Al Stewart

Al Stewart

By Jeremy Miles

AL STEWART is jet-lagged, mildly bemused and would kill for a decent eggs benedict. Whether this meal actually constitutes breakfast or lunch he doesn't seem entirely sure.

This is a legacy of the fact that despite having accumulated a collection of air-miles that wouldn't disgrace an airline pilot, singer-songwriter Al - bed-sit troubadour for a generation of 60s music fans - does not travel well.

"It gets to me every time," he moans. The fact that he actually arrived from his home in California nearly five days earlier seems to have made little difference.

Back in his home town of Bournemouth, Al is planning his latest UK tour and, having once again been thwarted in his requests for a local show, has taken it upon himself to ensure there is at least one local gig.

In collaboration with his old friend Jon Kremer - proprietor of Bus Stop Discs in Westbourne and mate of Al since way back when - he has booked Mister Smiths on Poole Hill for a bringing it all back home concert on March 16.

He's lobbed the gig - an incredibly intimate 100 seat affair - on the end of his current tour and hopes that it will encourage a load of old mates from the 60s to turn up.

"It's incredible, really," says Al, whose biggest hit was Year Of The Cat. "Every time I play the UK I ask if we can play Bournemouth and they always tell me there's nowhere to play.

"Eventually we decided the time had come to take the law in to our own hands. It would be great to meet up with some old faces from Bournemouth back in the 1960s and I hope that maybe running something in the Echo will help smoke one or two of them out."

Stewart was a serious mover and shaker in the town's burgeoning music scene of the early 1960s. He himself remembers those days with an air of detached astonishment. "Looking back it really was extraordinary. I nearly joined a group with Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), I took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp (soon to become the leader of King Crimson), and I bought a guitar from Andy Summers (later to become famous with The Police)."

He also of course played lead guitar in The Sabres, the band run by young blade around town Tony Blackburn.

The main purpose of the Bournemouth Mister Smiths show will be to showcase Stewart's latest album Down In the Cellar - a collection of songs based on his love and enjoyment of wine.

But Al says he hopes some of his old "beat group" chums - "that's what we used to call them in those days" - might turn up to jam on stage.

"If they want to come down and play those old numbers like Walk Don't Run or Apache that would be great."

Al stresses that it won't be an entirely retro show. "I'll obviously play a perfectly orthodox set in Bournemouth because that's what people will expect, but as it's the end of the tour I think we can get away with a few Shadows tunes too."

This, of course, was the stuff that the young Stewart cut his musical teeth on.

He left Bournemouth more than 35 years ago, first for London where he shared a flat with Simon and Garfunkel, and later California, his home for the past 25 years. He seems perpetually amazed by the people he has met, lived with and been connected with.

In London in the mid-60s he was sharing a shambolic East End apartment with not only Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel but also Sandy Denny and her then boyfriend, the enigmatic but sadly doomed American singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank. "Not a bad collection of people really," says Al.

He recalls Simon as a particular mentor. "He was a bit older than me and a phenomenal songwriter. I suppose I was a bit in awe of him but I remember once having this incredible argument with him.

"I'd just got the Bob Dylan Highway 61 album, had spent something like six hours getting Desolation Row down pat. I thought it was brilliant, but Simon just dismissed it as re-hashed Ferlinghetti (a reference to the San Francisco-based Beat poet and owner of the legendary City Lights Book Shop).

He remembers Simon finishing the song Homeward Bound in the bedroom next door and raced back to Bournemouth to play it to friends, including Jon Kremer.

"I thought it was a great song, but although it was big on the folk scene none of the record companies seemed interested at all."

A couple of years later, when Stewart headed for America to break what would become a highly lucrative career, he found himself in the highly agreeable position of possessing only one American phone number... that of Paul Simon.

In the event his old flat-mate had not forgotten the all-important pecking order and Stewart was offered the opportunity of going out on the road with Simon and Garfunkel in the relatively meagre role of roadie.

It was, however, a learning curve that Stewart grabbed with both hands. "I may only have been carrying the guitar cases but I found myself in New York for the first time in my life sitting in a helicopter on our way to a gig at Cornell University.

"Simon and Garfunkel were huge at the time. They'd already had one number one and I remember just looking down at the city and thinking how amazing it was.

"Suddenly there was this little voice saying: 'If this helicopter crashes I'm gonnna get a second number one in a big hurry...'. It was Paul... and not really what I wanted to hear." In fact, as Al points out, Simon and Garfunkel achieved the second number one anyway.

His early years in Bournemouth were heady years. He remembers meeting Jon Kremer when he went into Jon's father's music store to buy a Bird reverb unit...

"No sane person would have wanted to own the thing, but of course I didn't realise that at the time."

The result, however, apart from a bad reverb unit, was an eduring friendship with Jon.

The pair - subsequently best man at each other's weddings - were very much lads about town during the early 1960s.

These days they can go months, sometimes years, without seeing each other but, as with all true friends, always manage to pick up where they left off. The two men, now in their mid-50s, met up earlier this month to reminisce about their teenage years. A high point was the week in 1963 when The Beatles came to Bournemouth for a string of shows at the old Gaumont theatre in Westover Road.

Al, then 17, and Jon marched through the ranks of hysterical fans, announced that they were from Rickenbaker guitars and were astonished to be immediately escorted backstage to meet The Beatles.

"It was incredible. There we were, just fast-tracked through to meet The Beatles," recalls Al. John Lennon handed him his guitar, the famed Rickenbacker, to play.

"All I can remember is being absolutely terrified that I might drop it," he says.

Actually, Al admits, he may have been responsible for "ruining" The Beatles' second Bournemouth show. For after the opening night Lennon had asked him what he thought of the gig. He told him that George Harrison's guitar had drowned out the rest of the music. In retrospect he believes this was largely because Harrison's amp was directly in front of his seat. But a couple of days later, in the Echo, he read a review which claimed the second show was blighted by the volume of Lennon's guitar work. "I can't help feeling that might have been my fault," he says.

Nearly 40 years on from those Bournemouth days, Al is the epitome of the smooth music business professional. As the new album Down In The Cellar indicates, his abiding passion these days is wine.

The latests songs are eulogies to the great wines with titles like Waiting For Margeaux and the Shiraz Shuffle and knowing tips of the cap in the direction of Petrus and the pioneers of the Napa Valley.

Although others say he is a fully-certificated wine master, Al is modest about his undoubted knowledge, saying that it stems from the days when he finally signed a decent record deal and found himself living a few doors away from a reputable wine merchant.

"I just gradually discovered that the stuff I'd been buying for 99p didn't taste as good as the stuff that cost £3.50. I took it from there really."

These days Al's knowledge extends to considerably "bigger" wines. He talks about the crazy hike in the price of the French classics in recent years and also the extraordinary rise of the Garageviste - wine makers who manicure each grape to perfection and produce astounding wines in their own garages.

"Instead of making 20,000 cases they'll only make 300-400, but the quality is astonishing.

"It costs them $100 dollars a bottle to make instead of $5, but they have really raised the standard. There's a brilliant wine called Screaming Eagle which costs $2,000 a bottle, and that's the sort of money that you'd only have paid for a really good Bordeaux or Petrus in the past."

Yep, things have certainly moved on for Al Stewart.

© Jeremy Miles 2022