There was probably mud on their boots when they were marched out to the Katyn Forest that day in 1940.
Cool and thick, the kind of mud that wraps a fretful land tight in its comforting and abundant embrace, and the kind that soldiers of many different uniforms learn to curse in their native language on their way to glory.
Or oblivion. That’s what faced these men that day in April 1940. Some of them officers, some of them foot soldiers, but all of them men who learned the art of warfare from atop a horse. No one’s quite sure how many exactly, but probably in the few thousand. They probably had their uniforms on, such as they were, and no one will know what they were told or by whom. A few ounces of lead cracked through a smoky volley, then digging (a lot of digging), and then it was done.
As a longtime and dedicated — almost obsessed — student of World War II history, songwriter Al Stewart saw a sign that said: “Dig here.”
“The last movie I rented,” Stewart says, “was Katyn, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It’s a history of what the Russians did to the Polish officers in the Katyn Forest.”
It was an obscure atrocity, one amongst so many from those days, but despite having mined Russian history for decades, modern and ancient, for inspiration, in this case that subtle turn of conflict that called out for a song was stymied.
“Oh, God, there’s no end to it. I nearly wrote a song about the Katyn forest thing, but from a completely different angle,” Stewart says. “The Russians were so serious about the placement of the Polish frontier after World War I that they actually invaded Poland and fought a war against them in the 1920s, which no one seems to know anything about, of course. And the general who was responsible for the invasion of Poland actually got his ass kicked and the Russians were forced to retreat ignominiously, and was later shot by Stalin.
“Somehow or other, all of that feeds into the story of Katyn, and the idea of putting all these elements together,” he continues. “I realized once I started trying to write this song, that this was such a specialized history it was just not going to work with a normal audience. I actually kept the tune and rewrote it into the song "Sleepwalking." That was the music from what was going to be the Katyn song.”
Songwriters get blocks all the time — every writer does — but it’s hardly the point that Stewart couldn’t easily seduce the intrigues and recriminations and loathing of this particular bit of appalling Stalinist scheming into song. The point is, it even occurred to him to try.
Stewart recently did a little digging into his own history. His latest CD, Uncorked, features live renditions (with guitarist Dave Nachmanoff ) of over a dozen obscure gems from the songwriter’s 40-plus-year career. Obscure, in that Stewart specifically selected songs that have typically eluded his live shows, andat least one that has never seen the glare of stage lights since first committed to vinyl, 30 years ago.
“I did a live record with (former collaborator) Peter White, and I’ve done a lot of shows with Dave recently, and there’s been this sort of low murmur of ‘why don’t you do a live record with Dave,’ and as I do shows with him all the time, it was just a matter of recording a few,” Stewart says. “And I wanted not to repeat anything from the record I did with Peter White, which had all the obvious hits and so forth, so we had the interesting option of doing songs we don’t normally play. So we wandered into the catalog and started digging up things that were pretty obscure.”
One of which, “News From Spain,” immediately stands out as one of the CD’s lynchpins. Stewart says that one was first recorded for Oranges in 1972.
“I haven’t played that song in 30 years,” he says. “And one of the reasons I hadn’t done it is if you hear the studio version, you hear Rick Wakeman doing a big piano solo on it, and I didn’t think it was possible to do that on acoustic guitar. But Dave rose to the occasion and said ‘I’ll do the solo.’ I was very dubious, but when I listened to the playback I said ‘whoa!’ and that song now has become the favorite for many people off this record.
“And so, it sort of turned out to be part live album, and part excavation of my past. It’s sort of spurred us into going back and finding even more obscure things. It made me think that there are probably 100 songs, out of the 200 I’ve recorded, that I’ve never played live at all, just because I thought I couldn’t.”
Stewart, of course, is known stateside primarily as the voice behind “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages,” mild rock staples that gained him commercial appeal in the U.S. and continue to bob along three decades later on light rock and oldies stations. We wondered if Stewart ever wishes that something else had become the “big hit.”
“They’re calling cards … in a way that, if you say my name to anybody off the street, it probably wouldn’t mean anything to them,” he says. “If they were above age 45 and you said ‘Year Of The Cat’ or ‘Time Passages,’ it’s possible they would go, ‘Oh yes, that’s right ….’ “In terms of whether I would have wanted other things to become hits … yeah. Well, yes and no. ‘Roads to Moscow’ and ‘Old Admirals,’ for example, are much better songs than ‘Year Of The Cat’ and ‘Time Passages,’ no doubt about it. If they had the same wallpaper radio coverage nationwide that ‘Year Of The Cat’ did, they would have been much bigger hits. The thing is, these things are a bugger to play live. Between these two songs, you have almost 20 minutes of very, very fast strumming, and my wrist would have fallen off years ago.”
We recalled a show from the early ‘80s, where we caught Stewart and a full band doing a surprisingly invigorated set in Denver.
Stewart not only remembered the gig, but like any conversation with a storyteller with such a mercilessly refined sense of the unexpected, this ended up in a very strange place.
“Oh yes, I remember that gig. It was 1983,” Stewart remembers. “Rainbow Music Hall?” Yes, indeed. “Here’s a story about that. I had a girlfriend who was into American football. At the time, even though I was hanging out with Lynn Swann all the time, I still never really knew if he caught it or threw it. This girlfriend gave me a football that was signed by Joe Montana, and instructed me that we were to watch football games. All the time it was something of a mystery to me. It just seemed like all out warfare, until the fog cleared one day and I suddenly understood it.
“So she said to me, ‘you should pick a team to root for.’ I said, ‘I’m English, I don’t have any favorites,’” Stewart says. “But I said I would pick the team where I had the best gig that year. And that’s why I remember it … not that I remember a thing about the gig, but that was just a great gig, and I ended up picking the Denver Broncos.”
And that’s how Al Stewart, storyteller, disciple of Sartre and Solzhenitsyn, student of history and wordsmith of uncommon flourish … became a Broncos fan.