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Living in the Past

It is a deceptively jaunty-sounding affair, in part because of Stewart's wry, literate takes on the geopolitics of the time. He manages to construct a nifty pop tune about Woodrow Wilson's ill-starred League of Nations ("League of Notions"), and a take on Stalin's purges of the Bolsheviks in "Joe the Georgian," an allegory that portrays, as Stewart says, "all the dead Bolsheviks in Hell, waiting for Stalin so they can torture him for all eternity." But there's a distinctly rueful air about much of the album, especially during the Thirties tunes, such as "Marion the Chatelaine" (a delicate acoustic bio of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst's luckless mistress) and the eerie dancing-on-the-brink-of-war "Laughing into 1939." And despite Stewart and Juber's artful six-string homage to the jazz-fueled sound of the times, Between the Wars is ultimately a bit of a downer. After all, everyone already knows how it all ends. Stewart chooses to finish with "The Black Danube," a subdued guitar instrumental with a vaguely forbidding Teutonic air, a wordless hint of things to come.

"It's not nostalgic in the least," Stewart admits. "I certainly think that these 21 [1918 to 1939] years are really pretty dreadful. Basically, nothing between 1929 and 1945 is anything you could say anything good about. There were eight different dictatorships in Europe, total depression in the United States of America. There was a war in Manchuria, there was the Stalinist repression in Russia. And, coincidentally, the longest period without a decent harvest in the history of Bordeaux." (Among his other arcane pursuits, Stewart is a decorated French-wine expert.) "It's a factoid I didn't use on the record, but it seemed like nature and man were in a conspiracy to screw up the planet."

As a dispassionate student of history, Stewart has an unusually clear-eyed appraisal of his own time and place, particularly his difficulties in maintaining a viable career in music. "The records I make now -- nobody's making any money out of them, including me," he says. "They're really sort of labors of love. I've said after every album that it's incredibly unlikely that I'll make another one. There is a point at which you basically don't have enough money to make a record. I'm not sure I can make a cheaper record than Between the Wars."

But there are still eras left unexplored, if time and finances permit, and Stewart's ever-shrinking fan base certainly hasn't cramped the sweep of his ambitions. "In a perfect world there are any number of things I'd like to do," he says. "I'd like to make an entire two-hour song cycle of the 6000 years of civilization since Sumeria, for example; there are many, many different bits I haven't tackled. It would make a fantastic album, in my terms, and the 5000-odd people who buy my records would absolutely adore it. However, there is certainly no record company in the world that would give me the money to do it, and unless some philanthropic organization antes up the bucks, it will never be done."

He admits, though, that the chances of scoring a struggling-singer-songwriter grant are slim. "If I were writing an opera, even if I were writing an incredibly bad opera, I would be more likely to get a grant than if I were writing a popular song cycle," he notes bitterly. "Or unpopular, as the case may be."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Stewart hasn't been out flogging his past hits on big Monsters of the Seventies package tours or trying to capitalize on the latest spasm of nostalgia for the decade that briefly brought him fame. "I have a completely virgin record in terms of exploitation," he points out. But that is not necessarily by design. Potential exploiters, take note: "You can only cash in on what's offered to you," Stewart explains. "Far from cashing in, in my entire 30 years [in the music business] I've never been offered a chance to. It's not that me and Neil Young are extremely conscientious about this, it's just that I've never been tempted. If Lincoln-Mercury wanted to give me a million bucks to use 'Year of the Cat,' I'd say great."

In the end, it seems, even Al Stewart is a prisoner of his own history. "But don't think I'm complaining," he quickly adds. "The fact that I've managed to support myself extremely well for 30 years by writing these obscure things is mind-boggling. I mean, I can't sing; I can't play very well; whether I can even really write songs very well is open to debate. But, you know, it's been a very festive 30 years."

Al Stewart performs at 8:30 tonight, October 12, at Musicians Exchange Cafe, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 944-2627. Tickets cost $17.

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