John Stewart — singer, songwriter, guitarist, artist, husband, father, grandfather, Californian, American — was scheduled to perform at McCabe’s in Santa Monica on Saturday, February 2. He missed the gig, but he had a good excuse. Stewart suffered a sudden stroke at the age of 68 and died on January 19th in San Diego at the very same hospital he was born in.
His friends called him Johnny Stew, including Lindsay Buckingham who wrote a song by that name. He lived much of his life in Southern California (the rest up north) and was a presence in Malibu for years.
In 1961 he joined the Kingston Trio with whom he sang “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Greenback Dollar.” He wrote songs for NASA and became pals with astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. He also marched for civil rights in Selma and was smuggled out of there, along with Harry Belafonte, on the floorboards of a Chevy to prevent the Klan from taking potshots.
His solo career began in 1968, the year he joined Robert Kennedy’s last campaign and became house folkie and confidante to the Senator and his wife Ethel. That same year the Monkees recorded John’s “Daydream Believer,” which kept him in donut holes — his avowed favorite food — for life.
Stewart recorded more than 45 solo albums for various labels and in 1979 reached number five on the charts with “Gold,” a paean to the musicians of Los Angeles. Anyone who was half-sentient in 1979 (and there were many of us who were only half) remembers that rumbling rocker: “When the lights go down in the California townThere’s people out there turnin’ music into gold.” Johnny Stew was the Golden State’s own Guthrie/Cash/Dylan and remained a working musician until his dying day.
It was decided that the February 2 gig at McCabe’s would go on. The tiny guitar shop, walls lined with mandocellos and other arcane, stringed instruments, is full of mostly middle-aged fans — lifers who are here to celebrate the Lonesome Picker. (Stewart had more handles than a polygamous truck driver). Dave Batti, Stewart’s bassist and left-brainiac, and John Hoke, his guitarist and co-producer play host. Batti introduces Jeremy Stewart and Amy Stewart Kaplan, two of John’s adult offspring, Dennis “The D-Man” Kenmore, John’s longtime drummer, Andy Fergus, a club owner from Scotland who regularly booked Stewart (“If anyone wants to talk to Andy, I’d be glad to interpret,” quips Batti), and others, including me, who played roadie, adviser, and companion for Stew more times than I can count. Batti and Hoke then sing John’s “Runaway Train,” which was a massive hit for Roseanne Cash, a dear friend of Stewart’s, and “Jasmine,” a recent composition. (By Stew’s own estimate, he wrote 5000 songs.)
Batti parks his bass and reads the eulogy that Luke Stewart, John’s youngest son, gave at his father’s funeral, which includes lines such as:
“My Dad invented sarcasm
My Dad would always buy me that CD I wanted when I was a kid, even if it had a parental advisory sticker on it
My Dad always rooted for the underdog
My Dad didn’t care what ANYBODY thought
My Dad’s heroes [were] John F. Kennedy, John Glenn, and Elvis
My Dad had a great laugh if he thought you were funny
My Dad had a great look…if he thought you weren’t
My Dad was always late…he was even late today, I think
My Dad’s favorite way to say goodbye to me [was] ‘ bye buddy, call if you get work’
My Dad is a legend”
Batti pauses to compose himself before continuing.
“My Dad is loved
My Dad is missed
My Dad is remembered
Batti tells the gathering that Stew was “the Miles Davis of folk music. He would improvise, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. John Stewart never played the same song the same way once.”
Paul Surratt, who produced a documentary about the Kingston Trio, shows clips from Stew’s television appearances with the Trio, including a “Hard Day’s Night”-like pilot called Young Men In A Hurry. We see solo Stew on The Joey Bishop Show (introduced by Regis Philbin), on Playboy After Dark, and, most oddly, disco-suited in 1979 on Solid Gold, lip-syncing “Gold” with a half-dozen spangled chorines shakin’ booty (Hoke insists that Stew tried to get the Solid Gold dancers to a McCabe’s gig, but we think he was kidding.) Surratt then treats us to footage of John at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios asking where the inflatable Yoko was kept, inquiring about buying a Linda McCartney t-shirt, and standing outside the famous crosswalk screaming, “Telegram for Pete Best! Telegram for Pete Best!”
Batti thanks the audience and Hoke ends the night with: “As John would say about now, ‘It’s Monkee time!'” The tears fall and we sing along.
Cheer up sleepy Jean
Oh what can it mean
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen.
MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally ran in the LA Weekly.