Lady D’Arbanville – The Immortal Rose
‘Lady D’Arbanville’ is one of the most striking songs in the entire Cat Stevens cannon. Being the first track on Mona Bone Jakon as well as the album’s lead single, it is the song that introduced the world to the new stripped-down acoustic Cat Stevens sound that was a radical departure from his ‘60s polished pop offerings. It also revealed the artist’s new image as a deeply poetic, mystical troubadour. There are few songs in all of popular music that are as steeped in classical English lyrical traditions as ‘Lady D’Arbanville’. It shares far more in common with the melancholic folk of the composer and lutenist John Dowland or the Romantic poetry of Keats, P.B. Shelley and Coleridge than it does with its musical contemporaries.
1970 was filled with brilliant singles such as Free’s ‘All Right Now’, The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’ but in comparison to these, ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ feels like it comes from an entirely different time period, not to mention a radically different mind set. A similar leap in courageous genre-vaulting would be Simon and Garfunkel’s classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – coincidently, Paul Simon, the song’s principal composer, emerged from the very same London folk club circles as Cat.
‘Lady D’Arbanville’ was a success, albeit a modest one, but it was enough to propel Cat Stevens into a new era of artistic creativity and expression that would see him become one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time. In this regard, it would be hard to overstate the significance of ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ in the development of Cat Stevens as an artist but it should also be recognised as one of his most unique and profoundly compelling songs.
The song’s mournful narrative, in which a lover grieves for the death of the eponymous Lady D’Arbanville, is a metaphor for the end of the relationship between Cat and the American model-actress Patti D’Arbanville. Such is the sumptuous imagery of Cat lyric that it conjures thoughts of Sir John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece ‘Ophelia’ (1851) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s glorious ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1832). Love is presented as an immortal rose that can survive the corporeal death of the relationship. Although the flame between lovers may have died out on this mortal plane, the dream of reawakening it in the next realm lives on.
My Lady D’Arbanville, why do you sleep so still?
I’ll wake you tomorrow
And you will be my fill, yes you will be my fill
(‘Lady D’Arbanville’ – Cat Stevens)
Remarkably, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Mona Bone Jackon, a long-lost video clip from 1970 to promote ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ has been rediscovered. Filmed in black and white it features both Cat and Patti in a Gothic mansion. Cat plays his guitar and sings passionately as Patti drifts around the building like an apparition. At no point do the two characters interact enhancing the feeling of loss and separation that is a central theme of the lyrics. Though simple, the elegance of the video supports the song’s sombre yet romantic mood and its rediscovery after all these years is a treasure of enormous value.
Patti had been a child actress in the States. She then moved to ‘swinging’ London where she met Cat and the two embarked upon a brief but meaningful love affair. Their relationship coincided with Cat’s recovery from TB which imposed upon him a forced hiatus from the music industry. This time away from professional obligations afforded Cat time to grow as a man and songwriter and the support of his beautiful and intelligent partner helped him blossom into the artist that he would become. However, they were both incredibly driven and creative individuals and it was not long until their paths diverged and separation became inevitable. A short while after they had parted ways and Patti had returned to New York for a modelling job, Cat telephoned her and played his new composition down the phone. Of that moment Patti has since said, “I cried when I heard it, because that’s when I knew it was over for good.”
Though documenting a moment of sadness and loss, ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ actually marks a moment of growth and new life. With Mona Bone Jakon, and particularly with its opening track and first single, Cat Stevens once again stepped into the public spotlight. The changes to his music and physical appearance had been drastic and he was uncertain as to whether the world would accept the new grown-up, honest and more emotionally exposed version of him. Would the raw and revealing music that he truly wanted to make capture the audiences’ attention in the way that his heavily orchestrated, somewhat over-produced earlier hits had? Indeed, there’s a subtle layer of uncertainty and a slight fragility that makes the whole Mona Bone album so utterly compelling. Cat wasn’t sure whether the risks he was taking would pay off and yet regardless of any doubt he may be harbouring, he had the courage to follow his convictions. There’s a sense of daring, of diving into the unknown that is both relatable and simultaneously hugely inspiring. Of course, ultimately this new incarnation would go on to eclipse everything that his former self had been and the sense of his creative change of direction ever having been a risk would recede. Yet, that energy of bravery in the face of uncertainty is captured in the songs and affects the listener whether they are conscious of it or not.
‘Lady D’Arbanville’ also signalled the start of some new and incredibly influential relationships in Cat’s life. The delicate and complex interwoven acoustic guitar parts on the song are an early indication of the tremendous musical and personal synergy that would develop between Cat and his new guitar playing ally, Alun Davies. Their inseparable playing styles were expertly captured by another presence who continually encouraged and supported Cat in his quest for musical honesty, producer Paul Samwell-Smith. Both Alun and Paul would go on to become life-long friends as well as essential elements of Cat’s musical development and ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ is a clear example of how fruitful these new bonds would be.
Upon its release as a single ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ proved to be a hit in territories such as France and the Netherlands and made it to number 8 in the UK charts. Listeners were beguiled by its enchanting Romantic style and passionate rhythmic drive. Its success laid the foundations of Cat’s reputation as a spiritual and poetic minstrel for the modern age and built enough momentum for him to continue the journey of musical and personal self-discovery that he would share with ever increasing audiences over the years to come. In this way it truly was a crucial juncture in his development – one that is often obscured by songs on Tillerman that were shortly to follow. However, the true fans and followers of Cat Stevens know the significance of ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ and for them it is a most precious rose that will never die.
Stream ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ Live at the BBC, 1970: https://CatStevens.lnk.to/LadyDIG
Pre-order the Mona Bone Jakon super deluxe edition: https://CatStevens.lnk.to/TFTT-MB-Boxsets
Learn about the good things to come: peacetrain.org
– Hallam Kite