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Al Stewart, Reincarnation and Recurrence: Part One
Joseph Azize
(all quoted lyrics by Al Stewart)

“(God) also puts eternity in their minds …”, so spoke the esoteric Solomon, Ecclesiastes 3:11. And from the store of Al Stewart’s mind, intimations of eternity have been infused into some of his songs. Music, surely, is an ideal stage for such alchemy. It provides a rhythm and a tempo to mark time; and melody, performance and tone to colour, as it were, those few minutes which are consecrated to the song. And so the invocation of something beyond time comes to be expressed in time. This miracle is possible, for according to Plato and also to Gurdjieff (perhaps the greatest of the modern Platonists), time is the moving image of eternity (Timaios 37C). That line is frequently quoted, but it deserves to be pondered. It means, first, that time is in fact related to eternity. But more than this, it also means that time is related to eternity by the same mode as man is said to be related to God in Genesis 1:26 and 27.

Eternity itself “rests in unity”, it is beyond movement. But the realm of time is different: it is the world of multiplicity, change and passing (Timaios 37C-D, Beelzebub ch.XVI and Wellbeloved’s summary with correspondences to other passages in that book and the Bible, Astrology, pp.202-3). The quondam office of the church, as I remember it, told us the same thing: “Rerum deus tenax vigor immotus in te permanens”: “God of all the universe, maintaining, active, (yet) in yourself unmoved and always the same.” Indeed, one can actually sense change in and around oneself. The total sensing of oneself is sometimes called the sixth sense. I would say that this subtle feeling of “me-here-now in an ineffable relation to the flow of history” is part of the sixth sense. We are barely aware of this sixth sense, and very rarely of the specific feeling the “myself-in-relation-to-history”. But everyone has it, and some of us are more aware of it than others.

No other modern singer known to me expresses this subtle but transfixing feeling as well the under-rated Al Stewart. This sense of history is found in some stupendous songs, such as Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, Kate Bush’s “A Coral Room”, ELP’s “The Sage” and Loreena McKennitt’s “The Old Ways”, to name but an eminent few. But no one in folk (or folk rock) has made the sixth sense his own as Al Stewart has.

Best known for “The Year of the Cat”, Stewart’s songs often evoke a poignant sense of the passage of time, and even of a sense of eternity (which are much the same thing, for each is a different form of timelessness). In my view, the very best of Stewart’s albums can at least be said to compare with the best rock and folk albums ever recorded, even if they are not of quite the same standard of say Sgt Pepper and Led Zeppelin IV. I refer here particularly to what I consider his finest albums: Year of the Cat, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. Like Elton John, he had a period of apprenticeship, as it were, with its own unique graces. Elton John found stardom sooner and to a significantly greater degree; and both had their blaze of glory, followed by an autumnal twilight. But they have each seen a resurgence as deeper writers, even if their largest audiences were irrevocably left behind in the 1970s.

Although I have no evidence that Stewart has even heard of Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, let alone of the idea of recurrence, the ideas are widely available, and Robert Fripp is so close a friend that he attended Stewart’s wedding. As is often the case with art, intentionally or otherwise, Stewart’s words are often suggestive but not explicit. One of the interesting features of Stewart’s writing is how often ramifying ideas are found there. In the case of Stewart, as of someone like Lennon, or in poetry like Hopkins, the openness is often deliberate: it is a function of his artistic mastery. Interpretation, then, is subjective. But it is nonetheless valuable for that, and is sparked by the high quality of the product. In this blog, I shall simply pick my way through Year of the Cat, and then in the next blog, try and relate the themes set out here to other of Stewart’s songs. Year of the Cat is an excellent vehicle for this, as it is, considered as a whole, a lapidary depiction of Stewart’s approach, his strengths and his weaknesses.

The opening track is “Lord Grenville”, the story of a British captain who for no apparent good reason, in a suicidal manoeuvre, sailed his single ship towards a hostile Spanish navy some 53 vessels strong. The entire song has a sort of feel of late afternoon, as if one were on an English cliff, looking over the sea as rays from the setting sun strike paths across the water. As is so often the case with Stewart, there is something very English about the perspective, as he sings:

Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn.
It’s time to haul the anchor up and leave the land astern.
We’ll be gone before the dawn returns … like voices on the wind.
… Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out,
We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about.
… Tell the ones we left home not to wait: we won’t be back again.
And come the day, you’ll hear them saying: “They’re throwing it all away”.

I would say that this is the sort of song Stewart’s voice is best for: reflective but not brooding, measured but not heavy. The melody suits the words so well that it is as if they could not be conceived separately. But the philosophical rub comes in these lines:

Our time is just a point along a line that runs forever with no end.
I never thought that we would come to find ourselves these rocks again.

Is the troubadour saying that although our lives seem to be single days in a year of infinity, yet we find that day again … and perhaps yet again? In Stewart’s own take on the last line, he is referring to England, having recently been in the USA where he now resides (see generally Neville Judd’s Al Stewart and also the remastered album with Judd’s notes and Stewart speaking of the songs on the final track.) But the two interpretations are not necessarily inconsistent, and Stewart may of course feel some diffidence in speaking about a concept which few people have heard of.

To most listeners, the lines might conjure up the notion of our lives as points which either (1) stretch into infinity (the standard idea of survival after death), or (2) into chains of reincarnation. But it is also possible to recall (3) the eternity of recurrence. And these options are not exclusive. It is the third concept which is the most interesting, and which, whether Stewart intended it or not, is an available inference. What then, is recurrence?

At its simplest, recurrence is the idea that when we die, we live our lives once more, beginning with our conception as we were conceived in this life, living as we have lived this life, and dying once more as we will, and so on, many times, perhaps endlessly. Nietzsche had an idea of eternal recurrence, but it was a folly. He conceived the notion, probably based on a misunderstanding of classical ideas, that we would live this life again at some point in the future. Ouspensky’s idea of recurrence, however, is that we live this life again not in the future but in its very own time. Ouspensky sometimes described this as a sort of circle of time, but one can speak of it as if someone had drawn a circle and then traced his pencil back over the same circle.

To Ouspensky, “our time is our life”. When we die, the solar system continues, and it is in that time that we have the continuing life of the soul and the “higher bodies”. But for the whole ensemble which comprises us, soul and all, there is no more time. Time has more than one dimension, although we do not know it. When we die our souls or higher bodies continue in the linear or second dimension of time, but recurrence takes place along the planar or third dimension of time. And there may be further dimensions, too.

Each moment of time is a sort of traffic-intersection. We have come down one road, and are at an intersection. Roads branch off while the road continues ahead. We proceed directly ahead, but the perpendicular roads still subsist, the moment in time is extended sideways into infinity. Each instant eternally subsists, but we cannot look down those streets, even as they open up on either flank as we drive down the main road. We just do not see them as they spin off from our passage. And then, when we reach the end of our road, we are at the beginning again.

It is difficult to conceive how we can be reborn when our individual lives end. It is difficult, but it is not impossible. Let us suppose that Socrates sets off westward from Athens, in a straight line. Whenever he encounters water, a mountain range, or any impediment to travel, Apollo lends him wings, and he continues westwards, never straying from his path. It would seem to him, as it does to us whenever we travel, that he is always moving in a straight line, and yet he is not. The flatness of the planet is a trick of the eye. The end result of Socrates’ relentless movement in a straight line is that he finds himself in Athens once more. The same thing, Ouspensky said, happens to us in time. Time is not flat: it is three dimensional, at least.

This has an interesting corollary, it suggests to me that each person is an individual cosmos. The solar system in which we lived was here before us and it will be here after us. But if we bear our own time in ourselves, we are individual worlds which have participated in a sort of galactic ballet of individual worlds, each with their own time, just as the planets have their individual orbits, and periods of day and night.

To return to “Lord Grenville”. There is an oddity about this song. It was Grenville who sailed into oblivion, but the song is addressed to some third party to take a message to him: “Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn …”. This little trick, whether intentional or not, appropriates Grenville’s journey into darkness for the speaker, thus generalizing it. So there is an intimation of recurrence here. The sixth sense, “myself-in-relation-to-history” is found here, too, but more so in the next song on Year of the Cat, the tremendous “On the Border”.

The fishing boats go out across the evening water
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.
The wind whips up the waves so loud,
The ghost moon sails among the clouds, turns the rifles into silver
On the border.

… In the village where I grew up nothing seems the same,
Still you never see the change from day to day.
No one notices the customs slip away.

Late last night the rain was knocking on my window,
I moved across the darkened room and in the lamp glow,
I thought I saw down in the streets, the spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.

In the islands where I grew up nothing seems the same
It’s just the patterns that remain, an empty shell.
But there’s a strangeness in the air you feel too well.

The musical delivery is of the same elevated standard as the lyrics. I don’t think any further comment is needed. Note, however, the artful use of sea and moon imagery, and a “ghost moon” to boot. The concept of the border is deepened by being presented first as a border in space and then as a border in time. The high room from where the singer sees, in a prophetic manner, the spirit of the centuries is lit by “lamp glow”. The refrains each speak of the unnoticeable incremental changes made through the passage of time. And then the reference to the patterns immediately points us to a deeper level, for things can appear the same although the are different: streets bear the same names, the school is still there, but the street is different, the school is not what it was, and so on.

I am not particularly fond of the next three songs. Stewart is a good craftsman. He can turn out handy songs at need. But then they might feel like products, and unfortunately, he seems to me to do this on “Sand in your Shoes” and “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave it.” I am not so sure of “Midas Shadow”. It has an excellent line (“Conquistador in search of gold for all the jackdaw reasons …”) and the music is fine, but it is not of anything like the standard of the first two songs, or of side two.

The second side opens with the exquisite “Flying Sorcery”. The inspired acoustic guitar work perfectly complements the lyrics:

With your photographs of Kitty Hawk and the bi-planes on the wall,
You were always Amy Johnson from the time that you were small.
No school-room kept you grounded while your thoughts could get away.
You were taking off in Tiger Moths,
Your wings against the brush strokes of the day.

Are you there? On the tarmac with the winter in your hair.
By the empty hangar walls you stop and stare … Oh, are you there?

… Are you there? In your jacket with the grease stain and the tear?
… The sun comes up on Icarus as the night birds sail away,
Lights the maps and diagrams that Leonardo makes.
You can see Faith, Hope and Charity as they bank above the fields.
You can join the flying circus, you can feel the morning air against your wheels.

The frequent question, “are you there”, and the evocative description of the young woman pilot, all conspire to place her in a timeless world. The music conjures a sense of these old planes soaring in joy, and then the magnificent lines about the illumination of Icarus and the three theological virtues (are these four planes, or stars, both or neither?) could almost move on to a backward somersault, they spring so lightly from the speakers. The very names, Icarus, Faith, Hope and Charity are magical.

The next track, “Broadway Hotel”, has a certain “thusness” about it, the tale of a wealthy woman who lives in a hotel, and finds love in an unexpected manner, but the two most powerful tracks on this side follow. Track three is “One Stage Before”.

It seems to me I’ve been upon this stage before
And juggled away the night for the same old crowd.
These harlequins you see with me, they too have held the floor
As here once again they strut and they fret their hour.
I see those half-familiar faces in the second row,
Ghostlike, with the footlights in their eyes,
But where or when we met like this last time,
I just don’t know.
It’s like a chord that rings and never dies … for infinity.

And now these figures in the wings, with all their restless tunes,
Are waiting around for someone to call their names.
They walk the backstage corridors and prowl the dressing rooms,
And vanish to specks of light in the picture frames.
But did they move upon the stage a thousand years ago,
In some play in Paris or Madrid,
And was I there among them then, in some travelling show,
And is it all still locked inside my head … for infinity.

And some of you are harmonies to all the notes I play;
Although we may not meet, still you know me well.
While others talk in secret keys and transpose all I say,
And nothing I do or try can get through the spell.
So one more time, we’ll dim the lights and ring the curtain up,
And play again like all the times before,
But far behind the music you can almost hear the sounds
Of laughter like the waves upon the shores … of infinity.

The song is sung in a sort of folk rock manner, but after the last call of “infinity”, a coruscating guitar solo brings intensity, aurally conveying the sound of waves upon the shore … The references to reincarnation are clear enough. But this idea that each action rings a note which sounds for infinity is really properly speaking more consistent with recurrence. It is the traffic-intersection of every moment in time as it branches into the second dimension of time. The idea is repeated in the last two lines: the infinity which Stewart evokes is not only the endless cycle of reincarnation, it is also the presence of the “eternal now”.

The final song on the album is the famous “Year of the Cat”, a song so good, I think it fair to say, that it was effectively recycled with new lyrics as “Time Passages”, Stewart’s next hit. The opening lines of “Cat” are splendid. Although he was apparently speaking of North Africa, the way that Stewart does this is significant:

On a morning from a Bogart movie,
In a country where they turned back time,
You go strolling through the crowd
Like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime.

The lady who appears is a strange fey creature: “… her eyes shine like the moon on the sea.” The reference to the moon and the water is reminiscent of “On the Border”. The story is a sort of adventure in an eddy of time and place, an appropriate ending for a record, which heard as a whole, leaves one with the sense of having been playing with time.

There is much to say in the next blog. I want to deal with some of Ouspensky’s ideas from A New Model of the Universe, with the concept of recurrence in one life, and with other of Stewart’s unique corpus, and especially his late brilliant masterpieces, Famous Last Words and A Beach Full of Shells. I shall try and bring the ideas together.

Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.



April 14, 2008 at 8:26 am

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