Al Stewart brings his ‘Year of the Cat’ tour to High Point
Al Stewart thinks writing songs is pretty easy. “It’s not rocket science,” he said in his quiet, self-deprecating British way. I spoke with Stewart last week by phone from his home in Los Angeles. If you were near a radio in the ‘70s, you’ll know Stewart’s literate and mellow style of folk-pop from his 1976 hit “Year of the Cat.” Stewart plays High Point on Feb. 16. He’ll be playing his iconic Year of the Cat album in its entirety, with a full band, something fans have been asking him to do for years.
“Year of the Cat” is, as several of Stewart’s songs, about a guy away from home who has an unexpected and slightly mysterious romantic encounter with a woman. There’s a vaguely North African, Sheltering Sky vibe to the song. There are also references to classic movie actors Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorey. All of that might fit into what Stewart describes as his strategy of writing about what he likes.
“I like history, and, obviously, I like music, I like words, I like books and I like movies,” Stewart said. “All I’ve done all my life is taken them in a pot and stirred.”
Anyone searching for inspiration, or a subject, should just take a peek at the vastness of the world by looking at a map, says Stewart.
“If you want to write a song, all you do is open an atlas,” he said. “You’ll never run out of ideas.”
That may be true for Stewart, who, at 72, has spent much of his life traveling the world and reading books. So, concocting a story about the Great Wall of China, or World War I, or the Maori, or the Fall of the Aztecs might seem as natural as writing about heartbreak and romance.
Stewart has ranged pretty far with his material. He wrote a song about Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel The Sirens of Titan. He wrote a song about the Victorian-era nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear. He’s written about ancient explorers. He’s written about war.
Of all those subjects that Stewart referenced as things he’s fond of that he’s written songs about, there was one big one he left off. That’s wine, something to which he’s devoted a considerable amount of time and money.
“I basically took the 1980s off and studied wine,” he said. “I would read two of three hours a day, all of the classic literature on wine. I’d go to tastings.”
The French government even gave Stewart the honorary title of master councilor of French wine.
“It’s weird because I live in Los Angeles, but I know more people in the wine business than I do in the music business,” Stewart said.
Stewart eventually channeled his oenophile knowledge into Down In the Cellar, an album from 2000 of songs about wine.
Having come up through the folk scene in London in the ‘60s, Stewart hung out with the major figures of the British folk revival. Jimmy Page and members of Fairport Convention played on Stewart’s second album, Love Chronicles, from 1969. Stewart was friends with the members of the Incredible String Band. With his accomplished fingerpicking and breathy delivery, one can hear touches of Bert Jansch and Donovan on Stewart’s early records. His first appearance on record was accompanying the American folk singer Jackson C. Frank on Frank’s solo debut, which happened to be produced by Paul Simon, who was Stewart’s London flatmate briefly in the mid-60s. Stewart compares Frank, who died in 1999, and went largely under-appreciated during his lifetime, to the British folk singer Nick Drake, whose albums were rediscovered, in part, due to the popularity of a T.V. ad 25 years after his 1974 death. Stewart says he seems to remember nudging the famously shy Drake onto a stage.
An artist like Stewart, who had hit singles and plenty of radio play, isn’t exactly in need of re-discovery, since “Year of the Cat” and hits like “Time Passages” can still be heard on the classic-rock radio. But Stewart’s particular blend of word-dense, literate, sophisticated and vaguely world-weary mellow folk-pop seems to have found a new generation of deep-cut fans in the world of indie rock. There aren’t a ton of Al Stewart clones out there, but one can hear a connection to Stewart’s approach in the nostalgic, poetic slouch of Dan Bejar, a member of the New Pornographers, and who performs and records under the name Destroyer. Many listeners have flagged the surprising stylistic link to Stewart in assessing Bejar’s work.
Songwriters need, by necessity, to be mindful of lyrics, but Stewart is perhaps a little more word-centric than the average tunesmith. He studiously avoids repetition, goes out of his way to write about unusual subjects and avoids the well-worn subjects of simple romance, love wanted, love found, love lost. One can hear a kinship to John Lennon and particularly Bob Dylan.
“Jack the Ripper and Hippocrates, they’re out to get me in the end,” sings Stewart on “Beleeka Doodle Day,” a nonsense-tinged song from his first record, 1967’s Bed-Sitter Images. And Stewart is not afraid to break out the high-dollar words that might send listeners running to the dictionary. On the song “Royal Courtship” from his 2005’s A Beach Full of Shells, Stewart opens with the line “I sent my majordomo to your amanuensis.”
“I’m fairly obsessive about lyrics; obviously, it’s my job,” Stewart said.
If his lyrics can be meticulous and erudite, Stewart has a very playful, punning, almost absurdist streak as well. And he’s a big fan of the compact, high-octane off-the-street songwriting of early rock and roll, particularly of Chuck Berry and Jerry Leiber. Stewart pinpoints 1955 as the year that something changed in music.
“Pop music was just thrust into the vernacular,” he said.
Given his attention to verbal detail and his love of books, I ask Stewart if he’s ever considered writing one of his one.
“I started one, I just haven’t finished it,” he said. “One of the characters is a refrigerator, but he hates being a refrigerator because he’s always cold.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Al Stewart plays High Point Theater, 220 East Commerce Ave., High Point, on Friday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. $35 to $45.