I couldn’t prove it, but it’s likely that I am the only person in the world at whom the jazz-fusion guitarist Peter White has ever hurled a radish, not counting people related to him. Though less likely, it is also possible that I am the only person whose conversations with the singer-songwriter Al Stewart are equal in number to the occasions when I have insulted him; to be precise, in both cases that number would be two.
Al Stewart was one of my early music heroes, and Peter White was a member of his band for twenty years before striking out on his own. Fewer and fewer younger people remember Al Stewart as years go by, but he had a number of small hits in the early ’70s — “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” from Past Present and Future — and a few big hits later in the decade — “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” from Year of the Cat, “Time Passages”, and “Song on the Radio” from Time Passages.
Even before those latter two platinum-selling albums came out I was a devotee. Jeff’s older brother had Past Present and Future and we wore it out on the barge-sized cabinet phonograph his folks had in the living room. It is not surprising I loved it; each song on the album treated of a different decade of the 20th century. Though Al himself abjures such contrivances, it is often said of him that he invented his own genre, historic pop-rock.
When Year of the Cat first hit the radio I hastened to tell Jeff that I dedicated the title song to Carolyn D., an eighth-grader on whom we both had the same secret, undeclared crush and for whom our codename was “Cat”. Jeff made what might these days be termed “whatever-face” and said, “I already dedicated that song to my cat Snowball.”
As will soon be abundantly clear, Not Getting the Effect I Hoped For is a theme that runs throughout this post.
In 1985 I was in Germany, staying with a family on their farm just outside the small university town of Tübingen. When I heard that Al Stewart would be playing in nearby Reutlingen I bought a ticket and caught a train. I went by myself, but in the concert hall I sat with a young German couple whose enthusiasm for Al Stewart rivaled my own.
I believe this tour was named The Cat is Back. It supported the album Russians and Americans, one I bought but found disappointing for really spoiled-brat reasons and hadn’t played very much. I was fixated on Al’s earliest albums at that time.
When the band came onstage they tossed radishes out into the audience, Al making a joke about not having any carrots to throw — a reference to a previous album, 24 Carrots — and how they had a ton of radishes backstage. Al was thin, had long wavy hair and wore a slick shirt. They played a great concert, in my opinion, and changed up the old barnstormer “Nostradamus” in a really innovative way.
Afterwards, the German kids said they were going to try to get backstage and talk to Al and invited me to join them. I don’t know how it was so easy, but we went backstage. The band were in a large dressing room, just preparing to sit down to some food. A handful of us just waltzed in there and started bugging him. A local reporter, a young woman maybe from a college paper, got in his face and asked a bunch of questions, which he was pretty gracious about answering, though I remember him saying that all he wanted to do was eat some dinner. My two young companions were dumbstruck, their eyes shining up at him like footlights, and I think they barely managed to squeak out a request for an autograph. Al sat down to eat and when it was my turn, I sat directly across the table from him and asked him — let me pause for just a moment here while I confirm with my Center of Being that I really and truly did this — asked him when he was going to get back to writing more strictly acoustic songs, like “Next Time” from Modern Times.
It had been a tough decade for artists like Al, something I hadn’t considered before opening my pie-hole. Since his big hits, punk and disco had taken over the world and the first wave of the folk revival — championed by such luminaries as Bob Dylan — had definitely spent itself, leaving Al floundering in an increasingly electronic, minimalist and forward-looking music scene with very little room to maneuver. Gentle, historic ballads weren’t moving.
Al frowned as though he’d completely forgotten about that song, and said that he didn’t know when the last time he’d played it was or whether he could even play it anymore. Peter White was standing behind Al listening, holding a radish in his hand. He said “what about ‘The Candidate’ from the new album? Do you have the new album, Russians and Americans?”
I stuttered. “Uh…Yeah, I have it, but…”
“That’s right”, said Al, visibly relieved. “That one’s completely acoustic.”
It was at this moment that Peter White assumed a playful look of disgust on his face and said something like “sure, he bought the new album but he didn’t listen to it…complains about it without even knowing what’s on it”, and then pitched a radish at my person.
It bounced off, but the indictment silenced me and loosed the voices of the band, which all rose against me as a chorus of ridicule. They riffed on Peter’s comment and chuckled, until the world began to swirl and spin in front of my eyes and everything went black. I over-exaggerate too much. Really, my moment just passed; someone else jumped in to ask him another question or beg an autograph, and I faded away and never saw myself again.
The first date Angela and I went on after Mara was born was to see a much older Al Stewart play the Triple Door here in Seattle in support of his 2005 album A Beach Full of Shells. We sat in the front row. He was now a balding man with a double chin in baggy pants and comfortable shoes, but he’d only gotten better over time. In the years since I’d accosted him backstage in Germany he had made something of a comeback, and by this I mean that he started making albums again — starting with 1993′s Famous Last Words — that really sounded like Al doing what Al did best: sweet, melancholy, funny, educated, beautiful and playful songs mostly on acoustic instruments, occasionally with something louder or more produced. It was almost as though, with the pressure to chart removed and no one but his devoted fans paying any attention, he was free to remember who he was and what we all loved about his music in the first place.
Having lost track of him after the mid ’80s, I took note of Famous Last Words, and then Al seemed to knock each album after that out of the ball park. Between the Wars (1995), Down in the Cellar (2000), and Beach Full of Shells continued what struck me as a whole new era of the best songcraft the man had ever produced.
Angela and I both enjoyed the 2005 show, so when he came back in 2008 and played the Triple Door again we went and saw him again, and this time we stood in line to have him autograph our copy of his latest album, Sparks of Ancient Light.
When our moment came, I had my speech ready. I was going to tell him I was the churl who’d impugned his artistic integrity in Reutlingen all those years ago and apologize for my behavior. Though I didn’t expect him to remember the event, I thought the story would amuse him.
Al Stewart was not amused.
I never even got to the radish part. As soon as I made reference to that concert, Al groaned and said that that tour had been terrible and that that whole year had been one of the worst years of his life. He quickly took the CD booklet out of the jewel case to sign it. He suddenly looked depressed.
Panic started to grip me. I don’t like to be the cause of anyone’s mood plummeting, but this was particularly horrifying. I had meant only to bring a lively anecdote to that brief interview and right an old wrong, and now I was making one of my cultural heroes relive a nightmare. I was making it all worse, not better.
Cheerfully prattling on, I insisted that the 1985 concert as I remembered it was a great one, but he wasn’t listening. He was verbally fending off the memory I had shoved under his nose. He scribbled his mark on the cover of the liner notes booklet and handed the case back to me, literally leaning toward the next person in line in an effort to be quit of me.
I stopped talking. I think Angela rolled her eyes and laughed at me all the way down the street. I’m sure it was my imagination, but as we drove away I could have sworn I heard small items like little round vegetables bouncing off the back of the car.