You're trapped in an elevator. Assaulting your ears with merciless blandness is a song, a soulless, treacly instrumental version of "Year of the Cat." This canned performance, cruel and sinister by virtue of its very existence, bears little resemblance to Al Stewart's moody and literate 1976 original, but your impulse is to curse the songwriter and, after spending a day with those horrid Muzak-ish strains holding your brain hostage, to blame him for all of popular music's sins. I quite understand. But you would be wrong.
For one thing, once the companies have paid royalties for their use, artists have no control over what elevator-music miscreants do to their songs. Don't hate the players, hate the game - carry an iPod or a Walkman and provide your own soundtrack.
More importantly, though, there is another thing to consider. Over the past 40-plus years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Al Stewart has created and continues to make sonic art that showcases what's best about popular music: stellar musicianship; evocativeness; intelligence; relatability and relevance; uncompromising vision that encompasses past, present, and future. Stewart's music propels both body and brain into motion. Whether his song exposes a young man's romantic (or not-so-romantic) longings during the swinging '60s; laments the fate of a strung-out, washed-up, never-was '70s girl singer; presents the love of a couple nearly a century ago against a backdrop of impending world war; notes the steel-gray loneliness of present-day political candidates, it kick-starts one's senses.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, chart-following Americans had their first introduction to Scotland-born Stewart's work, a rich, innovative blend of fact-based history; fully drawn characters; realistic and real-life situations (and equally plausible reactions); a smattering of sex or politics or war; the artist's own genuine empathy for the all-too-human foibles and follies of people powerful and ordinary, celebrated and unnoticed; and gorgeous music performed by musicians committed to their craft. Through the 1960s and early 70s, Stewart achieved success as a recording artist and performer in the UK folk-pop scene, but his respective 1974 and 1975 LPs Past, Present and Future and Modern Times grabbed the interest of stateside listeners. By 1976, Stewart was living in sunny California and the US was enthralled by the intoxicating musical strains and sensuous lyrical lines that brought the "Year of the Cat" — and its felinelike femme fatale — to life:
Oh, she looks at you so coolly
And her eyes shine like the moon and the sea.
She comes in incense and patchouli,
So you take her to find what's waiting inside
The year of the cat...
"Year of the Cat," Year of the Cat, 1976
Are you enticed by the intrigue and romance, drawn in by the woman's eyes and her luxuriant aromas and by the sense that something sure to be life-changing and memorable is about to occur? Millions around the world were, and they made and kept Stewart a celebrated artist, something more than a mere pop star, through the mid-1980s, when legal matters put the kibosh on his major-label recording career for a number of years. At that point, for too many, hearing an Al Stewart song became a painful event that happened in an elevator or in the waiting room of a doctor's office.