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Remembering John Stewart: 1939-2008 Part Three

John Stewart produced his only real pop chart hit, “Gold,” which reached No. 5 in the middle of 1979. He was touring on the strength of the hit as the opening act for Poco when a bunch of us caught up with him for the third time at Memorial Hall, Kansas City, Kansas, Aug. 19, 1979.

For someone like me, who had seen Stewart’s powerful acoustic act, it was kind of ludicrous. He had a band, played screaming electric lead guitar, and though he sounded fine, he looked kinda ridiculous. His hair, which he always wore high and wavy, looked blown dry like any other ‘70s rock star. Despite the alien-sounding, synthesized production, Bombs Away, Dream Babies had some fine songs, but most loyal Stewart fans would consider this his worst period. The follow-up Dream Babies Go Hollywood, was his last major-label album, and there were no records for three years. I bought his 1982 Blondes, but there wasn’t much Stewart news.

In 1985, upon hearing he was to perform in Boulder, I arranged for a phone interview before the show for a column I was writing for Audience, a local entertainment weekly. I was determined, during our conversation, to ask Stewart to have dinner with me while he was here. (By this time I had interviewed hundreds of musicians, and never did I have as a purpose to buy dinner except this time.

About halfway through our phoner, Stewart asked, “Why don’t we have dinner while I’m in town?” To say I was humbly delighted would be an extreme understatement. Dinner turned out to be sandwiches that we ate sitting on the grass behind Chautauqua Auditorium before the show, but we had a fine time, and Stewart was exceedingly gracious even as I peppered him with the questions I had wanted to ask him for 15 years.

As a poster child for the term “cult artist,” Stewart was used to this kind of fan behavior. There were enclaves of Stewart followers in England, fan publications from people as smitten as me. It happened to him everywhere, and it is the lot of many immensely talented musicians who don’t become household names.

I learned early on that, for most performers, doing interviews was just a weary part of the job. Stewart actually conversed, even asked me what was going on in my life. We had continuing conversations about “the Boomers,” a topic in which he was always immensely interested. Those talks would ultimately lead me in the direction of The Toy Book, for which he got a credit. One time in the 90s he waxed excitedly about AOR radio, the format known at the time as “adult rock,” and how he could find a place there.

He came through Denver often in the next 15 years. When the Fairmont Hotel opened its Denver branch in the 1980s, it included a large performing space which routed acts to each of its outlets for weeklong stays. The Fairmont folks treated the rock press like kings, plying us with steak dinners, bottles of wine and copious drinks, but the Fairmont room never really caught on. More than once, the rockcritters were the only audience members. Why not? Roger McGuinn came through, and so did the Johnny Otis Band, with Shuggie playing guitar. The week Stewart was there, he enlisted me to run a video camera one night to see how he looked onstage. I was thrilled.

I didn’t like the live shows as much beginning in the ‘80s. He traded in the acoustic for a hollow-body electric and the band for a synthesized sound. When I complained to him about it, he looked at me, exasperated but gracious, and carefully explained the economics of traveling with a band and the choices he had to make to make a living.

At this time he began his long relationship with Dave Batti, his manager/bassist best friend. Batti, as friendly a guy as you’ll meet in the music business, was the perfect Stewart foil, able to head off in any direction Stewart would go. Stewart would look at him sometimes onstage and shrug, ‘Got any ideas, Dave?’ They always seemed to be having a good time together.

One time they played a glorious set at Lannie Garrett’s little club over on East 17th Street. They played the Boulder Theatre and Stewart did a pilot as host of a television variety show there. He returned to Chautauqua several times.

In 1989 I caught up with him at a skuzzy little club on Broadway south of downtown Denver. Dave wasn’t with him, as I recall, and he carried his guitar in one of those soft backpacks.

He was down on the business that night, still smarting from a bad experience with Cypress Records over the album Punch the Big Guy a year earlier. When I mentioned, “But you’re still out here,” he laughed grimly and said, “But Leland, it’s just to pay the rent.”

That night he also mentioned that he was trading guitar lessons for painting instruction with the Native American artist Fritz Scholder. He showed me some photos of his paintings, which were wild, colorful and impressionistic.

Another time I had gotten an assignment from Goldmine, an oldies collector’s magazine, to do a piece on Stewart. He acquiesced to an afternoon interview before the show that night. Frank Kresen was in town from Kansas City, and he had written up a page of questions. Gil was along, and I had even more questions. (Obsessive that I am, these lists are still in my files.)

At one point, Stewart asked me if I was going to inquire about every song he’d written or were we going to get the interview done this afternoon? ”This could take three years,” he said. It is one of my favorite memories. We laughed a lot that afternoon. I never completed the Goldmine story.

Next: The Goldmine interview.


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