Stewart Saves His Century

All this millennium talk of recent days is nothing new to Al Stewart. His 1989 song "Last Days of the Century" pointed to the event better than 10 years ahead of time. The lyric to that song included many hallmarks of Stewart's writing style: literary, cinematic and historical elements that aren't often found in other "popular" songs. Take a look at this example from the aforementioned "Last Days . . .":

You wore Black Clothes
You quoted Shakespeare
You still make me shake
When you get this near
You look like a still from
Cecil B. DeMille
When I saw you waiting at my door
In the last days of the century.

Go ahead and find another pop song that, in the space of a few couplets, brings up silent films, the Bard of Avon and the end of the 1900s. You won't find many. Your opportunity to hear songs from this most literate singer-songwriter is this coming Sunday, July 25, when he will be doing one show with a full band at Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale.

Stewart's acoustic-based folk-rock developed a strong cult following in his native U.K. Beginning his career in 1966, the Scottish singer, who was raised in England, attracted fans and friends among the English folkie scene. Musicians found on his early albums include Richard Thompson, Rick Wakeman and a young Jimmy Page on guitar. But Stewart's first six releases never really broke through to a mainstream audience.

Looking for a change of direction around 1976, he relocated to the U.S. and made California his home. Evidently this move did the trick, because his next release was a little something called Year of the Cat. The massive-selling soft-rock title track was inescapable during the bicentennial year and is still a staple of classic-rock radio stations to this day. The Alan Parsons-produced album was such a success that Stewart has credited it with his ongoing financial security. His is not a story of a rock 'n' roller giving in to the temptations of success only to lose it all. Stewart's major vice through the years seems to have been his love of fine wine. His world-class collection of vintage bottles keeps him occupied when he's not making music.

"Year of the Cat" itself was an odd choice for a hit single. Its lyrics call to mind Casablanca in such lines as:

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they
turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd
like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime.

The hit record momentum continued for Al with his follow-up record, Time Passages, which contained the popular title song as well as "Song on the Radio." His tenure as a huge-selling recording artist was beginning to wind down by this time. Subsequent releases such as Live Indian Summer and Russians and Americans sold in lesser numbers to his established pre-Year of the Cat-size cult audience. The records are no better or worse for their lack of popular acceptance. In fact, his material is noticeably consistent. His 1989 LP with that forward-looking title, Last Days of the Century, is actually one of his best.

A bit more than a decade after his greatest success, he came up with the album that contains several of his strongest songs. On that disc he sings of the polar explorations of Shackleton and Scott in "Antarctica" and of the legend of Helen of Troy in "Helen and Cassandra." Such unlikely subjects for pop songs are joined by an ode to "Josephine Baker" wherein he laments having been "born too late to see Josephine Baker dancing in a Paris cabaret."

His recurring lyrical approach is summed up in that song's lyric "I'm sometimes trapped by the close confines of the age I'm born into. . . ." The fascination with historical matters comes to the forefront of his 1995 concept album, Between the Wars.

This collection consists of a baker's dozen vignettes of life during those years of uneasy peace. Titles such as "Lindy Comes to Town" and "Life Between the Wars" reflect their subject matter while "The Age of Rhythm" neatly sums up the giddiness of the era through the reflection of hindsight.

The contrast between living a carefree life while seeing the signs of trouble to come is reflected in these lines:

This is the age
of rhythm
These are the
dancing years
Jump through the mirror with them
New York has no time for your tears

Today I feel like Dorothy Parker
Today I've got the
critical eye
I paint my world just a little bit darker
Don't even have to try

--David Gofstein

Al Stewart and band are scheduled to perform Sunday, July 25, at Anderson's Fifth Estate, 6820 East Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets, available at Dillard's, are $25.50. For details call 480-994-4168 or 480-503-5555.

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David Gofstein