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Al Stewart, Reincarnation and Recurrence: Part Three

England, wet and rainy, England rich in history, is Al Stewart’s muse, an inspiration which has not lessened by reason of Stewart’s residence in the USA. We shall see how Stewart’s expressed sense of himself and his lifetime merges into something larger. In songs such as “Manuscript” and “Somewhere in England, 1915”, the land stands for this bigger something Yet, the greater reality is not quite England, but “England under the light of eternity”, a feeling which the English-based American expatriate, T.S. Eliot expressed in “Little Gidding”:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere,
Never and always.

The solution of this paradox is, I think, that what we transcend or surpass, indeed all we can transcend, is the episodes of our lives. These moments are our points of departure. Then, those points of departure, the places we visited, the people we knew, become even more significant and precious to us for the sake of our lives, and what are our lives but short fractured glimpses of eternity between two moments of blinking: birth and death?

In his best work, Stewart photographs these episodes against the sky. We can only come to eternity through our experience of and reflection upon the fruits of time. The intuition that place and distance are internally folded into one infinitesimal point is possible only when specific places and scenes have become so much a part of us that our feeling of them arises without our having to think about them. We silently bear a reality within ourselves.

Given that the troubadour released a new album, Sparks of Ancient Light on 16 September 2008, there will be at least two more last Al Stewart blogs. The next blog shall deal with the mature masterpiece ‘A Beach Full of Shells’. Here, I shall gather together some loose ends from his earlier oeuvre.

Stewart’s first albums, dating from 1967’s Bedsitter Images, the acclaimed Love Chronicles and Zero She Flies are interesting not only as pointers to what would follow, but also for the charm and even accomplishment of tracks like “Beleeka Doodle Day” (probably early evidence of Stewart’s fondness for Edward Lear), and the instrumental “Ivich”. In these days, Stewart was, I think one can fairly say, a “folk singer”. As one would expect while he was establishing his own identity, Stewart tended to strike imitative poses (Dylan was a big influence). As is often also the case with young talented artists during their apprenticeships, the writing tends to be clever rather than strong. There is also a fair amount of ambition on display: the lengthy and unsatisfying title track of Love Chronicles offering a parade ground example. Stewart’s personal life was also unsettled during this period, with the result that the third album, Zero She Flies, was perhaps the weakest of the three.

Yet, Zero She Flies featured the first of his “historical” songs, “Manuscript”, which, as I see it, Stewart would rewrite in 2005 as “Somewhere in England”. History and time are fractured in this song, as they often will be in Stewart’s hands. “Manuscript” opens with a softly strumming guitar, and references to Prince Louis Battenberg, Admiral Lord Fisher, Churchill and houses in Hackney. Suddenly, there is a change in both musical mood and narrative focus:

And my grandmother sits on the beach
In the days before the war
A young girl writing her diary
While time seems to pause,
Watching the waves that come one by one
To die on the shore,
Kissing the feet – of England.

He then moves to the Tsar in his great Winter Palace, whose foreign news is that “An Archduke was shot down in Bosnia, but nothing much”. We then return to Stewart’s grandmother, who I think is now being courted, “smiling a secret smile”, and “the sun set gently – on England.”

It then moves forward to contemporary times, as Al and Mandy, his girlfriend, drive down to Irving by the sea on a pouring day. The scene was, he sings, unchanged except that the jetty “was maybe more scarred than I’d known it to be”. Mandy and he stand staring at the sky, where ten years before he had stood with his grandfather:

And the waves still rushed in as they had
The year that he died,
And it seemed that my lifetime
Was shrunken and lost in the tide as it rose and fell
On the side … of England.

It then reprises with the opening words: “Prince Louis Battenberg is burning the Admiralty lights”. Given what I had written in the two previous blogs about recurrence, this is striking. An unmistakable time-disrupting circularity is imparted by this reprise, including within the arc of its return his grandmother’s youth, and his own modern excursion which itself includes memories of ten years past.

In terms of his art, the folk genre is ideally suited, both for journalistic reporting and to convey intimacy. The vivid depiction of his grandmother’s intense private life is masterly: and it is done so simply, by showing her write her diaries and smiling to herself. Another personal aspect is added by the fact that it revolves around England.

Zero She Flies coincided with some relationship issues for Stewart, which he surfaced from with the brilliant song “News From Spain” on 1972’s Orange. Another very strong track from that album is “Songs Out Of Clay”, but otherwise, the album does not, to my taste, require much consideration. In 1973, Stewart released Past, Present and Future, a record which in some ways marks a development. It featured two mini-epics, “Roads to Moscow” and “Nostradamus”. If the “past” and “present” of the album title came from “Moscow”, the “future” is for “Nostradamus”. But for me, the best track on the album, or at least the one I can most often listen to with pleasure is “Soho (Needless to Say)”, a rather poignant song, which anyone who has ever been alone and at a loose end in another city can relate to. My only reservation concerning “Soho” is that with its breathless rhyming lyrics it sounds to me as if Stewart was writing his own “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but I could be wrong. Interestingly, being Stewart, he had to make the lyrics sensible. I am not too fond of the Dylan: it strikes a posture but that it is all – it’s a pose, whereas Stewart makes a statement. I have said before that I think Stewart’s good songs are generally sound stronger to me than Dylan’s good songs (with the exception of the astounding “Blind Willie McTell”), although I know that I am probably alone in this world in holding that opinion.

Stewart’s attempts to stretch himself on Orange and Past, Present and Future paid dividends on his next album, 1975’s Modern Times. The title track, one of his best songs, is set in New York, although it points back to England. It is, apparently a fictional story, of Stewart meeting a school friend in a bar, and – in a monologue – reminiscing about the old times. Stewart is in top form, lyrically evoking the past:

Do you remember the time when we were young?
Outside the window the frosty moonlight hung on the midnight snow.
So we pulled our scarves around our faces in the night,
Huddled on the doorsteps where the fairy lights shone bright …
It all comes back like yesterday …

Chasing skinny blue-jeaned girls across the building site,
Checking out the dance floor while the band played “Hold Me Tight” …
Do you remember the church across the sound …
You stood outside and planned to travel to the lands where pilgrims go.

But the friend does not want to know: “I don’t want to remember. In fact, you’ve hurt too much already,” he says, just leave me “wrapped up in the warmth of New York City … Got no use for the tricks of modern times that tangle all my thoughts like ivy.”

In short, Modern Times treats of two different approaches to the past: one which gladly bears the memories, and warmly brings them into the present; and another which not only denies them, but cannot cope with them at all. It is fairly clear which attitude is Stewart’s. Further, the friend who cannot cope with the past cannot cope with the present either, what he calls “the tricks of modern times”. A problem with the past is really a problem with the present, because our recollections all take place as they must in the present. Our ability to bear the past is not a sign of former strength so much as a sign of present maturity.

Above and beyond the ideas expressed, is the music. There is something of the folk song in it, but at about 6:25, when the last words have been sung, a searing guitar line enters before slowing down into a mellow, almost wistful plaint. Almost as much as the George Harrison song, this one deserves to be known as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. But what I hear in this guitar tour de force, is affirmation. It evokes a feeling of largeness of feeling, a feeling which can withstand the poignancy of memory.

And this, I think is important. The moments of our lives become transformed for us as we see them in a longer perspective, the perspective of our journeys through time and space. Above I indicated that the past becomes dearer to us for the sake of our the whole of our lives, which are now deeper and broader than they had been. At the moment of perception, of living through these episodes, our eyes are full of the action of the moment. We make some connections, chiefly by association. But often the deeper connections between these instances, the patterns in our lives, are seen much later, and only in retrospect, when something deeper than the ordinary mind (the formatory apparatus in Gurdjieff’s terms) can meditate on such larger issues, even if only subconsciously. Once more, in Gurdjieff’s system, the real I, essence, lies in the subconscious, and so it is the only place where real meditation can be accomplished.

Now, what I think Stewart has touched on in Modern Times, whether is was intentionally or by happenstance, is this: the past is often painful. In terms of memory and the past, one person’s meat is very often another person’s poison. Because we all have incidents in the past which are more or less painful, our attitude to the past is always equivocal: it is certainly very rarely an impartial one. We are forever picking out highlights, and praising, excusing or condemning. At different times we select different portions: if we’re stuck in self-pity, we remember only corresponding moments, and so on.

Here we come again to the question of maturity: the chief reason we cannot deal with the past is self-hatred. We believe that things should have been different but they were not. If it were just a question of hating other people that would be much easier, but one would not fear the past for that. We fear the past not for what it tells us about others, but for what is discloses about ourselves. And the thing we hate the most is an offence to our vanity, facing that we have made mistakes. But a mature person can acknowledge their errors with a clear mind. We are bound to make mistakes for the simple reason that we are each just one individual in a very large complex world made up of countless billions of entities, forces, substances and creatures of which we can know very little. If it is theoretically possible to avoid mistakes it is only by closing our world in and not making judgments, experiments or taking action. And that may be impossible.

This is the sort of meditation which Modern Times leads me to, and without it, I might not have come to quite these thoughts. The last of the miscellaneous songs I shall deal with before coming to A Beach Full of Shells in the next Al Stewart blog, is the splendid rhapsody on a guitar string: “Down in the Cellars”.

The album after Modern Times was 1976’s classic Year of the Cat, which I dealt with in the first Stewart blog. Then followed Time Passages and, eventually, Indian Summer and 24 PCarrots. The quality of these albums was not to be compared with Year of the Cat, and Stewart disappointed his fan base. It is not that there was nothing of merit on these albums, there was, for example, the splendid “Merlin’s Time” on 24 Pcarrots, and the odd classic such as “Fields of France”. But I am fond of few others from this decade or more, and although Time Passages sold well, I am inclined to think that it sold because people wanted more feline entertainment. I think it is fair to say that Stewart’s muse was not as lusty as she had been in 1976 until 1991’s Famous Last Words, which I dealt with in the last Stewart blog. For me, that album is not in quite the same category as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper’s or Abbey Road, but it is in the next one down, with Hard Day’s Night and the best of Dylan.

Immediately after Last Words came an album which, to one of my taste, strove for quality, but missed it by an inch or two on absolutely every song but one. The album is Down in the Cellar and the song which achieved its promise is “Down in the Cellars”. Comment on the musicianship, sterling silver in digital format, would be superfluous. After a graceful guitar introduction, Stewart, in a mellow mood of oak and shiraz, sings:

Down in the cellars of Jean-Louis Chave
All the shadows are leaving,
Bottles lying asleep in the cave.
You’ll see history breathing
… the vines are trellised in evening.
In the cellars of Jean-Louis Chave,
You’ll see history breathing

Generations go, slipping away now.
What can you say, now?
Five hundred years.

Lives are written here,
Pages on pages, ages on ages
Just disappear.

Another splendid and accomplished guitar break takes us into silence. There is nothing more to say about it which I have not already said in earlier Stewart blogs. It is fragrant with the sixth sense: me here now, in relation to my life, past, present and future.

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.




September 21, 2008 at 12:28 pm

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