As Collectors Choice Music prepares to reissue thirteen of English folk rock singer Al Stewart’s original releases in new, remastered editions with never before heard tracks, I couldn’t help but reminisce a little. You see, old Al and I go way back.
As a twenty something record store clerk at the very beginning of what would prove to be a long career in the music business, Al Stewart was one of my favorite songwriters. I first got turned on to Al by hearing the album Past, Present & Future, which was Stewart’s first record to chart on Billboard in the United States (it peaked at #133). Minor as it was, that chart success was due in no small part to the success he enjoyed here in Seattle. Local rock radio stations like KZOK fully embraced Stewart on the airwaves, and his shows here always sold out. The truth is, Seattle was one of Al Stewart’s earliest, and strongest markets.
And I’d like to think that guys who worked in record stores–guys like me–played a role in that as well. I was always giving records like Past Present & Future and Modern Times heavy in-store play, and I’d just as quickly recommend his albums to anyone who would listen.
So like I said, the first record I heard by Al was Past, Present & Future. I was particularly struck by the track “Nostradamus,” as I was something of a “spiritual seeker” myself back then. I found Stewart’s lyrics about the French seer predicting things like the rise of Hitler particularly fascinating. That album also contained a track called “Roads To Moscow” that had something or another to do with Russian history. You see, that was the thing about Al Stewart. Besides the fact that Stewart was particularly skillful at turning a phrase, his lyrics were just so damned literate.
They also often contained lush and romantic themes and imagery. So by appealing to both my pretensions of intellectualism, and the fact that at twenty something I was still something of a die-hard romantic at heart, Al Stewart’s music had me hooked from the get-go.
So did I mention that I worked in a record store back then? Well, one of the best perks that came from this job was free tickets to concerts. Occasionally, these free tickets would also include backstage passes if the label was trying particularly hard to get the so-called “tastemakers” in the market behind an artist.
Al Stewart was particularly big with the ladies back then. So when I got a pair of tickets with backstage passes for an Al Stewart concert, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to ask a certain hot female customer I’d been eyeing for awhile out on a date. I mean what better way to impress a date than introducing her to music’s most wonderfully romantic songsmith himself?
And I was absolutely right in my assumptions as my perspective future wife jumped at the chance to go. So off we went to see Al Stewart at the Paramount. By this time in 1976, I was well versed in Al Stewart’s music, having bought all of the artist’s American releases as well as several of the import titles like Love Chronicles. My date was also a big fan.
So after the concert, the label rep took us backstage to meet Al Stewart as promised. I was very excited and anxious to ask Al all about the wonderful romantic themes and historical references in his music. The thing is, once we got backstage Al wasn’t terribly interested in talking to me at all. Actually, he rather was quite taken with my date. So as Al continued to chat her up and all but ignore me, I began to grow a little impatient.
After glancing at my watch rather obviously several times, I finally told my date we should probably be going. And thats when Al offered my date the opportunity to go back to the hotel with him, rather than to go home with me. Of course she said yes–after all, he was Al Stewart and by this point I was just the guy at the record store who took her to a concert and got her backstage to meet the artist. As I left after informing “Kathy” she would have to find her own way home, Al had one more favor to ask of me. He wanted the “Jimmy Carter For President” button I was wearing (I worked on his campaign that year). Unbelievable.
I’m not sure how all of this ended up, as I never spoke to her again after that night. She apparently also found another place to buy her records. But for many years after that, Al Stewart’s music just didn’t sound the same to me. All of the historical moments in time and all of the lush, romantic places his songs had once carried me off to just no longer rang true.
But like those Time Passages he sings about in one of his songs, the bitter memory of being essentially jilted at the big dance eventually faded away. The whole incident has now been basically reduced to the humorous story I sometimes tell my buddies over beers, and the one that I just told you. Eventually, I was even able to appreciate Al Stewart’s music again. For one thing, we have both grown up quite a bit since those days in the seventies. And whether he is still the womanizing cad he once was or not (and I’ve heard from reliable sources that he is not), the guy still has a way with a phrase that is just undeniable.
So I was pleased to hear about the reissues of all of Al Stewart’s old records in remastered, new CD editions. I immediately picked up copies of my two favorites. Love Chronicles is one of Stewart’s earliest albums, and one that I remember having to buy my first vinyl copy of as an import.
Love Chronicles original six tracks include several recorded with Richard Thompson and the rest of Fairport Convention performing under pseudonyms due to some contractual deal with the record companies involved. As a result, many of these tracks such as “You Should Have Listened To Al” and “The Ballad of Mary Foster” have a decidedly folky sort of feel serving as a backdrop for Stewart’s adept way of storytelling.
But the centerpiece of the album is the stunning title track. Stretching over some eighteen minutes, the song “Love Chronicles” so stands out on it’s own that it just as well could have been another record all by itself. Over the course of this epic track, Al Stewart basically runs down every romantic encounter he has ever had from his adolescence to the then current day.
This was of course before he ever met my darling “Kathy”.
As a pre Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page provides some very uncharacteristically tasty guitar riffage to the mix, Stewart pours over every painstaking detail of these encounters, wrapping each of them around the repeated phrase “it was no sense at all, but too much sense, that took me to the bridge of impotence.” This is just some incredible songwriting here. And as coarse as a line like “it grew to be less like fucking, and more like making love” may sound here, in the context of this song it makes complete sense. Al Stewart makes losing your virginity sound every bit like the emotional rite of passage it is.
The three bonus tracks included on the new remastered version are “Jacksaw,” “She Follows Her Own Rules” and “Fantasy.” None of these have been previously issued on a commercial release.
So my other favorite Al Stewart album was Modern Times, which is the album that was originally sandwiched inbetween Past, Present & Future and his real American breakthrough album, the smash hit Year Of The Cat. This is hands down my favorite Al Stewart album, and one I even continued to listen to during my personal boycott of his music after he stole my date.
Produced by Alan Parsons, this album has the sort of pristine sound and crystal clear production that are Parsons trademarks as a producer. It’s also a bit more rocking than a lot of Stewart’s other work, with tracks like “Apple Cider Reconstitution,” “Carol,” and
“Sirens Of Titan” all containing the sort of bouncy groove that radio programmers love. Stewart’s longtime guitarist Tim Renwick also is mixed more out front than on previous releases, and the fret work here is some of the tastiest sounding of his career.
Here again though, the title track is the centerpiece of the record. Though it doesn’t completely overwhelm the rest of the album the way that “Love Chronicles” does, “Modern Times” is another of those stunningly personal pieces of storytelling from Stewart that simply takes your breath away. Here, Stewart tells the tale of a chance encounter at a bar with a friend from his past, and the reluctance to recount old memories of “chasing skinny blue jeaned girls across the building site” and “checking out the dance floor while the band played Hold Me Tight”. The bittersweet meeting goes on to reflect how “it all comes back like yesterday.” Musically the track builds to a big orchestral close–the Parsons influence is especially felt here–punctuated by Renwick’s best guitar work on the album.
“The Dark And Rolling Sea,” which precedes “Modern Times” on this album is another of those reflective sort pf period pieces, this time told from the perspective of a salty old seaman. Here again, Stewart takes his subject matter and weaves a tale so achingly personal you’d swear he actually lived it. It also makes for a beautiful segue into the title track.
The new remastered Modern Times also contains more of those previously unreleased bonus tracks. Here they include “Swallow Wind,” and “A Sense Of Deja Vu.”
Both of these tracks sound very much like original outtakes from this album. A third bonus track, “Willie The King” is said to have come from the sessions for Year Of The Cat and has the slicker sound of that record.
So I guess I forgive Al Stewart for stealing my date all those years ago. But if I ever do run into him again, remind me that he is owed one punch in the nose.