Several years of daydreaming became reality in April when we managed to get John Stewart over to play at our Roundhouse Fifth Anniversary Event, and it looks as though his magnificent performance there will act as a springboard to wider acclaim in Britain.
In the most euphoric atmosphere, and in front of the best and most enthusiastic audience I've ever known at the Roundhouse, John, backed superbly by Arnie 'Debauchee' Moore on bass and Pete 'the Brighton Flyer' Thomas on drums, ripped out the most amazing set I've ever witnessed.
We plan to present a detailed 'History of John Stewart' very soon, but in the meantime we thought you'd be interested in this interview conducted by Peter O'Brien, who edits the excellent Omaha Rainbow. John talks about his contemporaries, his influences, about California, touring, writing, and his visit to England, but the interview begins with a discussion about his latest album, 'THE PHOENIX CONCERTS',a live double album produced by the one and only Nik Venet. At present only available as an import, the deliriously happy RCA Records plan to rush it out here as quickly as possible. Pete Frame.
ZZ: How did you get back with Nik Venet? Did you get in touch with him, or what?
JS: The idea was just sort of in the wind. I started thinking about Nik; I'd say "where is Nik Venet, these days?" and people would say he was in Europe, or gone off someplace - and I'd say "well, I'd sure like to see him again". Then, when Pete Frame tracked him down and interviewed him, then interviewed me and printed that piece about 'California Bloodlines' (in Zigzag 38), I thought to myself "I've got to find Nik and see what he's doing".....and then he came into town one day and we met up; something happened with fate and time, and we got together.
ZZ: Can we talk about the people who play on the album with you?
JS: Sure. Dan Dugmore played steel guitar; he's a young pedal steel player from California - he hasn't been heard very much yet, but he will be....he's a real comer - also plays electric guitar incredibly well. Arnie Moore, who came to England with me, of course, played bass, and my brother Michael played rhythm guitar. John Douglas, who is my road drummer and piano player, played keyboard. Loren Newkirk who's been with me a long time, played keyboard too. Jim Gordon played drums. Mike Settle, who was one of the Cumberland Three (John's turn of the sixties folk group), sang background.
ZZ: Had he ever sung with you since the Cumberland Three?
ZZ: It must have been real deja-vu to have him there....
JS: Yeah, it really was - sitting there at rehearsal, looking over at Mike 12 or 13 years later was really strange. And Buffy (Ford) sang background too, plus a fellow named Denny Brooks, who was in a group called The Back Porch Majority - he's a really fine songwriter and singer. That was about it, I think.
ZZ: A lot of people - you're not used to working with that many, are you?
JS: No, I sure wasn't; it was quite an adjustment to make - I usually go out with just bass and drums.
ZZ: Did you do much rehearsal?
JS: We rehearsed for a week. . . . well, for four days actually - which wasn't enough....we should've had more.
ZZ: I suppose there were other commitments, were there?
JS: It was very close; I'd been out on the road and just got in from Denver got in that day and began rehearsals a few hours later. . . . then for 4 days, after which we flew to Phoenix and did the concert. There wasn't a lot of time to spare.
ZZ: You recorded two concerts, right?
JS: Yeah, we had two gigs arranged, and we recorded both - but we got nothing the first night. . . . everything went wrong.
ZZ: A bit worrying. . .
JS: It sure was. Nik Venet and I looked at each other when we heard the tapes of the first night and said "if we don't get it tonight, we can both join the plumbers' union" - you know? We were a little anxious! Anyway, just for protection, we went in that afternoon and recorded some stuff without the audience being there. But it was alright on the Saturday evening; out of some 24 tunes we managed to get 20 which were usable - and about eighteen of those are on the album. So in the end, everything worked out ok and we were quite pleased.
ZZ: "Quite pleased" is an understatement, I would imagine.
JS: Yes. . . . we were del ighted, in fact.
ZZ: The concerts were only at the end of March and yet you had finished pressings when you came over just a month later - Nik must've worked his balls off to mix and edit the tapes so quickly!
JS: It was a gruelling month - one of the most exhausting months I've had in years; on the road, rushing back to LA to rehearse, doing the concerts, then flying back to start work on the mixing. After mixing for hours, we discovered that the studio we were using was no good - we got it home and it sounded dreadful. . . . so we had to go in and mix the whole thing again. We ended up doing it all in one night! It was touch and go there for a while, you know; it got to the point where I told Nik that it was an irrecoverable piece of shit and just couldn't come out - but we persevered and the tunes on it started to come to life. In the end, we completed the final mix in one eighteen hour session.
ZZ: You telling Nik it can't come out must've really spurred him on.
JS: Well, not really - he was confident all along because he had a perspective on it; he kept insisting "John, it'll be alright. . . it's there; believe me everything we need is on those tapes". The thing is that making a live album is so different than a studio one - you lose all the advantages that a studio affords you obviously; you don't have, that clarity of sound, you don't have twenty takes to get it if it's not right . . . . so you have to approach a live recording from a different angle. Does it feel good, is it alive, is it moving? You have to disregard anxieties like "am I out of tune there? is my phrasing correct? are we together on that line? I'd like to do that bit again". Doing twenty songs in one take, one right after the other, you can't think like that. When we got the tapes home, I was really worried that a lot of the songs didn't hold up - like the choir wasn't right on 'Shoot All The Brave Horses'. . . . I thought to myself "this is just dreadful - what a dreadful album this will be". Then I had a good listen to Paul Simon's live album. I have a great respect for Paul Simon; I think he's one of the most exacting people that ever recorded - and yet I discovered all the mistakes on his album that I'd heard on mine. So then I listened to a couple of other live albums and came to the conclusion that mine was alright after all! That's how a live album is supposed to be. . . . to show the human side of it rather than the clinical side, to present rawness rather than perfection. So, going back and listening to the album again, I thought "yes, it is raw, it is real, it has that element to it; it's cinema-veritee as opposed to studio produced movies - it's almost a documentary rather than a feature film". So once that paranoia was over, the album was on its way.
ZZ: Arnie told me that Jim Gordon was the only session musician brought in by Nik - is that right?
JS: Yes. I wanted Russ Kunkel,whos worked with me often enough to know my songs - but he was on tour with Steve Stills. I called him in New York and he said "John, I'd love to do it, but I don't know if I can", so I explained that it was a rush job and that I needed to know right then, and he said "I realise the situation - you better go ahead and ask Jim Gordon". Jim was fine, but Russell really knows my tunes; he's recorded a lot of them, played on the road with me. Jim was on 'Signals Through The Glass' (John's first post Kingston Trio album, with Buffy Ford) and played on the single of 'Wheatfield Lady' (never released here), but that was it. . . . . he didn't know the material, and it's asking a lot of a man to go and record 24 songs all at once - a really tremendous concentration task.
ZZ: It's a compliment to him that as many as 20 were usable.
JS: Absolutely - it shows the genius of Jim Gordon.
ZZ: Did you discuss with Nik all the people you wanted with you?
JS: Oh yeah, we went over everyone. My road band knew the tunes, and I wanted them along - Dan Dugmore, positively, and Arnie without a doubt and Loren Newkirk had played very well in the past, on concerts and things. John Douglas, who plays drums on the road, is a piano player too - and we decided to take a chance with him. We had never used him on keyboards, but he worked out quite well - in fact, he played some of the outstanding piano parts on the album. . . . on 'Runaway Fool Of Love' and 'Cops', particularly.
ZZ: How did you come to have Mike Settle there?
JS: Well, Mike was in town, and I knew he had an incredible tenor voice. . . . and I wanted to keep the thing together with friends, rather than have some guy in there that I didn't know. So Mike was an easy choice, and so was Denny - I knew that he did some of my songs in his show, knew how well he sang, and had known him for many years.
ZZ: Was there anyone apart from Russ Kunkel that you would have liked?
JS: I was going to try and get Henry Diltz along to sing some background vocals - but luckily he was in Australia with David Cassidy! I say "luckily" because Henry would have just gone berserk on that; there was so much to rehearse and so little time, and Henry is a complete clown. . . . we wouldn't have got anything done if he'd been there, fooling around like he does.
ZZ: Was that your ideal back-up band? I mean, if you could have anyone, who would you choose?
JS: I'd have Dan Dugmore, Arnie, Russ Kunkel, and I'd like a really dynamite keyboard player. I mean, John is good and Loren is with a band now. I'd also like to have someone like Peter Jameson along to play acoustic guitar - to do a few really tasty acoustic things together. That would be the band. . . . and I'd I ike some singers too. . . .
ZZ: You'd end up like Mad Dogs And Englishmen. . . .
JS: Yeah, but it'd be great fun - to get all that music happening on stage.
ZZ: Obviously these are all people you respect - which artists do admire and respect?
JS: James Taylor - I think he's an artist as opposed to just a plunker. Paul Simon is fantastic. Bob Dylan is the king of songwriters. I like Carole King - though I didn't care too much for her last album. I like the earlier Joni Mitchell songs. . . . I thought she was brilliant. I like Elvis when he's hot like on that Live from Las Vegas album. I like some of Jim Croce's stuff a whole lot. Linda Ronstadt is fantastic - she has a lot of heart when she sings, and heart is desperately missing in pop music today. Jesse Winchester is just incredible, and a guy called Tom Waits has an album on Asylum called 'Closing Time' which is fantastic. I'm also a big fan of John Denver; I think John has got one of the best pop voices around, he's a really fine guitar player, a beautiful melodic writer, and he has a great childlike quality that he's managed to retain - an innocence in his work that's unbelievable to me. . . . I don't know how he can still write from that perspective. A lot of people are down on John Denver in America - they say he's too sweet, kissy, sentimental.
ZZ: What about groups?
JS: I love the Roll ing Stones - they've got to be the best rock band ever. The Beatles, of course. .. . that goes without saying - they were THE group.
ZZ: Did you ever see them live?
JS: Twice. Isaw fhem in New York, but couldn't hear them at all. Then I saw them in San Francisco, at the baseball park. I was up in the bleachers towards the side, and the speakers were very loud - so loud that they obliterated all the sereaming. They were astounding - incredibly loud and incredibly precise. . . . I was just flabbergasted at how really good they were. They did none of their "artsy" songs - stuck to stuff like 'Dizzy Miss Lizzie', 'Baby's in Black' and 'Good Golly Miss Molly', though McCartney did 'Yesterday' I seem to remember. They were just fantastic! What a group! They were the writers and . . . . they were the Sixties. That group changed the world; changed the musical tastes of the world and changed the culture of the world.
ZZ: What about American groups?
JS: I do like The Eagles. They're incredibly good musicians and fine singers. 'Take it Easy' is one of my favourite songs of the past couple of years - even if its story line is a little too reminiscent of 'July You're A Woman' for my sensibilities. . . . but I thirnk that they are great.
ZZ: Talking of 'Take It Easy', I love Jackson Browne.
JS: Right. Jackson writes some fine songs; 'Rock me on the water' and 'These Days', I really like.
ZZ: I've just thought - what about that John Phillips album (Frame's favourite), 'The Wolf King of LA'?
JS: Oh well, John! I'm glad you mention him. Yes, that's one of my favourite albums of all time. It wears so well. . . . so well done - and yet it did nothing at all in America. There again, so many good things get lost over there. I thought that album was just inspired, so brilliant. He's so bright and so good; it's incredible to me that it didn't sell. It wears for years. I can play that album alI the time and not get tired of it. . . . I often put it away if I feel myself getting worn with it, but I always bring it out and play it again.
ZZ: I loved the Mamas & Papas; when I first heard 'California Dreaming', I couldn't believe my ears.
JS: Well, let me tell you a story about that. During my Trio days, I'd known John really well when he was in a folk group called The Journeymen. We'd written some songs together out in California - like 'Chilly Winds' and 'Oh, Miss Mary' - and at one time I was going to leave the Trio and sing in a new group with John Phillips and Scott McKenzie. . . . a great singer, Scott McKenzie. I'd told the Trio I was leaving but then I got a call from John saying "look - we'd better not do it after all; Scott's locked himself in his hotel room in New York and hasn't come out for 4 days. . . . I think we'd better forget it". So I did a little toedance and went back to the Kingston Trio. But John and I remained friends, although I didn't see him for about a year and a half; he'd been in the Virgin Islands with Denny Doherty and Michelle, but I saw him again when they came back to California. Frank Werber (their manager) and the Kingston Trio had this office in San Francisco, and I was sitting in there one day - writing songs or something - when who should walk in but the very same John Phillips. He told me about his new group and said "I'd like you to hear us and maybe produce us". So I said "by all means, John. . . . let's hear what you've got there". So he played me 'California Dreaming' right there in the office, with the group, and I could not believe what I was hearing! I just fell off my chair! Well, I rushed into Frank Werber's room and said "you have gold sitting in your office. . . John PhFllips". Do you know what he said? "I don't want him in the building. Get him out of here". I pleaded, but he was firm. . . . no. So I had to tel l John that Frank wasn't interested. John went to LA and got with Lou Adler; the rest, as they say, is history.
ZZ: Amazing! Do you ever see John now - because that was the one thing that disappointed Pete on his visit to California. . . that he couldn't, track down John Phillips.
JS: You can't see John these days. . . . it's just impossible. I haven't seen him in years - he's such a recluse now, but I did hear that he was making another album somewhere and he was producing his wife and someone else. . . . so I do hope there'll be another John Phiilips album soon.
ZZ: At the risk of destroying a lot of illusions, I'd like to talk about what it's like being a singer in your position, always out on the road.
JS: There is no middle class in music; either you're a star, or else you're scuffling. I'm in something of a unique position because in Phoenix, Arizona, I am a star! The treatment there is first class, but that's an exception.
When I go out on the road, it's to do a tour put together by my manager. I load my amps and guitars into my '62 Ford Pickup, go to the airplane and we fly off to someplace like Billings Montana, where we (Arnie, John the drummer, and I) load all the equipment into a station wagon. We drive sixty miles, unload the gear and set it up ourselves; discover the sound system in the place is a piece of shit; we go and check into a Holiday Inn just in time to have a shower before getting back to do the gig; then we take down the equipment again, load it into the station wagon and drive back to the motel; we get a bite to eat and then go to bed; next day we get up and drive somewhere else - or board another plane. . . . and that's it. It's incredibly boring. . . . you live 24 hours a day for that one, or maybe two, hours on stage. All the rest is just agony.
ZZ: So why do you do it?
JS: What else would I do?
ZZ: You tell me.
JS: It's better than working!
ZZ: That's a good answer.
JS: There's another answer, of course. The reason I keep doing it is because of the incredible high you get when you do what you do and it goes over well. As I've said before on stage, I know guys who will fly across the country to get laid, so we go out and. . . . life is getting high. That's all there is to life - getting high. I don't mean getting stoned . . . . I mean enjoying it, getting off, getting that exhileration. That's why people race cars, or play sports, or have a hobby. . . . it's something that gets them off. That's all there is. Without that there's nothing happening here - nothing happens here on this planet, nothing happens at all. Shakespeare knew that! Everything here is bullshit; it's all bullshit, it's all meaningless. So it's only meaningfull if it gets you high. If someone walks into a room which contains Paul Simon and Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell and Marlon Brando - he'd freak out, seeing all those people in the same room. . . . but if you took in a guy from Red China, he would have no idea who they were - he couldn't care less! So what does that make Paul McCartney? Nothing. He's only as good as how high you get. There is nothing of significance here - it's only if you make it significant. So, to be able to give people that feeling, and to get it back, is an incredible experience. It's something that you can't get by working in an office, I don't think.
ZZ: How much do you need to be on the road as a source of material for your songwriting?
JS: Not at all. I always go out with an open eye and try to take everything in, but I can't write on the road - it's just too much hard work. Sitting in a Holiday Inn room isn't the most perfect environment for writing - my mental processes just won't work. The reason I go on the road is to pay the bills. If I had my choice, I'd just do a few key concerts and spend the rest of the time writing. . . . but I don't have the choice. I'm going to spend most of the Summer writing though - hopefully - because I want my next album to be my best yet. . . . and so far, I have only about three songs that I consider worthy enough - so I've got a lot of writing to do. I have to make time to do that.
ZZ: Your songs are America to me - and I think that if I went over there I'd see a reality. . .
JS: I don't think you would.
ZZ: If I went to places you sang about I think I would.
JS: If you went to Bolinas you might - but I, like John Denver, tend to write about how I would like things to be, and how they once were in America - rather than how they are now. 'Kansas Rain' (on 'Sunstorm' and also on 'Phoenix Concerts') is representative of how things are now, and there are parts of America where 'July, you're a woman' (on 'California Bloodlines' and 'The Phoenix Concerts') is a reality - places like the San Joaquin Valley. . . the pickup trucks, the way the people live - I really love that part of America. It's the cities I can't tolerate.
ZZ: Could you describe what California means to you?
JS: Home! It's home and it's sunshine. . . . it's so many things. It's the beach; it's green hills; it's the San Joaquin Valley; it's Los Angeles with it's tacky flamboyant jive and its fast pace; it's Mill Valley with its green trees and relaxed people; it's San Francisco; it's the Golden Gate Bridge; it's where I grew up; Hollywood Park Racetrack; Pomona County Fairground where E.A. Stuart drove his horse; it's skiing at Lake Tahoe; it's Monterey and driving down Highway One on this incredibly curved road; it's great gnarled trees hanging out over the Ocean; it's Bolinas - a little art community that was once a fishing village, and where the farmland rolls right down to the sea. It's more than that. . . . . it's hope; it was the hope of America. America was always moving to California; California was eureka! It was gold; it was the land of opportunity; it was where things happened, Things still do happen in California - it's a trendsetter. California is a magnet for people who make things happen. To me, California is America. It has a feel all to itself - same as Kansas has a feel all to itself. It's a very magical name. . . . a magical sounding name. California! It has a goldness to it. . . a ring to it . . . . a bell-l ike tone.
ZZ: Totally magical to people like me, I tell you!
JS: It is - it's magical!
ZZ: You obviously love the country so much.
JS: Yeah. . . . I really do. Good people, you know?
ZZ: And you speak up for the good side of America.
JS: Well, someone has to. It's the part of America that people don't choose to look at. Americans have a terrible tendency to think that the government is America. . . but they are America - the people. That's the whole point of'Mother Country' - that the people are America. People are people, no matter where you go. The Jekyll and the Hyde. Even with their faults and their laziness, they're an incredibly hardy, courageous, durable people, Americans. If America survives what it's going through now, which I don't know if it will, it will be because of its hardiness, its incredible heart. Much like the English people in the Second World War there is incredible heart in America and a great deal of compassion.
There's a great deal of ignorance as well. . . a great deal of naivete - America's a child that doesn't know what it wants and doesn't know what it has. Songs are a way of preserving, a way of showing. That's what art is. To show people the obvious, because people don't see the obvious.
But America is full of colourful people, colourful characters and towns. Cheyenne. Great names. Great history. America has an incredibly great, bloody history; not so much "great" in the sense of "good", but "great" in its sensational epic aspects. It's great in its heroes, even though its heroes were rascals, terrible people who took the land from the Indians and all that.
But there are still some really great heroes; Robert E Lee, Buffalo Bill Cody, and people like that. . . . so magical that the whole world is aware of them. The whole world is aware of the American cowboy; the American cowboy is the universal character in the world today. . . . everyone can identify with that real man; the loner with his horse on the plains. Everybody can identify with that sort of thing - you see it in England, you see it in Japan. . . . there's just a magic to the cowboy and the American West.
ZZ: Coming on to the trip to England. . . .
JS: Do you know that this visit was only confirmed 4 days before we left? It was a real mad dash to get my passport in order, get packed and ready.
ZZ: Were you excited by the prospect of playing here?
JS: Oh yeah - I'II say I was. . . . I was extremely excited. Since Pete Frame came out to see me in Mill Valley last November, and yourself producing 'Omaha Rainbow' (named after one of John's songs), and learning that there were actually people over here in England that had heard of me and knew what I did. . . I was really excited about coming over.
ZZ: How did you feel after the gig at the Roundhouse?
JS: Just knocked out - so completely exhilerated. . . . it was a great shock to get that sort of reaction - I was so happy.
ZZ: What struck you most about England?
JS: The way that it's managed to keep its tradition, I think. America, with all its growing pains, has really lost all its tradition. . . but I love England, just love being here.
ZZ; One last question - are the songs on 'The Phoenix Concerts' your personal favourites?
JS: Yes, they are - even though there are one or two others I'd like to have included; 'Let the big horse run' just didn't make it, 'Wind dies down' and 'Lady and the Outlaw' didn't come off very well either, but other than that, I think we got what we wanted.
ZZ: That's it, John. Thanks very much. . . . hope it wasn't too bad as interviews go.
JS: No, it was a fun interview to do - we talked about things I never get to talk about.