On my way into San Francisco to see Al Stewart the other night, I heard an expert on the radio talking about that Laurel-Yanni thing. He said that when something was missing from an auditory text, your brain will compensate with what it knows best. So if you are used to hearing lots of low frequency sounds, your mind will fill it in with low frequency sounds (“Laurel.”) If you are used to hearing lots of high frequency sounds, you’ll hear the other word, “Yanni.”
Basically, your brain erases what it doesn’t know, and fills it in with what it does. And since I was on my way to a concert, I wondered if this applies in some emotional way to music as well. Maybe this wisdom accounts for why some people like certain music that other people hate.
This seemed like an especially pertinent thought when it comes to Al Stewart, because he is one of those artists: either you like him or you don’t. I do, which is why I went to the the Great American Music Hall the other night to see him perform his 1975 album The Year of the Cat in entirety.
Who even listens to Al Stewart? Only old people, for sure. The Year of the Cat is one of my formative records. It sticks out of my mind along with a few other randomly assorted soft rock 70s shit that I will stand behind, including (but not limited to) Carly Simon’s No Secrets, Art Garfunkel’s Breakaway, and other tracks too numerous to mention.
That kind of music – the kind filled with what a friend tells me Mojo Nixon once dubbed “foo foo chords” — is specific to a time and place, and Stewart’s work epitomizes it. As founding member of the English folk movement, alongside acts like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, he writes musically complicated songs that are chord driven, melody riven, and verbose. The songs are tuneful, but they’re also a bit finicky, the sonic equivalent of Thomas Mann or Henry James. For those who don’t know what it sounds like already, one can get an idea of the flavor of his work up by mentioning that early in the set, Stewart said, “This song needs a flute. Does anyone here play the flute?”
Those are truly scary words to hear at a rock concert. But you know who plays the flute? I do. In fact, I play the flute really well, or I used to – I was first flute in the band and orchestra at my high school for all four years and this is one reason why I don’t want to hear it in a rock songs.
Or so I thought. But…I don’t know. My aversion to wind instruments in bands isn’t at all rational. Consider, for instance, the saxophone. The minute the saxophone began, I thought, god, what an embarrassing instrument! It’s like the fucking “Catcher in the Rye” of instruments, i.e., you loved it when you were young before you realized how emotionally manipulative it was. Also, for some reason, no one can play it on stage without leaning back on the guitarist in a terribly pretentious Clarence Clemons-y manner, and Stewart’s player was no exception.
AND YET. When the saxophone rang out in the song “Time Passages” I just had to shrug and go, all that corny emotion, all that goddamn sincerity, all that gushy stuff that got smashed on the rocks of punk rock and growing up, well, I’m just going to embrace my inner saxophone tonight. And after I did that, everything was all right.
|Al Stewart, Great American Music Hall, May 19, 2018|
Suffice to say, live, the record held up well for me and the experience of seeing it performed was pretty profound. Indeed, as the music flowed over me I realized how much it had governed my life. And it’s not that surprising, really, because I always prefer books with plots and characters, rather than ones about emotional turmoil, and the same goes for songs. “The Night The Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ode To Billie Joe,” “Touch Me In the Morning,” even “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”…these are my secret jams, and that is Al Stewart’s forte. Every song on The Year of the Cat is like a little book, with lyrics that refer to the Basque Separatist movement, the Rhodesian conflict, A 16th century naval battle off the Azores, and Casablanca, and when I was a child I listened to it over and over again. (Needless to say, I did not understand the lyric, “she comes in incense and patchouli.”)
The Year of the Cat was Al Stewart’s 7th record and it was a smash hit, as was the follow up, Time Passages, the only other one of his works I own. At the Hall, he played the title cut to that record before beginning the Cat sequence, and for personal reasons it struck me harder than the rest of the set altogether, because “Time Passages’ is a song about the way that time, on occasion, exists on a parallel plane rather than on a continuum, like when a veil lifts and you find yourself in two eras at once. Like when, earlier in the day, my father, who has dementia, had asked me who the middle aged man in the living room following him around all day had been. Of course, there was no middle aged man in his living room, and the question made me incredibly sad. But when I was listening to Al Stewart, and he sang, “I know you’re in there, you’re just out of sight,” I thought, maybe the middle aged man did actually exist, and only my father could see him. Or maybe the middle aged man was himself, earlier in the century, when he was a whole person.
And then the saxophone came in, and time slipped for me as well as my father, and as I listened, I heard both Al Stewart playing at the GAMH, and myself standing by the piano, in the same sun room we’ve now converted to a bedroom for my Dad, practicing the flute, the music wafting out the window past the long gone wisteria. And then I had this sudden revelation. I play flute because of this record. Not in spite of it. Not alongside of it. No: this is the origin of that impulse, as are so many other things that wend in and out of my life, all because of music, and all of those things to the good.
Yes, just as my best friend Isabelle’s dream, born of a Marianne Faithfull song, has always been to drive around Paris in a sports car with the top down in the rain, mine is to wake up in a foreign city in a country where they turned back time. The cat experience is a part of who I am, and hearing it again was like a key turning in a lock.To be honest, that's a door I might shut in a little while, but from now on, I'll remember how to get in.
|The year of my cat.|