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.
January 26, 2008 No Comments
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.
January 23, 2008 No Comments
The news of the death of John Stewart came Saturday with the numbing swiftness of the Internet: a couple of emails with RIP John Stewart in the title. Shocked, I posted an attempt at a obituary Sunday morning. Reading it, it didn’t seem enough. Stewart’s music has been a constant back to my childhood, and somehow writing about how much his music meant to me is the only way I can think coherently about his passing.
I first became aware of Stewart when I saw him perform on a television program in 1961 as a member of the Cumberland Three. I had become a Kingston Trio fan at age 13, when a classmate taught me Trio songs and harmonies a cappella from the albums. (We peformed the Trio’s “New York Gals” at a church dinner.) I don’t think I made the connection that it was him I had seen on television until later that year when he replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. (There is a nice two-page summary of Stewart’s early rock days in Joe Smith’s fascinating book, On the Record.)
This was a tough assignment. The Trio was vastly popular, and many felt that Guard, the mouthpiece of the group’s live shows, was the heart of the group. Stewart talked many years later about his feelings of inadequacy replacing him and his belief that Guard was the Trio’s soul. One night, at Chautauqua in the 1980s, he played Guard’s “Fast Freight” after talking about that very thing onstage, and he mentions it in a song called “Always Young.”
Stewart was more than up to the task. He was tall, adopted the dead-pan delivery and rapier wit of Guard onstage, played the banjo and sang lead vocal on chart hits like “The Rev. Mr. Black” and “Desert Pete.”
He penned “New Frontier” after hearing the inauguration address of John F. Kennedy, and he once told me that the album named for the song was the best Trio album produced during his tenure. I agreed. I was a Kennedy kid. In 1960 I gave a speech for him to our school assembly – my Lutheran classroom voted 14-2 for Nixon — so the song seriously resonated with me. The album also included the hit “Greenback Dollar.”
I didn’t keep up with later Trio albums after Something Special, but I bought a double-album on Tetragrammaton Records that documented a live Las Vegas that showed how far the Trio’s fortunes had diminished by 1966. But I was entranced with Stewart’s performance of an unrecorded Bob Dylan song, “Mama You Been on Mind,” buried on side four.
After leaving the Trio, Stewart did an album with Buffy Ford for Capitol called Signals Through the Glass before releasing California Bloodlines, his signature record, in 1969.
The album still rings absolutely true 39 years after its release, and I have listened to it hundreds of times. I wore out three vinyl copies, more than any other title beside the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. Stewart included songs that were set in his home state. The title track explained that it was his lineage that determined his basic beliefs. But more important to this Midwesterner, other songs referenced Plains states like Nebraska and Missouri.
I was dazzled and amazed at the sharpness of the vignettes that described characters like the razorback woman, the lonesome picker or the grandmother calling the kids to supper. I didn’t know, of course, that the songs’ subject matter and locales had been influenced by Stewart and Ford’s participation in the campaign of Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968 that inspired young people like me (I had seen RFK during a rally in Ft. Wayne a couple months before his death) to get involved in the political process before he was assassinated in Los Angeles.
Stewart told me years later that he kept a notebook as they crossed the country. Using that, he said he locked himself up that fall with a bunch of pot and wrote most of the songs on Bloodlines and some others that he planned for an album reflecting on the Kennedys. (This finally came to fruition with The Last Campaign.)
But I didn’t need to know that. The songs spoke for themselves. “The Pirates of Stone County Road,” for instance, set in some small Midwestern town, is a two-verse memory of kids playing buccaneers with the back porch as their frigate. The verses end with the voice of an old woman calling them to supper, while the song’s gentle motion leads to a powerful crescendo as the chorus kicks in: “And we’d sail, pulling for China, the pirates of Stone County Road weathered and blown, and we’d sail, ever in glory, ‘til hungry and tired, the pirates of Stone County Road were turning for home.”
I’m still humbled by the simple complexity of this lyric and its gentle, powerful melody. I can’t remember the circumstances, but Frank and I sang this at a teacher’s convention in Independence, Mo., and you could have heard a pin drop. It’s that powerful.
I first heard “July, You’re a Woman” on a single by Pat Boone. The Boone version was fine, but I fell much harder for Stewart’s earthier take on Bloodlines. It would remain a favorite over the years. “Mother Country” was actually two lyrics mashed together, one about the Johnstown Flood, the other about an old California horseman who, just before he died, rode his horse, the Old Campaigner, stone blind in front of a large crowd. I loved the line about forgetting to clip the newspaper, and the lyrics had a strange symmetry; the blending of these two subjects was, to me, as brilliant as the compelling way he sang/talked the lyrics.
“Omaha Rainbow” was another favorite. Shit, I’ve driven along the curve of I-80 as turns south and west out of Omaha with a thunderstorm passing through. I knew what he was writing about.
The other especially cool thing about the album was the musician credits, which rather than being tabulated on the back of the album, were recited by Stewart at the end of the final song, “Never Goin’ Back,” and included the cream of Nashville’s musicians. Along with The Gilded Palace of Sin, the debut release of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, recorded in Nashville about the same time, Bloodlines cemented my newfound appreciation for the steel guitar.
I bought the record whilst locked in mortal combat with my commitment to Christianity and the Lutheran Church-Mo. Synod. I had left home my junior year in high school to begin study for the ministry. The deeper I waded into church doctrine, the more questions I had about my dedication. The tension first broke in 1969, when I decided to forego Concordia Seminary in St. Louis that fall and instead entered the teaching program.
My conflict with the church got deeper after I started teaching, and it was a song from Bloodlines, “Missouri Birds,” that helped bring it to a head. Set in my home state, specifically crossing the Mississippi River bridge on I-70 in St. Louis, its lyrics perfectly outlined my dilemma.
The protagonist watches the flocks flying south along one of the great Midwest flyways and hears “that song they’re singing to me: go into the world while you’re young.” In the second verse he is reminded of the preacher’s words that echo from the old church steeple, “stay here with the decent people, settle down and marry while you’re young.” Going out into the world and leaving the relative security of the church was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, and it was good to have Stewart’s comforting words as I finally made the transition.
My brother Vincent and I saw Stewart for the first time in December 1970 at the old Vanguard coffee house on Main Street north of the Plaza. He had Chris Darrow in his three-piece band, and the opening act was the comedian Pat Paulson. The show included all my favorite songs, some new ones I hadn’t heard, and it just blew me away. At one point, he played “Daydream Believer” and mentioned that it was the last hit for the Monkees. “Maybe I should write one for Nixon and Agnew,” he quipped. We went home and tried to work out “California Bloodlines,” a song we still play when we get together.
It was an exciting time. I caught a Byrds/Burrito Brothers bill at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in September of 1970, Van Morrison for the first time at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit the first week in December, during my student-teaching stint, and Stewart in KC over Christmas break. My interest in music was starting to head into an even more obsessive phase, and Stewart became part of the growing awareness.
A few days before I saw Stewart that first time, I stopped in Chicago on my way back from Detroit to surprise Frank Kresen, another music obsessive I had met at Concordia Senior College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
Frank came to Ft. Wayne to make up a couple of classes in the fall of 1968, and we became fast friends through our mutual status as music-trivia buffs. We got drunk the night we met and discovered that we both thought that Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was a perfect single, and that the moment at the end of the Zombie’s “Tell Her No,” when the song stops for a breath, is the greatest moment in rock music. Every weekend that semester we got together and played music for each other and talked shit about it.
After Frank returned to Chicago, we kept in touch, writing each other long letters about our growing music tastes, which we found wonderfully compatible, and you can see today in those letters how it was becoming part of our ethos. We were beginning to speak a special language that was only understood by a small circle of friends. But we were finding a growing community around the country who, like us, read Rolling Stone and Creem. We dubbed ourselves a karass, loosely interpreting a piece of Kurt Vonnegut’s hilarious religion in the novel Cat’s Cradle.
In one of those letters, written April 1970, I list some albums I had just bought, a Lightnin’ Hopkins Vanguard collection, Rick Nelson’s In Concert, John B. Sebastian, Brewer and Shipley’s Weeds, I write for the first time about California Bloodlines: “The old Kingston Trio and Cumberland Three man is really into country, and this album is superb in all respects. He gets all the Nashville boys together for some pickin’ and singin’, like Charlie McCoy, Kenneth Buttrey, Hargus Robbins. Includes “July, You’re a Woman,” his classic (recorded on a single by Pat Boone, which I liked until I heard Stewart’s on The New Spirit of Capitol collection.”
In August 1971, I moved to Chicago for a teaching position as a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a small congregation in the far-western suburb of Roselle. Frank and I moved into a rambling old farmhouse on Lake Street, took a lot of acid, and began playing music together. Stewart became an increasingly major influence on us as we took things a step further and tried to make it professionally as the Coalition. (It didn’t seem that delusional at the time!)
It’s safe to say that I tried my damndest to BE John Stewart during this period, which lasted at least through Crayon Angel, a band I formed with Vincent and two friends from college. We found much to love in Stewart’s seventies albums, all created from the same cloth as California Bloodlines. The songs on Sunstorm were mostly set on the Great Plains, and songs like “Cheyenne,” “Wheatfield Lady,” “Kansas Rain” and “You Can’t Go Back to Kansas” spoke deeply to my Midwestern sensibilities. “All American Girl,” from Willard, spoofed accurately the “parochial girls” I dated through college. We could find something to appreciate in almost all his songs. I loved it, for instance, when “All the Brave Horses,” from the Lonesome Picker album, a song which Frank and I always felt had political overtones, was later wrapped into the very political “The Last Campaign Trilogy” on the Phoenix Concerts live set.
Frank and I caught Stewart at a short-lived, fancy Chicago folk club called Smile in April 1972. We sat close enough to watch what fret he put his capo on for certain songs, and even knicked that cool lick for “California Bloodlines,” the first time I learned a song by watching the performer himself play it. There were few people there, and he complied with my request for “The Pirates of Stone County Road.” But when I hollered out for “Baby, You’ve Been on My Mind,” the Dylan song I remembered from the live Kingston Trio record, he scowled over at me and said gruffly, “I don’t do covers.” I didn’t think his response was as funny at the time as I do now.
Next: The “Gold” period, finally meeting Stewart and seeing him many times over the years in Colorado.
January 21, 2008 2 Comments
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.
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.
“If Amanda Won’t Dance” Not sure of the title. He said it was a new song for a coming album.
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.
January 20, 2008 No Comments