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Meet Stew, the Best Songwriter in America, and His Negro Problem

Matt Cibula

I'm not really sure if the critical neglect of Stew has anything to do with his being black . . . it's pretty clear that he's just not doing fashionable music.


The Negro Problem, Post Minstrel Syndrome (Smile, 1997)

The Negro Problem, Joys & Concerns (Smile, 1999)

Stew, Guest Host (Telegraph, 2000)

Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (Smile, 2002)

The Negro Problem, Welcome Black (Smile, 2002)

Mark Stewart is an L.A.-based singer/songwriter. In the last four years, he has released two solo albums under the name of Stew, and three with his band, known rather controversially as the Negro Problem. Two of those records, Stew's The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs and TNP's Welcome Black, came out this year on Smile Records, which has also just re-released the first two TNP albums. 2002 is a Stew-stravaganza!

So it seems like this is a good time for me to announce two things. One: Stew is the finest songwriter in the United States of America. Two: he will never break through to a wider audience.

Proof for #1: Well, listen to his stuff. It's only five albums, should be easy. Quick example, lyric division:

Giselle is the cross and the nails and the crown and the thieves.
She howls at the streetlights and dances whenever she pleases.
Giselle is the belle of the ball in play,
Whether spying for the Russians
Or rushing to a plane.
Then it's straight to the stage
In an East Village cellar,
A transgender rendering of Helen Keller.
Cast your fish into her wishing well
And hope you live to tell
Though many may be the number that rang your bell
None cracked it like Giselle

Examples in the music and music+lyrics divisions will follow.

Proof for #2: If Stew or The Negro Problem were going to break big, it would have happened before now. Stew's first solo album, Guest Host, was named by one Entertainment Weekly critic as the top album of 2000, and mainstream crit-love doesn't get more mainstream than that. Stew tends to do very well with critics who work for semi-glossy magazines and medium-sized daily newspapers, but has almost no buzz on the boards, which as we know is the only way to build up a rabid cult audience anymore. I saw reviews of Welcome Black on some other Internet sites, and all of the reviewers were white guys who began by mentioning how "offensive" the group's name was. Uh . . . guys? If your site regularly namedrops groups called Anal Cunt and the Brian Jonestown Experience, you don't get to be offended by "the Negro Problem." Plus, Stew is black, so he can name his band that if he wants to, nyah nyah, deal with it and soon.

I'm not really sure if the critical neglect of Stew has anything to do with his being black. On the one hand, it's pretty clear that he's just not doing fashionable music. TNP is a pop band, and Stew is a pop songwriter, but he defines "pop" in a very broad -- and "uncool" -- sense: everything from Jimmy Webb to XTC, from Paul Hindemith and John Coltrane to Sly Stone and Talking Heads. I hear touches of and tweeish emo-pop on The Naked Dutch Painter, but I also notice a strong Kurt Weill/George and Ira Gershwin influence on the first two tracks, "Single Woman Sitting" and the aforementioned "Giselle"; some straight-ahead woulda-been-a-hit-in-1985 wavestuff like "The Smile" and "Love Is Coming Through the Door", a nine-minute, three-song medley called "The Drug Suite" that sounds Love's Arthur Lee on Jackson Browne-oids, but even better than that sounds; and character-driven Waits-like ballads like "Cold Parade". Needless to say, nothing that's gonna succeed on any radio station not supported by college tuitions.

Welcome Black, which as a band album is clearly the big bid for success, is even bolder in its influences. Here Stew and second-banana MVP Heidi Rodewold (here making her TNP songwriting debut) steal riffs from Andy Partridge, David Bowie, and the Boomtown Rats, among others, and I'm not at all sure that I didn't hear some Led Zeppelin in there somewhere. "In Time All Time" is a tribute to Thelonious Monk that sounds like Revolver-era Beatles but still manages to sneak in the melody from "Blue Monk". (And let's not even get started on Welcome Black's centerpiece, a song called "Bermuda Love Triangle" which sounds a hell of a lot like what would happen if Rupert "Pi-a Colada Song" Holmes got obsessed with french horns, and decided to write a song about a failed three-way that ends in gunfire.) This is pop music, to be sure, but it's not the kind of pop music that critical types are celebrating these days: there's no "electroclash", there's no "nu-wave", no semi-ironic house-diva thump, and no Neptunes anywhere to be seen. Hence: "cool"-critic suicide.

The other TNP albums and Stew's first solo joint demonstrate the man's m.o.: stop worrying about genre and concentrate on what needs to happen to make the song work. "Comikbuchland", off TNP's second album Joys & Concerns, is a gentle moodpiece describing the general ennui of familiarity: "Let me wipe the dirt off of your pearls / And sing you this song while you kink up your curls / You can lecture me about the rain in Leimert Park last Tuesday / In Comikbuchland". The title phrase becomes a place of the heart, a comfort zone full of the spirit-crushing trivialities of a comfortable life: "Decorate the cage in which you dance / With trinkets and art-grant mystics in fake trance / Sleeping on a couch that seats a thousand reasons why you won't leave / Comicbookland". (Stew never prints his lyrics, so I'm okay spelling things any way I want.) All this set to an acoustic guitar-driven sway, with a "mellow" Moog line -- but who else would insert a version of the wah-wah bass synth riff from Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" in there? Only someone who wanted to emphasize the hints that this is about the African American bourgeoisie, and ain't no one talking about that except Stew these days. And who else would come up with an 1980s-style power-pop raveup version of the same song called "The Rain in Leimert Park Last Tuesday" later in the album?

He's a walking singing encyclopedia of styles, he is. The first TNP album, Post Minstrel Syndrome, was very clear about this from the beginning. The first song, "Birdcage", managed to incorporate ironic bubblegum "la-la" vocals into early 1990s shimmerpop with a funky bassline (and "make it funky now" interjections) to take the L.A. Times to task for its bullshit arts coverage: "It's nice to know that Goldie Hawn has a tortured soul / But what does Robert Hilburn know about rock and roll?" Calling out L.A.'s top music writer on your very first track is pretty audacious, but the rest of the album was wilder: the garage mariachi of "If You Would Have Traveled on the 93 North Today" with its refrain of "Cellular phone / In a cardboard home"; the flat-out prog-pomp of "The Meaning of Everything" where he disses Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams for filling the world with false analyses of behavior; the multi-part reggae-to-gypsy-waltz-to-psychedelia-and-back examination of ghetto life of "Mrs. Jones"; the mournful folk that compliments the mournful black-culture rant "Doubting Uncle Tom". (That's not counting the cover of "Macarthur Park" where he sings "Someone left the crack out in the rain".) Diversity of style and taste and experience is central to Stew's view of the world, and this too is hopelessly uncool in a world where you are supposed to stick to one identifiable worldview so that critics like Robert Hilburn -- and me -- can pigeonhole you and chart your "progress."

If the theme of Post Minstrel Syndrome was "Picking Through the Detritus of (African) American Culture to Find Something Real," the theme of Joys & Concerns was clearly "The (Im)Possibility of Human Communication". Besides the two versions of "Comicbuchland" mentioned above, we get a mission statement in song form, the Fifth-Dimension-from-Hell "Heads", which posits that "Between people's heads / Is life, flaming red". This central theme, the missed and made connections between damaged people, is carried forth in "Bleed", where Stew's narrator finds himself needing to ruin his naive suburban girlfriend's life with anger because that's the role she wants him to take: "She isn't dreamy / She just needs to see me / Drowning in the mainstream flow / Frowning wherever I go / So come down now little one / Leave your place in the sun." The theme is even carried forward in relatively off-the-cuff songs like "Peter Jennings" and "Goode Tyme" and the devastating "Ken", a song written from the point of view of Barbie's boyfriend: "My name's Ken / And I like men / But the people let me tell / In the home that I call hell / Are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities / It's safe to say that they are really pissed at me." And "Come Down Now", the "closing" song (not really, because of the bonus tracks, but you get the idea) is a gospel-flavored flat-out plea for emotional honesty: "So come down now / Remove your bandage / So I can see your damage / More than the law allows."

Guest Host was next; no Negro Problem moniker here, but it's clear that Stew wanted to express a whole lot of naked emotion and didn't want to drag his band along for the ride. (Actually, both "Stew" albums are aided and abetted by TNP bass-player and kindred spirit Heidi Rodewald, who used to be in Wednesday Week.) The theme of Guest Host seems at first to be "Addiction and Its Discontents," especially early on, with tracks like "Cavity" ("I was blind till I ate your sweet things") and the oft-quoted "Re-Hab" ("When she got out of rehab for the very first time / She was very very very very very very very very very very very very optimistic"). But it's clear by the end that this is an album concerned primarily with "Vulner- and Other Abilities". Stew is baring everything that is his soul: the dirty jokes that keep us (from) feeling love ("She's Really Daddy Feelgood"), the gender-/genre-fucks of "Into Me" and "Man in a Dress", the psalm to the ideal woman in "Sister/Mother". By the time you've traversed these minefields -- most of them more straightforward folk-rock and bounce-pop than on any TNP album -- you've learned more about a man than in any other LP I can think of, and the upbeat lovefest "C'mon Everybody" comes as a welcome relief.

Which leads us to the double barrels of this year's albums. I've already discussed the musical landscapes of the two earlier, but let's talk themes again. They both talk about favorite Stew subjects: drugs being good or maybe just not-bad, male/female relationships being weird, the music business being hopelessly screwed, character sketches, etc. But there is a very different focus on each. Welcome Black is bouncy and dense, like all other TNP albums, but is imbued with a recurrent focus on "How We Console Ourselves to Survive These Days". It starts with a mission statement called "Father Popcorn", in which Stew expresses his artistic dilemma, wanting to write great poppy songs that stick in the memory without putting us "in a pop coma" or "in the popcorn machine". (Brecht's V-Effekt to thread!) Stew and Rodewald (who sings and co-writes here more than she ever has before) introduce us to other characters who are searching for similar validation. The narrator of "Watering Hole" is a stressed-out businessman who flees to his club to get quietly and happily sloshed, and his kids are probably taught by the heroes of "Lime Green Sweater:" Mrs. X the librarian and Mr. Y the teacher, who meet to "burn some rope together" and reward themselves for their hard work. They all probably walk right by the homeless ranter of "I'm Sebastian Cabot," who can only get by by not quite realizing that he's not really the star of "Family Affair." And "In Time All Time" is that song where Stew celebrates how Thelonious Monk saved his life: "It's like my birthday every day / Cause Mr. Monk is such a ray of wisdom and light / He dried all the fears from my eyes / And in time all time will be time." This is how we get by -- or try to -- in this world. It's stunning.

The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs is another warts-and-all portrait of Mark Stewart, except this time he appears to be (the theme, please) "In Love". Large parts of the album were recorded live in L.A., and then the whole thing was moved into the studio so that Stew could add phalanxes of sound to it. It sounds spontaneous and controlled at the same time, and (except for "The Drug Suite") all the lyrics point to the glory and sadness and confusion that add up to modern relationships; one can't help but fall for "North Bronx French Marie" with her "punk rock T-shirt melting in the sun", for Giselle and the Single Woman Sitting, for the broken majorette in "Cold Parade" and the naked Dutch painter of the title track. This last character inhabits one of the finest songs of our time; I shan't spoil the graceful flow of this narrative, but it is just as humanistic and sympathetic as any short story I've read recently and twice as direct. Hell, even the three songs that make up "The Drug Suite" have love as their central reason for existing: all the kids tripping on acid fall for each other in "I Must Have Been High"; Stew bemusedly watching all the people at a fancy party getting drunk and high and wishing that he could do it too in "I'm Not on a Drug"; and the youthful rush the teenagers in "Arlington Hill (The Baby You Need Jesus Baptist Church Youth Choir Invites You Thus)" get from toking up in a VW Bug and then going to sing in their church all full of THC and love of God.

This is already the longest piece I've ever written for PopMatters, and the longest one I ever hope to write. I could easily write another of equal length detailing the racial signifiers in these five albums, or Stew's relationship to Jimmy Webb and other classic 1960s songwriters, or a number of other things. Instead, I'll just end it here. He's the best. He'll never be more than a cult artist because he's too damned good. I hope the second statement is wrong, but I know the first one is right.

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