Catching Up with Al Stewart
Our very own Joe Johnson spoke with Al Stewart recently, the legend behind songs we love, like “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages,” and ever since then we’ve been convinced that Al might just be the biggest music fan onboard the 2022 ‘70s Rock & Romance Cruise. He opened up to Joe about his musical heroes and shared vivid memories of his incredible encounters with so many of them.
Like the time he convinced security guards he worked for a guitar company so he could get backstage and meet John Lennon (it worked!). Or how he landed a job as the host of the legendary Les Cousins folk club and spent his nights surrounded by Cat Stevens, Bert Jansch, Van Morrison and more. He can discuss Bob Dylan’s lyrics like a PhD student defending his dissertation. And then there was that time he shared a flat with Paul Simon, surreptitiously becoming his apprentice without Paul noticing.
“This was right before ‘Sounds of Silence’ came out,” Al tells Joe. “I had just come up to London, I was 19, and I heard that there was this woman in the East End who liked folk singers and would put them up for free. And I said, ‘well that sounds very good to me,’” he continues with a laugh, “and I moved in. I was there for about a month, I think, or two and then one day she said, ‘you’ve got to get out of this bedroom because there’s an American who always stays in this room when he’s in England.’” So Al took a smaller room in the flat and Paul Simon arrived. “I didn’t know how to be a folk singer really in those days, so I just followed Paul around like a puppy dog and got to carry his guitar case. And I heard him writing songs through the wall…he would come out and play them to me because there was no one else in the apartment at the time, so it was like an apprenticeship…albeit inadvertently because he wasn’t trying to teach me anything. I was just watching everything like a hawk.”
It wasn’t long before Al ended up at Les Cousins, where he found himself in his own slice of heaven among the folk music scene’s most brilliant lyricists and musicians. Inspired by his “apprenticeship” with Paul Simon and the talented artists at Les Cousins, Al set off on a creative journey to become what would be the genre’s first historical folk-rock singer.
“When I started doing this,” he explains, “I wrote a song called ‘Manuscript’…which isn’t really about history at all. It’s about my grandfather as a young boy in 1914. And people around the folk scene in England liked it and so I thought, ‘maybe there’s room for one historical folk-rock singer in the world,’” he continues with a smile. “I read history avidly all the time at that point in my life and I said, ‘I’ll be it. It has to be someone, it might as well be me.”
And so he did, adding master storyteller and literary lyricist to his remarkable list of talents along the way. By his count, he has written at least 100 songs steeped in history, sometimes reading dozens of books to get his lyrics about wars and revolutions and politicians just right. But you may be surprised to learn that there’s so much more beneath the surface of his epic sagas.
“A lot of the historical songs I do are actually allegories,” he reveals. “They’re not what you think they’re really about, so I’m able to make up these crazy stories that involve Hungarian gymnasts and fire eaters.”
When “Year of the Cat” followed, it wasn’t supposed to be a hit: an early version was turned down by Al’s record label. It’s longer - much longer - than radio-friendly tunes, clocking in at 6 minutes and forty seconds. Its title is taken from the Vietnamese lunar zodiac calendar. Yet “Year of the Cat” became and remains one of the most beloved songs in contemporary music, celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios and produced by Alan Parsons, “Year of the Cat” introduced Al’s literary songwriting style and effortlessly cool vocals to American audiences. We couldn’t get enough of Al, sending his next string of singles up the chart: “Time Passages,” "Song on the Radio,” “Midnight Rocks,” “On The Border” and more.
We can’t wait to hear all of those songs, and maybe even a few new ones, when he takes the stage with his band, The Empty Pockets, on the cruise. “On the last tour we were on before we were in lockdown, I actually played five unrecorded, new songs. Whether I’ll play it on the cruise or not…” he teases. “I usually make my mind up about the set list five minutes before I go onstage.” One thing we can count on during his performance is a sneak peek into his incredible life as a music superfan - Al loves to share his stories from the stage. Maybe he’ll even regale us with tales about some of the other artists on the ship. “10cc are absolutely wonderful. Melissa Manchester, she’s come around to my apartment and played my piano, but that was a long time ago,” he recalls with a twinkle in his eye.
He might even tell us what happens to the young couple after the “Year of the Cat.”