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AL STEWART, REINCARNATION AND RECURRENCE: part 3

Joseph Azize Page

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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.

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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.

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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

September 21, 2008 at 12:28 pm

AL STEWART, REINCARNATION & RECURRENCE: part 2

Joseph Azize Page

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Al Stewart 2008

Part One: Review and Restatement …

In my previous blog on Al Stewart, I took this inexplicably under-rated artist as the occasion to write about music as a possible intersection of time and eternity. I said that through the measured time of music, something beyond time could be invoked. I would add now that because measured or rhythmic time is not the time in which we live, music is already a displacement of the ordinary. The question is: will it provide something new at the same level, at a lower level (which much of it is) or at a higher level? It goes without saying that little music, just enough to moisten the tip of the sparrow’s beak, is above the level of ordinary life.

Ordinary existence isn’t knowingly lived for an aim: it is subsisting, it is passing our days. Very rarely do we live with a sense of purpose. We don’t sufficiently relate our days to our lifetimes to charge either with meaning. We don’t penetrate into the larger meaning or significance of our lives, being absorbed in the details, and in daily demands. As Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Our lives occur to us almost chaotically: only the narrative of our physical existences lends them continuity. Providence affords a default purpose of existence: to marry and have children. But this doesn’t at all satisfy everyone, while people seek different things from their families, while others seek for more in addition to family life.

The age is desperately hungry. Music has been put to the service of the entertainment industry, but music also provides a favourable opportunity to sustain feeling, order and even reflection, if only for a brief period. Songs and even entire albums can be intense slices of life with enhanced significance. Neither does the imposition of order and rhythm mean that surprises or dis-order must be excluded: e.g. “Strawberry Fields Forever” where the breaks in regular rhythm and production are part of the message, or Stewart’s “Nostradamus” where the discombobulation effectively marks change in the narrative.

Music makes for concentration and intensity. As mental, emotional and physical beings, we find a focus in its distilled experience. Listening or dancing, we’re only subliminally aware of the passage of time. With recorded music, one can select the mood, bringing another influence into one’s emotional life, at any time.

By contrast, in life our emotions transmogrify with bizarre swiftness. Music can induce or at least support a particular emotion, providing a cradle for a profound sustained experience. Even if a poignant song holds one in its sway for a few minutes, that is remarkable, that is a grace. Take the unearthly serenity of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It is more than merely another good love song. For just over four minutes, a magic is masterfully conjured, and held – intensely – in a pure state.

In that previous blog, I also cited Plato’s teaching that time is the moving image of eternity, and observed that humanity was created in the image of God. This dual truth provides another clue: the making of images is a sacred occupation. God and eternity are engaged in it. So too, on a lesser scale, is the artist, at least potentially. Just as one can sometimes glimpse a muted beam from God behind certain human manifestations, perhaps an expression on a face, or a certain action, so one can sometimes sense something eternal behind manifestations in time. If the artist themselves has touched something transcendental, their possibility of allowing that to come through in their music is so much greater.

Music rarely realizes its almost mystical potential: and if it did, one could not listen to it for very long. While many musicians can turn out a fair dance tune, or a sentimental ditty, very few can do what Stewart does, and perhaps no one else actually has to the same extent. By reference to his Year of the Cat album, I explored how he expresses the sense of being present to change in and around us, a subtle feeling of “me-here-now-and-in-history”. It isn’t that no one else has ever sung history, but no one has done it so often and well as to practically make it their domain. In our impoverished feeling lives, we’re often blind to this feeling of “me-here-now-and-in-history”. And yet, it nourishes many phenomena with which we are familiar: nostalgia, patriotism of a certain kind, the wistful attachment to the scenes of our childhood, and the poignant sadness at seeing those sites demolished.

I also showed that whether he was aware of it or not, some of Stewart’s work can be understood as referring, even obliquely, perhaps, to the concept of recurrence.

Recurrence says that when we die, our lives begin once more, and that they do so perhaps very many times if not endlessly. Ouspensky’s idea was that our time (note that I stress “our” time) is our life: we live this life again not in the future but in its very own time. Time, taken as a whole, not just as our individual life-times, has a first dimension: punctiliar time, that is, this very moment. It has a second dimension: linear time, the past and the future. At death our souls continue in this linear dimension of time. However, if recurrence takes place, then it occurs along the planar third or spherical dimension of time. To Omar Khayyam’s confusion, the pen of life, having written its story, returns to trace out the same tale again. To us, the page is blank, but that’s only an illusion. On this theory, the tendencies of the “previous” life are present. Sometimes one dimly remembers that one has lived certain moments before, or just as significantly, that this time this experience, this adventure, is new.

To illustrate this, I told the story of Socrates and Apollo. Socrates heads due west from Athens, never having to swerve an inch thanks to the wings Apollo has lent him. It would seem to Socrates that he is moving due forward in a straight line across a plane. But “the flatness of the planet is a trick of the eye”. Socrates eventually finds himself in Athens once more. So too, the “arrow of time” maybe travels in a circle.

But time is not simply circular, according to Gurdjieff, it is solid and spherical. Although we are unaware, it possesses a third dimension. I offered the metaphor of each moment of time as a traffic-intersection with roads forever branching off. While we continue to drive ahead in time, and to look forward, we are wearing blinkers. We do not see that at each moment we are also driving down one of those roads which has opened up perpendicular to our forward safari, and that the perpendicular roads run into eternity. Orage said: “To be aware of this simultaneity is called solid Time, or the third dimension of Time.” On the theory, and I stress that it is only a theory, occasional intimations of solid time are what we know as “déjà vu”. They may, perhaps, also be behind the sort of experience Wordsworth recalls in “Tintern Abbey”.

According to Gurdjieff, the concept of reincarnation (e.g. in Hinduism and Buddhism) is only an approximation to the truth, and the truth is better expressed by recurrence. Gurdjieff had some interesting things to say about karma, but this is not the place to expound them. Yet, Gurdjieff told Ouspensky, who told Nicoll (without whom we would not have known this) that in recurrence the executioner becomes the executed. This suggests something similar to karma, and while that may be so, it also suggests to me that, in theory, the cycle of recurrence is a function of a change in places in the law of three (see George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia).

That is, if there is anything in my speculation, then the large forces to which our lives have been subject, change places in the ‘next’ life, and excepting this dance of influences, each life would be an identical rerun of the one ‘before’. But they are not identical: Ouspensky said that there are two types of lives, descending and ascending. Suicides, criminals and such are descending . Eventually, suggested Ouspensky, they cease to be reborn. The path of conscious development is ascending and offers more choice in the ‘next’ recurrence. Orage is known to have said that in his next life he intended to remember to go to America earlier in his career. Yet, it is not the aim of the Gurdjieff system to escape from recurrence, or at least not its stated aim, even if that is a desirable consequence of becoming more conscious. Rather, Gurdjieff’s system is concentrated on this life: if one looks after that, all the rest will look after itself. Yet, it must be emphasized, as a matter of theory, it is identical to Christianity: the only realistic aim in life is to prepare the soul for eternity.

But of course, the blog also said a good deal about some of Stewart’s music. By the end of it, I had, I hoped, written enough about Year of the Cat to make you want to listen to that and to much more of Stewart’s work. In this blog, I shall write about another of his albums. I shall need to write a third Stewart blog to do justice to A Beach Full of Shells and some of his other masterpieces, such as “Modern Times” and the sublime, elegiac “Down in the Cellars”.

Part Two: Al Stewart’s Famous Last Words (1993)

In 1993, Famous Last Words was released. Like Year of the Cat, it makes a satisfying whole. As with Lennon’s songs from 1980, you feel that a youth has realised his promise, and put down sturdy roots, producing music just as enjoyable as the early gems, but deeper, as massive as the later Beethoven, in its own way. To me, it’s one of the best popular albums of the last fifty years. I’d even say that it is superior to any single album produced by Dylan, although in terms of modern popular music Dylan is unquestionably a more significant artist than Stewart. I might add that while I would not put Stewart, as an artist, in the same category as Lennon, or as a melodist, with Elton John, I enjoy his work vastly more than that produced by any number of over-rated entertainers such as the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Michael Jackson or Rod Stewart.

Stewart’s first words on Famous Last Words are:

I feel as volatile as the weather
Over fields of Scottish heather
The night before Halloween.

And his final words are:

Night rolls in, gone is the wind,
Fireflies dancing in your eyes,
And now you’re holy again.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.

So, appropriately for an album named Famous Last Words, in memoriam Peter Wood (who came up with the piano riff for “Year of the Cat”), it opens and closes with the night, but in both cases, nights such as few artists have ever presented so successfully. The opening words come from “Feel Like”, a song which I would described as “charged”. Stewart continues:

This is the day when all of my feelings changed,
This is the day when all of my life to now seemed oh so strange.
You know I feel like a bird of a different feather,
A trail that runs forever through a forest of evergreens.

This track should be taken with “Genie on a Table Top”, which could be dubbed “Feel Like: Part Two”. Powered by a Hammond Organ, the lyrics are vivid, cinematic, and simply brilliant:

… There was a hint of syncopation coming from the sidewalk and the street.
There was a glint of scintillation hanging over everyone you’d meet
And it makes me feel okay
Like a big yellow tractor going mowing through a field of hay,
Like a genie on a table top surfing through the month of May.
I saw a world in the window of a knick-knack shop,
And I tossed it in the air.
… There was a rush of animation bubbling about inside my soul,
There was a rin-tin tabulation coming: it was so hard to control,
And it makes me feel okay:
Like a pig with a bucket full of truffles in a French café,
Like Louis Armstrong playing trumpet on the judgment day,
Like a flying-boat captain with an amethyst lake below,
Like a winner of a marathon rolling in a field of snow,
Like a figure-skating gigolo looking for a heart to steal,
Like a simulated orgasm suddenly becoming real,
Like a big yellow tractor going mowing through a field of hay,
Like a genie on a table top surfing through the month of May.

Stewart inimitably describes how it feels to be raised in exaltation. In “Feel Like”, he has remarked, correctly from the point of Gurdjieff’s psychological ideas, that a change in the entire person comes about when the feelings have become engaged. As he states, his life now seems strange. We have superficial and ephemeral emotions in response to external stimuli, but the first real feeling is “self-feeling”. It is that feeling which is in direct contact with the real I, “essence” (see my blogs “Behind Real I Lies God” and “The Sixth Sun”). Once feeling has been awoken, the balance of one’s life suddenly seems different because it was lived in a different state of consciousness, and under the domination of personality. As Gurdjieff said, personality lives in time, but essence is in eternity. This offers some context for the line about the shop window: it is reminiscent of Blake’s “eternity in a grain of sand”, not just in terms of sentiment, but because both Blake and Stewart are writing under the influence of essence.

Perhaps I am making too much of what is only a bunch of words thrown together for the purposes of the record industry? It could be, but I doubt it, for three reasons.

First, consistency. Stewart’s lyrics are consistently deep, unlike, say Neil Diamond’s, where depth is the exception to a prevailing sentimentality. Unlike most modern lyricists, Stewart does not need to take refuge in cleverness, even if he sometimes does, such as in “Song on the Radio”. Lennon penetratingly remarked that Dylan was deliberately opaque so as to be “secure in his hipness”. Stewart, I would say, is (usually) secure in his ability.

Second, Stewart’s two “feel-like” songs have a certain individuality. Many have sung that they feel “alright”, “good”, or “so good”. Novelty can pose as individuality, e.g. Bowie contriving to be “unpredictable”. But individuality can come from something deeper, the essential I. As Gurdjieff remarked, personality always reacts the same way, essence never. There is no clear clean litmus test to differentiate the two, and they can be mixed: to me, in some of Bowie’s earlier material such as “Bewlay Brothers” and “Rock and Roll Suicide”, together with the glitz and show business, I hear something of the real person. In “Feel Like” and “Genie”, rightly or wrongly, I fancy that I hear the genuine article, presented with his accustomed artistic prowess.

The third pointer to the truth of Stewart’s art is that he is aware not only of his feelings but of larger reality. He describes bodily sensations in such a way that one must assume that an original experience prompted it, and he is aware of himself in the world (he feels like a trail which runs forever through a forest of evergreens).

So there is awareness of basic corporeal reality, but if that were all there were, it would be unexceptional. This body of work offers refinement and reflection. By refinement, I mean that for artistic effect elements of reality are heightened, while others are excluded. Consider the autumnal mellowness of “Don’t Forget Me”:

The sun is going down across the great unknown.
Lights come on inside the towers made of stone.
A muffled drum plays out of sight and all alone – Summer is over.

… It’s a never ending show, faces come and go like a river.
You’re a rainbow wrapped in grey, shake the dust away …
But don’t forget me, don’t forget me now …

The melody, the arrangement, and the saxophone all conspire to illuminate the words. Once more, the hearer cannot imagine these words with any other tune, or vice versa. It is another example of Stewart’s uncanny ability to conjure up a sense of himself as conscious to the passing of time. It is not just the memory of the old days which makes for this poignant sense. By itself, that brings only nostalgia. It is the fact that one is present to the recollections the past.

Another aspect of Stewart’s art is his interest in history. More than anyone else, he can take scenes from history and bring them alive. The result is not always magnificent. For example, I was not terribly fond of Between the Wars, although it had its moments. Sometimes he reaches for a greatness which narrowly escapes, as on “Man for all Seasons” from Time Passages. In that case, I think the problem was the musical construction of the song: despite the excellent subject matter, the melody does not weave a spell: it just does not feel like a smooth, organic piece. At almost six minutes, it sounds like two songs stitched together by good production.

On this album, “Peter on the White Sea” is a well-told tale from the life of Peter the Great of Russia, but the music just doesn’t, at least to my ear, quite rise to the occasion. It tells the story of how the Tsar and others took a boat onto the White Sea. They were struck by a storm, and even the mariners thought they were lost. But he persevered all night, and as the day broke in calm, they came into harbour by a monastery, ringing its bells in greeting. It is good, maybe even very good, but somehow not compelling.

More successful, perhaps because of Tori Amos’ melody, is “Charlotte Corday”. That gruesome identity assassinated Jean-Paul Marat at the precocious age of 24, in 1793. The murder is perhaps the best known instance of French Revolutionary politicide, partly because Marat was slain while bathing to mitigate a chronic dermatological problem, partly because the knife-plunging killer was a beautiful young aristocrat, and partly because each of them (de Corday and the butchered Marat) were depicted in rivetting, almost journalistic artworks. Stewart draws a spare sketch of a furtive apparition in a long black dress, fetched as a step on the stairs or as a shadow in the candlelight (every devotee of G.M. Hopkins knows that ‘fetching’ is an old term for ‘seeing’ an apparition). Stewart suggests a soul wandering under purgatorial licence, and fading before dawn:

Just what it is that brings her here no man alive could say,
See her for a moment, then she looks away,
The ghost of Charlotte Corday.

Stars in the window like a panoply covering everything, a river of light

… All at once there’s someone there that only you can see,
Seeking the forgiveness that will set her free.
The wind has taken away the words she wanted to say,
The sky now turning to grey, the dawn is turning away
The ghost of Charlotte Corday.

The piece is atmospheric, and memorable. In particular, the line commencing with “Stars” is worthy of mention, brilliantly evoking through the Milky Way the wonder of the spectral appearance. That the line isn’t linearly related to the balance of the song makes it, if anything, even more potent. It is quite an impressive accomplishment: while Stewart’s history-exploring tendency is given full rein, he creates an effective ghost story. In other words, he brings history directly into the present.

This relating of history to the contemporary is of course something Stewart has attempted very many times, either by way of placing sketches from diverse times side by side, as in “Manuscript” and “Somewhere in England”, or by reflection, as in “Palace of Versailles” from Time Passages. In that interesting song, Stewart sings of the French Revolution, warning “Marat, your days are numbered!”, later to comment that “the ghost of revolution still prowls the Paris streets …”. In a way, “Corday” is the successor to “Versailles”: two songs of Revolutionary outrages spawning restless spirits.

And that is an opportune point at which to introduce the spell-binding “Necromancer”, for if there is a supernatural rush on this album, so to speak, “Necromancer” is it. My only quibble with the arrangement is the introduction and the middle eight. My guess is that Stewart came up with the verses first, but was left with a rather short song. Impressed by the verses, as anyone would have been, he decided to lengthen it with the “additions”. I may be wrong, but despite the relation of the introduction to the close, the introduction and middle eight do sound to me inorganic. However, the reuse of the opening at the close is effective. That said, the song is still extraordinary.

` Oh the sweet addiction of forbidden fruit,
Oh the strange affliction that has taken root.
Oh the hidden cancer, cancer of the soul.
Oh the necromancer inside us all.

One can sense, even from these first four lines, the mantic power of the words. The rhythm and melody uncannily complement them to produce an incantation of hypnotic power.

I have never seen this many people gathered in one place together.
… Caught up in the fury and euphoria they say will last forever …

Oh the pretty candle, oh the pretty flame,
Come fly into the night with us and feel the same.
Oh the sweet surrender, oh the solemn vow,
Leave your own identity and join us now.
I believe that I have been through this before,
And I can still remember,
Maybe a past life, I just can’t tell.
The faces and the uniforms have changed
Yet there’s something so familiar,
Am I still under that same old spell?

Is Stewart referring to reincarnation, to recurrence, or is he unsure?

Oh the love of darkness, oh the vampire’s kiss,
Have mercy on a people who would dream like this … like this.

Stewart does not identify the setting or the people concerned. At one point he warns “you don’t want to know”. Are they contemporary? The gruesome vision would suit a Satanist coven and a ritual for shape changing, perhaps into ravens or owls. However, I think that Hitler is his necromancer, because of the references to a people, their numbers, uniforms, the dream that it will last forever, the addictive quality of the fury and euphoria, the loss of personal identity in something bigger, and the bizarre attraction. Perhaps Stewart was impressed by “The Triumph of the Will”.

But we cannot be sure. Sometimes such as on “Modern Times”, he teasingly creates a fictional encounter which seems to have the ring of truth about it. Perhaps he has done so here. A necromancer raises the dead, and Stewart does this: he did it for Peter the Great and Charlotte Corday on this same album. He is forever assuming identities from the past. In other words, his necromancy is, I think, strictly artistic. This extraordinary piece leads us directly to the “Hipposong”, the penultimate song on the album.

As a piece of music, I am not fond of the “Hipposong”. But, like “Necromancer”, it mentions reincarnation. The singer superciliously dismissed the plaints of the suffering hippopotamus. The last line of the song is the punchline: the haughty narrator himself comes back as a “large hippopotamus”. Instant Karma, so to speak, has got him.

But if the “Hipposong” is slight (just under two minutes), the album as a whole is dominated by the epic “Trains”, running for just over eight minutes, yet making a satisfying whole, as well integrated and tight as any two and a half minute song. I think of this piece as a classic: the past is enchanted by the glow of memory, spirited into the present by magic lantern, and then the line between past and present is peeled away.

In the sapling years of the post war world, in an English market town,
I do believe we travelled in schoolboy blue, the cap upon the crown.
Books on knee, our faces pressed against the dusty railway carriage panes
As all our lives went rolling on the clicking wheels of trains.

The school years passed like eternity, and at last were left behind.
And it seemed the city was calling me to see what I might find.
Almost grown, I stood before horizons made of dreams …

Trains, all our lives were a whistle stop affair, no ties or chains.
Throwing words like fireworks in the air, not much remains.
A photograph in your memory through the coloured lens of time.
All our lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky.

The evocation of boyhood is simple, brief and all the more poignant for the barely perceptible restraint. The use of the alliterative “smudge of smoke” (once “puff of smoke”) is both accurate and poetical. The reference to those early years passing like eternity is very true, and there is a reason for it, which I return to in part 3. The song tells the story of the spread of railways through to the early 20th century, with slight vocal backing on the euphonious phrase “on the day they buried Jean Juarez” for an effective impetus:

On the day they buried Jean Juarez, World War One broke free.
Like an angry river overflowing its banks impatiently.
While mile on mile, soldiers filled the railway stations …

Of the soldiers, he sings “All their lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky.” He swiftly moves on to the 1930s, “the nightmare years, then came the same thing over again, mad as the moon which watches over the plains”. Now appear trains of a type he’s never seen before: the trains which take the doomed to concentration camps, riding “to death along the clicking wheels of trains”. Rather grimly, their lives, too, are “just a smudge of smoke against the sky”.

Now forty years have come and gone …
And I ride the Amtrak from New York City to Philadelphia,
And there’s a man to bring you food and drink …
But I can’t tell if it’s them or if it’s only me,
But I believe when they look outside, they don’t see.
Over there, beyond the trees,
It seems that I can just make out the stained fields of Poland
Calling out to all the passing trains.

Trains, I suppose that there’s nothing in this life remains the same.
Everything is governed by losses and the gains.
Still sometimes I get caught up in the past, I can’t say why.
All our lives are just a smudge of smoke, or just a breath of wind against the sky.

Stewart cannot say why he gets caught up in the past: we all do, although few so reflectively as he does. I would venture that the reason is the one given at the very open of my last Stewart blog: “(God) also puts eternity in their minds”, as Solomon said. Or another factor, which maybe comes down to much the same thing, is that we are our past. (As Mr Adie said, “Repairing the past is the whole of our work because we are the past, and here we are, dead things,” quoted in “The Sixth Sun: Part One”). Our sense of passing is heightened by comparison with what abides, the way when a close one dies, we wonder why they should die while everything else survives. “Trains” has both change and continuity: the historical train system and by the jeweller-like setting of memories in the piece. I think “Trains” is an extraordinary achievement, yet not the greatest on this album. That honour, to my mind, belongs to “Night Rolls In”, a song with the simple dignity if not grandeur of “Mull of Kintyre”. The lyrics are short and simple:

Night rolls in, gone is the wind,
Fireflies dancing in your eyes,
Now you’re holy again.
Oh, night rolls in, oh, night rolls in.
It’s like a dream of a long time ago,
A footprint lost in the snow,
That covers the ground where we summered our lives,
Watching them grow from seeds that you sow,
But now the world in all its works and ways
Grays our novembering days.
The fire still glows that once was a rose a long time ago.

But the most powerful message is not actually in the words, but the music. It opens and closes with a calm, almost contemplative 20 second theme which, to my ear at least, conjures up visions of twilight as a fog, or a tide, quietly moves in. At the close, the same theme is repeated, but as the 20 seconds ends, an organ is heard, adding a religious if not devotional tone, and bringing the piece to an entirely satisfactory, and, I would say, a higher feeling of completion.

The word “rolls” nicely conveys the sense of advance, of the ineluctable but gradual movement of time. As I have shown by reference to Gurdjieff’s ideas, the great forgetting factor is indeed, just what Stewart refers to, “the world in all its works and ways”. Stewart’s art undoes the power of time: from the words “ It’s like a dream …” through to “The fire still glows that once was a rose a long time ago”, the music has more guts and power than something like “Eye of the Tiger”. Whereas “Mull” used bagpipes, “Night” evokes their spirit, the mix of poignancy and unquenchable determination.

And, indeed, the fire never goes out: the fire is the soul.

Part Three: Evoking the Timeless

In conclusion, with each of these song, it is not just the lyrics, although Stewart’s lyrics are, on the whole, amongst the very best in popular music, but also the way they blend with the music and arrangements. I have not covered the entire album: “Angel of Mercy”, is strong, perhaps Lennonesque in its acerbic clarity, while and track six, “Trespasser” is edgy. But they aren’t relevant to our study of this masterpiece.

Having been told at the outset that Stewart feels like “A trail that runs forever through a forest of evergreens”, and having feasted on a smorgasbord of history, a ghost and a necromancer, it is difficult not to feel that Stewart’s interest in history and reincarnation come together. Stewart seems to me to be aware of personal history (what has happened to Al Stewart born in the 1940s), the history of humanity (with which Al Stewart feels an extraordinarily deep empathy), and the history of the greater self (Al Stewart reborn at different points in history). The third of these is the thread on which the other pearls are strung.

When “Trains” says that early years pass like eternity, a fact noted many times, not least by Thomas Traherne, the reason is, I think correctly, indicated in Gurdjieff’s psychology. When we are born, he says, we are more in essence: personality has not yet formed. Essence being in eternity, the relationship is natural. But more than this, as children all of our faculties: organic and physical instinct, feeling and intellectual are closer together and to the higher faculties (see George Adie under “higher centres”). Also, they vibrate at a tremendously fast speed. As we grow up, they separate out more, they slow down, and the simplicity, interest and vibrancy of childhood is lost.

Because the child’s impressions both contain more of the whole person (all the faculties) and are so much faster, far more impressions are received at that time. This, for example, is how children manage to learn languages so quickly: they can intuit what words mean while we have to puzzle it out, and they absorb far more content than we do. We just receive the impression of what we’re thinking about, or of our latest obsession.

And this, in a way, is the great value of artists like Stewart. They receive fine and subtle impressions, express them, and transmit them. Because we listen to songs about the past, a sense of timelessness is created. By this magic, eternity is briefly evoked.

Post Script

For those with a strong interest in the Gurdjieff ideas, and have read “The Sixth Sun”, if there are ascending and descending types of lives, this suggests that our deaths are always manifestations of the third or reconciling force. If death is “3” in the triads, then our lives taken as a whole are either 1, 2, 3 – what I have reasoned is the triad of creative art – or else 2, 1, 3, the triad of dismantling. I did not realise this when I started this blog, so to me it is an unlooked for and striking confirmation of what I wrote about triads there.

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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.

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AL STEWART, REINCARNATION & RECURRENCE:part 1

Joseph Azize Page

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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.

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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.

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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

April 14, 2008 at 8:26 am

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