“It’s sort of reached the point where I try and deliberately outsmart myself because it makes the song more interesting. Because the harder it is to resolve it, the more interesting the journey.”
Al Stewart on lyric writing
You mentioned “Year of the Cat,” and I’ve read that originally it was called—
“Foot of the Stage” was its first incarnation.
And it was about a British comedian Tony Hancock?
Yeah, it was. I saw Tony Hancock just before he died. He committed suicide in Australia, and I saw him probably six months or a year before that. He’d reached a point in his life where he was totally miserable. I mean this was the character he played. He played a miserable man.
So, he came on stage in my little hometown of Bournemouth and I went to see him. He was basically standing on the front of the stage saying, ‘I hate this, I hate my life, everything is miserable so I don’t even know why I bother to come up in the morning,’ and the audience was laughing because they thought he was playing the character. And I looked at Hancock and I thought, ‘He means it. This man means it. He’s looking for love.’ And then when he killed himself, I wrote this song, and the end of it says, ‘His tears fell down like rain at the foot of the stage,’ and that was it.
I talked to the record company I was with at the time and they’d had some success with the previous record. “Modern Times” had just nosed its way into the top 30 so they were very keen that we made a solid record to follow it. So, I played “Foot of the Stage” for them and they said, ‘Well, we have a problem. However popular Tony Hancock is in England, no one in America has ever heard of Tony Hancock.’ (Hancock was at one time the most popular comedian in England)
They said, ‘You know we love the tune, but no one’s going to relate to the words. Could you write something else?’
So, I went back and just for fun I wrote “Horse of the Year,” which was like a comedy about Princess Anne and how they’re always trying to win a gold medal in the Olympics. But then I realized that that was nonsense, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
Then I had a girlfriend who had a book on Vietnamese astrology and the year of the rabbit in Chinese astrology is the year of the cat [in Vietnamese astrology], which immediately sounded like a song title to me.
I was wandering around the apartment going “Year of the Cat,” but I had absolutely no idea what the hell to make it about. It doesn’t mean anything. I can’t go anywhere with that. It’s not something that leads you to the next thought.
So, I thought, well I’ll tell you what, just ignore the year of the cat, work backward. That was something in my normal way; start somewhere else and see where it leads you. So, I started in North Africa, ‘On a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time, you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime.’ I just wrote that down because I was thinking about the Casa Blanca movie. From there, everything became easy. I mean all of a sudden, I saw where the road was leading and all I had to do was walk down it and that was the song.