Friday, January 22, 2021

The great Al Stewart


A few thoughts about Alasteir Ian Stewart

I was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan. It is a northern suburb of Detroit of about 60,000 people and the hometown of Glen Frey of the Eagles. I am 55 and the youngest of three children. As a kid I didn’t have much choice of what type of music I could listen to. I had a transistor radio and would be thrilled when I could pick up the Canadian stations and developed a fondness for Gordon Lightfoot when I was only about ten.

My Dad was a high school vocal music teacher who favored jazz like Brubeck or the great masterful choral pieces from composers like Bach and Brahms. My older brother was into progressive rock bands like Genesis and Yes. My sister went for more of the singer/songwriter types, so I heard a lot of James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and thankfully, Al Stewart. My mother enjoyed all of it.

I knew I loved music. After leaving a small liberal arts college in Michigan I went on to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA to further my knowledge of music and grab a ringside seat in the excitement and passion music brought to people.

All of the styles of music I inherited from my family were important and influential in my career as a musician, playing rock and roll, jazz and show tunes professionally, but never at a “full time musician” level. I also managed a popular singer songwriter from Michigan who had some great regional success with his music, gaining praise from people like Mitch Ryder, Mick Taylor, Bruce Springsteen (who recorded a song with him) and some of the heavyweights in the world of rock journalism

As I got older I developed a deeper appreciation for the singer/ songwriter genera. It took the lead in what I loved to listen to and became a trajectory of where I wanted to go in life. After a while I set aside Genesis, Rush, Yes and Zeppelin but in no way have I abandoned them. Both music and lyrics were always important to me and I’ve spent my life gravitating toward music that “means something” or weaves a great story allowing my imagination to follow it into a deep ethereal bliss like Stewart’s does.

I loved to take in the lyrics and found meaning in them beyond just the appreciation of music. I became a writer later in life and have written five books of various subject matter. Currently, I have entered a dream as I am living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan writing sort of an historical fiction book about a lost locomotive hidden in the woods from the logging era in the late 1800s.

What led me here was a complicated path but there is no question in my mind that the influence of these select few musicians helped shape my style of writing. Which brings me back to our friend Al.

My first real taste of Al occurred when I was in junior high and the DJ played “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” at our Friday night, “sawdust on the gym floor” dances. There was something magical about those songs and it still rings true for me in a nostalgic way when I hear them today. They remind me of who I was then, where I came from and what I was doing at the time I kissed adolescence goodbye.

My sister had a copy of Modern Times and she told me about a song on it called “Apple Cider Reconstruction.” That’s a strange name for a song I thought to myself, but she played it and I loved it. Then I listened to “Carole” and “Sirens of Titan.” The latter wove an exciting narrative and piqued my interest even more into lyricism and I enjoyed the music.

As my brother and sister went off to college, I had to start buying my own records. It helped that I worked at a record store for a while and getting records at a hefty discount allowed me to continue down my path to Al, one record at a time.

By the early 1990s I was completely hooked on Al and knew he would forever hold a coveted spot on my extensive playlist, sandwiched between Gordon Lightfoot, Fogelberg, Genesis, Chopin, Chapin, Yes and Vivaldi.  College wasn’t for me because I wanted to play rock and roll, which I did. My band was on MTV once, LOL. I came from the Springsteen “we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school” crowd.

I kept up with each of Al’s new releases and then one day I decided to go backward and sought out the older, out of print records like Love Chronical’s, Zero She Flies, Bedsitter Images and the rest. I fell in love with Denise at 16 and it changed the way I began listening to this fascinating songwriter.

I think Al did some of his best work in the 90s and 2000s. He could write and record songs he wanted to, not that he had to for the sake of a record company breathing down his neck looking for a hit single. There is no doubt the breadth of his subject matter would have continued to flourish anyway, but when he made these records he didn’t just head into the studio with his guitar in one hand and notebooks of beautifully written lyrics in the other.

Al Stewart is one of the gifted few who was in the business of doing something magical and often times breathtaking in a dirty and chaotic business. Each time Al went into the studio, he did more than record a new batch of tunes for public consumption. Stewart he went in and created masterpieces which will stand the test of time.

To date, I’ve only seen Al once at a nightclub in Windsor, Ontario Canada and he was in what I call his “rock stage” at the time. Last Days of the Centuries had just been released and, as was the case, he played several selections from it along with the hits. I loved it. I remember running into Peter White in the bathroom before the show but was too nervous to say anything. But I really wanted to meet him. All I could come up with is “Hey, you’re Peter White. We have the same name.” He shot me a look of confusion as he zipped up and got the hell out of there quickly.

The value of Alan Parson’s producing in the seventies breathed additional life into the masterful tunes like Lord Grenville and Palace of Versailles. So when records like Between the Wars, Beach full of Shells and Sparks of Ancient light came out, some of us were just discovering this brilliant man’s ability to recreate history on vinyl and cinematically bring characters, times and places to life with his intense and beautiful vision.

His pallet has always been vivid and rich in color. The listener could imagine themselves on that night train to Munich or on the road to Moscow and could sympathize with characters like Marion the Chatelaine because Al was able to reach through time and channel these people so perfectly that he brought Marion to life again in this beautiful and tragic song.

I felt for her. The first time I experienced the song, I wept for her.

After a rough last three years, I experienced a contentious divorce, a writing career that was stalling out and the beautiful and heartbreaking experience of taking care of my mother 24/7 through her decline of Alzheimer’s disease. But when she passed last September it was nothing short of a sad relief.

Music and life to some degree became flat and dull to me and nothing seemed particularly interesting anymore. It was probably a combination of depression and the invisible Tsunami of grief that hits us from behind when our second parent dies. This is because it brings back memories of when the first one, (in this case my Dad, who passed in 2015) and also intense feelings of sadness and loss.

You can’t stop it and even if you think you can emerge from the grief unscathed, you won't be able to The emotion is hard hit for a human heart to absorb, much less process and live with when suddenly you become an orphan overnight.

Listening to Al Stewart these recent weeks has brought laughter back into my spirit and it feels great to enjoy and absorb this great music again. It has also been awesome reading so many posts about Al and other interesting things from the people in this group. Now when I punch up a file on my computer I don’t just listen to Al’s records but rather I experience them.

In December I moved away from a city someone in my family had called home since the mid-1920s and went almost as far north as the roads allow. It’s calm and peaceful where I currently reside as you can tell by the picture of the road accompanying this post. I am in a small guest house/cottage of a friend sandwiched between an inland lake and the great lake they call Gitchie Gumee; Lake Superior.

Over the winter, which can be quite long up here and deliver over one hundred inches of snow, I am trying to get my creativity and focus back by trying to be a writer again. The guest house I live is perfect. A beautiful lake sits frozen only about thirty feet from me and I watch the sun crawl up over the cloud banks each morning bringing reds, golds and orange colors into the sky while creating a captivating crystal glistening on top of the snow. This is a very remote area and I am surprised that internet service reaches us. I am secluded and have only about five neighbors within a three mile radius. After those three miles, it is another twenty eight miles to the nearest town.

In the spring I will move into that quaint, little town called Newberry, where I hope to resume my life as a writer (born without a trust fund) writing about things that are meaningful to me like Al Stewart. I kid with people when I describe Newberry, telling them on one end of town is a prison and at the other end of the town is a hospital. Ergo, whichever way my life goes I shall be taken care of.

I’ll eventually find some kind of job doing something I love to put food on the table, wine in the cupboard and keep my two Greyhounds fed. But right now I am not in a rush. I can feel myself healing and feel my heart beating again and music, particularly Al’s music, has had a lot to do with it.

The view from my kitchen table, which doubles as my desk, is a peaceful one. Right now the sun is muted and obscured by clouds. Light snow is falling, the blue jays are acting like assholes trying to keep the other birds off the feeder as the windsock occasionally twitches in the cold air blowing in from the lake.

The pine and cedar trees are full of snow and look like a Currier and Ives Christmas card. This morning, one of my Greyhounds, tuckered out after our morning mile must have sensed something emotionally intense going on inside me. So before she laid down to nap, she came and rested her head on my lap insisting I rub her neck and scratch her ears as we listened to “Somewhere in England.”

I have fresh bread baking in the oven and the feel the satisfaction of my two dogs who are sleeping comfortably on their soft beds. Their contentment always brings a smile to my face. I’ve just punched up a playlist for the afternoon: Somewhere in England, Denise at 16, Lord Grenville, Katherine of Oregon, Fields of France, Sampan, Flying Sorcery. Laughing into 1939 and At the end of the day.

And yes, it includes Time Passages; a song whose memory will take so long to fade. It is a subtle reminder to me of what a flicker our existence is.

“Well I'm not the kind to live in the past

The years run too short and the days too fast

The things you lean on are the things that don't last.”

And well. . . I’m sure you know the rest by heart.

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