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Remembering John Stewart 1939-2008 Part Four


The precise year eludes me, but sometime in the mid-1990s, I was working on a piece on Stewart’s career for Goldmine magazine. We met Stewart and Dave Batti at a motel on Colfax Avenue not far from Mammoth Gardens.

It was a chance for Frank Kresen, my partner in the Coalition, Gil Asakawa, my partner in the Soldiers of Love, both which have done many Stewart songs over the years, and I to talk with Stewart about his career and how his music affected us. I never finished the Goldmine article, and reading it this week, I thought it appropriate to post it here. We tried to cover his career up to the mid-1990s. As you will see, Stewart could be funny and opinionated, and, as you start to make the connections, you realize what an extraordinary career he had.

Early musical memories: “Actually, Tex Ritter and the Sons of the Pioneers. Hank Williams. There were some Burl Ives records around, and the Weavers, who started the first folk-music scare. I tried to play a ukulele to no avail.

“Music wasn’t an obsession until Elvis. I just drew all day long. When I was in high school, I was in a band, three guitars and drums, no bass, and we recorded a song called ‘Rockin’ Anna.’ Some rich lady in Pasadena wrote it, wanted someone to record it, and she paid for the session. I put one of my songs on the back, under the name Johnny Stewart. I went from wanting to be Elvis to wanting to be Dave (Guard). I never got to be Elvis, but I got to be Dave.

“When Elvis went into the Army and rock’n’roll became Fabian and Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, it had just lost its zip, turning into crap. And the Trio came along, and folk music took the place of rock’n’roll. So I was signed to Arwin Records. That was Marty Melcher, Doris Day’s husband. Jan and Arnie were on that label before they were Jan and Dean. And I was signed as a rock’n’roller, but I had these folk songs. And they said, ‘No, do a folk album.’

“So I wrote a letter to Dave Guard and said, ‘Would you do the liner notes?,’ and he wrote back and said, ‘Yes, I would. Meet me at the Shrine Auditorium and bring me an acetate. So at that time, the record company thought, ‘well, we have the publishing,’ – nothing has changed – and that it would be worth more money to sell my songs to the Kingston Trio. So when I saw Dave, I told him what was going on, and he said, ‘Well, jeez, do you want to do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re not going to put it out, so if you like them, then great.’ Then he heard the songs – ‘Johnny Reb’ was one of them — and he said, ‘It’s close, but it’s not it.’

“But it opened the door. So every time they came to town, I would come, and they would say, ‘do you have any songs?’ and I would play them songs. At age 18, I met the Trio at a big concert at the Pomona County Fair, with Richie Valens and Johnny Cash, the Teddy Bears, the Champs, Jan & Arnie and the Trio. Everyone did one or two songs.”

Frank Zappa: “I saw him in a coffeehouse in Pomona when I was in high school. He was playing a bicycle, hitting it with drumsticks.”

The Cumberland Three: “That was in 1960. Frank Werber, the Trio’s manager, said that Roulette Records wanted a folk group, and could I put one together. I was already singing with John Montgomery.”

His first gig with the Trio: “September 16, 1961, Santa Rosa fundraiser. Second was the Hollywood Bowl. We did the Boy’s Club to see if it would fly. Excited? It was the biggest deal imaginable. I missed Dave not being there, because I wanted to sing with him.”

John Phillips: “I was absolute best friends with the future wolfking of L.A. We met in New York just before I joined the Trio. He was in the Journeymen, and he came out to San Francisco when I was just joining the Trio. He had just met Michelle, and we were all palling around.”

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”: “We all heard Peter, Paul & Mary do it in a club in Boston. This is just before they had their first album out. And we said, ‘Jeez, we gotta do that song. Recorded it three days later. The Trio did for folk music what Presley did for R&B: made it white and collegiate and palatable for the middle class and middle America.”

Something Special: “I got creamed on ‘Portland Town.’ ‘Portland Town’ was a verse that John Phillips had heard and said it was a public domain song. It sounded very public domain. And then after the Trio and Joan Baez recorded it, I got sued for triple damages. There was a writer, who was in a mental hospital in Holland, and his attorney was saying that he wrote it, and he really did. I said, ‘Look, I’ll just give up the royalties.’ He said, ‘we’re going to sue for triple damages.’ I fought it in court and won because he never copyrighted it. So I deducted my legal fees and sent him the rest. It was brutal.”

New Frontier: “That was our best one. I heard Kennedy’s inauguration speech and I bought it hook, line and sinker. We worked hard on that album, and it showed, too.”

Recording with the Trio: “Maybe four days for an album. All done live. We had to sing it, we had to rehearse before we came in.”

Signals Through the Glass: “When Buffy and I sang the songs, we had colored slides behind us, Wyeth prints. It was like a visual thing, an album based on Steinbeck and Wyeth. I wrote ‘Daydream Believer’ at this time. Chip Douglas was up for the job when Dave left the Trio. So I got to know Chip, and he started to produce the Monkees. And he said, ‘Do you have a song for the Monkees?’ I played it for him, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I wrote ‘July’ a little bit after that, but they both came in the same roll of the dice.”

Pat Boone: “I remember going to the ‘July, You’re a Woman’ session. Pat Boone was smoking a pipe in a sweater singing these songs. He had no clue what they were about. I said, ‘This is not happening, this can’t be true.’ It’s amazing.”

Robert Kennedy: “I met Bobby when he was attorney general, and I was in the Trio and I used to send him Trio albums and go see him when the Trio was in town. Then, when he ran for Senate in New York, he asked me if I would campaign with him, which I did. And there were a lot of people trying to get him to run for president. He didn’t want to do it because he thought it would splinter the Democratic Party. There were two camps, and I was in the camp that said, ‘You gotta run.’ When he decided to run, Buffy and I got a call at the studio. Kennedy says, ‘Will you come out on the campaign?’ We played the Corn Palace in South Dakota the next night. I had a song where we could put any city in there. Then “Omaha Rainbow” and stuff. Some Dylan songs. Whatever would get them going.”

California Bloodlines: “It felt good to be writing my own songs and going to Nashville for the first time. Nobody was going there. Nik Venet had the idea to go to Nashville. I’d never played with musicians of that caliber. I had no idea what it was going to be. It could have gone anywhere. Venet heard that that was the place to go.”

Midwest images in his songs: “There’s something about the Midwest. I was playing at the Troubadour, the legendary club in Los Angeles, for Doug Weston, the legendary club owner. After my first night there with Buffy, he took me aside and said. “John, you’ve really captured the Midwest. Boring and flat.

“The Pirates of Stone County Road”: “It was taken from some Wyeth print with a front porch. I was really into Wyeth and ‘Spoon River Anthology’ and ‘Our Town.’ Dave and I will be on the road, and we’ll pass a house and say, ‘there’s a ‘Pirates of Stone County Road’ house. Porch, swings, rocking chairs. Looks so peaceful.”

“Mother Country”: “One part was about the article in the Chronicle, the other about E.A. Stuart. He owned Carnation Farms, and my dad worked for him. My dad was there the day he drove it. The horse’s name was really Melancthon. Sweetheart on Parade was a five-gaited saddle horse that my dad also trained.”

The character Ernesto Juarez in the song “Omaha Rainbow”: “Standing in the press box in San Francisco downtown in a motorcade, the streets are packed with people. Buffy and I are sitting there, just wasted. Little Hispanic kid about ten or eleven years old jumped up on his friend’s shoulders and put his head on our window and said, ‘remember my name, Ernesto Juarez,’ like right out of Zapata.”

Willard: “After Bloodlines, I did an album with Chip Douglas. It was just an abomination. Capitol refused to put it out, which I was grateful for. They sent me to Nashville with the same guys. Then Peter Asher came along – he had done “Sweet Baby James” – and said he wanted to produce me. And Capitol said, ‘How would you like to do this again, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Two other albums in there, sitting in the can where they belong.”

“Oldest Living Son”: “That was about driving through Nebraska with Kennedy. We passed these two kids, one about sixteen, one about ten, obviously brothers, and that was the story that emerged — that he’s stuck here. I wrote “Clack, Clack” on the back of the San Joaquin Daylight, standing right next to Kennedy. I wrote the chorus. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do that.’ So I had these songs, and when you do an album, you go with what songs you have.”

Lonesome Picker Rides Again and Sunstorm: “I hate those albums. They’re not very good. Sorry. It was a very unhappy time in my life. Maybe that has a lot to do with it. Warner Brothers were nice, but they weren’t good times.”

“Halley’s Comet”: “I asked my dad if he had any more stories, and he told me the story of Halley’s Comet. I started doing it like ‘Mother Country,’ but it just didn’t have the same essence as that Kentucky twang of his. I went over to the house, recorded him with a two-track and went back in, edited it down and played it to him. Took a long time.”

Cannons in the Rain: “Fred Carter gets credit for bringing all the people back together again. He was the guy who played with Simon and Garfunkel, the one who played the opening to ‘The Boxer,’ and he used what he learned from Paul Simon. He’d come back with stories about what they were doing.”

“Durango”: “There’s a movie called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that I had a part in. I had gone to see the producer four times, and I was ready to go. I talked with Kristofferson, and I was getting ready to leave. I got a call from Gordon Carroll, the producer, and he said, ‘I got bad news. We’re giving the part to Dylan.’ ”

“Spirit,” which is dedicated to author John Neihardt and actress Kim Novak: “I was a big fan of John Neihardt, and I desperately wanted to get Kim Novak in the sack. I had a big crush on Kim Novak.”

Wingless Angels: “I hate it. Good cover. It just got too self-conscious. Nick wanted to do it in L.A.”

On signing with RSO Records: “I was trying to get a deal, and Al Coury wasn’t convinced he wanted to sign me. So at the Palomino one night, I asked people to write Al Coury. He got two hundred letters. He says, ‘John, what’s going on here? I said, ‘Well, sign me.’ ”

“The Last Hurrah”: “There was a lot of pressure to get a top ten record. It was the last hurrah because at that time the thought of starting my own label had not been considered. I had run out of labels and knew if I didn’t come up with something, I was off the label.”

“Gold”: “I was under orders. Either get a hit or get off the label. Al said it couldn’t be a hit because it’s about that. You can’t write a song about the music business. It’s too inside.”

Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks: “He was a fan of the Trio. Stevie said that Lindsey forced her to listen to Trio albums when they were first singing together. She used to come to this place called Chuck’s Cellar in Los Altos. She pretended she wasn’t interested.”

Bombs Away, Dream Babies: “The pressure was on to come up with another hit. I thought it was a funny album, part of the wolfking of L.A. myth: ‘Well, he got a hit, is he going to go Hollywood? You bet, let me push this in your face.’ Nobody got the joke. Sold 100,000 copies after Dream Babies did 500,000. Nothing personal. Just business.”

Blondes: “A new low — I spent three years looking for labels. I liked the American version of that one a lot. One of my favorites. The girl on the cover was my next-door neighbor. I like them all from Blondes on.”

We chatted about how many times Stewart came close to becoming a household name. Dave Batti said, ‘I’ll never forget this young girl coming up after a show and says to John, ‘You know, you’re just about one amp short of being Don Henley.’ ”

We all laughed about that one.

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