Today is the birthday of my older sister, Kathleen. And in honor of that, I’m taking her to see A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in NYC. And also in her honor, I’ve chosen for today’s song an artist for whom she has great admiration. I’m told that any lengthy ride in her car risks hearing a collection of Al Stewart songs.
Now, mind you, she and I discovered Al Stewart at the same time. Or rather, I discovered him first—because the radio station in Philly actually played the entirety of the 9 minute magnum opus “Roads to Moscow.” They also played, more frequently, “Soho (Needless to Say).” Those two songs were enough to get my interest, and so I hunted for and found the album Past, Present and Future. That was in 1974, which is when it was released in the U.S., 1973 in the UK, as Stewart’s fifth album and the first released in the States. I lived with that album all through the summer of 1974, turning 15, and Kath, still shy of 19, loved it too.
In 1975, Modern Times was released, and that’s where today’s song can be found. I almost chose “Moscow” because at the time I was reading lots of Dostoevsky, so that suits. And this weekend and next I’ll be in NYC to see two shows with Russian themes. But “Moscow” is such a vast song, full of wonderful detail, and I don’t feel up to doing it justice. It’s one of the best narrative songs I know of. It’s stunning. And I was stunned when first heard it. And I haunted the radio around the same time of day in hopes of hearing it again, until I found the album. Al Stewart? Who the hell was he? Never heard of him. He got very little press.
A Scottish songwriter with a huge debt to Dylan that he’d managed to work off by the time he made his fifth album, which is remarkably literate, with most of its songs concerned with history and with definite historical circumstances. Modern Times was less evenly thematic, and the first side has a few songs I don’t really need to hear—including Stewart’s effort to write a hit, “Carol.” Eventually he would get the knack and The Year of the Cat (1976) would make him a radio staple, but that was already late in my interest in him, though I saw that tour.
The song I’ve picked for today is less grandly narrative, though it does tell the story of a ship foundering and going down. But it does so in the form of apostrophe, addressing this tale of disaster to the person experiencing it. It’s a nicely dramatic rhetorical strategy. It makes the status of the speaker rather mysterious as he calmly upbraids the protagonist for his rather arrogant assumptions and assertions.
It begins with what seems a happy morning, “bright and clear,” of setting off on an adventure, sails filled “with the rising wind,” and our hero laughs, not glancing at the “ragged dance of your lovers on the quay.” Sure, I guess they’re glad to see him go, or is it that he’s so glad to get shut of them? No matter, he’s got other things on his mind.
The second verse doesn’t do much, except to make out our hero is a pirate—“and the flag you flew was a pirate’s cross on a field of velvet black.” And the course “for the furthest shores” let’s us know this guy is out for adventure and probably treasure and for making a name for himself—the whole deal. At this point we might be expecting some tale of thieving and retribution, with plenty of swashbuckling.
But that’s not what Stewart delivers with the next two verses and that’s why I’ve always admired this song. Granted, I first heard it when I was in my midteens and much influenced by, as I just said, Dostoevsky, also Nietzsche, and part of what those worthies were inspiring in me was a sense of the artist’s credo as, as it were, a world unto itself, without apology. So a voyage in the Baudelairian sense, for vision, for going beyond, for not resting, satisfied, with one’s attainment. Always the horizon—in a metaphysical sense—beckoning. So watch what happens:
“Oh I have no need / Of a chart or creed,” / You told your waiting crew, / “For the winds of chance, / they’ll bear us straight.” / And you spoke as though you knew. / So you paid no mind / To the warning signs / As you gave your words so free. / Don’t change your tack / When the timbers crack / On the dark and the rolling sea.
For you see, the artist’s creed, like this pirate’s, is to have no creed, no “chart to get me to the heart of this or any other matter” (as Leonard says). He trusts to chance. He gives his words freely. And then that awesome foreshadowing, with a sense of that awful inevitability. Remain true to yourself, even if in error. Don’t turn tail and repent when those timbers crack and the ship begins its plunge abyss-ward.
Then we get the thunder railing, “and the stars desert the skies.” The next lines I for some reason always found immensely pleasing, “And the rigging strains / As the hands of rain / Reach down to wash your eyes.” Stewart, a literate songwriter, likes to use little writerly tricks, like personification, but what I like are the little details like the cracking timbers of the ship, the strain of the rigging. Then we get the oarsman become a mutineer, and so our hero is probably going to be done in by his own crew. Though it seems too late because of that baleful conclusion:
Don’t call my name / When your ship goes down / On the dark and the rolling sea.
At that point we can say the whole thing is probably just a metaphor about some headstrong jerk who blithely sailed for disaster—running aground on his own emotions and strewing wreckage everywhere. So that “don’t call my name” tells this person—don’t come crying to me! But I prefer to keep in play the more metaphysical aspects of the song, so that the speaker isn’t some holier-than-thou observer of our man’s foolishness, no, the speaker can be God himself, telling this non-believer not to beseech God and heaven at the end as he sinks in his folly.
From that perspective the imperatives—“don’t change your tack,” “don’t call my name”—align. And that reading also makes this a cold and fearsome god, as conceived perhaps by the Norse. The kind who, if you cross him, doesn’t want to hear you’re sorry later. Unlike, say, the Christian god who is always ready to hear you renounce Satan and all pride and those other sins. In some ways, what Stewart has illustrated is the notion of “going down with the ship” where the ship isn’t an actual sailing vessel but rather a way of life, a dispensation, a proclivity.
A teen, I wanted to trust home that kind of intuition, but, at the same time, I exulted in tales of doom, of reckoning, of bad fate, of hard luck, of heroes who, like evil Macbeth, could say “Damned be him who first cries ’Hold! Enough!’
The song is moody and dark, a perfect musical setting for this voyage to the death. Stewart, on those two albums I liked best of his, used Tim Renwick, a very tasteful lead guitarist who added much, and Modern Times was produced by Alan Parsons, thus giving more grandeur to the proceedings. The album’s second side—“The Dark and the Rolling Sea” is the second track on that side—is pretty much Stewart at the top of his game. Add another side with “Moscow,” “Old Admirals,” “Soho,” and “The Last Day of June 1934,” and you’ve pretty much got Stewart’s best, in my view. Well, say four sides should really do it. He has kept on making records, but Time Passages so irritated me c. 1978, I’ve never pursued the later stuff. Maybe some time.
Yet will I try the last.