Jun 3, 2016

The Stew Files

I first saw Stew performing in the mid-1990s with a band improbably named Crazy Sound All-Stars at the Onyx coffeehouse in Los Feliz; I was invited by a college friend, Carey Fosse, who was playing guitar with the band. I distinctly remember a few things about the set: There was a song in 7/4; there was a song, as Stew explained in a bit of signature preamble patter, about an ex-girlfriend's attempt to make him stick around by using an old hoodoo spell that included her putting her menstrual blood in his food; and there was Stew's strong, unmistakeable but lightly worn trickster presence.

I didn't actively follow his and Heidi Rodewald's band, the Negro Problem, in subsequent years, but I almost didn't have to; his raised-eyebrow visage and the band's signature post-Beatles power pop were all over L.A. in the late '90s/early aughts. By the time Passing Strange came around, he and Rodewald were no longer Angelenos, but that city's suburban smog and sunshine still seemed to pulse through their music, and that give me a common frame of reference with them; add in the rock reference points and theatre reference points, and you have a recipe for a long, deep affinity that culminated with my recent piece for the Times about Stew & Heidi's current Public Theatre show The Total Bent.

That's just the latest in a string of pieces I've scribbled about Stew and his work over the years. It began when I was writing for TDF, for whom I interviewed Heidi on the eve of Passing Strange's opening on Broadway, who told me "We're at this point because we didn't think of Broadway," and one of the show's sensational stars, de'Adre Aziza, who said she identified "more as a musician than as an actor" (which sells her talent a bit short---she's great at both). Around the same time I mused in this space about the surprisingly logical convergence of "indie" rock and nonprofit theatre.

Then at American Theatre I wrote this big, honkin' cover story about "band musicals,", in which Stew and Heidi were primary sources, naturally. My conversation with them was so rich, in fact, that I later serialized it in its near-entirety in this space, kicking it off with one of my most popular posts ever, "Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)." The following summer they were preparing an original musical for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Family Album, and I had the chance to write a lengthy piece about that for the OSF subscribers' magazine Illuminations; none of that material is online except for this taste (click the "more information" line).

For the piece about The Total Bent for the paper of record, I had more long, searching talks with Stew about rock, theatre, and religion. In the Times piece I closed this way:
Another pet topic of Stew’s that gets a workout is the intersection of rock and religion, the ostensible battle between God and the devil that’s long been a blues trope. Stew said he “never really got the whole sacred/profane duality. I connected church to rock ’n’ roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other.” As one character says in “The Total Bent,” “Blues is just gospel’s last name.”

This is more than simple music criticism; the metaphor is reciprocal. To Stew, the notion of “going into a place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit” aptly describes both a sanctuary and a rock club.

“That makes it impossible for me to criticize believers,” he said, “because I, too, believe in this invisible thing that I can’t point to or explain but I know is there. I can’t point to the chord that made me a better person. It’s not that different.”
The full exchange that was taken from went as follows. Stew explained that the church he grew up in, Messiah Baptist on Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles, was the kind of place where "the Holy Spirit visited; he checked in, but not every Sunday. I think the Holy Ghost spent more time at the storefront church." Messiah's more chilled-out Christianity ("All the questioning, all the gender stuff, the healings---those didn’t happen at my church") meant that's Stew main takeaway was
this idea that I’m going into this place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit. So I never really got the whole scared/profane duality. I connected church to rock 'n' roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other. The music was always rockin' in my church. I learned to sing in church, I learned to play guitar. All my church friends were black rock geeks; on the surface, they were good boys, but they were smoking pot and listening to white rock music. I mean, my first joint was passed to me in the basement of that church. I had a little church band for a minute where we were seeing how much we could get away with. One time we did the Velvets' "Sunday Morning." We wrote some original songs. We weren’t heretics.
That rang with me for a lot of reasons, the most immediate being that the Sunday after Lou Reed died, I sang both "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" with my own little church band in Brooklyn. As LP records taught us, it all comes full circle.