by Peter Robertson
Multi-Platinum-selling Scottish singer/songwriter Al Stewart is currently touring the UK playing his classic album Year Of The Cat in its entirety and calls in at the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne on Monday, May 11.
Now 69, Al is known the world over for Year Of The Cat and its follow-up Time Passages, which both even made the Top 10 in the USA, partly thanks to his unique style of combining folk-rock songs with delicately-woven tales of characters and events from history.
Sadly, Alastair Ian Stewart’s life in Scotland was cut short by tragedy because his father Alastair MacKichan Stewart, who served as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve, died in a plane crash in 1945. “It was right at the end of World War 2,” says Al, who only has one photo to remember his father by.
“I think it was a Lancaster Bomber with a crew of six or so - my father was a navigator – and they crashed in Lincolnshire,” he told freeland reporter peter Robertson.
“They weren’t shot down; I think it was some sort of training exercise that went wrong.
“My mother was three months’ pregnant at the time, so my father died before I was born. I was born in a hospital in Glasgow, and at the time my mother was living with my grandfather in Greenock.
“As my song Post World War 2 Blues says ‘I was a post-war baby in a small Scots town, I was three years old when we moved down South’. So obviously I don’t remember much about Scotland. I can’t even do the accent, though I do own a Stewart tartan.”
Al moved with his mother Joan to Wimborne Minster in Dorset, and spent many happy holidays with his paternal grandfather at 29 Nutley Close, Goring-by-sea, West Sussex. “My grandfather worked for the Clydesdale Bank in Scotland and moved down to Sussex when he retired.
“Every school holiday, I’d stay with him for a week. That was where I got my first guitar. My mother bought it for me.
“I’d asked for a guitar when I was 12, but they thought I was fooling around so they bought me a ukulele. For a year I was trying to play Duane Eddy on a ukulele, which really doesn’t work!
“So after a year they broke down and bought me a cheapo guitar which I then played endlessly.”
Beginning his music career in London’s Soho in the mid-1960s, Al bought his first proper guitar from Andy Summers who later found fame in pop supergroup The Police, and took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp of progressive rock band King Crimson and is the husband of Toyah Willcox. Al played alongside the likes of Cat Stevens and Ralph McTell, and for four months shared a flat with Paul Simon.
Al has since met Paul Simon several times and got a message from him only last year, but apparently he is not the inspiration for You Can Call Me Al. However, Al’s claims to fame include paying £100 to help Yoko Ono finance a film of 360 naked bottoms and playing at the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970 - to a field of 1000 hippies who had paid just £1 each to be there.
Al released six albums from 1967-1975, selling more with each one, but after the sixth the label CBS dropped him, and he signed to RCA.
“So the album CBS didn’t get was Year Of The Cat and there’s something ironic about that. I had no real relationship with CBS - you got the impression they were working really hard on The Wombles, but not me.
“I’m happy that people like Year Of The Cat’ Al adds. “It’s like a calling-card, but it’s something I did in the late 70s. I know a lot of people would have loved me to have gone on making that record for ever and ever, but I think that way lies madness and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“I wanted to write historical songs, which is what I have done. Obviously it works because I’m still gainfully employed at this old age. I didn’t want to turn into Cliff Richard, if you know what I mean.”
Al sometimes writes four sets of lyrics to each song before settling on one. He famously references historical events and figures, including Lord Grenville, Amy Johnson and Humphrey Bogart in Year Of The Cat tracks. “People find meanings in my songs which aren’t there. Conversely, I put things into songs which people don’t ever get. I wrote one called Antarctica which mentions Scott and Shackleton and it seems to be all about the expeditions to the South Pole in the early 20th century, but it’s actually about a very cold woman. Nobody gets that. I’ve heard lots of interpretations of my lyrics and they’re usually wrong.
“Year Of The Cat had nothing to do with cats. I had a girlfriend who had a book on Vietnamese astrology, there was a chapter called The Year Of The Cat, and I may not know much about nearly anything but I do know a song title when I see one!”
International success enabled Al to buy his mum (who died eight years ago) an MGB sports car, and for him to make his dream move to California.
“My first 24 hours in Los Angeles, In 1975, were close to unbelievable. I was staying at a hotel on Sunset Strip where Led Zeppelin were on the top floor and about 200 groupies in the lobby.
“The elevator opened and there was Jimmy Page who’d played on three of my records. Jimmy threw his arms round me and kissed me. All these girls were looking at me going ‘Oh God, who are you?’
“Then I spoke with my English accent and the next thing I knew I was knee-deep in women – it was amazing. After my show, there was more pandemonium. It was wall-to-wall girls.
“In Britain, I’d been a folk singer and they don’t have groupies. I didn’t anyway! But in LA it was suddenly like living in a Hugh Hefner movie, and I thought “I have to live there!”
Now based in an apartment in a condominium two miles from the ocean, with his girlfriend, Al is divorced from his wife of 15 years, Kristine, who lives in Northern California with their daughters Violet, 21, and Daisy, 17.
“I still love being in LA and I have to be prised out of here to tour the rest of the World. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally happy to play in Eastbourne and be there but I’m unlikely to get up one morning and think “Hmm, I think I’ll move to England now”. You’d have to kidnap me to get me out of LA. It has everything I want. I don’t think I could live anywhere else.”