Saturday, October 28, 2006

Just a Smudge of Smoke Against the Sky

The tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau

A couple of weeks ago I posted the lyrics to an Al Stewart song and generated some interest among our readers who weren’t familiar with Mr. Stewart’s music. One commenter even averred that he was going to buy the CD in question… So, in the interest of increasing Al Stewart’s CD sales, I will present the lyrics to another one of his historically-oriented songs.

This one is of more recent vintage and showcases the singer in the full maturity of his art. You really need to hear the music to get the full impact of it — aided by a cheerful melody, and accompanied by a piano and a lilting accordion, the song begins innocently, and seems poised to deliver a series of nostalgic banalities about the trains of yesteryear.

About halfway through it begins to metamorphose into something else, and unfolds a much darker theme, one which stands in stark contrast to the pleasant tune and instrumentation:
- - - - - - - - - -
by Al Stewart

In the sapling years of the post-war world
In an English market town
I do believe we travelled in schoolboy blue
The cap upon the crown
Books on knee
Our faces pressed against the dusty railway carriage panes
As all our lives went rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

The school years passed like eternity
And at last were left behind
And it seemed the city was calling me
To see what I might find
Almost grown, I stood before horizons made of dreams
I think I stole a kiss or two while rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

All our lives were a whistle stop affair
No ties or chains
Throwing words like fireworks in the air
Not much remains
A photograph in your memory
Through the coloured lens of time
All our lives were just a smudge of smoke against the sky

The silver rails spread far and wide
Through the nineteenth century
Some straight and true, some serpentine
From the cities to the sea
And out of sight
Of those who rode in style there worked the military mind
On through the night to plot and chart the twisting paths of trains

On the day they buried Jean Juarez
World War One broke free
Like an angry river overflowing
Its banks impatiently
While mile on mile
The soldiers filled the railway stations’ arteries and veins
I see them now go laughing on the clicking wheels of trains

Rolling off to the front
Across the narrow Russian gauge
Weeks turn into months
And the enthusiasm wanes
Sacrifices in seas of mud, and still you don’t know why
All their lives are just a puff of smoke against the sky

Then came surrender, then came the peace
Then revolution out of the east
Then came the crash, then came the tears
Then came the thirties, the nightmare years
Then came the same thing over again
Mad as the moon
That watches over the plain
Oh, driven insane

But oh what kind of trains are these
That I never saw before
Snatching up the refugees
From the ghettoes of the war
To stand confused
With all their worldly goods, beneath the watching guard’s disdain
As young and old go rolling on the clicking wheels of trains

New arrivals at Auschwitz

And the driver only does this job
With vodka in his coat
And he turns around and he makes a sign
With his hand across his throat
For days on end
Through sun and snow, the destination still remains the same
For those who ride with death above the clicking wheels of trains

What became of the innocence
They had in childhood games
Painted red or blue
When I was young they all had names
Who’ll remember the ones who only rode in them to die
All their lives are just a smudge of smoke against the sky

Now forty years have come and gone
And I’m far away from there
And I ride the Amtrak from NewYork City
To Philadelphia
And there’s a man to bring you food and drink
And sometimes passengers exchange
A smile or two rolling on the humming wheels

But I can’t tell you if it’s them
Or if it’s only me
But I believe when they look outside
They don’t see what I see
Over there
Beyond the trees it seems that I can just make out the stained
Fields of Poland calling out to all the passing trains

I suppose that there’s nothing
In this life remains the same
Everything is governed
By the losses and the gains
Still sometimes I get caught up in the past I can’t say why
All our lives are just a smudge of smoke
Or just a breath of wind against the sky

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

If you’re interested, this song is from the album Famous Last Words (1993), and is available from Amazon. Not all the songs on it have historical themes, but there are two that feature Peter the Great and Charlotte Corday respectively.

Al Stewart was an accomplished musician and songwriter at the age of 23, and remains one today at the age of 60. Some of the earlier albums are hard to find — it took me years to track down Orange — but they’re all worth listening to.


Francis W. Porretto said...

Al Stewart has been a personal favorite of mine since 1974. He's one of the few songwriter-performers that I wish would go on forever. Not merely for his historical themes, as piercing as they are -- try "Joe The Georgian" on "Between The Wars" -- but for his lyrical gifts, his overall literacy, and his sense for tragedy.

Alasdair Ian Stewart turned 60 this year. He lives in northern California today, with his wife Chris and their young son. He's regarded as an expert on wine, and his writing appears frequently in wine-enthusiast publications. I don't think he performs any more.

Thank you for all of it, Al.

Baron Bodissey said...

Francis --

You're wrong about him performing. Go to his website and look at the concert schedule.

In the near future he's in Britain and Europe, but he'll be back in the USA early next year.

Zerosumgame said...


You rock and roll animal, you!

Was that you I saw at that Led Zep concert back in '80 at the Meadowlands?


Moose said...

Thanks for introducing me to this, just bought a number of his songs of iTunes.

Wally Ballou said...


You would have been more likely to spot the Baron at a Grateful Dead show.

Baron Bodissey said...

Wally --

Too right. What a long strange trip it's been...

El Jefe Maximo said...

"On the day they buried Jean Jaures." Mr. Stewart definitely comprehends the First World War. . .the cause of the whole catastrophe was to some degree the story of railroads -- the Germans built their whole prewar strategy around their ability to leverage their moblization speed, central position and superb railnet against Franco-Russian numbers and slowness...with dreadful results for civilization.

Judith said...

Road to Moscow is one of my favorite songs. It gives me the chills.