My Journey with John Stewart: Memories of the Lonesome Picker
“The rain crow calls to the setting sun
The curtain falls on everyone
All my love was holy art
That I might live within your heart”
(Portrait credit to Jerry Blank: www.goblankart.com)
On January 19, 2008, the world lost its least known and one of its most influential troubadour-gypsy-soul-poets, John Stewart. I have struggled for the last two weeks to talk about my personal sense of loss. It runs deep. John Stewart’s passing is like losing a good friend who I knew through the profound influence of his music for 40 years. I cannot count how many of his concerts I attended since 1971. I remember sitting in small clubs, concert halls, amusement parks, county fairs, guitar shops and small coffee houses just to hear him weave his imagery of a silent and often unsung America.
When I first discovered John, I was 14 years old. It was 1969. The world was new to me. His songs reverberated with magic myth-like story telling of a history he could bring alive with just his voice and his guitar. His voice echoed with the music of the midwest wheat fields, lonely southwest prairies, California deserts and midnight trains. His words and stories sent lightening to my imagination with scenes of an American landscape I never knew existed. John Stewart forged these visions 15 years before Springsteen or Mellencamp arrived on the scene. He sketched word pictures of the American soul as clearly as Ansel Adams did in photography, Steinbeck with literature and Andrew Wyeth through his paintings. This is illustrated in one of his obscure classics, “Eyes of Sweet Virginia”, which bears witness to his lyrical gift:
For the eyes of sweet Virginia were headlights on the road
A beacon for the weary heart that hardens as it goes
In the eyes of sweet Virginia, the fields of Kansas lay
And stretched to California, a hope for better days.”
I remember vividly the first time I heard his classic, “Mother Country.” He told the story of an aging horse owner losing his sight. His love for his horse drives him to, ride her blind in front of crowd of cheering people. Each time I heard him sing this song; the scene of this haunted America came to life again. It was always a pleasure to take the journey with him. The refrain speaks of his love for this America he helped me discover.
Oh Mother Country, I do love you.
It seemed every year since I was a teenager I would find a new way of approaching a song that John Stewart would unveil with each release. Through the 60’s, 70’s, he was tossed around by major record labels until he finally found his own commercial success with then successful RSO record label in 1978. He joined forces with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to record his song, Gold, which became a top ten hit. This success was short lived and soon he was back to being the lonesome picker-troubadour, putting together touring bands, recording albums for small, independent labels and over the last 20 years, doing much of the work through his own independent releases. The work he did during this period was the real gold of John’s career. He kept developing his lyrical style into something quite different from any other songwriter of his generation. Indeed, John Stewart was one of the few singer-songwriters of the last 47 years who was not influenced by Bob Dylan. He worked from his own song palette. He had already found his own voice before the arrival of Dylan in the early 60’s. Both his early work and his final recordings bare this out. The titles include Rough Sketches, Escape to Arizona, Rocket Roy in the Real World and Havanna. To discover how his talent developed, grew and became something of greatness, one has to hear these recordings of chamber like folk music with stirring spoken word and songs. These more recent, independent projects stand well beside his better-known early classics, California Bloodlines and Willard.
Throughout his career, John Stewart gave voice to his own spirituality, a uniquely American independent-flying-eagle kind of a vision. He was raised Catholic and spent years exploring meditation during the 80’s. However, the themes he explored were that of a wanderer, a loner and a critic of established, organized religion without rejecting the essence of the true Christian faith, which he embraced as compassion and his love for his art and his audience. There are many examples of this maverick like attitude but the song “Great White Cathedrals” from the _Willard_ album sends a clear message to the listener:
Was it you all along, good Jesus
Were you all along the right way?
Oh, you told me you were, but the writing was blurred
The people who told me, they twisted your words
Saying burn, child, burn, when in your name will they learn?
That you can’t buy a soul with his silver and gold
And a sway-backed old jackass was all that you rode
As the bells still peal in the great white cathedrals
Of people forgetting to feel
Although I met and talked with John Stewart many times over the years, the most significant experience I had with him was three months ago on his final tour at The Fret House in Covina, California. The Fret House is a small guitar store with a basement where a small stage is set and used for intimate concerts. As I stood in line, John got out of his car. I knew something was different. He was clearly older, but he was unable to walk evenly. As he slowly navigated his way up the sidewalk, he kindly looked at me and smiled, “Hi. How are you?” I returned his greeting, but I could see the fatigue in his eyes.
That night, his performance was beautiful. He was the same old troubadour who nearly set stages on fire in the early 70’s. He was still the buckskinned country rock king. He held us all captive with the beauty of his words, melodies and his voice, grown fainter with age, but carrying the same character and urgency to tell his story. As he sang two of his most famous songs, “Daydream Believer” and “California Bloodlines”, the audience sang along and he looked up with a smile.
Two hours later, as the show ended, he slowly took a step down from the stage. For that one moment, he looked in my eyes again, a look that could’ve spanned forty years of my life, and his soul once again fired up my heart and imagination. He smiled, reached out his hand and warmly said, “Thank you for coming.” At that point, I had an impulse to look him in the eye and say, “I love you, John.” Instead, I said, ”Thank you, so much.” He smiled wide and walked away. I was a bit shy (and maybe trying to be cool), withdrawing from easy, clichéd sentiment, I thought. Then, I resolved, I would tell him the next time we met. There was not to be a next time.
I sat at my computer on the evening of January 19, numb and overwhelmed. John had been suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps mercifully, a stroke took his life. His death was too much for me to take in all at once. I wrote a tribute to another E-Zine publication, but I just couldn’t capture what I felt. Others felt the same. His devoted fans, who were more like family, flooded the Internet Newsgroup, _The Bloodlines_, with tributes, memories and stories. We all cried together. We became “dreamers on the mend,” as John has written in one of his songs.
Recently, there was a night for fans and family to say goodbye to John Stewart at McCabe’s Guitar Store in Santa Monica, California. I chose not to go. Instead, I went to an open mic night at The Fret House, where I last saw John. So many countless times he had played for me. On that night, I played two of his songs. I played them for him. It was there, a few feet from the stage, where he had smiled at me. It was there where I missed the opportunity to say those words we are so afraid to say to those we hold deep within our hearts, “I love you.” But in some measure, I was able to say these words, his words, back to him that night:
And if you should remember me
When all I am is a memory
Would you smile once and say
I don’t believe you’ve gone away
And would you keep a tiny spark
Burning somewhere in your heart
How John Stewart has helped me throughout my life, how he made my lonely nights a place of warmth and comfort, how he brought joy to me through his multitude of songs, how he embraced his creative passion and sent it to me like so many wildflowers in the wind. My imagination is still aflame with his images, his melodies, his spirit and his compassion.
So it’s time to say goodbye, but like John has said, “I’m not good at goodbye.” So, I’ll just strum my guitar on this cold, cloistered night and remember…..
I’m believing, believing
Believing, that even when I’m gone
Maybe some lonesome picker will
Find some healing in this song
I love you, John