Friday, June 22 , 2018, 8:40 pm | Fair 61º

 
 
 
 

Jeff Moehlis: Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat

Al Stewart will perform the entire “The Year of the Cat” album at the Libbey Bowl on Saturday. Click to view larger
Al Stewart will perform the entire “The Year of the Cat” album at the Libbey Bowl on Saturday.  (Publicity photo)

Al Stewart has written songs about World War I pilots ("Fields of France"), an English sailor ("Lord Grenville") and the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II ("Roads to Moscow").

Oh, and then there's that one about a cat. Well, not really. "Year of the Cat," which got its name from a book on Vietnamese astrology, is based on the movie Casablanca. This was a huge hit single in America more than 40 years ago, and it remains in the rotation of many classic rock stations to this day.

On Saturday, Stewart will perform the entire Year of the Cat album at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai. This album, which was produced by Alan Parsons, is considered by many to be his masterpiece, and it's a rare treat to get to hear it performed live. Tickets are available by clicking here.

Stewart talked to Noozhawk about his upcoming concert and his shift to historical subject matter for his songs.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Al Stewart: I've been doing a mix of acoustic shows and electric shows. This one will be a band show, with a band from Chicago called The Empty Pockets. We've done 30 or 40 shows with them in the last few months, and in Ojai we'll play the entire Year of the Cat album.

JM: Your album Past, Present and Future, which came before Year of the Cat, was a bit of a shift for you as far as subject matter, to more historical themes. What prompted the move to that sort of songwriting?

AS: I had a terrible, disastrous end to a love affair. I was very depressed, actually for a very long time. So I'd made four albums of love songs, pretty much, and I just couldn't write any more. I'd done it. I'd been there, I'd done that.

I've always read history, my whole life. So I said, "What else do I know anything about whatsoever?" And I thought, "I've got to stop writing about this girl. So I will write an album of historical songs." It was Plan B. It was the only option I could think of.

When I did it, I thought it had no commercial prospects whatsoever. But when it was released it outsold the first four albums put together. So I thought, "My God, there's a market for one historical folk-rock singer in the world [laughs]", and I said, "Thank you very much, I'll have that." I've actually been doing it ever since.

I'm somewhat amazed that half a century later nobody wants this job. If you were a history professor or you taught in a school, or something, if you bought a guitar and learned s half-dozen chords you could do this job. It's not rocket science. But nobody seems to want it apart from me.

What it has done, it has made these songs completely different. I mean, nobody is writing about 16th century English mariners like "Lord Grenville" or whatever. People just don't write those kind of songs. But that's what I like to listen to, and because no one is doing it for me I have to do it myself.

JM: Year of the Cat was the album that really took off for you. When you look back on that a little over 40 years later, what are your reflections on that particular album?

AS: Well, it look a long time to do. When I was done, I remember I finished it at something like 9 in the morning or something. [Producer] Alan [Parsons] needed to go somewhere, so we needed to mix the whole thing and it took all night. The sun had come up.

I had this apartment in West Hollywood. I remember taking the tape — it was like a reel to reel tape at that time — and playing it. Because in the studio it's one thing. In the studio it sounds enormous, because you have these giant speakers. But I wanted to see what it sounded like on my home system. So I played it back, and I remember thinking, "That's probably about as good as I can do. I don't think I can do anything better than that" [laughs]. It was 10 in the morning, and I just went to bed with a smile on my face. I thought, "I don't know what's going to happen to it, but if that's not a hit, I can't make one." Then, fortunately it was [laughs].

JM: Is that around the time that you moved to California?

AS: The way it worked, I came over, I think, to do the vocals, and it took a long time. The record company wanted me to stay around, so I got an apartment, and every week that the record went up in the charts they gave me a piece of furniture [laughs]. I think I began with just a bed or something, and then I got a table, then I got some chairs, then I got a record player and some albums. It went on for a very, very, very long time, because that record, it was something like six months or seven months that I was on the road. I started the tour in September, and I didn't finish it until the following April, I think.

By the time I was done, they said, "Well, you can go back to England now." And I said, "I don't really want to." I mean, England was on strike at the time. We had a prime minister called James Callaghan, and he managed to get the whole country [laughs] to go on strike. The rubbish was piled up in the streets in London, and I said, "I don't really fancy that. I like the sunshine. I want to stay in California." So I did go back briefly to sell my house that I had over there. I came back again, and I've been in California ever since.

Click here for the full interview with Al Stewart, including his story of sharing a flat with Paul Simon before either of them were famous.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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