The following is the text of a post on the Al Stewart Mailing List (ASML) which addressed questions of where Al Stewart's song on Bedsitter Images, "Clifton in the Rain" is set, and what the Troubadour, mentioned in the song, once was.


by John Waller

For those starting at first base, Clifton (in the rain) is an area of Bristol, England. Then as now it is the studenty/arty quarter; what I imagine Greenwich Village to have been, and what I understand the Lanes of Brighton to be (another Al reference).

The Troubadour was a Folk Club in Clifton; and as devotees will know, Al refers to it in Clifton in the Rain thus: "steaming in the night, the listeners in the Troubadour; guitar player weaves a willow strain.". Al played there a lot. He also played Bristol University, and the Bristol Colston Hall. Often (we are talking 1969, 1970) he would play these grand places, then come up after the performance to the Troub, and carry on playing for the maybe ten or fifteen people that might be hanging around. I remember him doing Manuscript for me on one such occasion (he asked for requests, I requested it) before it was released on record.

The Troubadour was a venue he loved, and he still refers to it now in his intro to CitR. Yet if you were designing a folk club, the Troubadour is not where you would start. It was long and thin; with no rake. The stage was maybe a foot high, and barely six feet square. Performers would stand on this, or sit on a bar stool; and the audience would sit on rows of backless benches, starting so close that a swinging musician's foot could catch the front row on the nose. There were maybe ten rows of benches; maybe maximum five people to a bench, with a walkway one person wide so you could get from the front to the back. And at the back there was a little area with a plug socket where they made coffee in the interval. The walls were whitewashed breezeblock.

Only 50 people? Well, there was the downstairs too. An overspill cellar, similarly laid out, but always colder and usually less full. Very different atmosphere. What this meant was that, if there were more than 50 in, some would be dragooned to go downstairs, and everyone performing would have to do every set twice. Once to the full upstairs, then immediately afterwards to the cold and thinner audience downstairs. The temperature drop would numb your fingers and throw all your strings off key, and your performance would be marred by the thumping of the larger audience upstairs, especially if (as usually happened to me) you were performing downstairs while the main artiste was on upstairs.

But we had most of the folky people who were around at the time: John Rembourne, Bert Jansch, The Incredible String Band (when they were just two - the "Mike and Robin and some songs" mentioned by Al in Beleeka Doodle Day), Alex Murphy and Shaggis (was it Alex? His set was a stream of unbridled filth, anyway) Roy Harper I think, Keith Christmas (who was on at the Topic last month) plus a lot of people I've never heard of since. They would all sing and play, with absolutely no electrical amplification whatsoever, ever; (such things were unheard of on the folk scene) to an audience of entirely sober listeners. Not only was there no drink on the premises, but many of the local hostelries were suspicious of us folky/hippy/longhair types, and would effectively refuse to serve you even if you shot out at the interval.

The club was effectively run by the members of a band called The Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra. Four characters playing an amazing array of instruments; John Turner on Double Bass, Barry Back on thrash guitar, Dave Creech on trumpet mouthpiece with plastic funnel and baked-bean-tin mute, and Andy Leggett on washboard, jug, shears, to-you-o-phone (two kazoos wired together in a V-shape) and a suitcase full of more or less genuine percussion instruments. They were brilliant. Crammed onto this tiny stage they would crash through a series of anarchic jazz/folk/blues/trad/I don't know what numbers; in a way that defied description. It was theatre as much as music. They did release a record (called Phlop) but it barely hints at the delights of their stage performance.

I mention them at length because they used to appear at the end of the second half, just before the main guest artiste reappeared to do their final set. The applause, catcalls, cries for encore etc. were all directed at PHLO, and you could often see the guest artiste hovering in the "wings" with sinking heart; knowing, just knowing, that their final set was going to be an anticlimax. You could not "follow that".

Unless you were Al. At that time Al was a desperately thin, smiley, self-effacing, hair-down-to-shoulders, twinkly 23 or 24-year old; who appeared almost apologetic to be there on stage. But he just HAD it.

You knew as soon as he started playing and singing; the confidence, the panache; everything indefinable that marks out the great from the merely competent and ordinary. He could come on after the Pigsty Hill LO; just him, his smile and his acoustic guitar, and take command.

Writing this now, it seems like it must have been great to be at where it was all happening. Of course, at the time, it was just somewhere I and friend Neil used to go on Fridays and Saturdays. We did floor spots most Fridays and some Saturdays, (getting paid 10/- each! It's unheard of for floor singers to get paid these days. And 10 shillings then is at least 10 now); but spent other evenings drinking, getting involved in student affairs and sit-ins and wasting time. (Incidentally, under no circumstances could it ever have been my guitar that weaved a willow strain. Strain, yes; willow, no. And mostly I did poetry then. The best I can claim is that they could, just could, have been my salty ears.)

I left Bristol in July 1970, and went abroad. When I came back a year later, the club had been transmogrified into just another wine bar, with no live music. I was passing a few years ago, and couldn't even remember exactly which street it had been on. Sad; but (as we were reminded in that Al interview recently) live music is ephemeral; you can't bottle it, and you can't keep the past going. Just be glad that, once, you were there. I am; that I was.