Re-Discovery & Music Review: The Year of the Cat

“The Year of the Cat”

Lyrics and Music by Al Stewart & Peter Wood

As a small child I was fascinated with my mother’s tales of Scottish ghosts, and I (secretly) lived to allow her to terrify me–especially with ones that involved stairs, profiles and castles. It was some time before I came to understand more of what I now call ghostliness amongst the living–memories, smells, sounds or even gesticulations that merge the past and present or hint at the wispy other selves that exist amongst us. I’ve written before about the power music has to engage the human soul in ways I can’t quite explain, though perhaps I could say it somehow draws from both the mind and the heart, what we logical creatures so often try to separate, to create sensations that can indeed be rather haunting. At times it settles on me like a melancholy, or it simply might lead me to a contemplative state. Often in those moments I remember the most unlikely events, passages in life that have no real reason to have permeated and settled in my consciousness, at least not to occupy a place as prominent, if you will, as they do.

“The Year of the Cat,” tale of a traveler coaxed by an enigmatic woman to abandon his pre-arranged tour is one such song; it lulls me onto a flowing passage of time in which scenes drift before my eyes, my inside eyes as I call them, as if I am meandering through the barras and experiencing those images whilst passing from one stall to the next. The lyrics at their face value have no relation to any experiences of mine, though these market-stall memories appear at certain phrases, lovely groupings that, given the right emotional state, cause people to weep at the sort of beauty that is simply too large for them to comprehend, or elicit joy that comes from experiencing an utterly amazing gift:

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running

Like a watercolour in the rain

And it is like a gift, remembering as I do my four-year-old self surrounded by an ongoing parental gratitude for my life, for shortly before this time I had swallowed enough bleach to clean the privy for several months. The rounded hospital chairs alternated orange and yellow, and perhaps I remembered them as I sat by a window, staring at the sun’s fading orange mirror in the sky over a freezing, rainy evening, watching it drip down the glass. “I shall write poetry one day,” I announced to no one in particular, to which my mother responded, “Aye, that you will.”

While I have no memory of even being aware of the song at this time, I had in fact already been nurturing an appreciation for words. I would have noticed the sun’s hues, and been swept by them, even at that small age, but what to call them occupied me the most, a task often informed and influenced by the emotions music elicited. To the tourist in the exotic market, the words above perhaps represent dangerous excitement, a quest he simply must pursue. For me it was a newfound feeling of safety coming on the heels of an experience that brought visible terror to the eyes of my unflappable mother. To this day I treasure the moments in which I am curled up inside during a good, rollicking blizzard; I feel safe and protected even while I am given a glimpse of the cruel mistress that nature can be.

Now is a good moment to state my reticence about using videos to contribute towards any music review, formal or casual, despite my wont to mix up audio with visual sensations. Call me old fashioned, but it seems a song worth its salt should be able to stand tall without extra baggage to weigh it down, for this is what video so often does. Mind you I do agree many videos are clever and funny, but a song that captures listeners on its own merit, especially if it draws you in to it, as this song does, not unlike how the market woman persuades the tourist to follow her, well, that song has a bit of the magic to it, as we used to say. Indeed, there was an immediacy when I heard and felt this song, and although Stewart’s distinctive voice raised my awareness as it played on the radio, it was the melody that captured me first.

Having said that, I confess to some accidental video appreciation, although in fairness I would argue it is related to the methods in which my spirit is soothed by the ghosts emerging, attracted to the energy. I YouTubed the song, so anxious was I to hear it again; what I saw and heard deepened my belief that this song is very probably the most beautiful I have ever experienced.

At about the :50 mark we see simultaneous strumming of two guitar players whose in-sync motions, captured so perfectly at that moment, that it was at that moment that makes it so right, following as it does the opening, a piano solo joined in unison by the rest a few seconds later, relieving a lovely sort of tension and giving rise to a sensation of…perhaps a small eruption, great and stormy emotions suppressed and then released. This is followed by a closeup of one of the band members keeping time as he plays: strum, tap, strum, tap, strum, tap…and a heart beats to its own music, its body’s fingers acting out the time in a way that makes me re-remember all the loveliness of the human form, how math (which I adore) and music contribute to the holistic nature of human movements and my heart melts in both joy and inability to comprehend how the beauty of something created by man can be so large.

After the first time Stewart sings the title words the sound of the tambourine signals the excitement of the tourist’s state as he sees the silk-clad woman.

These days, she says, “I feel my life

Just like a river running through”
The year of the cat

And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea

If I didn’t fully understand what it meant to arrange music, I have a better appreciation with this song, for every single note without exception is measured and well-placed–nothing is accidental. I’ve heard it countless times in my literary studies: Every word is deliberate and means a great deal to the story. I find this same sense of purpose here: As the mysterious woman locks arms with the tourist, a tinkling of the ivories indicates a rising exhilaration. It grows more pronounced and wild as she speaks, not unlike the river current referenced in her words, and the definitive musical beat is accompanied by a tidal sequence of keystrokes reminiscent of the moon’s pull of the water against the earth’s gravitational resistance.

Following this section comes, for these metaphors, the aptly-named bridge (sans the formulaic song setup), a passing of time during which the tourist crosses from one side to the other, and the next morning finds him left behind–the bus has departed–and his ticket lost. His choice thrown away, he now must stay on.

But the drumbeat strains of the night remain

In the rhythm of the new-born day

This particular passage mirrors what was discussed earlier, in which a memory and music are intertwined; the mathematical parts of both are inseparable as the dawning day inherits the legacy of the previous night. He is new in the sense of his passing into another world, yet the ghosts of yesterday remain to remind him that one day this, too, shall pass away to become echoes of who he once was.

Given the extremely strong pull I felt to write about this song, it still gives me pause when I recall that I stumbled upon it only in recent weeks. Unlike another song I posted in these pages, I have actually heard this one before, though only in snippets across a number of years. I hear it in a way I see some of the memories it brings up: though a lens, slightly distorted as I sit stiffly on a wall on Hamilton Road or methodically follow the newfangled washer (suds leaking from the bottom) across the floor of my auntie’s kitchen. They are strange memories of my childhood, but there they are, images of who I once was, brought on by a song resting in my consciousness, waiting for its moment with me to arrive.

Where now is the tourist? Does he ever hear the song about him or wonder of that man who crossed continents and worlds? Does the man contemplate what became of the traveler? Does he feel the ghosts swirling around him? Or is he unsentimental, dismissing it to focus on here and now?

Stewart himself, so I have read, is somewhat weary of the song, in the sense that he has done so many others since then, yet this one remains his signature piece. He prefers to move along and focus on newer songs–again according to what I have read, though I could not produce a reference, given my deliberate cessation of any research on the song, including how old it actually is. (At this point I just know it’s “old,” and that’s all.) Once I heard it in its entirety, however, I simply had to dig, and now, having studied it as I have, I wish to hear more of this singer. But my heart remains attached to this song and will do, even when I have discovered others.

I probably could have written on about the video, because it is simply that gorgeous, though I’m thinking now of the saying about too much of a good thing, and don’t want to spoil it for those un-inclined to analysis. In that case, listen to and watch the video, and then hear to it with your eyes closed, for it truly is a magical gift for all the senses, wherever in time you may be.

Update: I replaced the first YT clip with one I came across at Stewart’s Twitter feed. It’s essentially the same clip from Old Grey Whistle Test, but runs through the complete ending, with fade out as opposed to the abrupt cut off the one I’d originally posted had.

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