WHAT: Al Stewart
WHERE: McComb/Bruchs Performing Arts Center, Wautoma WI
WHEN: 7 PM Friday, October 17, 2014
COST: Adults $35, Students $24
“On a morning from a Bogart movie,
In a country where they turn back time,
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre,
Contemplating a crime.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain.
Don’t bother asking for explanations,
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat.”
Al Stewart, “Year of the Cat,” Year of the Cat, RCA, 1976
Scottish singer folk-rock singer-songwriter and guitarist Al Stewart is best known for hits such as “Year of the Cat, ” Time Passages,” “On the Border,” “Midnight Rocks,” “Song on the Radio,” and “Nostradamus.” His love of history and historical characters is interwoven into his composition of the story songs for which he is so well known. Al Stewart’s amazingly intricate guitar stylings are masterful and trying to decipher his intriguing, mystical lyrics is half the fun of appreciating his music. Alan Parsons produced three of Stewart’s albums, including Year of the Cat.
Guitarist Dave Nachmanoff and bassist Mike Lindauer at an intimate concert in Wautoma, Wisconsin will accompany Al on Friday, October 17.
I called Al in Los Angeles recently to catch up on his latest activities.
Jane Spietz: As an aspiring singer-songwriter, who were your musical influences early on?
Al Stewart: My first influence was Lonnie Donegan, because he sang story songs. He was pretty much unknown in America, but in England he influenced everybody from the Beatles to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Lonnie Donegan sang American folk tunes very, very fast, about four times as fast as the originals. They were kind of frantic. You can find old videos of him on YouTube. He would start slowly and work himself into a lather in the course of two and a half minutes. (Laughs) It was a style that he called skiffle. Lonnie Donegan started it and he was so influential that by 1957, he was the biggest single thing in Britain. After that everybody had a skiffle group. It’s actually the reason that John Lennon met Paul McCartney. John had a skiffle group, the Quarrymen. A young Paul turned up and wanted to join, and eventually they became the Beatles. Jimmy Page was in a skiffle group when he was fourteen. So you can basically trace all English rock ‘n’ roll of the British Invasion Age back to a single source that is Lonnie Donegan. (Laughs) They’re all story songs. So he was my first influence and I’ve continued with this style.
JS: Speaking of the Beatles, share how you talked your way into meeting them.
AS: Yes, I have met all of the Beatles. I talked my way in specifically to meet John Lennon when I was seventeen backstage, at a Beatles’ concert, by pretending to work for Rickenbacker Guitars ’cause John played a Rickenbacker. I think he was bored. He was backstage and didn’t have anyone to talk to and he decided, okay fine. We seemed to know about guitars and amplifiers so he hung out with us. He eventually got his Rickenbacker, put it around my head and let me play it. This was at the height of Beatlemania. My only thought was that I’m gonna drop this thing! (Laughs) It was kind of a magic moment when you’re seventeen years old to be playing John’s guitar to John Lennon!
JS: How did you get into writing historical story songs?
AS: I was always reading history over the years. Eventually after you get past the pop stage–– everyone goes through the pop stage––you begin to get into ‘what else can I do?’ So I began writing historical songs back in the early 1970s. I continued to do that simply because it was an area that no one was interested in. I thought, ‘Oh, this is great, I can have this to myself.’ (Laughs) No competition, I’ll be the world’s only historical folk-rock singer. Pretty much, although everyone dabbles in it from time to time. I notice if someone writes one of these things because obviously it’s my little patch of territory. No one has as consistently over the last forty years written as many historical songs as I have. I think it’s because of the fascination that I’ve had with history. I don’t really mind if no one else gets it. I’m actually quite thrilled that no one else has discovered it. You’re not going to get rich in the way that Elton John gets rich, but you make a pretty good living doing something that is fascinating and interesting. I’m actually quite shocked that no one else has come along and said, okay, fine, I’ll have a crack at this. I think I’ve been lucky over the course of forty years. No one’s ever actually sort of managed to sniff it out. A lot of this is conceptual.
JS: The title song of your 1969 album, Love Chronicle, is recognized by some as the first time the “f” word was used in popular commercial music. Please comment.
AL: Everybody thinks that I used it in the same way that everyone else uses it, which is a curse word. I didn’t. I used the present participle, in other words, a seven-letter word. The phrase grew to be less like f’ing and more like making love. I was trying to make a distinction between when you fall in love and you’re no longer just having sex, but it’s now something much bigger. And as far as I could tell there was no other way of saying what I wanted to say, apart from using the present participle. So it wasn’t a swear word at all. It was an exact way of saying this transition from sex into love.
JS: Tell us the story behind “Year of the Cat,” which many have dubbed your signature song.
AL: It’s different every time I tell it. I had a girlfriend who had a book on Vietnamese astrology. There was a chapter called the “Year of the Cat.” I really don’t have many talents in life. Actually, I have two. I can rhyme almost anything and I can read a wine list. And oddly enough, these are the talents you need for touring! (Laughs) But I digress. One of the things I can do is spot a song title when I see it. When I looked at the “Year of the Cat” chapter title in the book, I said that’s a song title. But then of course it didn’t lead anywhere. I had the title in my head for a year. Obviously it would be much too easy to start talking about cats or astrology. You don’t want to do the obvious. Certainly, the way I look at songwriting, you never go from A to B because everybody can see where you’re going. You always approach the subject from an angle that nobody would really expect you to do. That way, nobody knows where you’re going until pretty much you’re deep into the song, which sustains interest. So I didn’t want to write the “Year of the Cat” is a very good year ’cause I like cats, which I suppose any normal person would do. (Laughs) The “Year of the Cat” was 1975. I decided to set the song in North Africa and base it around the Casablanca movie. It’s actually about a couple having a love affair for a year and then going their separate ways. It references Peter Lorre and a few other people that you wouldn’t expect to suddenly appear in a song. (Laughs)
JS: What was it like to be produced by Alan Parsons?
AL: Alan’s very meticulous. Obviously a great producer, Alan had all of these techniques, which were alien to me and involved so much time. For example, you just don’t play a rhythm guitar track because that sounds like one rhythm guitar. What you do is get two people sitting in front of the microphone. On this occasion it was me and Peter White. We would play all the chords to the songs, so there were now two guitars playing it, and then we would over dub it four times. (Laughs) In other words, you were now hearing eight acoustic guitars playing the chords. And course the result is that it’s a bigger, fatter sound. However, this takes forever. Working with Alan, the records sounded a lot better immediately but they also took a lot longer! (Laughs) I used to make a record in a week, and with him it was more like a year. They sounded better and they sold better, so I suppose you get out what you put in.
JS: You will be playing at the McComb/Bruchs Performing Arts Center in Wautoma Wisconsin, on Friday, October 17. Any last words for those who are interested in attending your sure to be marvelous upcoming performance?
AL: As it’s Wisconsin, tell people to bring cheese and wine! (Laughs) Maybe some Camembert and a nice red burgundy.
JS: I will do that. We have a lot of that here. You heard it here first, folks!