In April of this year, Al Stewart was awarded A Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC2 Radio Folk Awards ceremony. These events are usually bittersweet moments for working artists, as they can be as much a congratulatory pat on the back for staying a few paces ahead of mortality as they are a salute to a body of work. But Stewart hasn’t got an impolite fiber in his frame, and coming up on stage, uncharacteristically fumbling for words, he was embraced by the emcee of the evening, English broadcaster Tony Blackburn, coincidentally a bandmate of Stewart’s from the mid-1960s when both were drifting in and out of skiffle bands in Bournemouth.
Blackburn took obvious delight in presenting Stewart with a little statuette.
“ … which I dropped,” Stewart recalls, cracking us both up.
“I’m looking at it,“ he continues, “it’s right here on the piano.”
“It’s… they’ve given that award to everyone I grew up with. Ralph McTell, Roy Harper, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy all have it, so I think (they thought) they had to give it to me. Eventually they had to get around to it.”
Stewart’s eloquent, self-deprecating humility belies a 50-year career of crafting uncommonly well-informed songs, drawing substance from the entanglement of characters real and imagined as they are ground through the wheels of history grand and trivial. This is Stewart’s stock-in-trade — a product and a voice derived from his own obsession with history and literature, paired with a gift for detail and a staggering command of language. The Spanish revolution, the Russian revolution, World War I and II — invasions and turmoil and societal upheaval, overlaid upon the frayed imperfections of mortal men.
He is, also, the Year of the Cat guy, and a good chunk of his road schedule over the last few months is one of those “plays the whole album for your enjoyment” things. Stewart’s success with that album and the eponymous single, which blew up on European and American radio in 1976, suddenly made the dedicated folkie a pop star, a sudden transformation that Stewart found a little disorienting and, in ensuing years, both a blessing and a minor albatross, as much of the pop-stuff fans had little relationship to his deeper catalog.
But 40 years on, Stewart is out with a Chicago-based band called The Empty Pockets, playing Year of the Cat end to end — to everyone’s enjoyment, and even his own.
“Well,” he says, picking his words carefully, “it’s certainly a trend, this thing of doing ‘classic albums.’ A lot of people are doing it… Sparks took it to new heights a year or so ago, when they took over at Shephard’s Bush Empire… and not only did they play the whole of one of their albums, they played the whole of all of their albums.
“The shift is the economics of the thing; people keep nagging me to play Year of the Cat with a band. I found this band out of Chicago, which was recommended to me, called The Empty Pockets, and they’re all young and enthusiastic. It wasn’t a possibility until then; to bring over the band that I had at the Royal Albert Hall would be so expensive you’d be losing 10 grand a night, even if you were sold out.
“We’ve played three or four (shows) so far. And I think they just added 16 more.”
Is he enjoying it?
“We’ve got 16 more to go, but so far, yeah, it’s been fun. I think you’d have to ask me after all those are done, but so far, yeah it’s been fun.
“And it’s something people want. I think people forget that this is a job, you need bookings. I’ve been working steadily for the past 15 years in kind of a folkie way, and it never occurred to me that at this age (72), I’d be going out and playing with a rock band, and so far people seem to like it. It’s something different, something new.”
Stewart once said that standing up in front of a full band represented something of a discomfort for him, as if he were getting in the way of the players who were doing all the work.
He laughs. “It’s sort of what Bette Midler once said of Helen Reddy, that she should be arrested for loitering in front of an audience. Which was very unfair, but still kind of funny.
“Back in the day, I was a resolute folkie. I made Past, Present and Future, which was all about lyrics. Bob Dylan has this line on one of his songs, ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ And it sort of feels that way to me. Now, I don’t care. I think I got a little too serious for my own good at some point in my career. It’s not that I don’t love Past, Present and Future, but you can’t live off a solid diet of Russian history, which, for awhile, I did.”
From those days, of course, came Stewart’s epic “Roads to Moscow,” his lyrical masterpiece “Nostradamus,” and, even earlier, the touching “The News from Spain.” As coincidence had it, I chatted last month with Rick Wakeman, who prior to his enormo-dome days with Yes, was a session player in London. He contributed a now-legendary piano outro to the track “The News From Spain,” a sleeper track from the Orange album that Stewart admits was an early personal favorite but had fallen off his set list, until it got surprisingly resurrected while on tour with guitarist Dave Nachmanoff not long ago, with Nachmanoff actually sort-of reproducing Wakeman’s bit of Rachmaninoff comping.
“It was very odd… we hadn’t played it for 30 years, and we were in Seattle and someone yelled out ‘The News from Spain’, and I thought, I don’t think I remember it. But I took a crack at it and someone recorded it (for the Uncorked release). I think it was my least-selling single when it came out. It came out around Christmas, and it sold something like 162 copies. It sold even less than my first single, which is really saying something.”
Of course, when Year of the Cat was released to blanket airplay and Stewart was signed to Arista records as a now-certified pop star, the inevitable pressure to make more hits came to bear. It’s something that Stewart, who was not doctrinally opposed to having a hit but was generally unaccustomed to cranking them out on demand, thought he’d have a bit of fun with his chart-obsessed handlers.
“’Song on the Radio,’ I get asked for that all the time, but I actually end the sentence with a preposition and I know better than that. “
We’re both cracking up again.
“I mean, I’m not strict about it, but I don’t tend to make these mistakes. Worse, I used the same word twice in the same sentence. [“I was making my way through the wasteland/The road into town passes through.”] I mean, this is terrible writing.
“There’s no justification for it, but the record company asked for a mid-tempo ballad with a saxophone on it, and I was kind of making fun of Arista Records. They wanted a song that could be played on the radio, and very tongue-in-cheek I wrote a song called ‘Song on the Radio.’ I thought they’d be smart enough to see I was actually joking, but of course they didn’t, and they put it out as a single and it made the Top 30, and the joke was on me because I screwed up a preposition.”
And as far as the Big Hit, the title track itself actually started as a song about Tony Hancock. When my wife and I were in England a couple of months ago, the BBC ran a story about an enthusiast who had stumbled across a couple of lost recordings by Hancock, a significant find evidently. We of course had no idea who Hancock was, but we learned subsequently of the connection to the song “Year of the Cat.”
“Tony Hancock was the most famous comedian in England,” Stewart explains, “…and what happened over the years, after his heyday, he made a couple of movies, but his comedy didn’t translate, and he became somewhat depressed (and quite drunk, it should be said).
“He came to Bournemouth when I was about 18, 19, just before I left for London. And he came out onstage and said, ‘I’m really miserable,’ and of course everyone laughed, because that was the character he usually played. And he said, ‘No, I mean it,” and they laughed even more. There were 2,000 people in the audience, all laughing, but I felt I knew, he really means this. And no one else in the audience seemed to be getting it. And I think it was just a few months after that he committed suicide.
“And I wrote this song called ‘The Foot of the Stage,’ it was the ‘Year of the Cat’ tune, with different words. The chorus was, ‘His tears fell down like rain/At the foot of the stage’, and it was all about Tony Hancock. And that would have been it, but for the American record company who said that no one in America would have any idea who Tony Hancock was, and could I rewrite it. And so I did.
“I don’t have them anymore, because I don’t have that exercise book, but somewhere, yes, there’s a whole set of lyrics about Tony Hancock.”
For his part, Stewart is far from miserable. With a catalog of songs in the hundreds, from pop hits to character studies to odes to revolution, Stewart has shaken off whatever orthodoxy held him in shackles, pleased to play what his audience wants. And he continues to write, if not necessarily to make many studio records anymore.
“I haven’t given up making records so much as people have given up buying them.”
Fair enough. But new songs still come along.
“I like obscure subjects. I woke up one day and I thought, I’d like to write a song about a javelin salesman. On a level of, can I do it? I thought, there can be no songs about a javelin salesman. So I began this thing:
“‘He was a traveling salesman of javelins/Archery goods and supplies/She was his April surprise/With pale green eyes/He went to markets with arrows and targets/And she went along for the ride/Now love has gone out with the tide/And he’s left mystified.’
“I think it wants to be called ‘Arrows and Targets,’ because it’s about their affair.”
On the Bill: Ambrosia, Orleans, Al Stewart and Pure Prairie League. 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, Union Colony Civic Center, 701 10th Ave., Greeley.
Year of the Cat Classic Album Concert. 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, The Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 E. First Ave., Denver.