JOHN STEWART: A FAN’S REMEMBRANCE
The word “fan” is defined as “[a]n ardent devotee; an enthusiast” with the derivation being from the word “fanatic” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004). Of course, the word has taken on a more generalized meaning in which the devotion is not necessarily fanatical. I consider myself a fan, in the more casual sense, of numerous sports teams, individual athletes, actors, writers, and musical artists. But my truly fanatical interest has always been reserved for John Stewart. That’s why the news of his passing last weekend was like a kick in the stomach.
He was an incredibly prolific songwriter and recording artist, who is considered one of the pioneers of what came to be known as the “Americana” style of folk music. His songs were of America and Americans, a land and people for whom patriotism was neither blind nor mute. In one of my favorites, a song called “Survivors” from the vastly underrated Wingless Angels album, he tells us that we can and will endure, despite the “outlaws in office” that shatter our lives.
An irony he undoubtedly enjoyed was that for all his folk credentials, his best-known song was the Monkees’ hit “Daydream Believer.” For that song, the record company infamously decided that Davy Jones could not possibly sing the line “now you know how funky I can be,” so the word “happy” was substituted for “funky.” The change of that one word managed to render a great song utterly senseless. With characteristic good humor, Mr. Stewart was able to laugh about the bowdlerization of his work because “happy” worked just fine for him after the song shot to the top of the charts.
I first heard John Stewart’s unmistakable voice as a child on old Kingston Trio records lying around the house. Later, when I started collecting my own albums, I bought a copy of his Phoenix Concerts and was hooked for life. It is one of those rare live albums where the connection between performer and audience is palpable.
I was lucky enough to have experienced that live connection twice back in the eighties and nineties. New Orleans was pretty far removed from where most of his fan base was located in the West, so the opportunities didn’t come often.
The first time I saw him was in a reformed disco in the suburbs, called “Richie’s 3-D Lounge.” It was the most incongruous venue I could imagine for John Stewart, with its mirrors, disco balls, and tables spread out on a dance floor meant to be lit from below. And to top it off, he played before a “crowd” of about 15 people (including the bartender and the guy working the sound board). Still, he sat on a stool and played as if we were all sitting in his living room. It was an amazing performance.
The next time I saw him a few years later was at a French Quarter club called “Storyville” (the location is now Mararitaville for those who know the City). With that better location, I hoped he would draw a larger audience, and I suppose he did. I think I counted 23 people that night. A lot of guys with international reputations would have shrugged their shoulders and phoned it in. Mr. Stewart came out on stage, suggested that "we all room together next semester," and launched into an unforgettable set, including an encore.
Although I didn’t get each and every album he released (the number is estimated to be in the mid forties), I probably wound up with over half of them. He continued to release them on a variety of labels, each one containing brilliant lyrics set to a constantly evolving guitar style.
Just before he suffered the stroke that led quickly to his death, he completed work on yet another album. Reportedly, the recording included contributions from his friend, Lindsey Buckingham (who helped record what was to have been his biggest hit as a performer, “Gold,” back in the seventies). One of the new songs is entitled “I Can’t Drive Any More,” a nod to his recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. He was determined to continue writing, recording, and performing as long as his mental state would allow.
It’s difficult for me to believe that the next album will be the last. Fortunately, he left a large catalog of music to discover, rediscover, and savor.
After posting the above last night, I spent some time on You Tube looking at videos, and came across a couple I thought I'd share. The first was taken from a Kingston Trio reunion in the eighties, which was put together as a PBS fundraiser. John was at the peak of his career, and was given a solo spot in the show. He chose to do "Kansas," one of his older songs that had always been done acoustically. Here, before an audience of folkies, he performed it electric (and then some). For that occasion, it was an interesting choice lyrically, made even more interesting by his performance.
The second came from a performance last April, and it's really poignant. In the last couple of years, Mr. Stewart had aged tremendously. His voice, like that of his friend, Johnny Cash at the end of his life, had taken on a crusty aura. Although the Alzheimers may not actually have been diagnosed at that time, he was obviously frail. He was struggling with playing the guitar (and he had always been known as a fine guitarist). The song is "Mother Country," one of the tunes off of the classic California Bloodlines album, which marked the beginning of the style that came to be labeled "Americana."
If the first video was John's Dylan-goes-electric-at-Newport moment, this one is his E.A.Stuart moment. Any Stewartistas out there know what I mean; the rest of you will understand after watching the whole video. It's a brave performance.