Al Stewart writes songs, many with a historical bent. In 1974, Stewart released his breakout album, “Past, Present, and Future” with two songs that sealed his reputation, “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow.” The tracts were eight and nearly ten minutes long, but FM radio stations were increasingly featuring songs of extended length, so both grew in popularity.
But, it was side one of the album, where Stewart really polished his bona fides in history. There, five songs each tackled a different decade of the 20th century, “Old Admirals,” “Warren Harding,” “SoHo,” “Last Day of June 1934,” and “Post World War Two Blues.” Of the five, “Last Day” is easily the most baffling without historical background.
The song’s first stanzas paint relaxed scenes of summer love in the fields of France and philosophical curiosity in England’s Cambridge, on the last day of June, 1934. Yet trouble was brewing that none could foresee. “On the night that Ernst Röhm died, voices rang out in the rolling Bavarian hills. And swept through the cities and danced in the gutters, grown strong like the joining of wills.”
For on that night of June 30th, Adolph Hitler began his purge of rivals and internal enemies, the so-called “Night of Long Knives” that ended two days later with the execution of Ernst Röhm, his longtime ally and chief rival. Hitler claimed he killed 61 enemies. Historians say it was closer to 500. The elimination of Röhm as an adversary gave Hitler free rein to exert his Nietzschean “Will to power” over all of Germany.
In the final stanzas of the song, Al Stewart inserts himself into the story as he sings, “I sit here now by the banks of the Rhine, dipping my feet in the cold stream of time.” He knows he’s a dreamer and knows he’s out of line, watching couples pass by living their own moments in time. “They don’t care who Ernst Röhm was, no reason they should.” For they can’t understand what Stewart sees – that their futures have forever changed, and soon enough Hitler will assume complete control of Germany and plunge half of the world into a war that will claim the lives of 70 to 85 million people and nearly wipe out the Jewish race from Europe.
So, each June 30th, I make a point of listening to Al Stewart’s lyrics, contemplating which current world-changing, consequential actions might one day be remembered in song.
In Tom Stoppard’s play, “The Real Thing,” the lead character, Henry can’t figure out which songs to pick when he’s slated to appear as the castaway on Desert Island Discs. The problem is Henry likes mindless pop music, but he’s a snob who’s afraid to admit he like pop music, so struggles to find songs and performers those of his intellectual class should like. His wife suggests a more pragmatic approach: pick records associated with turning points in his life.
My list follows the turning point theory–– records that wormed into my ears during special moments experienced early in life. There are plenty of albums I grew to love after these, but none captured my heart and soul like those from my youth.
I compiled my Desert Island Discs during the early days of Covid-19 when the country was shutting down and a bored citizenry sought new ways to amuse themselves by posting lists of favorite albums. April Fools’ Day seemed a fitting day to start, so with thanks to Doug Geiger’s original Facebook invitation and Jim Olson’s posts of musical inspiration, I posted these favorites from April 1-10, 2020.
Day 1 – The First Family (1962): Though it’s April Fools’ Day, this is no joke . . . though Vaughn Meador’s First Family sure traded in them. It was the first record I listened to all the way through time and time again. It was my 9-year-old introduction to political humor, delivered with Kennedy-style Boston accents plus world leaders whose names I still remember: De Gaulle, Khrushchev, Ben-Gurion, and Castro among them. This spoken-word comedy album spent 12 weeks as #1 on the Billboard charts selling over 7.5 million copies. The Kombol family’s copy of the album, listened to so many times, was never played again after Nov. 22, 1963.
Day 2 – Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962): “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the #1 hit, and Ray Charles’ foray into C&W was what a nation listened to that year. The album spawned four singles and everyone liked it: kids, adults, even grandparents. I listened to it once again this morning. Its soulful, jazzy, easy-listening, country-feel, sounds just as sweet today as it did 58 years ago. This was one of the couple dozen albums our family-owned. My sister, Jeanmarie and I regularly rotated Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds” with soundtracks from “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man” plus our own personal favorite–– the spoken-word soundtrack to the “Pollyanna” movie starring Hayley Mills.
Day 3 – Meet the Beatles (1964): From the opening notes of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to the closing bars of “Not a Second Time” every song is a winner. Our family didn’t own the album, but my best friend’s family did. Every day after 5th grade we gathered at Jeff Eldridge’s home across Franklin Street from ours. Jeff’s older brother, Ron was a junior at EHS, and his album; “Meet the Beatles” introduced four lads from Liverpool into our lives. Most afternoons were the same––listen to “Meet the Beatles,” followed by watching “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoons and Superman episodes starring George Reeves. When not playing the Beatles, we cued up Roy Orbison.
Day 4 – Sgt. Pepper (1967): It was the perfect time to be 14 years old. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper the very week I said goodbye to 8th grade. That Summer of Love was our summer of sun. It shined most every day in Seattle, setting a record 67 days without rain. Most days Mom drove us to Lake Sawyer with the radio tuned to AM 950. That June the Beatles held seven of the top ten positions on KJR’s Fabulous Fifty record survey, published Fridays in the Seattle P-I. Each song spawned new mental imagery––from tangerine skies to meter maids.
A month later the Beatles defined the spirit of the era with their follow-up single “All You Need is Love.” It all added up to the best summer of my life; not to mention more than a few hours staring at the album cover or studying the lyrics printed therein. To this day when anyone asks my favorite album of all time – there’s one quick answer: Sgt. Pepper.
Day 5 – Tommy (1969): By the autumn of 1969, most of us had driver’s licenses. Lester Hall drove his parent’s Ford Fairlane with an state-of-the-art stereo. We’d drive around Enumclaw from here to there but mostly nowhere. When doing so we listened to the Who’s “Tommy” so many times I’m surprised the 8-track tape didn’t wear out. We occasionally rotated Creedence, the Beatles, or CSN to give the Who a rest.
“Tommy” is generally considered the first rock musical. In late April 1971, our senior year of high school, the very first theatrical production of “Tommy” was staged at the Moore Theater. This world premiere featured a yet unknown, Bette Midler portraying the Acid Queen with show-stopping ferocity. A bunch of us saw it. I was in heaven.
Forty-five years later I gave the double album a long overdue listen from a remastered copy. How did “Tommy” hold up? It starts great. In fact, the Overture is perhaps my favorite number. At times the album soars with melodies flowing nicely. It’s an album in the best sense of the word. But, the story (book in musical-theater parlance) isn’t convincing. As smart and clever as Pete Townsend was, he’s simply not a great lyricist. The best songs still shine: “I’m Free,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “See Me, Feel Me.” The worst, “Fiddle About,” “Cousin Kevin,” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” remain clunkers. I can’t claim it stands the test of time, but back then “Tommy” was the height of musical fashion and evidence of our growing sophistication.
Day 6 – Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): “Maggie May” will forever be embedded as my first song of college. It was late September when I began my freshman year at U.W. Rod Stewart’s hit album was the soundtrack for initiation to college life – the picture of my story. While I’m particularly fond of the “Mandolin Wind,” “Reason to Believe;”; there’s no better song than “Maggie” to put a smile on my face and a song to my lips.
“Wake up Maggie I think I got something to say to you, It’s late September and I really should be back at school.”
Day 7 – American Pie (1971): Don McLean has a special place in my heart. His performance at the Paramount on March 17, 1972 was the first concert I ever attended. I chose my sister, Jeanmarie Bond to be my date. It was her first concert too. We dined at Clinkerdagger, Bickerstaff & Pettsbeforehand. It was a swank and trendy restaurant on Capitol Hill.
When introducing American Pie, McLean mockingly mimicked some college professor who wrote a detailed analysis of its lyrics. The audience sang the words and chorus we knew by heart. The title song has never loosened its grip. The album’s second hit single, “Vincent” is a hauntingly beautiful musical evocation of artistry focused on the most stunning of paintings: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. If it’s been some time since you last heard the entire album just say, “Hey Siri (or Alexa), play the album American Pie by Don McLean.” You’ll be rewarded.
Day 8 – Past, Present & Future (1974): My first introduction to Al Stewart came courtesy of FM radio’s penchant for playing extended-length songs like “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” in the early 1970s. Only later did I buy the album and discover Stewart’s lyrical genius runs through history. In fact, side one of this breakthrough album features a song for each of the first five decades of the 20th century. My love affair with Al Stewart’s music played out nicely over the decades – I’ve seen him in concert five times, more than any other music artist.
Day 9 – All-American Alien Boy (1976): While in college I liked Mott the Hoople. Their lead singer and songwriter, Ian Hunter left the group in 1975, the year I graduated. The following year I was drifting without direction when Hunter released his second solo album. It struck gold in this listener’s ears. There aren’t many who feel the same way, but I stand by Ian Hunter’s “All-American Alien Boy” as an enduring work of musical art. “Irene Wilde” is a beautiful ballad of a true story, bus station rejection that inspired Hunter’s rise to stardom.
BTW, Doug Geiger and I had plans to see the Mott the Hoople reunion tour in November 2019, but sadly Hunter developed a severe case of tinnitus. He was advised by his doctors to discontinue performing until his condition subsides. Will we ever get the chance to see Mott the Hoople? Time may soon run out for the 80-year-old Ian Hunter, who I once saw in concert playing with Mick Ronson.
Day 10 – The Stranger (1977): This record changed the direction of my life. The album spawned four Top 40 hits: “Moving Out,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “She’s Always a Woman to Me.” But two lesser-known tunes convinced me to take a giant step outside myself. When working as a management trainee at Seattle Trust & Savings Bank, I grew increasingly frustrated with my chosen direction. Repeated listening to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Vienna” (waits for you) convinced me I needed a change.
Those two songs fortified my courage to quit the job with a month’s notice dated to the one-year anniversary of when I started. I left for Europe in February 1978 with no set agenda and a budget of $10 a day. I lived and traveled for the next five months and have never forgotten the debt I owe to Billy Joel for drawing out the courage I couldn’t find by myself.