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John Stewart 1939-2008


John Stewart, one of the great songwriters of the second half of the 20th Century and one of my all-time musical heroes, died Friday night after suffering a stroke or aneurism in San Diego, California. He was 68.

Born into a California horse family in 1939, Stewart, after playing in rock bands during the 1950s, gravitated into the folk scene. I first noticed him on a television variety program in 1961 as a member of the Cumberland Three, a Kingston Trio knock-off. He replaced Dave Guard in the Trio in 1961 and stayed until the original group broke up in 1966. His 1967 debut, California Bloodlines, laid the foundation for a career that lasted until his death. I never saw a Stewart show that didn’t include some favorites, often from Bloodlines, and some new material he was working on.

Working from the enthusiasm of the Kennedy years — with the Trio, he wrote “New Frontier” for John F. Kennedy, and the songs he composed while traveling with the 1968 Robert Kennedy presidential campaign were a continuing thread through his later work — Stewart wrote with an unabashed love of humanity and country. He sang with good humor and compassion in a deep, resonant voice that seemed older than its years. His only chart hit was the strangely ironic “Gold,” recorded for RSO — a label that marketed him alongside the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever.

Many of his songs were recorded by others, the most famous being the Monkees’ 1967 No. 1 “Daydream Believer.” Stewart would joke onstage that he wrote the LAST hit for the Monkees and the Lovin’ Spoonful, which recorded his “Never Goin’ Back” before disbanding. Stewart’s later albums, on small labels and for his own Homecoming imprint, continued in the same vein, and he stayed busy throughout his life making albums and playing live. Though his optimism was shaken and his images turned darker and more impressionistic over the decades, Stewart remained a durable and formidable songwriter and performer. Nobody, save perhaps Bob Dylan, was more influential to me in terms of songwriting or performance.

I first saw him play a folk club in Kansas City in 1969 and caught him probably 20 times over the decades. I’ll probably have more to write about Stewart, but today the best I can do is to include my notes from the last show Billie and I saw.

It was September 18, 2005, at Daniels Hall in Denver:

Stewart, always the most gracious of performers, played about an hour and a half, eight songs in the early set and 14 more in the late set. As he has for at least two decades, he was accompanied by manager and bassist Dave Batti.

It was quite an evening. Two sets of amazing music that gave me plenty of time to reflect on a career that spans all the way back to my childhood.

Billie, who has been along for much of the Stewart saga, called the set “pensive” as we drove home. I wrote down “slow” and “deliberate” in my notes. The topical humor and rapier wit were absent. There was one quick reference to our president, but no other political barbs, generally a staple of his live performances and some of his songs.

It wasn’t until about three songs from the end that he asked our indulgence in allowing him to sit down. In all the nights I have seen him perform, this was the first time I ever saw him sit down. He said his back had gone out a couple nights before, and it was acting up again. Which explained his lack of physical movement and perhaps his lack of political eloquence – he was in obvious pain.

His voice, which was fairly ragged the last time we saw him in up in Loveland about three years ago, was in and out. I have always thought that Stewart possessed an old man’s voice, even when he was in his twenties. But the old man’s version is less in the front, more whisper than voice. Still very effective. I was glad to see him playing an acoustic guitar again – I used to chide him in the eighties about using a hollow body and drum machines instead of that pure acoustic sound.

Stewart is still an exquisite guitar player. Though I have performed many of his songs, I am continually amazed at how I can use the same chords but never come close to his unique finger-picking style. The arrangements tonight were almost always different, and he more often than not rephrased or otherwise changed the melodies to familiar songs.

When you have songs that date back almost half a century old, it’s hard not to do the oldies. Stewart, who still writes songs and releases albums of new material, did more than his share this time, leading us through a body of work that remains unique to itself. And given his pain, I kept wondering how many times I would see him play live again.

Set One

1) “Strange Rivers” The lyric includes the lines “and we are sailors you and me,” which seems a perfect opener.

2) “Hung on the Heart” He only did two verses of a song that has mesmerized the Soldiers of Love and has always been one of my favorites. You could tell he didn’t do it often. Perhaps tonight it was chosen because of the Colorado reference.

3) “Denver Again” Told a great story about Ebbet’s Field, said he played there a lot. One night he played this song, nobody clapped, and he said he played it a couple months ago for the first time since then. There’s a reason it wasn’t sung for thirty years.

4) “Chilly Winds” Told of writing the song on a boat in San Francisco harbor with John Phillips, who he described as an “intuitive songwriter.” Another favorite that dates back to the early sixties.

5) “O Miss Mary” After talking about the Trio, he did a fragment of this song.

6) “One More Town” He talked a little about how easy it was to write songs back then and played a couple of verses of this one, which I remembered from a Trio album early sixties that I always liked.

7) “July You’re a Woman” He looked at Dave. “Got any ideas?” Completely deadpan. And did this song with a funny intro about how Elvis sang this song backstage every night before going onstage – and how he never recorded it, either, which is par for Stewart’s career, I guess. The song, from California Bloodlines, is a major touchstone of his career. I have a 45 of Pat Boone singing this song that I like.

8) “If Amanda Won’t Dance” Not sure of the title. He said it was a new song for a coming album.

Set Two

9) “Fire in the Wind” First of many very stark arrangements of songs I was used to hearing with a band. He laughed one time when I told him that he seemed to be moving into an “elements” phase in his songwriting, citing this one, “Seven Times the Wind,” “Lost Her in the Sun,” “Fire in the Wind,” “Chasin’ Down the Rain,” “Spirit in the Light,” “On You Like the Wind,” “Promise the Wind” and “Midnight Wind.” He said I was thinking too much.

10) “Night Blooming Jasmine” (?) Didn’t know this one.

11) “The Eyes of Sweet Virginia” Very nice version. I know this one. Where is this from?

12) “She Believes in Me” Don’t remember him ever doing this song from California Bloodlines. Don’t think Dave even joined him.

13) “Reason to Rise” Honoring a request with a song I had never heard before. A woman up front began yelling for “Little Stone and a Stone to Roll,” to which he responded, “you’ll have to ask for songs that I actually know.”

14) “Never Goin’ Back” I actually picked up the riff – it could work for Gil or Mallworthy.

15) “Runaway Train” His rhythm on this and a few others consisted of him strumming down with his index finger. Nice trick with the microphone. This one was recorded by Rosanne Cash, who also did Stewart’s haunting “Eye of the Tiger.”

16) “The Day the River Sang” I like this one. Another river song.

17) “Summer Child” Somebody asked for this one. It seemed vaguely familiar.

18) “Little Road and a Stone to Roll” This woman kept pestering him, to which he tried to mouth it much like Gil and I do when we don’t know or remember songs people ask for. The woman was kind of pitiful.

19) “Cannons in the Rain” He asked for requests. A guy in the row ahead was saying “Missouri Birds,” but not loud enough. He caught “Cannons in the Rain” and did a really slow take on it. Whew.

20) “Dreamers on the Rise” Dave suggested this one. He asked if anybody knew that song, heard scattered yeahs, one of them mine. “Do you want to hear it?” Dave sang quiet harmonies, and John got the numbers in the third verse out of kilter. This is the Soldiers of Love’s favorite Stewart song, and he always does it a bit different onstage.

21) “Mazatlan” Here is the sleeper. Deep Tex-Mex sound. From Wingless Angels. Does Stewart do this one often, I wonder? He should.

22) “Lost Her in the Sun” That index finger strum again. I like this song better every time I hear it.

23) “The Pirates of Stone County Road”/“Mother Country”

Always my favorite two songs from California Bloodlines, tonight they transport me across four decades to the moment I bought that album and the hundreds of times I have played it since. It’s a perfect end to a perfect night.

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