Summer of the Cat

by Harry on October 23, 2013

Johnny Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies has an interview with Al Stewart this week!

The rest of this post is a complete ramble, full of enthusiasm and entirely lacking in insight and you’d be better off just listening to Johnny and Al. You’ll learn, what you probably already knew, that Al used to be in Tony Blackburn’s backing band!

I went about 18 years without seeing any live music at all, at least none aimed at adults-who-are-not-the-parents-of-the-performers. One of our regular commenters, Tom Hurka, expressed horror when I told him how long it had been and worked hard on convincing me to come back into the fold (thanks Tom); eventually, my wife noticed that (the now late) Bert Jansch was opening for Neil Young in Milwaukee, and got me to go. It has become a habit, to the extent that it is no longer the case that I have seen Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III more often than everybody else put together (even though I have seen both in this past two years). Summer 2013 it was Steely Dan (really terrific, and obviously completely comfortable with the fact that they are doing nostalgic greatest hits sets, which, my friend who went with me and saw them more than a decade ago says they weren’t then) and Taylor Swift (great, actually, though I’d rather see Kacey Musgraves; but I’m terrified of heights, so I now know that Arena acts don’t work for me) in the space of a week. I saw the Moody Blues a couple of weeks ago. I admit that the best highlight of that, for me and everyone who was sitting close to me, was the uncontrollable and infectious giggling of my 12-year old, for whom the sight of all those old people dancing and punching the air in the aisles was entertainment enough (isn’t it time for a movie of Spinal Tap on revival?); but the lesser highlight was learning, by watching them live, just why the Moody Blues were so successful — they are, still, a simply brilliant live band — every hit was better than any of the recordings I’ve heard of it. (Afterwards, though, I had the following thought: suppose I had prepared just 4 hours worth of lecture, and then, 100 or so nights a year, for 50 years, delivered 2 or so hours of that 4 hours I had prepared: I’d be pretty good by the end of it, I think). At the Steely Dan concert I was probably a little below the median age, and my 65 year old friend was definitely above it; at the Moody Blues I think there were only five people younger than me, and I brought two of them, and my 65 year old friend, had he been willing to come along, would have been below the median age. Of course, at Taylor Swift, my 12 year old was the above the median.

But in summer 2012 I drove an indecently long way just to see Al Stewart, and his opening act (and lead guitarist), Dave Nachmanoff. I had become a fan of Al’s only in the early 2000s, intrigued by the (difficult to believe) information that Year of the Cat was written about my hero, Tony Hancock. It turns out that the first version of the song was, indeed, written about him — Al saw Hancock performing live sometime in the mid-60s, and was horrified (as everyone was) by seeing the train wreck in motion, and foresaw (as, by all accounts, many people did) what was to happen. I had always assumed that he wrote just two other good songs (his two other big hits, Time Passages, and Across the Border). But no — he has whole albums full of great songs and some, especially those from the seventies, sound as if they could have been made yesterday (apart from the fact that it is hard to imagine a record company these days putting out an album like Past, Present & Future the centerpiece of which is probably Al’s greatest song — 8 minutes about the German army’s progress on the Eastern front. I’m not kidding, either about the subject matter, or that it’s his greatest). I took the leap of looking up whether he’d be playing anywhere near me and noticed (to my surprise, as you can imagine), that his regular opening act, and accompanist, the aforementioned Dave Nachmanoff, is a former graduate student of mine, whom I taught at UC Davis in the very early 90’s. (I know that teachers should promote their students’ academic work, but should they promote their art? Either way, here’s his most recent solo album, Step Up. I like it a lot). It was a lot of fun seeing the look on his face when I said hi before the concert.

Anyway, if you get a chance to see either of them, it is well worth it — Al is an accomplished performer of great songs, and Dave has an uncanny ability to make a single guitar sound like a whole band.



ede_finnerty 10.23.13 at 4:24 pm

The melody for year of the cat was rescued from a never released song about Tony Hancock. The words were new and had nothing to do with Tony Hancock. I saw him perform the song live in mid-seventies and he led in with a great solo rendition of “as time goes by”

Roads to Moscow is on general rotation in my car and home and everybody from every generation who hears it requests a copy.


Bloix 10.23.13 at 4:24 pm

I took my two college-aged boys to see Steely Dan in 2011. They thought the old-folks-having-fun was touching. They kind of enjoyed the music, but they thought Becker was creepy. Which he was, to tell the truth.


Bloix 10.23.13 at 4:50 pm

PS- I had a great time.


Phil 10.23.13 at 10:43 pm

The Hancock song was called “Foot of the Stage” and had the same tune – & hence the same scansion & structure – as “Year of the Cat”. I remember reading in an interview that Stewart did this quite a lot, writing a song & then writing another set of lyrics that would work just as well with the tune.


Squirrel Nutkin 10.24.13 at 11:29 pm

I still find much of Al Stewart a bit well-made and genteel, but when he was good he was really good, and Roads to Moscow is pretty special, haunting. Can’t see a documentary about Barbarossa or Kursk or Kharkov (in my Mark Corrigan moments) without hearing the line about General Guderian at the crest of the hill. And the steely Russian skies go on forever.


TheSophist 10.25.13 at 12:08 am

I am so glad to find out that I’m not the only person who thinks that Roads to Moscow is just amazing. In the same vein, I’m very partial to “Joe the Georgian” from “Between the Wars” – probably the only song ever written that namechecks Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin.

I’m so glad to hear that he’s still great live – I haven’t seen him in over a decade. Once upon a time, many, many, years ago seeing him was so important to me that an Al Stewart show was the first time I set foot in a bar after I quit drinking.

Oh, and Prof. Brighouse – have you had a chance to check out any Mark Knopfler yet?


Harry 10.25.13 at 1:47 pm

TheSophist — er. Yes. I have. I am stunned. When Dire Straits did Sultans of Swing, John Peel played it over and over till it was a hit. And I was impressed that Knopfler played with Dylan. But the eighties came, and Dire Straits became huge and I genuinely didn’t like them. Sailing to Philadelphia is just fabulous. Thanks!

Al didn’t perform Roads to Moscow either of the times I saw him — but Dave (Nachmanoff) says it is widely regarded as his masterpiece, by the true fans (Nachmanoff was part of a small world of Al Stewart obsessives before becoming Al’s lead guitarist).


TheSophist 10.25.13 at 4:46 pm

Well, that just made my day. I am very glad that you are enjoying Mark Knopfler, and yeah, stunned was pretty much my reaction when I bought Sailing to Philadelphia back when it first came out. Halfway through What It Is, and I’m already grinning ear to ear and thinking “Damn, this is good”.



TheSophist 10.25.13 at 5:03 pm

Judging by his song titles, it appears that Dave N. shares Al’s penchant for historically themed songs (I heard him once introduce “On the Border” as “the biggest hit ever written about the Basque independence movement”.)

Descartes in Amsterdam (I always love the fact that none of the hordes of visitors to the Ann Frank House pay any attention to the neighboring house with the “Descartes lived here” dedication.)


Civilization and its Discontents

I’ll definitely check him out.


godoggo 10.25.13 at 10:21 pm

So what was the deal with every pop star in the 70s hiring Larry Carlton when they wanted to do something sophisticated and fusiony? Not that he isn’t a good musician and everything but it seems to me that if it’s 1978 and you can afford Carlton then you ought to be able to hire Scofield or Aebercrombie, in which why wouldn’t you?


Doug K 10.28.13 at 4:10 pm

thank you for the interview link..

continuing the rambling enthusiasms, the Waterboys covered the same territory as Road to Moscow in their song Red Army Blues,
Always wondered what the connection was to the Al Stewart song..

Now I have to go find all my Al Stewart records (yes, vinyl in fact).. the eternal question, digitize these or just re-buy digitally ?

Comments on this entry are closed.