Through The Hidden Door – Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat

From the moment you hear the first few piano notes, you know this is going to be something special. After 30 seconds, the drums and guitars join in, enriching the performance and drawing you into the song. There are no vocals for the first minute, but then you hear “On a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time….”. And he’s got me. Capturing my attention with film references and allusions to time travel, I am captivated with Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat.

His accent is especially evident in the way he pronounces some words. “He goes strolling through the crowd like Peter Laurie, contemplating a crime.” The way he says the name Peter, as Peh-Tah, reflects his heritage. Al Stewart was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1945. He became famous as part of the British folk revival in the 1960s and 1970s.

His life in the UK was filled with interesting people. He shared an apartment with Paul Simon. He knew Yoko Ono before John Lennon. After Year Of The Cat, he moved to Los Angeles. Some of his lyrics are almost poetic. “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.” This could’ve come from a classic novel that is required reading in an advanced literature class, but instead is part of a masterpiece of a song.

Al Stewart thought this song was going to be a success, and he was right. After he finished it, he told The Times, “If this isn’t a hit, then I can’t make a hit. We finally got the formula exactly right.” Year of the Cat, as part of the album of the same name, went platinum in 1976. Al Stewart has a gift for narrative. Like Harry Chapin, his songs tell a story. The story in Year Of The Cat begins with a tourist at a market. He is enchanted by a woman with eyes that “shine like the moon in the sea”. He is swept away like he’s in a river.

The saxophone solo at four minutes is brilliant. The sax brings a touch of jazz to this folk recording. It provides a soulful introduction to the last section of the song. He reminds us that, “the bus and the tourists have gone”. Time has passed along with choices. Some day if you are somewhere and find a hidden door (by the blue tiled walls of the market stalls), take a chance. Open that hidden door and see what’s on the other side. It might just be a song you can’t get out of your head.