This reminiscence of my first interview with Al Stewart, a 1998 piece that appeared in Maryland’s Music Monthly and in Chronicles, the Al Stewart fan newsletter, predates the now-heady resurgence of the career of the veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist most known in the US for his 1976 mega hit “Year of the Cat.” In this article, we get to meet Al at a self-critical moment and at the point where large numbers of people were taking new interest in his body of work. Since then, he has released numerous official and unofficial discs, among them 2000’s Down in the Cellars and his stirring newest CD, 2005’s A Beach Full of Shells. Stewart is now signed to Appleseed Records. More info on his music and concert appearances can be found at his official site and at NevilleJudd.com.
I was really looking forward to chatting with Al Stewart, long one of my musical heroes. Earlier in the week — Tuesday, the last day of June 1998 — I got to meet and chat with him at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. The thought of getting to talk with him again so soon was unbelievable to me, so I was pretty psyched after the first Bottom Line show when one of the owners of the beloved New York City venue came and told me Al was waiting for me backstage. I saw him instantly — he wasn’t in the dressing room, but stood just backstage behind a bevy of curtains.
“Oh, hello, I know you!” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. Amazed that he would remember me from Tuesday, I shook his hand and said hello and how much I enjoyed the performance.
His baby blues flashed. “No, it was awful,” he said angrily.
The co-owner demurred. “I thought it was a good show,” he said.
“I’m usually much better than this,” Al said, turning to me. “Wasn’t I? You saw me in Virginia earlier this week.”
“Yes, you were wonderful. In fact, it was orgasmic.”
“I don’t know about orgasmic,” said the nightclub owner.
“Oh, orgasmic is the only word to describe it,” I insisted. “But you were fine out there tonight.”
“Be honest. I was better Tuesday.” It must be noted that he didn’t look or sound petulant — he wasn’t seeking stroking or fishing for compliments. He was genuinely angry with himself — happens when an artist holds standards that exceed his or her admirers’. Al looked up from his dark thoughts and, remembering why we were there, gestured toward the dressing room. “Please come in. Have a seat.”
Settling in on a vinyl chair in the tiny room, I really wanted to comfort him — he seemed really upset, and adding insult to proverbial injury, one of his capos was missing.
“Please forgive me. I’m really pissed with myself,” he said. “Maybe it’s senility setting in — I know these songs, but nothing seemed to be working. I got fixed on my fingers standing there, you know?”
“Some days are just like that,” I said, adding that the audience had a great time — we weren’t disappointed at all. And we weren’t. Yes, Al’s performance was perhaps tentative in spots, but on the whole, it was a terrific, energetic concert that the audience thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt he heard me.
“I think I was trying too hard,” he said, his eyes turning steely as he looked into mine. “They were recording me, and I hate being recorded. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I do my best when I’m not thinking about it, and I was thinking about it too much.”
“So stop thinking about it. We all had a wonderful time.”
He turned to dig through his things in search of the missing capo, and he smiled for the first time since he’d said hello to me. “Did you notice I didn’t do ‘Year of the Cat’ this time out?”
Yes, I said, noting that earlier that evening I’d seen “Cat” on his handwritten list of planned first-set songs. “Doing ‘Roads to Moscow’ knocked it out, didn’t it? I’d much rather have heard ‘Moscow;’ I was glad that guy requested it and you played it.”
“Maybe I can avoid it in the second set,” he said, grinning
The opening artist, Julian Dawson, entered the room. Al hopped up. “Julian, you haven’t seen my capo, have you? I can’t find the damned thing.”
We all looked around the room, hoping to see some sign of the guitar tool to no avail. Al sighed and asked Julian a question on a completely different subject.
“You said you like the Everly Brothers. Would you like to do a duet with me?” Dawson, of course, accepted eagerly. Al picked up his guitar and the two went back and forth coming up with ideas of what to sing. Al wanted to do something obscure, and they even asked me what I liked (I suggested “Wake Up Little Susie,” but Al said Simon and Garfunkel had covered it and he wanted to avoid that comparison. Interestingly, during the second show, when Dawson was on stage with him, Al quipped that the juxtaposition of himself, roughly 5’9″ in height, with the 6’5″ Dawson was reminiscent of the mismatched folk-pop duo). They eventually decided upon “Bye Bye Love” and practiced it. Al was worried that he’d have problems with the lyrics, but they got through it fine, and I really enjoyed the impromptu performance in the dressing room
Then Al had another idea. “Have you got your harmonica?” he asked Dawson. “I was listening to you out there [during Dawson’s first-show performance, in which he played a blistering harmonica] and heard this thing in my head. You know the sax break in ‘Year of the Cat?’ I thought it would be cool to have you play something on harmonica there. Do you have your E-flat key?”
Julian said he’d check, and wondered if Al could do the song in E in case he only had the E key. Dawson went out to find his harmonica.
“Great,” Al laughed good-naturedly. “Things are going bad enough and he wants me to play the song in a different key.”
Dawson showed up with the instrument and Al started playing the familiar opening chords of his most-famous song. On cue, Dawson started to blow a riff that encompassed some of the recognizable sax line from the 1976 tune yet imbued it with newer colors. Sitting there, privy to a performance that only I would hear, I closed my eyes and sailed off to some exotic locale filled with the tumbling rhythms of Al’s guitar and the soulful sounds of Julian’s harp.
Al stopped abruptly. “No, that won’t work. That would only work after the guitar solo, and I’m not doing that,” he said. “Maybe some other time when we’ve more time to work on it.”
The musicians worked on the Everlys tune for a bit longer and then Julian took his leave, promising to check around for Al’s missing capo.
“Well, why don’t we talk now, before I have to look around for the capo,” Al said.
During the first show, Al delighted the audience by running through a few character voices from Monty Python, the famed ’70s British comedy troupe. Being a huge Python fan myself, I mentioned that his spontaneous riff was hilarious. He replied that he was a big fan, but these days he could only handle it occasionally, in small doses: “After you’ve heard the lines so many times it all becomes noise. It’s only after you’ve had a break from it, say, 25 years, that it becomes funny again.” His favorite sketch, he said, featured John Cleese as a bishop who wanted to be Pope. Stewart’s well-known light tenor morphed into a low baritone as he mimicked the comedian: “I want to be Pooope.”
Complimenting him on the fact that unlike comedy sketches, people worldwide still find his music satisfying, even after more than 30 years, I asked Al when we would get to hear him again. He said he would be playing a few dates with smooth-jazz guitar star and longtime collaborator Peter White in the fairly near future. “We haven’t performed together in a couple of years — I wonder how that will go,” he said. “But we’ve played together for so long. We’ll probably just pick up, practice a little, and it’ll be much like always; we’ll just fall into it.”
Al mentioned a tentative plan for him to perform in a Renaissance Fair-type of setting with other folk-inspired artists including rock legend Ritchie Blackmore. A decades-long admirer of Blackmore, Stewart recalled that the onetime Deep Purple leader started his career in a band called the Outlaws. Suddenly, he cackled with delight like a naughty schoolboy. Apparently, an evil plot just occurred to him, a practical joke he should try: He could have a mutual friend phone Blackmore up, and Al would get on the line and run a tape of the B-side of the Outlaws’ obscure and perhaps embarrassing first record.
“I’d have to do that five days into the tour or so,” he said, reconsidering his potential prank. “I wouldn’t want to do that without knowing him first. And I’d have to think how I’d feel if I answered my telephone and heard the flip side of ‘The Elf’ (his first UK single, released in 1966).”
“What was the flip side of ‘The Elf’?”
“Something by Paul Samwell-Smith called ‘Turn to Earth.’ Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Al said, nodding and smiling. “Just something to fill the time.” [Note: I have since heard it. Al’s right.]
“I was told to ask if you have any plans to record anything new soon — I know you hate to record, but…”
“I’ve made 15 albums, and have found each experience totally dismal,” he said, wringing his hands. “I can’t stand the notion that everything I do in the studio is on tape for posterity and can be used against me 20 years from now. I can’t sing…”
“Oh, come on…”
“Live I do fine, but in the studio, the minute they start recording, I’m lost,” he said. “My brain leaves me; my fingers don’t go where I want them. You saw me out there.”
“You’re a human being,” I said, always playing the World’s Mom. “Perfection isn’t part of the model.”
“I suppose not. But as for recording, I have nothing planned. I’ve been saying since the tenth album that I won’t record anymore, but somehow I ended up making five more,” he said. “But I don’t have a record deal right now. A&R people aren’t all that interested — no one’s clamoring for a 52-year-old folk singer.”
“I’ve never trusted the tastes of A&R people anyway. What do they know?” I said. “Are you writing?”
“I’ve got lots of songs in pieces,” he said, brightening. “I have bits of lyric all over the place, and jump from one to the next.”
I chuckled. “The supreme multi-tasker.”
“If a record company calls me up and says it wants a record, I’ll have to scurry about to finish things up and get things in order, I suppose,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I’ll write and read.”
“I have to tell you, I’m forcing my daughter to listen to you…”
“Oh no!” he said
“No, not like that. I listen to it and she hears the music and asks questions about it like, ‘What’s a Murmansk Run?’ And then we go look it up. It’s really getting her interested in history.”
“Well, that’s great,” he said, smiling. “I recently heard from a teacher who’s using ‘League of Notions‘ with her students.”
“What’s your favorite period of history?”
“Well, I don’t really write about history so much as writing about avoiding it. You look back and see how things were bungled in hopes of not doing the same things.”
“Those who don’t remember the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them…”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Well, you’ve written about so much history, but most of it falls into the time between the World Wars. Would that be your favorite era?”
“Well, I know that period well — it’s the twentieth century, although I’ve written about things as far back as the Trojan War.”
“But you’re right, I do have a glut of stuff in that period,” he said, nodding his head, and musing that he might try something further back, maybe in the 1800s.
“What about America in 1998?”
“Well, how well that’s going depends on where you are on the scale…”
“In other words, if you’re poor, it sucks.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice becoming quiet, “if you’re poor, it sucks.” He added that being poor in the States “sucks a lot less” than for people in countries where the standard of living is dangerously low, where citizens have to contend with the daily worries of war tearing their nation apart and snipers in the streets.
“You have a couple of dates in California, I know, and in the fall you’re going to Europe.”
“England, yes, I’ll be there in September, I think.”
“How’s the family?”
He smiled. “They’re fine. I’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll see them.”
“Ah, the tape is done…”
“Well, then, I’m going to go and look for my capo,” he said, rising from his chair.
“Yes — oh, one more thing. Right now there’s a thread [on the Al Stewart Internet Mailing List] about ‘Merlin’s Time;’ people are wondering what it all means.”
“Ah… ‘Merlin’s Time’ was inspired by the writings of Robin Williamson, which dealt with medieval times,” he said, adding that the song looks at the age of chivalry from the distance of a present-day dream.
We shook hands and he waved, saying he’d see me at show time. Shortly thereafter, the errant capo was found — one of the stagehands had it — and, as I told Al it would, the second show went off magnificently. Mother does know best.
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