June 24, 2020

Celebrating Stew: Of Songs and Statues and Love That Can’t Be Measured

By Stuart Mitchner

Finally a dream worth remembering. If only I can remember it. For far too long, with rare exceptions, my dreams have been about trivial tasks and futile deliberations, like asking directions to places you don’t even want to go, and looming in the background always the same monumental obstacle that can’t be moved or toppled or made to vanish. Last night I woke up worn out but smiling, aware that I’d been toiling, climbing, slipping and almost falling, but not afraid, never for a minute. All I knew was the dream had something to do with statues.

And why not, with statues being toppled here, there, and everywhere, all over the world. At the moment I’m  remembering the opening scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, where a crowd of dignitaries is gathered for the unveiling of a monument to “Peace and Prosperity” composed of three figures, a seated female flanked by two male warriors, one wielding a sword. The unveiling of the Olympian tableau reveals the tramp, “the Little Fellow,” curled up asleep in the female figure’s lap. The dignitaries are not amused and shout at him, he tries to scramble to his feet but his baggy trousers get caught on the sword, which seems to hoist him, wriggling, tipping his derby, as the band plays the National Anthem.

“The Statue Song”

I’d been up past three the previous night when I saw an online New York Times front page photograph showing two NYPD cars in front of the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History. My first thought was of a New York night in the mid-sixties with an old friend that began with us throwing snowballs at the statue after sharing a pint of Old Crow. We had nothing against TR, no agenda, we were just “doing what comes naturally” because he was so monumentally there, not because he was “a symbol of colonialism and racism flanked by a Native American man and an African man.” 

The image of a statue in the snow enduring what statues have always had to put up with, even at the best of times, sent me to a song by Stew (born Mark Stewart), best-known for the award-winning Broadway musical Passing Strange. In “The Statue Song,” from his third solo album, Something Deeper Than These Changes, the statue tells us he’s tired of holding this sword, tired of standing still “looking dignified against my will,” and tired of looking at tourists with their “stupid pig-faced grins.” All he wants is “to be indoors again” with the hotel maid who once quenched his “lethal thirst” and sent him on his way. But he’s dealing with it, the fog’s his friend, the rain’s his “mistress fair,” he and the snow “see eye to eye,” and at least the wind won’t mess up his hair. The maid’s told him he’s no different from most men she’s been out with, asked him how it feels “right now,” while he dreams of being a pigeon on a rooftop in the sun, and of “reading newspapers, the left- and right-wing ones,” and of impossible movies, and of a scoop of ice cream. All through this soulful, melodically irresistible lament, the wistful refrain is “to be indoors again,” until the singing statue bows gently, gracefully out, “Well, I had to wake up sometime from this dream of being real — they put me here exposed to the world — then expect me not to feel — so if you feel your life’s not going anywhere, please consider me, dear friend — out here in the fog with the tourists and the dogs while you’re indoors again.”

Love Like That

Something Deeper Than These Changes appeared in 2003, the year I began writing for Town Topics, the year we lost a beloved tuxedo cat named Dizzy (“the best cat ever”), and a month later adopted two newborn tuxedo kittens who could have been his kids. We named them after Nick and Nora Charles, the effervescent couple from the Thin Man movies played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick was loveable but rarely effervescent, while Nora was a screwball comedy, a Disney cartoon, a creature feature, and a silent musical all in one. Most kittens meet the challenge of climbing and descending the stairs in their own sweet way, but Nora slid down the bannister. Nor did she simply trip kittenishly up the stairs: she took them in three effortless bounds. She did not romp: she flew. And she danced. And tried to swing from the chandelier. The gavottes we witnessed had to be seen to be believed. When confronted by a suspect obstacle or a toy mouse she would jump straight up, halfway to the ceiling.

Writing seven years ago on the eve of Schubert’s birthday, I pictured Nora as the 19th-century Viennese equivalent of the feline I imagined at the composer’s feet gazing up at him the way cats do, as if he and the world were one.

My wife and I shared a bed with both cats until Nick died two years ago April. His ashes and Dizzy’s are buried in the backyard under a small monument, a stone cat gazing upward in that you-and-the-world-are-one way, except that the objects in its line of sight are two bird feeders, drive-ins for woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, and a certain indefatigable squirrel. Now Nora’s 17 and ailing and will be out there with the other two before long.

But for now she still shares our bed, and on the night I revisited “The Statue Song,” she was keeping my side warm, and knew to make room, while I read the booklet of Stew’s lyrics by the little booklight and found what I’d been looking for. The first song on Something Deeper is “Love Like That Can’t Be Measured Anyway.” I’ll admit that being from Kansas, I may have been susceptible to a lyric that opens with reference to the sun and the moon and the rain and how the singer’s domain “stretched and yawned along the astral plains” from “cosmic Kansas” to L.A. 

As with so much of Stew’s music, the melody and the singing and his creative partner Heidi Rodewald’s harmonies bring it all home, “the need to feel” because “love is more than real” and “love like that can’t be measured any way.” At the same time, it’s clear that this is the song that above all others must have inspired Passing Strange, the story of a middle-class black kid from LA who doesn’t fit any kind of racial, social, or cultural stereotype (neither the “home boy” nor the good boy) goes to Europe, and discovers his voice, his art, his everything.

Discovering Stew

Back in August 2002 when I called the box office at the Bowery Ballroom for tickets for my son and I to see Arthur Lee and Love, I asked about the act opening for him. “Who’s this guy Stew anyway?” I was referred to a piece in the previous Sunday’s New York Times. How could I have missed it? There was a huge three-column close-up picture of the performer in question, giving him the look of a bald, stocky black guy with attitude. My first time through the paper I’d hurried past a headline that should have stopped me in my tracks (“Wry, Tuneful Stories, All in 4-Minute Songs”). Since when did bald, stocky black guys with attitude write “wry, tuneful stories”? The article also claimed that Stew’s solo album, The Naked Dutch Painter, was “perhaps the finest collection of songs an American songwriter has come up with this year” and compared him to Cole Porter, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, and Warren Zevon.

My last sighting of Stew was at the in-person presentation of Spike Lee’s filmed performance of Passing Strange at Princeton’s Garden Theatre on September 20, 2017, 97 years to the day the Garden opened. His most recent project is a live show and accompanying album titled Notes from a Native Song, inspired by the writings of James Baldwin, with Heidi Rodewald and members of Stew’s group, The Negro Problem. That I didn’t even know of his 2012 album Making It is stunning evidence of how flagrantly underrated he is. But please, no monuments — unless maybe they’re along the lines of the late J. Seward Johnson’s statues of a man reading a newspaper and a boy eating a hamburger.