A Q&A with Al Stewart
By Geoff Gehman
I became an Al Stewart fan in 1976, the year of “Year of the Cat,” a commercial breakout for him and an aural awakening for me. I was hooked, line and sinker, by his crisply melodic, poetic mini-movies about an ecstatic aviatrix, a gloomy sailor and a man happily trapped in a watercolor film noir of incense and patchouli, Bogie and Lorre. The exquisite solos, arrangements and atmospheres made me buy my first stereo so I could hear everything better and deeper. My Stewart karma must have been working overtime because the very first tune I heard on the stereo’s radio was “On the Border,” an unlikely “Year of the Cat” hit about gun-smuggling rebels.
For eight months I rapped about “Year of the Cat” and earlier Al albums with fellow first-year Stewart fans on the second floor of Lafayette College’s McKeen Hall. We spent many wee hours decoding “Old Compton Street Blues,” a painfully beautiful portrait of a once-lovely, scarred prostitute; “Eyes of Nostradamus,” a folk-rock raga about the medieval soothsayer’s miraculous prophecies, and “Modern Times,” an intriguingly intense short story about a bittersweet reunion of long-lost friends, a great divide we’d cross one day. In less than a year Stewart became my guide to the wonderland of history and mythology. He also led me back to Bob Dylan, the history/mythology master who helped convince Stewart that he could change attitudes and latitudes with a voice, an acoustic guitar and meaningful lyrics about important matters.
Forty years later, Stewart remains one of my favorite troubadours. The 70-year-old English Californian is my go-to guy for well-told tales of kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, dictators, soldiers, immigrants, poets and rock ’n’ rollers. I admire his playful wordplay, his easy interplay with a crew of exceptional guitarists (Peter White, Laurence Juber), his refusal to play with love’s clichés. I even admire his pinched, reedy singing, which accentuates his expansive, robust words.
On June 16 Stewart will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House for the first time in 10 years. He’ll be joined by Marc Macisso, a saxophonist/flutist/percussionist who plays a mean bongo during “On the Border.” Below, in a roaming, foaming conversation from his home near Los Angeles, Stewart discusses the British Invasion and the Dylan Revolution; writing a song about an imaginary Rolling Stones girlfriend and dreaming an entire album inspired by the fine French wines he collects passionately; becoming a fan of American football after a bet with a girlfriend and persuading a young fan that a gift of a fine French wine belonged back in his father’s cellar.
Q: We chatted way, way back in 1998 before you shared an Allentown show with Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason. Back then you owned 1,500 bottles of wine. What’s the tally today?
A: 1,801. I know because every year I take inventory in June and December. Actually, when you collect fine French vintages, the older you get, the more the number of bottles goes down. I haven’t bought the last six vintages because they won’t mature for 20 or 30 years: they’re asleep, waiting their turn. At my age I can’t plan for 20 or 30 years down the line.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul? When I asked your friend Laurence Juber the same question before he played Mauch Chunk, he proceeded to spend 20 minutes remembering how he was floored by the Shadows’ “Apache,” Paul Simon’s version of “Anji,” the theme for “Dr. No” and anything and everything by Django Reinhardt. It was like a mini-musical memoir.
A: I’m not sure I want to count the first songs I remember hearing on old 78s owned by my mother, like the Weavers singing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” I’d say that the first song that really knocked me out was “Singing the Blues” by Tommy Steele. It was a No. 1 hit in England, where Tommy Steele was the first rock ’n’ roller. It was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll for me. Of course the Shadows were greatly influential; without them an entire generation of English guitarists, including Laurence Juber, might not have picked up guitars. Hank Marvin was hugely influential, too. Because of Hank Marvin you get Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Another musician who had a big impact on me and musicians my age was Lonnie Donegan . A whole generation grew up on Donegan’s music; it was the headwaters of the Nile. Without Lonnie Donegan that first meeting between Paul McCartney and John Lennon might not have happened.
Q: You first met Laurence Juber in the late ‘60s, when his duo opened for you at a London club, when he was all of 14 years old. He produced and played on four of your records, including “A Beach Full of Shells” , which you’ve said is one of your favorite albums, if not your favorite. Why is it so high on your list?
A: The reason I like that one is that I like all the songs when I listen to them. When I listen to my other records there are invariably tracks I don’t like, tracks that make me think: “What was I thinking?” In fact, I put out an entire album of songs in that category; it’s called “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” .
There are three or four records that might be my favorite. On the other hand, there are records by other people that seem perfect: the second album by the Band; Fairport Convention’s “Liege & Lief.”
Q: One of my favorite tracks on “Beach” is “Gina in the Kings Road,” a splendid shot of rock ‘n’ roll about an “It” girl in London in the swinging ‘60s, a slippery chick who still sticks to the soul 40 years later. Is there a colorful back story about its origins?
A: There is, as a matter of fact. After I started playing music full time at 17, I joined a half dozen rock ‘n’ roll bands; they were called beat groups back in the day. I was in one particular beat group in 1963 when we opened for a new band from London: they were called the Rolling Stones. We opened for them at Reading Town Hall; I think I have the poster somewhere.
Members of beat groups all wore the same clothes and we were dressed in blue mohair suits. We shared a dressing room with the Stones, who were of course dressed in the clothes they wore the night before. I asked Mick Jagger when the Stones were going to wear their band clothes. He looked at me as if I had crawled out from under a rock and said [imitates Jagger’s rough, surly voice}: “These are my band clothes.”
Brian Jones, on the other hand, was very flattering and very accommodating. He even let me play his gold Gretsch guitar. During the Stones’ show I was checking out the chicks in the audience. I said to myself: They’ve got armfuls of girls wanting them; there may be something to this business [laughs]. I remembered that when I wrote “Gina,” which is a hypothetical song about a Brian Jones girlfriend.
We’d never seen anything like the Stones. Here was an R&B band that looked and sounded like nothing ever before. At the time I thought: These boys are definitely going to make a big difference. Remember, this was 1963, the year of Beatlemania. I actually saw the Beatles play in my hometown of Bournemouth. I met John Lennon and he let me play his guitar; I made a habit of meeting rock stars and playing their instruments [laughs].
Q: You wrote about your rock ‘n’ roll coming-of-age in “Class of ’58,” another tune from “Beach.” Why haven’t you written about witnessing, and sharing, the rock explosion in Britain in the early ‘60s? That’s a pretty rich gold mine to tap.
A: I don’t know why. I talk at great length about 1964-65 probably being the greatest year for the British rock generation. There was this little segment of time where you’d wake up every morning and there’d be a new fantastic record: “House of the Rising Sun,” “You Really Got Me”—the list goes on forever. There must have been something in the water.
I was in the right place at the right time, although I think I was still slightly behind the beat. If I had left school a year earlier, in ’62 instead of ’63, I might have become a full-fledged rock ‘n’ roller. I might have joined the Hollies or the Kinks or a less glamorous band like the Mojos. That’s one of my regrets; I still mourn my lost rock ‘n’ roll youth.
I’ve often said that Bob Dylan deserves credit for prodding me into a career that at the time I neither wanted nor expected. I think I was the first one in Bournemouth to buy one of his records. He came over to England in the spring of 1965 and I saw him live at the Royal Albert Hall. Here was this one guy playing acoustic guitar and he sold out the place and people were ecstatic and I thought to myself: “I have to have a piece of this.” So I decided to perform “Masters of War” by myself, without a band. I was inspired by Lonnie Donegan’s success singing Leadbelly songs. I got great applause, better than I had received with a band, and I thought: Hmmm, there’s something going on here. As Dylan said [in “Ballad of a Thin Man”]: “[Because] something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is…” So the next week I sang two Dylan songs and received the same enthusiastic response.
That led to me going up to London and playing every week at Bunjies [Coffee House and Folk Cellar], a residency that really started my career as a folk musician rolling. That’s why I like to say that Dylan ruined the rock ’n’ roll part that I was so fond of, that I’ve had a career thanks to “Masters of War.”
Q: Do you make any reference in concert to the 50th anniversary of the release of your first single, “The Elf”?
A: Oh god, I’ve got to dig that out again and do it. The problem is, most Americans don’t know it, so when I play it, people sit there with their arms folded thinking “What the hell is this?” The reception is better in England because a certain number of people heard it when it first came out. I sold 496 copies and I remember getting a check for, I think, $3 from my management. It came with this great letter that said, essentially, part of what we do is to give our artists advice about the colossal sums of money you’ll make from your royalties [laughs].
I thought of sending them a couple of dollars along with a letter that said, essentially, that over the years I’ve been greatly impressed by the modesty of your interest in my career. I borrowed that idea from something that Leonard Cohen actually said. He might have taken his comment from [Winston] Churchill’s famous comment about [Clement] Attlee, the [British] labor leader who became prime minister after Churchill: “Mr. Atlee is a modest man but, then, he has much to be modest about” [laughs].
Q: Have you ever been tempted to write a song about your father, a pilot in the Royal Air Force reserve who died during a training exercise in 1945, nearly six months before you were born? Does your interest in writing songs about aviation–“Flying Sorcery,” “The Immelman Turn”—stem from your interest in your aviator dad?
A: I don’t think so because I never knew him. I did write one song, “Murmansk Run,” where a father goes off to war and never comes back, but I’m actually writing about somebody else’s father. If I had known my father I actually don’t know if I would have become a musician. My grandfather was a banker and if my father had lived longer I suspect he would have done something along the lines of banking and then tried to coax me into something more mainstream than music.
To play music for a living you probably need to be committed to it by the time you’re 17. If you have a college degree and you’re earning 80 grand starting out at a stock brokerage, it would be incredibly hard to go back to playing for pennies and sleeping on people’s couches. In my experience the people who make it in the music business are not necessarily the most talented; they just persevere. I grew up with musicians who were better than I was, but they didn’t last because they didn’t spend days and days and days trying to improve their singing, their songwriting, their guitar playing; they simply wanted to earn enough money to buy a car. In my case, I got thrown out of school and didn’t go back, which left me free to pursue music full time. I actually benefitted from burning my bridges.
Q: You’ve never written a song about American football, even though you’re a serious follower of the game. What made you a fan of the Denver Broncos?
A: I was briefly going out with this girl who was a big fan of the [San Francisco] ’49ers when [quarterback] Joe Montana was at the top of his game. I’m English, so at the time I knew nothing about American football, absolutely nothing. I made a bet with her that, for fun, I would pick a favorite [football] team in the city where I had the best gig during the course of the year. During the course of the year I played for 1,400 or 1,500 in Denver and they were ecstatic; they went apeshit. So I picked the Broncos. Of course that was the year  they signed [quarterback] John Elway, who went on to break my heart by losing three Super Bowls and who mended my heart by winning two Super Bowls in a row.
Q: I can’t let you go without asking you a few more questions about your passion for fine wines. You told Mike Oldman for his book “Brave New World of Wine” that you dreamed up the chorus to “Post World War Two Blues” under the influence of wine, that you’re more lyrical, “more on the ball musically,” when you’re hung over
A: I wrote the chorus to “Post World War Two Blues” in my sleep. It’s one of the only ones that I wrote in my sleep that I remember. I was actually singing the chorus in my sleep. I woke up and immediately wrote it down.
I dream really, really dramatically. Some of my dreams are more real to me than real life. I’ve even dreamt one album that I’ve never made; I think it was between [the albums] “Orange”  and “Past, Present and Future” . I have a vague idea of the cover and I know the shape of the songs: I remember there were a lot of major chords and a lot of fifths. It doesn’t exist except in my head; I actually played it three times in my head.
Q: You’ve said that you like writing on the cusp of history and mythology. So it makes perfect sense that you like spending time on the border of dream and reality.
A: I live in different time periods. I’ve spent time in the Peloponnesian War in my mind. I’ve spent two to four whole days in 1858. Even today, there are whole days when I don’t live in 2016 at all. To me the present is only an illusion. It’s funny, there are people who think I write songs on parchment by the light of candles, which is not totally far from the truth. I like writing with a ballpoint pen in an exercise book. I think it makes songs seem more rooted in the past, more timeless. I try not to write or record with electronics; they make songs sound too buried in the present. A drum machine and a computer are good only if you want to write a dance song.
Q: You’ve claimed that the best bottle of wine you consumed was a Chateau Petrus 1947. Is it still on top of your oenophile mountain?
A: It’s remarkable that you would ask that question because I was thinking about that just yesterday. The Petrus was probably the best of that era, but, then, wine making back then was totally idiosyncratic. Wine making today is completely different; it’s a lot cleaner and, frankly, a lot better. There are 2009s and 2010s that will be beyond belief. But they won’t be ready until about 2050, so I won’t live to find out if they’re indeed beyond belief. .
Q: What’s the best bottle of wine you received from a fan?
A: Marc Macisso and I were playing an open-air summer festival in Minneapolis and this young kid gave me a 1982 Mouton Rothschild. I’m very familiar with it; it’s this historically great wine probably in the region of $1,000 a bottle. I said to the kid: “This is a fantastic bottle of wine. Where did you get it?”
“Oh, I just pulled it out of my dad’s collection.”
I looked at him and told him, very seriously: “You’ve got to do me a favor. Put it back just where you found it and don’t say anything.”
Q: So, Al, when was the last time an interviewer never asked you a question about the song “Year of the Cat”?
A: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been interviewed by people who don’t really know who I am, who have no idea about “Year of the Cat.” The regular [music] guy at some magazine will be off, so they’ll put the gardening correspondent in charge of talking to me. I can see they’re trying to work out who I am when they ask me: “Well, you’re a musician: Do you like music?” Or: “You’re this ‘Cat’ [Stevens] person: How long have you been a Muslim?”
“I’m not that ‘Cat’ person.”
[Pause] “Well, then, how long have you liked cats?”
Al Stewart: The Scoop
In the 1960s he auditioned for the Paramounts, which became Procol Harum.
He used money from his first record contract to buy a London house, a Ferrari and his first fine wine, a 1961 Calon-Segur that cost $6, quite a high price in the ‘60s. His ‘70s deal with Arista Records was sealed with three cases of ‘60s French vintages.
In 1970 he performed at the first Glastonbury Festival, one of the original long-running outdoor musical extravaganzas
His 2016 calendar includes shows at the New Hope Winery and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
He’d like to sing with Roger Daltrey’s gusty lustiness.
“Year of the Cat” was originally titled “Foot of the Stage” and was inspired by Stewart watching a sad performance by Tony Hancock, once a very popular English comic. “I remember him talking about how awful his life was. Everybody was laughing, thinking he was joking. I knew immediately that this man was not being funny; this really was his reality. A few months later he committed suicide in Australia. Because I was in the audience that night, I decided to write a song about the experience. I remember one of the lines: ‘His tears fall down like rain at the foot of the stage.’ The people at the record company liked the tune to a certain extent. ‘This is all well and good,’ they said, ‘but no one in America knows Tony Hancock. Can you rewrite the lyrics?’”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Al Stewart songs include “In Brooklyn,” “Old Compton Street Blues,” “Eyes of Nostradamus,” “Roads to Moscow,” “Carol,” “Sirens of Titan,” “Modern Times,” “Lord Grenville,” “Flying Sorcery,” “Year of the Cat,” “Almost Lucy,” “End of the Day,” “Don’t Forget Me” and “Gina in the Kings Road.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.