Down the Rabbit Hole Magazine | 2007.june.6
Once upon a time, Immy and I were sitting in our favorite bi-polar record store in the world, London’s wonderfully schizophrenic two-stores-in-one Stand Out Records/Minus Zero Records, talking to the respective owners, the Bills (Stand Out’s Bill Allerton and Minus Zero’s Bill Forsyth), during one of our usual 2-4 hr visits to the tiny store(s). You see the way it works is that we go there with one or two ideas of things we think we want (and that’s all well and good) and then we end up spending the next two, three, or four hours endlessly listening to music as Bill and Bill compete across the two foot aisle that separates one store from the other to play us different music they’re sure we’ve never heard before (they’re often right) that they’re certain we’ll love (they’re pretty much ALWAYS right) and therefore purchase (they get us there too). We nearly always spend every penny we have and leave with several huge bags of CD’s each. Half the great music I’ve discovered over the past decade was played for me by the Bill’s in their tiny wonderland on Blenheim Crescent just off Portobello Road. It might seem strange to those of you who aren’t utterly obsessed with music, but they’ve been as big an influence in my life as any of my musical idols.
And the funny thing is, I’m not even sure if they like Counting Crows all that much, if at all. I know they like me, just as I know I like them, I just have no idea how they feel about my band. It’s just never come up and I never thought to ask. In retrospect, it’s even better if they don’t. I love that we simply meet on the bountiful common ground of our deep mutual love of good music.
Anyway, I’m off on one of my tangents again, and I really want to talk about something else today. This story is (I swear) actually leading somewhere.
One day, one of the Bills (I can’t actually remember which) said “Hey, if you guys are from Hollywood, you have to hear The Negro Problem. Have you ever heard of them?” We hadn’t so he grabbed a CD and said “This is their 2nd CD Joys and Concerns (1999). You’ll love it.” And then he pushed the drawer in on the CD player and out came the sound of the Beatles transported into the soul of a black man from Silverlake at the end of the last millennium. Every song had a unbearably perfect pop melody I couldn’t get out of my head, harmonies, strange instruments, trumpet and flutes, strings, funk, soul, and the feeling that music was the most important thing in the entire world and that, at least on THIS record, they were damn well going to celebrate the fuck out of it.
From the 1st song “Repulsion (Show Up Late For Work On Monday)”, I was hooked as bassist Heidi Rodewald’s harmonies slid above the ends of singer/songwriter Stew’s vocal lines and out from the tails of them into “Yeah yeah’s. Two songs later, after the deliciously funky soul of “Sea of Heat”, the album segues into “Comikbuchland”, which (and I hate comparisons like this) comes the closest anyone’s ever come to re-creating “Penny Lane”, except this “Penny Lane” is set in a Los Angeles bohemian ghetto (check out Heidi Rodewald’s perfect Paul McCartney/Brian Wilson bass playing on the song).
At least I think it does. I have to be honest, I never think about what Stew means in his songs. I’m so entranced by the wordplay and the unearthly hook-heaven of the music that I never have the concentration to really ponder them, although I do think the whole thing is worth the price of admission just for the otherworldly lyric cleverness of:
Tell me again what constitutes good hair
“Unbraided your deep dread of reason”? C’mon. I would kill to have written that. Now that is some seriously funky metaphorical double-meaning shit right there. THAT…is not for beginners.
I keep coming back to The Beatles but, once again, that’s exactly the same way I feel about them. I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about and I don’t really care at all. I DO know this. The Beatles were brilliant lyricists and so is Stew. I’m not gonna lie to you, and let me get this out of the way right here at the top of this article, he is flat-out unquestionably no doubt in my mind whatsoever the finest songwriter working today. He is so far and above my favorite that I can’t even think of anyone working in the same stratosphere as him, at least not off the top of my head. The six albums I’m going to talk about here are some of the best albums anyone’s made over the past decade. Ever since Joys and Concerns, whenever Stew released an album, as far as I was concerned it was hands down the best album of that year.
By the time I got to the middle of the album where the transcendent “Bleed” resides, I was hooked for life. It’s truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard (Immy and I got to play it onstage with them a few years ago at Symphony Space in New York. I can’t sing it as well as Stew but it was fun to do it together. I put the recording up on the Counting Crows MySpace Page and on my own page as well. Check it out.)
It’s followed by the soul-meets SMiLE “Peter Jennings” a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) jab at race in America and the way being black is more than just a little different from being white, whether it’s in the way it’s portrayed on the news, the way some people look at it as different branch of the evolutionary tree, or just the way the experience of being pulled over by the cops takes on an entirely different tone when you don’t look anything like a blond surfer kid from Malibu (which is perhaps why it’s so important for the band to be called The Negro Problem, not just because you might have forgotten in this wonderful pc world we live in that there is a problem, but also because maybe it takes a name like that that to remind everyone how ill-prepared the music business is to deal with an all-white band fronted by a black guy from the LA ghettos who grew up obsessed with The Beatles and Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson as well as Parliament and Sly Stone and The Jackson 5).
Hey LAPD, oh why you chase me?
The joyous Looney Tunes soul musical of “Ahmnot Madatcha”, a bizarrely celebratory “slice of life” (love?) story that could only have been sliced from the funky-as-all-get-out chocolate cherry cream cheesecake that is Stew’s life, is followed by “Ken” which examines the possibility that a certain very popular anatomically incorrect doll just might prefer to spend his time with G.I. Joe than that bimbo Barbie.
They always stick me with Barbie
Somehow it manages to be both an hysterical and a heartbreaking examination of the tormented life of an in-the-closet (literally) gay plastic doll.
Someday soon I’ll be in your child’s room
Or is that not really a song about a doll at all?
The sad joy of “Goode Tyme” is followed by the strangely familiar distorted pop Monkee-delia of “The Rain In Leimert Park Last Tuesday”, which drove me crazy the first few times I heard it because I couldn’t figure out where I’d heard it before but I just knew I had. I finally figured out it was so familiar because it was simply a sped up punky version of “Comikbuchland”. Such a strange thing to do. Whatever, it works.
And then…“Come Down Now”. Just when you thought you’d never hear another song as beautiful as “Bleed” as long as you lived…along comes one even lovelier.
So come down now
So come down now
Have the courage, he says, to utterly reveal yourself to the ones who love you enough to want to see the pain the world has caused you. Open your life to the only people capable of providing the healing you need. And even if they can’t do it, Stew bathes you in a song that almost does it for you anyway. It’s five minutes of heaven and then the album is over…except there’s actually another 27 minutes of silence and music and silence and music. If you have a little patience, there are three more fantastic songs. “Stumble” waits a full nine minutes to appear but gives another five joyous minutes, then segues into the gentle folk of “New World”, which lasts another 4 minutes before giving way to the the falsetto choruses of “Ordinary One” into a building cacophonous harmonic low-fi live revisitation of the last verse of “Peter Jennings” that sounds like all of The Polyphonic Spree crammed into a phone booth screaming a magnificent climax over the phone line into your answering machine.
And then, just like that, in a tumble of tom rolls and trumpets and flutes and cymbal crashes and snare drum and piano and distorted guitar, it’s over.
And then it comes back for another 4 seconds.
And then it’s done.
…16 months later, in the fall of 2000, the band reappears, now renamed Stew (I don’t know. Sometimes I think he just got tired of telling people “No, it’s cool. I’m black.”) with the album Guest Host (2000). And, by the way, when I say “reappears”, I mean they put out the best album of the year. They told me the next album was coming out and I was excited but a little nervous because how could they top Joys and Concerns? It turned out the answer to that was question was…simply release Guest Host.
I mean you put the cd in your player and out blows a wind of soul and pop heaven called “Cavity”. When I hear Guest Host, and “Cavity” in particular, I imagine Brian Wilson and Prince and Burt Bacharach and Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone and Arthur Lee all meeting somewhere for a weekend to make a record together, and then realizing there was no need…because Stew had already made it. So instead, they all relaxed, had a few cocktails, got high, and spent the weekend listening to Stew over and over again until they felt the world was safe because someone was out there making truly transcendently great music.
It’s sex and emptiness and loneliness and loss and being lost and love and desire and so much heart you feel as if yours will simply fill up from listening to it until there’s no more room and then it will simply break and you’ll just cry from how wonderful it is. I’m ranting, aren’t I? I can’t help it. The first words on the album are:
Sister there’s a cavity in me
Has anyone ever written better about the hole inside all of us and the agonizing pain that comes with the sweetness of love dangling just out of reach? The taste of desire and love seeming as if it lights the world and makes a blind man see, and yet, at the same time, makes him ever so more painfully aware of NOT possessing it.
Several songs later they sing the most hysterical/painful song about re-hab ever written. Maybe you just have to have lived in LA for awhile and watched the revolving door carousel that is the Hollywood re-hab scene (“I mean, dear, how can you be taken seriously if you haven’t been?”) to truly appreciate this song. Considering what a serious problem drug addiction is in the world, the way people wear their re-hab cred like designer jeans in LA makes you just want to hit them with a stick. Stew provides the stick on “Re-Hab”.
Then comes the piano and string section epiphany of “Ordinary Love”. I want to tell you what it’s about but I don’t know. I just know it’s beautiful and I just feel something about the heartbreaking hopelessness of holding onto love even as it inevitably becomes somehow MORE ordinary and LESS extraordinary every day. It’s about about the struggle you go though to try to understand your slipping interest and get a grip on it before you lose hold of something which might mean the world to you and certainly once did. It begins:
I met her on the stairs and she showered me with her “hello’s
In all the choruses, Heidi sings over and over again:
The ordinary love that you want to leave
until Stew interrupts it (just once right before the end of the song) with the line:
Is like the ordinary lie that I don’t believe
and then Heidi goes back to singing:
The ordinary love that you want to leave
as the song fades…
I want to go into detail on every song. I want to tell you about how beautiful the Beatle bass, acoustic guitar, harmonica, oboe (or is it a clarinet), and organ all mesh with Stew’s vocal on “Stepford Lives” or about the viciously civilized lyrics of Stew’s unforgivingly detailed portrait of an aging Parisian prostitute in “Bijou”, the shimmering 12-string guitars and woodwind pairing of “Sister/Mother” but it’s too much to tell with three or four more albums to still talk about.
I will say that it all ends with the joyous “doo doo doo” opening of “C’mon Everybody”, which is about as good an ending as you could hope for on a perfect album, all acoustic guitars and sunshine melody vocals traded back and forth between Heidi and Stew until the last verse when the string section sweeps up to take out to the end. See if you can listen to the song less than at least five times in a row the first time you hear it. It just makes you feel good. The world is alright. Stew and Heidi and the gang are here and, even though the record’s about to end, they’ll be back again soon to fix the world just as soon as they have the time. “This is a message! From the East Hollywood Tourist Bureau! Come On Everybody! Come On Everyone!”
Oh yeah, and for what it’s worth, Entertainment Weekly named Guest Host “Album of the Year” for 2000. It was the first time they did that. It wouldn’t be the last.
The next record, again a Stew album, didn’t appear for another year and a half until the spring of 2002. It was well worth the wait. Not as sunny as Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs (2002) is much more concerned with dissolution and the harm you can cause to the ones you love even when you don’t want or mean to. The soul-pop psychedelia of “Reeling” faces the latter concern:
Do you want to do this again?
… I might kill the dove.
And the former is faced in the astounding nine-and-a-half minute triptych “The Drug Suite (I Must’ve Been High/I’m Not On A Drug/Arlington Hill)”, Stew’s reverie about his childhood experiments with LSD, the experience of being at a party where you’re the only one NOT high, and finally, the beautiful memory of getting stoned in a VW bug up on Arlington Hill, relaxing with your friends looking down on LA and then going down to church to sing in choir practice. It’s a memory perfectly captured on tape of a moment when everything in his life suddenly had meaning, or at least seemed to. It’s a beautiful painting of a song, capturing perfectly the memory of a sunny day with all your friends and the sense the drug and the view and the church and the choir gave you of a moment of perfect well-being and happiness. It’s a song about drugs but it’s also an absolutely sublime bit of songwriting about an oasis of utter joy and peace in a kid’s life.
And just as you sigh at the beauty of his memory fading into silence, the album greets you with the love celebration joy of the Byrds-like “Love Is Coming Through The Door”. I wish I could tell you how this song makes me feel but I’m running out of superlatives. Sometimes I feel, though, as if I’ve made it through the times in my life when I couldn’t feel very much solely because I could listen to Stew’s records and know we do live in a world where it possible to truly love someone, and that there is joy waiting out there somewhere even for a miserable fuck like me. All I can say is that “Love Is Coming Through The Door” makes me feel as if it actually is doing just that. He conjures the feeling up so vividly that I feel okay and I believe in love again myself. I’m sitting here listening through each of these albums as I’m writing this essay and it’s taking days because of moments like this: I’ve just listened to “Love Is Coming Through The Door” four times in a row and, as it’s ending now, I know I’m going to listen to it at least one more time before I move on.
I have to re-think my initial assessment because the second half is almost a celebration of all the myriad and wonderful, if sometimes somewhat fucked up, ways it’s still possible to fall in love. Even if you’re crazy and the people you love are crazy, it’s still love and I think Stew wants us to remember that, crazy or fucked up or drugged out or whatever, love is still love and it’s amazing and it means the world and you’re always going to carry the imprint of it and the memories wherever you go for the rest of your life.
“North Bronx French Marie”, with it’s impossibly catchy piano part grooving over the top of the acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and…(what do you call that hooter thing…crap, I can’t remember) might be my favorite of all his songs. It’s conjuring up the image of love during one of our ridiculously sweaty New York summers just hits every right note for me.
Moonlight brushing against the window
Look what the New York summer’s done
I’m waiting to see where the wind blows
Look what the New York summer’s done
Well, she smokes half my cigarettes and laughs at me
Tonight I sleep with television
Look what the New York summer’s done
Sorry, I couldn’t help it. I just wanted you to hear the whole song. Can’t you just see the girl in the t-shirt with the sweat making it stick to her body? Can’t you just feel yourself getting there late at night and just looking at her and knowing it’s everything you want in the whole world just to be right there right then?
I’m pretty sure “The Smile” is written about his daughter. He just has a way when he writes songs about her. It’s still about love and the power it has to redeem even crazy people like us who are seemingly always a million miles from home and the people we love. It’s just lovely. Christ, I love this record.
Another interesting thing about The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is the way it was recorded. To quote Matthew Greenwald on AllMusic.com,
“This unique album had its basic tracks recorded live during a residency at L.A.’s Knitting Factory and then buttressed by some immaculate studio overdubs. By juxtaposing Stew’s live spontaneity with some extraordinary studio audacity, the end result is a breathtaking catharsis, as well as one hell of a show for the listener. Brilliantly written, conceived, and performed, The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is one of the first (and maybe finest) singer/songwriter masterpieces of the 21st century.”
So…uh…that’s a good review. And he really captures maybe the coolest thing about the record: the way it’s integrated into the sense of being at a concert. Musically, you’d never know it wasn’t a studio recording, except perhaps the sense of space and reverberation that you get at a live show, but a Stew/Negro Problem gig is a magical thing because of Stew’s monologues and the way they connect the songs with both pathos and his unique, and effortless, sense of humor. The great thing about The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs is the way it manages to give you the best of best worlds. The studio work allows for all the overdubs they need to fill out the album with as much complexity, or lack thereof, as they wish but the live setting gives you the unique experience of being there. You get to have your cake and eat it too. I only say it’s unique, by the way, if you haven’t been to a show, in which case, this album should convince you to get off your ass and go. All you need to do is go once. You’ll never miss another if you can help it as long as you live.
Ha. I just realized I totally forgot to mention the title song. How do you review an album called The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs and forget everything but the “…other songs”?
Hmmm. I actually can’t find the words. Like “Re-Hab” on Guest Host, it’s one of Stew’s longer lyrical masterpieces; his versions of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”…except his are better (and, of course, he, unlike me, actually HAS a sense of humor). I have no problem saying that. I love my songs. Seriously, I think I’m a great songwriter. I really do. I just think he’s better (and, as I mentioned before, he’s funnier than me because he has a sense of humor and I just have this sort of mopey look and a sense of grim foreboding and…well, I just know we’re all gonna die someday soon) and I would give my left arm…well…I would give someone’s left arm anyway, to write as well as Stew. Actually, the nice thing is, I don’t need to. I write as well as I do and that’s pretty fucking good. And if I ever want to listen to someone better, all I have to do is put on a Stew record.
So I don’t know what to say about “The Naked Dutch Painter”. It’s a song about living in Europe and being an “artiste” and wishing you could screw another particularly hot “artiste”, except she’s not giving you the time of day because maybe you’re not enough of an “artiste” until she finally does fall for you and then she won’t leave, which is ok because you’re in love with her, but then she blows you off for her professor who’s even more of an “artiste” than either you or her, which breaks your heart so you try to call home to America but nobody answers the phone and you’re heartbroken until the particularly hot “artiste” shows up back at your door to tell you that she truly loves you, and only you, after all, which would probably be really great except that, at that particular moment, you happen to be entertaining another particularly hot “artiste”, which hurts the first particularly hot “artiste” for a moment until she realizes how much you like the fact that she missed you, and then she just gets pissed off and probably tells you to fuck off…
Ain’t that just life? Ain’t it a bitch?
There’s even the proverbial hidden track called, in this case, “The Proverbial Hidden Track” and another song after that called “Very Happy” ,which is exactly how it makes me feel. It’s just a cool little gem of soul-pop (what else can you call Stewhe’s like early Prince with acoustic guitars and brass sections recorded by The Beatles) about the fact that love isn’t really going to hurt you and, even if it does…it’s cool…it’s still going to make you, as Stew sings “very happy”.
It ends the album by making me feel just that.
The New York Times called The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs “perhaps the finest collection of songs an American songwriter has come up with this year”. And once again, for the 2nd album in a row, Entertainment Weekly named their record “Album of the Year” for 2002.
So you have to say to yourself. “Wow, they’re really on a roll with this Stew thing. Maybe switching over from The Negro Problem wasn’t such a bad idea after all.” It certainly seemed to be working out, both critically and creatively, because they seriously raised the bar pretty high on The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs.
So what do you do for an encore when you’re Stew and you’ve made the “album of the year” for two records running?
Well, obviously…you change your name back to The Negro Problem, go straight back into the studio, and you do it all over again.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Only maybe six months later, in the Autumn of that same year, just when you thought they’d disappeared, The Negro Problem reappears with the oh-so-aptly named Welcome Black (2002).
Nothing like an album title that reminds you why they named the fucking band The Negro Problem in the 1st place. “In case you thought it had gone away and in case you thought the “problem” had gone away too (and if you did, you were dreaming)…well, we’re back!
And what a return. The album opens with “Fox Hills”, a beautiful 30-second prologue of trumpets and…French horns maybe?..over piano leading into Heidi’s sweet pure voice singing the perfect melody of “Father Popcorn”
See if you remember the song
And then at the end of the verse, the music suddenly stops for a heartbeat…and the Stew booms in:
Don’t wanna put you in a pop coma
Followed by a wall of harmonies and then:
And then they put you in the popcorn machine
And WHAM! You ARE in a pop coma. It’s takes all of one minute for The Negro Problem to return and hit you with such a heavy dose of the sweet soul candy of pop music that it knocks you on your ass like some late Halloween evening up in your bedroom sneaking the rest of the candy your parents told you NOT to eat until the sugar hits your system and sends you up through the roof and out into the star-filled night sky. You just know you’re gonna come down hard later but for now it’s a very cool way to get high.
Welcome Black indeed.
“Lime Green Sweater” follows and explores the interesting, and funny to me anyway, idea that teachers are human beings too.
In other words, like all human beings…they probably smoke pot and get high too. Maybe it’s just that when I was a kid, we didn’t think of authority figures fucking around the same way we did, but the song just blows my mind. It’s silly too, because 1968 was a VERY long time ago and a kid who was 20 in 1968 was in his mid thirties when I was in high school. Jesus…what if they were all getting high?
(It’s a theme explored, by the way, in Stew and Heidi’s genius genre-bending semi-autobiographical theatre piece Passing Strange, presently being staged eight times a week at the Public Theatre here in NYC. Even though the song “Lime Green Sweater” isn’t a part of the musical, “The Drug Suite (I Must’ve Been High/I’m Not On A Drug/Arlington Hill)” from The Naked Dutch Painter…and Other Songs and that theme, as part of Stew’s life, certainly are.)
It’s got this great melody, psychedelic doo-wop harmonies, and lines like “He’s like a rock star strumming electric chalk”. It’s also about how people change throughout their lives but, at the same time, don’t really change at all. The last chorus sums it up:
But now she’s partial to lime green sweaters yeah
You always end up changing the clothes but you don’t always change the habits and you NEVER really change the person.
I almost can’t listen to “Is This The Single?” because it’s just so familiar and so horrifying to anyone who was ever on a record label. It’s also a great pop song and the rest of you will love it. The great chorus repetition question “Is this the single?” answered by the band members’ nervous expectant choir responses of “uh-huh” is hysterical and chilling at the same time. How do the lives, careers, and artistic work of so many talented people end up at the mercy of these…fill in the blank yourselves (I’m still under contract)…whose sole musical thought capability seems to be summed up in the title of this song? I don’t know. However, Stew gives them a good 4 minute rogering here and then turns to skewer the entirety of the rest of pop culture on the rest of the album.
He goes for a funky stabbing of ignorant illiterate rednecks and over-literate under-comprehending hipsters simultaneously on “The Teardrop Explodes”, channels Syd Barrett and Henry Mancini tripping out together out on “Astro Sister”, and then…well, to be honest, Stew is such a fountain of cultural influences and references that when he says, in “In Time All Time”,
It’s like my birthday everyday
I actually have no idea whether he’s talking about Tony Shalhoub’s creation Adrian Monk from the TV show Monk or Thelonius Monks or someone else. I’ve always wanted to have a night where we just sit down and spend an entire night just talking about all his songs and what the hell he’s talking about but I know I hate doing that myself so I’m just going to sit here and try it figure it out myself. The truth is I feel like I understand it perfectly well but I have no idea how to explain it all to you.
Anyway, why do you need anything this catchy explained to you. By the next song, “Out Now”, Stew and Heidi are trading cascading vocals in and out of each other until the chorus where they’ve got this robot in the background singing:
I came to get this party started in your mind, in your mind
while Stew and Heidi sing “It’s coming out now” over and over again. It seems to be some bemused commentary on pop culture around the world and how you can “be the man” somewhere and not even exist somewhere else. Maybe. I don’t know. I keep getting distracted by how damn funky the singing robot is.
By the time I get to the penultimate song, “Bong Song”, I’m ready to just accept that this is Stew’s trip and I’m just along for the ride. But this is a very treacherous ride. Stew’s melodies and music are so addictive and distracting that you can miss the fact that he’s just as busy gutting our culture and viciously attacking the bullshit ways we all just accept the status quo without question as he is reminding us of the simple joys and beauties of a child’s birthday or the possibility of love on a humid New York summer night or just the fun of getting high. It’s both the genius and the curse of his astonishing musical and compositional ability that it distracts us from some of what’s underneath. When every record you make is an Abbey Road/Pet Sounds level musical sugar high, it can make a listener fail to notice the anger and the pain that lies beneath. I actually think The Beatles and The Beach Boys probably experienced some of the same difficulties. The music’s so good and such a joy to the ear that they lyrics get a little overshadowed. As Thom Jurek said about “Bong Song” in his review of the album, “Why look for solutions when the problems keep us happy?”
The album ends with “Bermuda Love Triangle”, a girl’s tale of revenge sought for her fiancée’s infidelities in which she explores the personal ads looking for a threesome to join, only to find…well, let’s just say nothing turns out as planned, a waterbed is brutally murdered, and Stew actually has a character say “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”, and gets away with it. Not only that, as the song fades, he mumbles “Do you come here often? (heh heh) Geographically speaking, I mean.” and gets away with that too.
It’s a funny upbeat ending to the album. A least it seems like it is. I got to thinking about it later on last night after I wrote this section and I started to think that maybe it wasn’t really all that funny after all. I mean, it’s a funny situation, almost slapstick in the disastrous way it turns out, but here on this album which spends so much time asking questions about what really lies underneath all the things we accept about our “pop” culture and what ARE the things you should really care about and WHY don’t we care about some other things…I sat there and thought…wow, it’s actually kind of sad. I mean, she loves a guy and he betrays her and so she tries to betray him just to find any way to make herself feel better and that gets fucked up too.
She goes home alone.
It’s funny, but people seem to go home alone a lot in my songs too. How funny is going home alone ever REALLY going to be? Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about.
And suddenly I thought, he’s really screwing with my head now.
Another year went by before the next album came out. We spent the summer before the release touring together so I had all my own personal relationships with these songs before I got to hear them in album form. I was surprised at how different they all seemed when viewed as part of the whole in which they were all intended.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this album. I know a lot of people get demo-itis and complain about the way songs they loved live or in rawer forms turn out when they finally end up on an album. This is not a problem you run into with Stew or The Negro Problem.
So when the summer ended, the tour came to a close, and we all went our separate ways. I found myself in a record store about a week later and I remembered that Stew’s new record was out that day. I always expect something different from them. The world is filled with disappointments and things that turn out to be so much less than you expect or hope. I expect something better from Stew. I always expect something more. The nice thing about these guys is that they do too. So when Autumn rolls around and you go to the store to buy their new album, instead of disappointments, you get Something Deeper Than These Changes (2003).
I write a lot of songs about love and loneliness and loss and, as I don’t seem to be making any inroads into fixing these issues in my own personal life, I often wonder if I’m really getting anywhere near the heart of the matter in my songs either. There’s a complexity to these subjects and sometimes I think I’m missing some of the more subtle aspects of it. I don’t know. I think about it a lot but I don’t know. I DO know that Stew is not missing anything. Something Deeper Than These Changes takes a long look at love from a lot of different angles, and comes up with perspectives on subjects that seem at first glance to be mundane, but turn out to be almost shockingly rich. As always with Stew, that puddle you’re staring at your reflection in turns out to be a very deep pool.
In “Love Like That”, he looks at a mother’s love and sees reflected in it the way we take things for granted in our life that we should NEVER EVER take for granted. There are things that come from very deep places within us and they’re so powerful and so much a part of our daily life that we miss how rare and immeasurable they are until they’re gone. And then, of course, it’s too late (This is another subtlety I missed until I saw Passing Strange because Stew really gets into his relationship with his mother in the play). The funny thing is that they’re only so invisible because they’re so constant and they’re only so constant because they’re so all-encompassing and powerful. Think about it. How often have you struggled just to care about someone for a week or a month or a year?
It’s just an organ, a bass and a piano. And Stew’s voice.
“Love Like That”
I remember when I owned everything
Love like that can’t be measured anyway
Love’s taken for granted when you don’t understand it
Love like that can’t be measured anyway
Ain’t it strange how it all makes perfect sense
Love like that can’t be measured anyway
And you know Mother’s love might seem insane
And you know love like that can’t be measured anyway
He looks at it from the perspective of an alcoholic whose love for the bottle is what holds him together AND tears him apart in “The Kingdom of Drink”, then follows it with the simple message of “The Instrument of Pain”, which takes care pain to point out that love isn’t the thing that screws up your life; you are:
Love is not the enemy of life
It’s an important statement because while writing and listening to all these mopey songs about pain and loneliness, we can get into the habit of forgetting that it’s not actually love that is the guilty party in our sorrow; we are. It seems like such a simple statement but it’s funny how rarely someone remembers to point it out in a song, especially in a song called “The Instrument of Pain”. You’d expect the opposite view to be the one taken but Stew is never one to take the expected tack. Instead he calls himself, and all of us to account, ending the song:
Love is not the enemy of life
Love is not the instrument of pain
You don’t get to just cry about it, not without admitting it’s your own fault. You can miss the fact that your mother loved you, and you can drink yourself to death, and you can even choose to spend your life alone…but, at least on this record, you have to look in the mirror and at least admit that you see who’s staring back at you.
At least you get to stare at your own face with a background track of acoustic guitars and banjos and bass and the sound of Stew’s voice and Heidi’s incredible harmonies.
The song that really kills me is “The Sun I Always Wanted”, a birthday wish to Stew’s daughter, in which you realize that all the lessons learned by whatever he may have missed out in not recognizing his mother’s love until it was too late is not going to happen with HIS daughter. Along with David Bowie’s “Kooks” from Hunky Dory, it may be the most perfect rock and roll expression of a father’s love for his child ever written.
I would love to be sitting here writing to you about the way Stew exquisitely captures the pain and lonely emptiness of homelessness in “The Statue Song” and how he manages to utterly capture the plight of a man living on the outside of society and outside of his own life by comparing him metaphorically to a statue. I really want to be writing that because I really think this is the most incredible song.
…Tonight I’ll dream of being a pigeon
Well I had to wake up sometime from this dream
So when you think your life’s not going anywhere…
The only problem is that I KNOW this song was written by Stew when he was commissioned to write a song for an opening at The Getty Museum in LA and that it IS actually a song about a statue because I remember when he told me about the commission.
But I shouldn’t even be writing that like it’s a negative because the truth is that the fucker took that commission and still managed to write a song about a statue that conveys all the things I was just talking about because he is
The song that killed me all summer long when we were on tour was “Way of Life” and it’s still the one that hurts the deepest.
Ostensibly about a one night stand, the verses tell the story of a post office-party screw as if it didn’t matter. They keep scrolling on as if nothing really matters before finally landing on a discussion of a chess shop where old men play as if love and life were just these things we do like plastic pieces in a game. It’s all very cool except it’s all belied by the chorus which keeps reminding us in the painful achingly beautiful refrain that:
Love love love is a way of life
As if Stew’s saying that you can lie all you want about WHAT you care about and WHO you care about, and what you NEED and who you DON’T need, and what matters to you and what DOESN’T matter and whatever else you want to tell yourself. You can tell yourself whatever you want but it’s all just a fucking lie so it doesn’t matter WHAT you say. There is only ONE TRUE THING:
Love love love is a way of life
I didn’t catch the lyric when they were playing it live. I just thought it was an unbelievably beautiful love song. I was disappointed at first when I got the record and discovered it was really just this song about this very banal affair but then I realized what he was really getting at and, once again, I had to face just how much more subtlety and depth he has as a writer than me. That chorus is almost cruel in its’ beauty as it refuses to let them be banal. You can call it a fling all you want, it seems to say, but if you don’t eventually look for something more out of life, you will be left with nothing.
And this choir will STILL endlessly echo in your ears:
Love love love is a way of life
As he says:
Good love should be just like a weekend getaway
…All the kings and pawns and queens of plastic, wood, and steel
Something Deeper Than These Changes is a quieter album than any of the earlier Stew or The Negro Problem albums, dominated by acoustic instruments and voices but it’s every bit as soulful and musical. It just does it more gently, which, considering the subject matter, is perhaps fitting. He has something specific he wants to say on this album and he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of that, even his own musical prowess.
I just realized I wrote all this chronologically beginning with Joys and Concerns, which was the first album of theirs I ever heard, but I forgot that there was an album by The Negro Problem that preceded that album.
Their first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome (1997), is actually pretty amazing. It’s actually a collection of ep’s that the band had been recording for three or four years. In a way, it’s the most aggressively rocking and challenging of the status quo of all the albums, both musically and lyrically. They seem really determined on the large part of to announce themselves to the world. The songs are unabashedly awash in brass and harmonies and politics and humor and anger and woodwinds and attitude…lots of attitude.
It’s got a lot of my favorite TNP songs, songs that are still live staples today. For instance, in the show that Immy and I played with The Negro Problem a few years ago at Symphony Space in NYC, a full 7-8 out of the 19-20 songs played over the course of the show came from Post Minstrel Syndrome. and both sets opened with songs from this album, the first set with “Buzzing” and the second with “If You Would Have Traveled On The 93 North Today”.
Immy and I joined them onstage and opened the evening’s final encores with “Submarine Down”.
It’s kind of shocking me now that I’m back listening to the bootleg what a large portion of the show was devoted to material from PMS (I wanted to abbreviate it that way at least once in this article…because I’m 8).
That’s a lot of songs from an album that I always forget about and think about as a collection of ep’s. The truth is, listening to it now, I’m kind of being blown away at how much I love just about every song on this album. It may be the most fully orchestral “Sgt. Pepper”-ish of all The Negro Problem albums, as well as the most rocking. I wish I had the original ep’s so I could tell which order these songs were all recorded in.
I’m going to take a break from this and listen to the whole concert from Symphony Space. It’s too cool and I can’t enjoy it while I’m writing at the same time.
I just listened to my bootleg of The Negro Problem’s “Silly Symphonies” show (I like to title my bootlegs) again and it made me remember how much I loved that night as a whole. I hadn’t seen The Negro Problem in a few years so it was a really special night. I actually feel silly saying that because I had seen Stew a ton of times in the meantime (and even done a few tours together) and it’s not like they’re not pretty much the same people. But, for whatever reason, they’d been “Stew” for a few years and, at least on this one night, they were “The Negro Problem” again, which is how I was first introduced to them, so I was excited.
It was uptown at Symphony Space (hence the bootleg title “Silly Symphonies”) and I had annoyed the hell out of all my friends telling them they HAD to see this show or I would hate them all or, at the very least, not speak to them. The first part was probably a lie; the second, since I knew this show was, in all likelihood, all I would be talking about for days, probably wasn’t all that far off.
Anyway, it was a great night. They did two full shows with two entirely different sets (three full hours of music) and Immy and I even got to sit in on a few songs at the end of the second set, which was a dream-come-true/nightmare for me (I didn’t want to fuck anything up), especially after Stew insisted I had to sing the lead vocal on “Bleed”. I didn’t exactly show up knowing all the words to the 200 or so songs the guy’s written so I spent most of soundcheck sitting on the side with my iPod (thank god for iPods) frantically scribbling down lyrics for it and the other songs Stew wanted to play in the encores (the fucker actually picked some of the hidden tracks off Joys and Concerns for us to play on HIDDEN TRACKS!!! I mean, I knew the songs but I sure as hell didn’t know the lyrics or the harmonies).
It all went really well. The bootleg’s killer too. It’s funny for me because you can clearly hear Immy, and occasionally my friend Deb Kletter, laughing throughout the whole bootleg (of course you can clearly hear Immy laughing in Cleveland when he’s in Portland so that’s not really such a big deal). I think Ehud must have been sitting either right in front of us or right behind us when he was recording it.
It’s funny how I still get nervous about stuff like that night. I don’t get nervous about our shows but I really don’t like the idea of fucking up my friend’s shows and, for some stupid reason, I still get the idea that I’m going to. It’s dopey because I’m actually kind of good at this sort of stuff at this point in my life, but some part of my brain doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.
There are times when I just want to say to my brain,
“Will you just fucking behave yourself! I mean, I like having you around, and you can certainly be a lot of fun at a party, but mostly just want you to be there so I can do some math when I feel like it or juggle. I used to think you’d be useful when I was talking to girls but that turned out to be a total miscalculation. Mostly though, I just want you to stop with all the extra-curricular shit like the memory gaps and the general hallucinatory crap. Why can’t you behave like everyone else’s brain? Bad brain! Bad brain!”
Okay. That was creepy. I am so clearly loopy and all that did was air it out in public.
Oh well, fuck it. Anyway, I’m going to put the version of “Bleed” that Immy and I played with The Negro Problem at Symphony Space on that wonderful magical silly night up on my MySpace page. I probably have to put it up on the CC page to do that so it’ll be there as well.
Look, as you can tell from this exhaustive article, I love this band. As far as I’m concerned, Stew is the finest songwriter working today and Stew and The Negro Problem make as good, if not better, records than anyone out there. I know you’re probably thinking, “If they’re so good, why haven’t I heard of them?” Well, the truth is that’s the way the world works. There are just a lot of amazing bands that nobody’s ever heard of. And most of them are bands that nobody’s ever GOING to hear of. Some of you may have gotten the Sordid Humor album years ago. They were a great band. They came and they went because nobody got to hear the music until it was too late.
Don’t let that happen here. Don’t miss this band, because they are as good as it gets and they are only getting better.
In case you’re wondering, by the way, why they haven’t released anything since 2003, I assure you it’s not because they were lying around New York City moping (like I was). They were actually developing and working out a theatre piece for the past few years. It’s called Passing Strange and it opened in Berkeley at the Berkeley Rep last Fall and right now it is playing a block from my house at The Public Theatre right here in New York City.
In December, I posted this update on CountingCrows.com after seeing the play in Berkeley:
Dated December 3, 2006 - Evening somewhere above America
So I am endlessly amazed by my friends Stew and Heidi. From the very first time I heard their music in a little hole-in-the-wall record shop in London I have been a huge fan. Their albums with The Negro Problem (Post Minstrel Syndrome, Joys and Concerns, and Welcome Black) and as Stew (Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter and Something Deeper Than These Changes) are some of the best albums of the past decade. I would even go so far as to say that, if you ask me, he’s the best songwriter there is working right now. Friday night in Berkeley, I saw something that will only help to confirm that view in more people’s eyes.
Stew and Heidi and I always talked about our desire to write for the theatre. I still want to do it, maybe after this record. They’re doing it right now. They’ve been work shopping a play through New York’s Public Theatre for the past year or so and this Fall they finally put it into production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. There I sat Friday night, in the theatre where I saw so many plays as a kid, where so many of my friends had performed growing up, watching Stew and Heidi on-stage with three other musicians and six actors in their play “Passing Strange“.
It’s an fantastic musical odyssey that traces the life of a young black musician from his church choir and garage punk band roots in LA’s Crenshaw district through the pot haze of Amsterdam’s coffee shops to the art riots of late 20th Century Berlin and finally back to LA again. It’s about a search for identity. It’s about his memory of a grandmother who was light enough to “pass” for white and the way that memory haunts him in the form of his own endless question of whether or not he is actually “passing” for black. It’s about the fact that Stew and Heidi are just freakishly gifted and the play, while still unfinished and a work-in-progress, is also a work of genius. I’m jealous and I can’t wait until Spring when it opens at the Public Theatre in New York. It closed tonight in Berkeley but I expect to visit Lafayette Street weekly to see how it progresses when it reopens.
How did it turn out?
See for yourself. Here are some excerpts from the New York Reviews:
“FRESH, exuberant, bracingly inventive, BITINGLY FUNNY, and FULL OF HEART” with “A TERRIFIC CAST that delivers perfectly pitched comic performances.”
“With EXCELLENT SONGS and a vulnerable heart, Passing Strange could join HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH as a PUNK MUSICAL MILESTONE.”
“STEW tweaks the received wisdom of racial identity as cannily and wittily as any playwright since George C. Wolfe when he unleashed The Colored Museum in 1986.”
“Passing Strange introduces an EXCITING NEW VOICE to contemporary musical theater. PART CONCERT, PART book MUSICAL with DRIVING ROCK MUSIC and a tart satiric tone Passing Strange DEFIES generic categories. It dares in its playful way to honor those big questions that have set adolescent souls yearning for centuries. How to discover and be true to your convictions, how to live a meaningful life, and still pay the bills, how to find the understanding you need with out throwing away the love you’re offered.”
To quote Isherwood in the closing paragraph of his review:
"For all its witty puncturing of youthful pretension, and despite the sardonic attitude Stew often strikes toward his younger self, Passing Strange is also full of heart. It dares in its playful way to honor those big questions that have set adolescent souls yearning for centuries. How to discover and be true to your convictions, how to live a meaningful life and still pay the bills, how to find the understanding you need without throwing away the love you’re offered. Its mournful finale also acknowledges the damage that accrues in those heedless years spent asking them with such stridency, before you come to realize that learning to listen is just as important as making yourself heard."
Tell all your friends. Make yourself heard.
In the end, you should find your way to this music because it is music worth finding your way to. It’s filled with all the best things that music has to offer you. It’s beautiful and complex and sad and happy and, in the end, deceptively simple.
Because, in the end, I guess it’s just about what I heard when I first listened to their music in that little record store on Blenheim Crescent off the Portobello Road in London: it’s about joys and concerns.
Stew knew what he was doing when he titled that album because…well, I mean, what else is there? It’s all just stories about joys and concerns. It’s all just songs about life.
Read Adam's article in Down the Rabbit Hole (includes music clips).