Sunday, July 8, 2007

Time Passages

I'll admit it: I love Al Stewart's 1978 song, "Time Passages." Such an admission must make me look silly to music snobs who generally dismiss the song as hackneyed and trite. To them, "Time Passages" is a regrettable throwback to the seventies era of "singer-songwriters" who crafted seemingly self-indulgent folk-pop narratives while (apparently) snorting all manner of dubious powders and convincing themselves that, yes, people will love listening to bittersweet ballads about love and loss and memory because no one had ever written about that before. Sure, "Time Passages" was an AM staple in 1978, but the song is precious and pretentious enough to garner sarcastic clucks from music critics today. Heck, even Al Stewart claims not to like the song. I don't care. I love it.

I was ten years old when "Time Passages" hit the airwaves (ahh, that explains it), and I quickly connected with its quirky message. Initially I was struck by how genuinely unique it was to hear a real foreign accent on the radio. Most musicians who manage to score U.S. hits sound almost indistinguishable from stateside artists. Only when being interviewed do they reveal their nationalities. But Al Stewart sounded plainly and unapologetically British (though he is Scottish). Moreover, his song sounded different from most of the music I heard in those days. In contrast to the silly disco songs that marked the last gasp of that strange decade, "Time Passages" sounded thoughtful and even a little sad. And then I noticed the lyrics that swirled around a peppy-orchestral confection produced by Alan Parsons (of course).

Without too much detail, the song relates the story of a man reflecting upon his precarious position within time. He imagines his life as an arrow that connects past to future. Thus his years "run" like a train. And yet he finds himself slipping into something cyclical when his "line gets cast into these time passages." He wants to hop back onto some familiar continuum, refraining, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight," but you begin to wonder if -- like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim -- he's become unstuck in time.

And then as "the picture is changing," the listener assumes the role of the protagonist. "You" are part of a crowd that is filled with laughing people and loud music. You see a girl whom you once knew. You reach out to touch her, "But you're all alone." Thinking back to when I first heard the song at age ten, I imagine myself uttering an audible "whoa." You see, I'd been raised on science fiction, so I immediately assumed that Stewart was singing about time travel. I'd read about it, and I seen it visualized in television shows and movies, and yet I'd never heard it so cleverly suggested in a pop song.

Listening to "Time Passages" almost three decades later, I'm certain that Stewart meant something less literal. He was simply talking about the way that memory blurs places and times into a personally coherent universe, one that would appear paradoxical to anyone else. Even now, writing this on a couch next to an open window, hearing a neighbor's dog bark, enjoying a cool breeze of a July afternoon, I find myself able to slip back and forth between incommensurate experiences. I remember taking a road trip with my father, listening to him explain that a quarter in his hand represents an investment in my college education. I remember walking the railroad tracks in Dunedin with my best friend, scrounging up two quarters for ice cream at McDonalds. I remember walking alone on a Nevada desert highway, my daughter waiting in the car a half-mile up the road. For reasons that only I can really grasp, these moments are connected, even beyond apparent similarities. Their meanings wrap around other in some phantom logic that defies temporal borders; they produce a hypertextual narrative that makes sense only to me.

Even without a literal ability to travel through time, songs like Al Stewart's "Time Passages" suggest that we can connect ourselves to a reality that resides outside of the everyday, that we can encounter some synchronicity beyond seemingly random moments. Bending straight lines into cycles, sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance, we can see our lives for what they are.

Want to hear more Al Stewart? Check out "Year of the Cat," a song that (on certain commercial levels) inspired "Time Passages."

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