Friday, May 9, 2008

John Stewart Memorial Concert - Malibu May 3 2008

John’s first words to me when we met that day in an art class at Pomona Catholic High School were, “You look like Jackie Gleason.” My first words to him, because I was a Junior and he was only a Sophomore, were, “You look like a piece of crap.”

And thus began a friendship that lasted more than 50 years.

The basis for our friendship was show business. We both wanted to be in it. We had to be in it. It was the only way. We weren’t athletes, we weren’t brainy students, we weren’t tough guys. We went into show business for the same reason guys like us still do. To get girls. We were, after all, Daydream Believers trying to impress the Homecoming Queen.

We formed a duo and put together a comedy act. It’s instructive that I now cannot for the life of me remember one joke we ever did. It’s very possible we didn’t have any. What I do remember is, John would imitate Ed Sullivan and I’d imitate Gene Krupa on my huge set of drums. Then John would imitate Elvis. And I’d imitate Gene Krupa. On my huge set of drums. What gigs we got were always accepted on the basis of whether we would be able to lug my huge set of drums there. I think that’s why John very quickly became a single. He got tired of carrying drums. Many years later, after the Kingston Trio days, when John formed a duo with another partner, Buffy Ford, I was the drummer. There we were -- three of us lugging my drums all over the country.

Our high school act lasted just long enough for us to appear on Gene Norman’s Campus Club TV show on Channel 9 in Hollywood. Twice. (They must have thought they missed the jokes the first time.) We did have day jobs, of course, at the Sears Roebuck department store in Pomona. John worked in the window department selling custom shades. He could never remember which end you sawed off to make custom measurements. Invariably he’d cut wrong and a spring would suddenly shoot thirty feet across the store like a bullet. I worked in the Complaint Department handling angry shoppers who reported that a young employee in window shades was shooting springs at people. We seem to have peaked when we won the Sears Roebuck employee talent contest. We split the $15 first prize and rented tuxes for the prom.

We did a lot of sitting around in those days plotting our escape from Pomona. Every once in the while, astounded at our own daring, we’d jump into his Chevy or my Ford at eight o’clock at night and drive 25 miles for a hamburger at Scrivener’s Drive-In on Sunset or Hody’s at Hollywood and Vine. Afterward we’d take a longing look at the Capitol Records Tower, dream of what might be, then drive home again.

John bought his very first guitar at a pawn shop for a quarter. True. Twenty-five cents. It had no strings. In one of our performances at a high school assembly, Pat DeCarlo threw a fifty-cent piece at us onstage and put a hole right through John’s guitar. John figured he’d doubled his original investment and bought a real guitar with strings. He learned to play it while sitting outside his house in his ’52 Chevy. He couldn’t play in the house because his father couldn’t stand the noise. John’s father, also named John, was a very odd man who had a strange difficulty articulating. His admonition about not playing guitar in the house went something like, “Neddy mind de wham-de-bam.”

John also, around this time, began to cultivate that wonderfully varied series of friendships that continued all his life. Hanging around Pomona with another budding musician, they learned to play “Streets of Laredo.” No one now remembers who taught the song to whom: John or Frank Zappa.

John and I almost parted company early on because of a running argument we had over who was the better singer, Elvis or Frank Sinatra. We never settled the question and the arguments would invariably end in angry silence. If we’d been paying attention to Sister Wenceslaus in art class, we would have realized it was like arguing who was a better painter, Picasso or Pollock.

But our friendship endured. I remember John saying to me once, “You know, we’ve been friends for so of these days one of us will probably bury the other one.” We thought about that for a minute then laughed. We were still young and we fully intended to live forever.

Laughter was the glue for our friendship. We always found something to laugh about even if no one else knew what we thought was so damn funny. That got us in trouble in high school, it got us in trouble with the women in our life, it even got us kicked out of a movie once for laughing too hard at “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.”

Movies served as our other glue. We saw them all...James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” was us. We don’t know how he knew our secret minds but he did. And Brando! In “The Wild Ones” somebody asked him, “What are you rebelling against.” Brando said, “What have ya got?” What have you got indeed? We both idolized John F. Kennedy. John marched with Martin Luther King and campaigned with Bobby Kennedy. In no time they were all killed and so was our youth.

I went off to college at Santa Clara while John flirted with community college and concentrated on his first band, Cobe Stewart and the Furies. He played school dance gigs and church bazaars and the LA County Fair. He even made a record: “Rockin’-Anna.” The lyric began, “In a a miz-moz-maze...” Elvis was safe for the time being.

Meanwhile, at Santa Clara we had a spring concert which featured a triple bill of Turk Murphy’s jazz band, singer, Barbara Dane, and an act called The Kingston Trio. The Kingston Trio. Never heard of them. I remember confusing them with The Nairobi Trio, which was an Ernie Kovacs sketch with three guys in ape masks. Anyway, The Kingston Trio blew everybody off the stage at that concert and I couldn’t wait to tell John: “You have GOT to hear these guys!” Well, he did. You know the rest.

In the meantime, John set out to learn to play another instrument with strings. The banjo. Not easy. In fact, the closest John ever came to death as a young man was when he was teaching himself to play the 5 string in a house in San Jose where he was living with me and four of my college classmates. Plink-plink-kaplink-... all day long with the Pete Seeger book open on his lap. I thought my roommates were going to kill him. And if they didn’t I was going to.

We never had an onstage partnership after those early days, but we did have opportunities to work together. John and I wrote a song for a Trio album which is generally considered to be the worst song they ever recorded but I bought a sports car with the money. Later John wrote a song – a terrific song -- for a movie I wrote. Insomniacs can still see it almost any night on the Western Channel. When I was a comic I got to open Trio concerts once in a while and Frank Werber hired me as their road manager.

Their previous road manager, Joe Gannon, gave me some advice on how to deal with the guys. He said, “Always carry shoes and socks in the Trio wardrobe bag along with slacks and striped shirts because Bobby is liable to show up barefoot. And, never lie to Nick because he’ll know. I don’t know how, but he always does.” That was true, which I found out once when I tried to tell Nick that Winnipeg was a short train hop from Edmonton, Alberta. Joe and I both knew about dealing with John. And that was, before a show John will tune the banjo...until you tell him to stop.

John used to quote a flippant remark of mine onstage. “If there’s anything more boring than one man and one guitar it’s one woman and one guitar.” It’s a difficult admission but I’m not sure John was ever totally convinced that I truly appreciated what he did. I was a jazz musician, after all. More than that, don’t forget, I was a Junior and he was only a Sophomore. But I am here to tell you that I did know he was a genius and I marveled at his talent. I remain in awe of his great reverence for words and what the right ones in the right order can produce. And how he did it! What a novelist needs ten chapters to say, or me as a screenwriter, 100 pages...John could do in ten lines. And they rhymed! Think of “Pirates of Stone County Road” or “Cody”...or “Mother Country.”

I am certain that before too long John’s work will be recognized as major American poetry. And since it’s impossible for me to pick from his many lyrics something to leave you with today, I’ll quote another great American poet, Allen Ginsberg who wrote, “I write poetry because I want to talk to people and I want to be alone.” And he also said, “I write poetry because I sing when I’m lonesome.”

There’s an end to John’s songs now. And now we’re all a little more lonesome.


uh1h said...

Greetings from Staten Island. At fifty-nine I can still validly state that the Kingston Trio got me through pimples,puberty and the Viet-Nam war. I started picking banjo in freshman year of high school after hearing " Reverend Mr. Black" wafting through a window of our rented summer place,in Lake Hopactcong New Jersey,being played by the college boy next door. I spent so long trying (self taught) to duplicate the riffs discovering,years later that Glen Campbell played behind them on a six string banjo/guitar. I was so smug when I could duplicate the riffs on " Reuben James" then I heard Earl Scruggs with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and threw my banjo off the Staten Island Ferry. Then I mastered "Foggy Mountain Breakdown " only to read John's liner notes on The Dillard's " Live" album,buy it on his recomendation,hear Douglas Dillard and throw myself off the Staten Island Ferry! I was always a California-phile since that's where my cowboy heroes were and later The Trio and always warm weather. I often pictured John Phillips and Mr. Stewart writng " Chilly Winds" in that boat and thinking "what the heck do they know about chilly winds? I'm the one hiking down to Blessed Sacrament Grammer school in those cold New York winters." Thinking of John and the Trio and the culture and America of those days now fills me with the same indefinable poignant longing one has for a better place than this planet. Thanx so much for your thoghts and thank the Great Spirit for somehow making me aware of your blog. Yours Truly, Jim Clark uh1h@

oklabo said...

Thanks for the memories of John Stewart. Well done. Bo

dddstudiomax said...

At 49, and also from Staten Island, I just loved this piece. And as an old Frank Zappa fan, I loved the Streets of Loredo story in there. My first "on the fringe of the music business" type job was taking photos for WKDF in Nashville. Back when they played Rock. I would occasionally be given the key to the promo record closet and be allowed to gorge myself until my sense of shame sometime kicked in. One of the records was Jon's when he had his big single. Lindsay Buckingham produced it and he had that sweet solid white Les Paul. Gold Hardware. Man, guitar envy for sure. OK, I'll close here. The good ones in life are like music. Both lift up your hearts.
I'm very sorry for your loss of such a longtime and wonderful friend.

Wells said...

It still never fails to cause me much
sadness to see how it really is the good ones who die young. John was only 4 years older than me. I will miss him terribly.

Mike Crawford said...

The best compliment I can give JS is that whenever I think of "friendship" I think of the cover photo on "Revenge of the Budgie"!