Mark ‘Stew’ Stewart has become a Broadway sensation over the last year – the musical Passing Strange, for which he wrote the book and lyrics, and the music for which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, has won him a Tony award for best book, and it’s going to be filmed soon by Spike Lee. He’s famous among other constituencies, as well – my eleven-year-old niece loves Gary Come Home, the song he wrote for SpongeBob Squarepants.
But even as recently as three years ago he was unknown enough that he would every so often write songs on commission – he’d put an offer up on his website and then write and record custom songs for anyone who wanted them, as birthday or Christmas presents or whatever. I had one written for my wife for our wedding, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best things he’s ever written.
And while Stew is now fairly well-known, his earlier work is still unknown. The three albums he did with his band The Negro Problem (Joys And Concerns, Welcome Black and Post-Minstrel Syndrome) are all out of print and command prices of £50+ on Amazon – a shame as TNP are a *great* band, also featuring Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints and Lisa Jenio of Candypants. Their material ranged from Ken (a song about the problems of being a gay Ken doll (“the people at Mattel/the home that I call hell/are somewhat baffled by my queer proclivities”) ) to beautiful ballads like Come Down Now, to a note-perfect cover of MacArthur Park, but one in which the crack rather than the cake has been left out in the rain.
However, it was as a solo artist I first became aware of him – as the support act to Arthur Lee and Love (at the time Lee’s touring ‘Love’ were Baby Lemonade, another band from the same LA powerpop scene as the Wondermints and TNP). At what would have already been an astonishing gig (the first time I saw Lee live, and he was simply superb – I also saw Brian Wilson that same week, doing a fifty song set, and got a backstage pass to that one. Best week for gigs of my life), for possibly the only time an unknown-to-me support act overshadowed the headline. Stew and Heidi performed songs from TNP and Stew’s first two solo albums, and were just extraordinary.
Thankfully, Stew’s three solo albums (Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter and Something Deeper Than These Changes) are all still in print (and available from eMusic – a site which I will keep plugging until every reader of this blog is a member, because it’s fantastic), and with luck those albums will get increased exposure now that Passing Strange is a hit – several of the highlights of the musical are reworked versions of older songs. There’s not a bad song on any of them, but probably the best album – both as an album and as an introduction to Stew’s music – is The Naked Dutch Painter.
I feel rather anxious about writing a review of Stew’s music, partly because I know there’s a lot going on in his lyrics that I’m not getting (a lot of his lyrics are very culturally-specific, and he can also be quite an oblique writer), and also because he’s both more articulate than I am and very caustic about reviewers – even positive ones – who don’t get it. I just hope that either he never sees this or I *do* get it.
The Naked Dutch Painter is a more-or-less live album, including some of Stew’s great between-song chatter (“I’ve been wondering… why is there only one photo of Che Guevara? Why isn’t there a photo of him, like at some kid’s birthday party, snorting milk out of his nose?”). The live-ish nature means that it has neither the college-rock production of the other two Stew solo albums, nor the baroque pop complexities of the Negro Problem music, but rather a loose-but-sophisticated sound that makes me think of piano bars (there’s a lot of piano on the album) or people like Stephen Sondheim.
Every song is good, but to my mind the two highlights are The Drug Suite and the title track.
The Drug Suite, as the name might suggest, is actually three songs linked by the common theme of drugs. The first song, I Must Have Been High is a gorgeous ballad with minimal instrumentation – mostly just piano and what sounds like a melodica:
Wasn’t that me in the electric chair?
And isn’t it true I spent two days there?
See my friend’s folks they were out of town,
So we bought a sheet and we all got down
And every song sounded like an angel’s choir
My edges were rounded, I had wings of fire
Soaring through the sky, I must have been high
Sitting on the balcony watching the rail rust
Slipping through my fingers like angel dust
The lyrics are both hilarious (“Didn’t we vow to live in a tree while staring at static on the TV?/And when she said ‘I am a bird’ I hung on tight and drank every word”) and at times beautiful – the line about angel dust is one of those “I wish *I’d* thought of that” lines.
I’m Not On A Drug, the second song in the suite, is one of my very favourite of Stew’s songs, as it describes a situation I’ve been in all too often – being the only person at a party who is completely sober and straight. “I know this is a happening party and I don’t want to make you yawn my darling, but I’m not on a drug.I didn’t want to tell ‘cos you might tease me – I really wish I was right now believe me”. With its staccato piano chords and skittering violin, this sounds like something Noel Coward might have performed were he feeling rather daring.
Arlington Hill, the last part of the drug suite, is apparently a description of Stew’s first acid trip, and it sounds musically very like a gentler version of Strawberry Fields (in fact, what it sounds *exactly* like is Darian Sahanaja’s reworking of Wonderful in the style of Strawberry Fields for the soundtrack of David Leaf’s documentary about Smile, Beautiful Dreamer). This points to another thing about Stew – while I’ve been talking mostly about his lyrics (and they are some of the wittiest, cleverest lyrics I’ve heard from any songwriter active in my lifetime), he apparently writes music-first, which I personally find astonishing. His music is always both interesting and catchy (while firmly rooted in traditional song structures – Stew very much regards himself as a craftsman rather than some tortured artist racked by the muse) and perfectly fitted to the lyrics – given the relative complexity of his lyrics and the simplicity of the music (not a criticism in any way of it – as three-minute pop songs go Stew’s are among the best) I would have thought that writing the lyrics first would be much easier.
The album finishes (apart from two hidden tracks) with the title track, which combines one of the best melodies of the album (accompanied by Stew’s own guitar, prominent for almost the first time on the album) with a great story that deserves to be posted in full:
The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you
She’s got seventeen boyfriends and an eight o’clock class to get to
She’s smoking hash all night with some coffee amaretto
She’s asking stupid questions ’bout my groovy black ghetto
And the naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you
The naked Dutch painter in your bed does not want to sleep with you
She just feels like being naked you don’t think that you can take with her next to you
She says “Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women”
But you’re not the Mahatma that’s a whole ‘nother religion
And the naked Dutch painter in the bed does not want to sleep with you
The naked Dutch painter in the morning does not want to need you
She missed her eight o’clock class ’cause she couldn’t get her ass up off of you
So you walk along the Rhine and jump back in the sack
If this is how they do it then you’re never going back
And the naked Dutch painter in the morning does not want to need you
The naked Dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you
She’s throwing fluoresecent paint accompanied by a Mingus tape that she stole from you
It’s performance art porno under trippy black light
She left with her professor, he can stretch her canvas tight
And the naked Dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you
The naked Dutch painter in his arms does not want to see you
You are drunk and you are sore, you busted down professor’s door yet he feels for you
So a wicked joint is rolled and it mellows out your head
But you’re not feeling too bold when he invites you into bed
While the naked dutch painter in his arms does not want to see you
So now you’re on your own in a freezing pay phone around daybreak
You’re feeling so shitty that you’re calling Culver City just to bellyache
But there’s nobody home except your answering machine
So you write a stupid poem about the freaky shit you’ve seen
Like the naked Dutch painter in the morning sky who hovers above you
The naked Dutch painter at your door says she finally loves you
But she said “I’ll see you later” when she saw another naked painter sitting in the kitchen with you
Well she seemed a little shattered then she got a little pissed
When she saw that you were flattered by the fact that you’d be missed
While the naked Dutch painter at your door says…
All Stew’s albums deserve a much wider audience, and after The Naked Dutch Painter I recommend Joys & Concerns, the second (and to my mind best) Negro Problem album. Unfortunately, on Amazon a ‘new’ copy goes for $299 , but you can probably pick up a second hand copy significantly cheaper (or torrent it, given that it’s been out of print for many years – but if you do, make sure you buy it if it goes back into print. This is music worth paying for…)