-down favorite Al Stewart song.
AS: It’s one of my favorites, too. Well, it makes sense that “Out in the Snow” grabbed you over time. “Optical Illusion” is very similar.
ND: And that one took time to seize my being, too. They both are dark pieces that capture the human condition and its loneliness and frailty.
AS: They’re songs I like. They’re not flashy and showy, and they’re not necessarily going to be the ones that millions of people like, but I like them, and I am pleased when others appreciate them.
ND: What I’ve been telling people is to give it time.
ND: I had to listen to it a few times because I knew something was there…
AS: (giggling) But you didn’t know what it was…
ND: Right. I just had to let it settle. Connect. And once it did, I just went wow. But that one line, when I heard it the first time, I could actually see the Arctic god’s breath hanging in the frozen air. Chilling, in more ways than one.
AS: That’s great. Me, too. (laughs) So, those are my two favorites, but I have to say there isn’t anything on the album I don’t like, which makes it somewhat unique, because usually when I put a record out, there are moments where I go, “What was I thinking?”
ND: That’s fairly normal. Are you liking the recording process any better?
AS: Of the three albums I’ve done with Laurence [Juber, guitarist formerly with Paul McCartney and Wings, longtime Stewart collaborator, produced Stewart’s Between the Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000) and the newest release, A Beach Full of Shells], he did the best job on this one. When you consider that my records are made on a bit of a shoestring…
ND: You can’t tell from listening to this.
AS: Yeah, this record sounds like someone spent some money on it, you know what I mean? It sounds like a proper record. That’s largely Laurence’s doing.
ND: Strong praise from someone who’s been produced by Alan Parsons, and yeah, Laurence deserves it. A Beach Full of Shells… the sound is just masterful.
AS: He’s really getting the hang of it. I keep telling Laurence that he ought to produce more records — he spends most of his time doing sessions and music for television shows and his own music. He’s really busy. But I would think anyone listening to this record who knows the budget that was spent for it would be strongly advised to race to Laurence Juber’s door and demand that he produce them. But as we said earlier, we don’t live in that kind of world.
ND: I try to be hopeful on that front. It’s not always easy. But then… my son is nine now and I’m amazed at the music he listens to in defiance of his friends.
ND: That leads me to believe that there is some hope out there. Was there some sort of theme for the album beyond whatever is floating around in Al Stewart’s mind?
AS: Originally, “Class of ’58” was one of the first things I wrote, and I was thinking in terms of ’60s pop, which I grew up on. I mean, I’d done the ’30s and the ’40s on Between the Wars and then I did the wine record [all of Down in the Cellar‘s songs had to do with wine — the idea came about because Stewart is an award-winning wine connoisseur]. So, I said ’50s-’60s pop, because that’s something I know a great deal about. But I don’t record that kind of thing — I record singer-songwriter-y kinds of things. But, you know, there’s a whole side to me… If I put an electric guitar around my neck, I can play all these rock and roll things. [Author note: Yes. He can. Brilliantly.] It’s just that I don’t when I’m on stage. So I was thinking, let’s do that. Then I wrote “Mona Lisa Talking” and “Gina and the Kings Road,” which is very ’50s-’60s pop, and then “Class of ’58,” so I was headed that way. EMI listened to “Class of ’58” and hated it, and that brought me to a quick stop. “Oh, well maybe they’re right.” So I showed them “Katherine of Oregon” and “Royal Courtship,” which are guitar-based, and they liked them. And then I thought I’d better write some acoustic stuff.
So, what you’re left with for A Beach Full of Shells is a little schizophrenic, in the sense that it began as a ’60s pop record and then took a detour into singer-songwriter acoustic guitar stuff, “My Egyptian Couch” being another example. But for whatever reason, when you play the whole thing, it seems to hang together. To me, because it musically harks back to 30-40 years ago, this is the record that I would have made between Past, Present and Future (1974) and Modern Times (1975). It has elements of both: “Somewhere in England, 1915” and maybe “Egyptian Couch could have easily been on Past Present and Future, whereas Modern Times had more uptempo rock things and there are tracks on this record that could have very easily been on that. [Just for grins, play 1975’s “Apple Cider Reconstitution” and follow it with “Class of ’58.” You’ll see.] It’s almost like a lost record that should have come out in that time period. Which is fine by me, because it ends up sounding like a fairly classic Al Stewart record.
ND: And yet it sounds so perfect for now.
AS: That’s for others to judge, I don’t know. But that’s the origin of it, anyway.
ND: Well, it’s a marvelous disc for past, present, and future. Oh — I can’t forget to mention “Mr. Lear.” I was so in love with Edward Lear…
AS: A lot of people in America don’t know him, but he was a big deal in England. People know “The Owl and the Pussycat”…
ND: I grew up reading his nonsense poetry, all his stuff. Lewis Carroll, too.
AS: Well, you’re an exception, Natalie Davis, and exceptional…
ND: I don’t know about that.
AS: Trust me. If you walk out the door, go through 100 people and find one person who knows Edward Lear the 19th-century nonsense poet, you’re lucky.
ND: True. Most probably would think of the guy who put Archie Bunker on TV.
AS: (Laughing) Absolutely right. I grew up reading Lear too, though I think Lewis Carroll was actually a much better nonsense poet, but Edward Lear was there first. I don’t think he had a very strange life, but the only person — well, the only creature — he was close to or had a great love for was his cat. When his cat died, he died. Just one of those odd things.
ND: He died of a broken heart.
AS: For his cat, who actually appears in a caricature on the cover of the album.
ND: Yes, I saw that and nearly wept. I love the way he draws. I actually have some framed reproductions of his engravings. They just bring back so much from the life of a little dorky child.
AS: Some of the lines in “Mr. Lear” are amazingly understated, but they nail it for me. “The world…” I don’t have it in front of me.
ND: (reciting from memory) “The world is a lot more mysterious than we knew…”
AS: Yes! That’s a wonderful line, to my way of thinking. “Mr. Lear” has some of my favorite lines on the album. They’re not showy or flashy, but of course, the world is more mysterious than any of us knows, and it’s the sort of line that Edward Lear would have written. I was trying to channel his writing style.
ND: I think you got it, because it rings very, very true.
AS: What is it? “Unusual things…”
ND: “Unusual things are prone to wander.”
AS: Yes — prone! (Both crack up yet again.)
ND: Another word that does not appear in popular songs. And it’s tough to wander while prone.
AS: And, of course, Edward Lear would have said, “Unusual things are prone to wander.” I can see him writing that line. Again, it’s not a line that jumps at people, but it should, and there are a lot of lines like that, but they’re written in a very understated English way.
ND: Well Al, the whole album is a delight. I’m so blessed to have had had the opportunity to hear and review it, and I’m really, really happy to have had the chance to talk with you about it.
AS: I am very pleased that you like it. We ought to come to Baltimore and play it live.
ND: That would be marvelous. And now that you’re touring all over creation, selling out larger and larger venues, the word is out. There are scads of people who would love to see you do the new songs live.
AS: Just make sure you come see me. You haven’t gotten to the west coast yet.
ND: No, where was the last place we saw each other?
AS: Was it the Point near Philadelphia?
ND: That’s right, the Point.
AS: You know, I also distinctly remember being pleased with myself when I had picked the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
ND: I remember! In 2000. You wrote me a letter and you teased me about the Ravens and predicted they would end up on top, and you were right. So, I have to ask you — because I know the Ravens will be completely in the toilet for 2005-06 [and they were] — any predictions from my favorite Scottish pigskin prognosticator?
AS: I can’t do it again. It was just one of those miracles. I actually predicted they’d go 12-4, which they did.
ND: Indeed they did. It was an amazing year.
AS: My one moment of sporting glory, where I was actually right about something.
ND: Well, who do you think will do well?
AS: We’re already two games into the season, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but my pick to surprise everybody was going to be the Cincinnati Bengals. They’re 2-0 now, but they haven’t played any tough teams yet. But they’re my underdog pick. Bear in mind that the Cincinnati Bengals have not had a winning season in the last 14. This pick is really out there. But they’ve already surprised a couple of teams and we will see what happens. I pick the Bengals — not to win the Super Bowl, but to do much better this year [ultimately, Cincy ended up at 11-5].
ND: That’s not putting yourself out there very much, but okay. I’ll take it.
AS: If you’re going to nail me down to a Super Bowl pick, I’d have to go with the Indianapolis Colts. [He was close.]
ND: Not my favorite team, but you’re probably right. I like the Bengals better.
AS: The last two seasons they went 8-8 and before that they were much more dismal.
ND: Yeah, but just like you like Oriole Records, I have always loved underdog sports teams.
AS: If the Bengals were a rock and roll act, they’d sign to Oriole. (More raucous laughter.) No doubt in my mind. Perhaps this is the year when Oriole will get its once-in-a-blue-moon hit. Perhaps this will be the Bengals’ Red Sox year. Oh, don’t get me started… if the Orioles [Baltimore’s beleaguered pro baseball team] were signed to a record deal, they’d be signed to Oriole…
ND: Al, it’s so great to talk with you. How’s the family?
AS: They’re doing fine. And yours?
ND:: Splendid, thanks for asking. I know you’re busy and we’ve been gabbing for a long time, so I’ll give long-distance a break. As usual, this was fun — you always keep me plenty entertained.
AS: It was lovely talking with you too, and hopefully I’ll see you very, very soon. Take care.
Originally published as part of Blogcritics‘ April 2000 celebration of Al Stewart as its Featured Artist of the Month.