He lives in Los Angeles, but the singer songwriter Al Stewart started in Soho. In 1976 he released an album that allowed him to go off in search of sunnier climes. Last Summer Al took a transatlantic telephone call from me. It was short and sweet.
“I moved to London from my hometown of Bournemouth in February 1965. I don’t know how – I heard about a little room in Lisle Street. The address was 25B, and it was up a flight of stairs. I was told when I moved in that a pop star called Clinton Ford had lived there before me. He was a former Butlin’s Red Coat who had just signed a contract with Piccadilly Records. This seemed like a good omen. It was a terrible, rundown place with old lino on the floor, and the window had a crack in it. The toilet was up another flight of stairs and you took your life in your hands if you wanted hot water for the bath. You had to light this really ancient boiler. If it didn’t light immediately and you tried again there was an enormous explosion. It was the first time I had had my own room. It was rundown and nasty but none of that mattered to me. It was wonderful.”
I was speaking to this man enjoying the splendour of his fame and the sunshine of LA on a grey summer morning in London. It was hard to picture Al as a 19-year-old in a small conduit between Soho and Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I was employed at Cousins as a compere. I don’t know how I got the job. I think no one else wanted it. I arranged running orders and took people on and took people off and generally managed things. I did that from midnight to 6am on Fridays and midnight to 7am on Saturdays. Soho was where people went who didn’t want to be part of the nine to five society. If you were an artist you’d end up in Soho. The first person I saw playing acoustic guitar at Les Cousins was Burt Jansch. He was the king of the acoustic guitar at that time.”
I stopped him in mid-flow which he did not appreciate but I wanted to know what made Jansch “king of the acoustic guitar”. I needed the sound he made, the feeling Stewart had when he heard him.
“I had no idea what he was doing. He was playing finger style and slapping the strings against the fretboard of the guitar. It was absolute genius. Instead of just hitting the string he was pulling it back and letting it go thwack against the guitar. It was almost like a drumkit was in the guitar. I’d never heard anything like it. Then the next thing that happened was Les Cousins booked Paul Simon. He was composing songs in front of me.
I was at the Cousins every weekend for about 13 hours. I more or less lived there. There was an old fishing net over the top of the stage. I don’t know why it was there. There was no microphone in the early days. You just played acoustically. Eventually they got a mic. I remember they sold coffee and a lady called Breta made cheese and tomato sandwiches. One of the perks of the job was that I could eat one a night for free. They were pretty good sandwiches. I remember them to this day. Another perk was that by about four in the morning people were nodding off. They were lying down on the floor, falling asleep. I would get up and play for half an hour and no one cared. It was really good practice.
There were other people who came down to the Cousins and went on to fame and fortune. One of them was Steve Adams. That was his stage name. He was 18 years old, and he had written two songs, one of which was ‘Portobello Road’. He would come every week and play the same two songs. Then one day – it was 1966 – he had a 45 in a paper bag.
I asked him what it was, and he said, ‘Oh I’ve made a record.’ I asked him to show it to me and he said, ‘I can’t. The record company have changed my name and you’ll laugh’.
This went on for half the night. Eventually he showed it to me and the name was Cat Stevens. I said, ‘Where the hell did that come from’ He told me the record company had said it was a cute name. The title of the song was ‘I love my dog’. It became a small hit. Cat got to know the Matheous quite well and his follow-up single was called ‘Matthew and Sons’.
I continued to play at the Cousins until 1973. Andy’s father Loukas ran a Greek restaurant upstairs. That became a bigger perk for me because when I started getting booked I could go upstairs and eat proper Greek food. Van Morrison had a residency there and played every week. Ralph McTell came down as did the occasional rock star. I was standing behind the stage one night when Hendrix was playing. Someone said, ‘That guy is playing an electric guitar,’ which was surprising enough, but he was playing it behind his neck.
Not only did I write a song about Soho but so did Burt Jansch. We were both inspired by Soho.”