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Joseph Azize: on Elton John and Leon Russell’s ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’

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I Should Have Sent Roses

Sublime, poignant, elegiac: the first words to spring to mind when I think of this melody from the album The Union, by Elton John and Leon Russell. In Gurdjieff influenced terms, I would say that the person who wrote this had to be in a heightened state of emotional self-consciousness. He had to be present to the workings of his feeling centre to allow this lyrical and sensitive melody to emerge without constricting it. Some melodies owe more to moving centre, others owe more to emotional or intellectual centre, and some, such as this, are products of the higher emotional centre. But you can tell straight away that this was written from somewhere essential. (For an explanation of the centres, see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, 133-5; and for “essence”, see 71-3.)

Leon Russell, who has produced some of the most lyrical melodies of the last fifty years (e.g. “This Masquerade” and “Superstar”), reaches new heights with this masterpiece. I would place it almost on a par with the melody of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. And yet Leon Russell did not create it: no one but God can create. However, it is to Leon Russell’s credit that he could arrange the melody which arose from somewhere within his “common presence”. What happens in such work, and how we can recognize the operation  are matters I shall address on another occasion.

While my response is, and must be subjective, I feel that the melody perfectly matches the lyrics by Bernie Taupin, which tell the story of a lost love from the point of view of the man who has lost. The boy knows that the girl has gone, and that he bears responsibility. When he was with her, he took her for granted. Ambivalently, he goes on to say both that he would treat her better now, and that she deserves someone more thoughtful. He addresses her with understanding and self-deprecation:

Are you standing outside?

Looking up at the sky, cursing a wandering star?

Well, if I were you, I’d throw rocks at the moon

And I’d say, “Damn you wherever you are!”

This is so apt that it’s almost humorous. A “wandering star” because, perhaps, he did not fit into his place in the order of things. Throwing stones at the moon, maybe because the moon is for lovers and lunatics: she being the lover and he the lunatic.

I don’t know where to start,

This cage round my heart locked up what I meant to say,

What I felt all along the way,

Just wondering how come I couldn’t take your breath away.

At various times we all feel something like this expression of mixed confidence, self-doubt and exasperation – at the same time that he believes she should have been overwhelmed by him, he confesses that he is confounded that she was not. Like Russell, we often feel that we have long wished to express something but that we could not, just could not, because of a sort of emotional tightness. It is as if we would choke were we to try and say it.

‘Cause I never sent roses. I never did enough.

I didn’t know how to love you, though I loved you so much.

And I should have sent roses when you crossed my mind,

For no other reason than the fact you were mine.

This is strange but true: we often feel that we love but do not know how to put that love into action. And of course, there are two errors: to think that an overt action is always needed, and to forget that actions are often needed. It is only people who are thinking philosophically who imagine that no action is needed. If you have read In Search of the Miraculous, it is fatal to take the idea that we “cannot do” in a formatory way to mean that we cannot therefore do anything at all.

Looking back on my life,

If fate should decide to let me do it all over again,

I’d build no more walls.

I’d stay true and recall the fragrance of you on the wind

This is the paradox which Ouspensky paints in unforgettable terms in The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. We make a mistake, we forget ourselves and our higher aims. Then we believe that if we had the opportunity again we would not fall into the same trap. But should the occasion arise again, we would make exactly the same error: we would forget at exactly the same place. And yet, there is a way to escape from the curse, and that is to remember oneself, hence the importance of Gurdjieff’s ideas and method to religions and religious systems.

The reference to fate is especially interesting to me, because it is a topic which is exercising me at the moment. Fate acts only upon essence, and this song, as I have said, is an essence-song. It is only when we are closer to essence that we can start to have any sense at all of what our destiny or fate is: that is, what it is that we are called to above and beyond the vicissitudes of life. If there is a “law of accident”, there is also a “law of destiny” which works itself out despite whatever other causal connections and chains may be playing themselves out and, I would suggest a “law of miracles” (see “Fate” at 80, “Law of Accident” at 115-6 and “miracle” at 144).

You’ll do better than me.

Someone who can see,

Right from the start give you all that you need

And I’ll slip away, knowing I’m half the man I should be.

There is genuine love here: for love seeks what is best for the beloved irrespective of the cost to oneself. Also, love brings impartiality, and the statement, “knowing I’m half the man I should be”, is a good impartial description of each one of us.

The topic of “lost loves” is a significant one: a person who never wonders about past friendships and romances and why they ended, to use a neutral term, is quite possibly incapable of reflection. I have published on this blog one of the most important pieces I ever transcribed from Mr Adie’s diaries, just on that topic. Bernie Taupin is also responsible for one of the most touching songs Elton John ever wrote, the much under-appreciated “I Feel like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”. And in each case, “Robert Ford” and “I Should Have Sent Roses”, Taupin was working with one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and each result has been a masterpiece.

And that brings me, briefly, to the topic of Leon Russell. There is no doubt of his uncanny talent at playing the piano and song writing. As I have already said, I feel that he produced some of the greatest songs of our time. For my money, his piano playing is better even than that of Elton John, and I am an Elton John fan. I remember, in the 70s, thinking that Leon Russell would go on to conquer the world, as they say. But then something happened. What? To an extent, perhaps, he sabotaged his own career. It was never the same with him after the 1975 album Will O’The Wisp. Then, Elton John enticed him to The Union in 2010 (Elton did not have to seduce very hard, it would appear), and Russell’s own account of the production of that album is found on “In the Hands of Angels”.

I have carefully praised the melody and the lyrics rather than the track. I feel that the production is too heavy. Very often, a beautiful melody is obscured by too much backing. If you do listen to this track, try and imaginatively screen out the brass. My own guess is that T-Bone Burnett sensed the beauty of the melody, and tried to raise it to prominence with the trumpets and trombones. But I don’t think it’s worked.

Still, while the arrangement is rather more heavy than I would like, it is extraordinary that after so long out of the public eye, this artist of astounding abilities would return and reveal so much about himself. I think that took strength: the sort of strength which this remarkable song reveals.

Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

8 July 2012

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 second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

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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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