John (Not Jon) Stewart

John StewartOn this day in 1939, the great singer-songwriter John Stewart was born. He is probably best known for writing The Monkees’ number one hit “Daydream Believer.” But he was also in the Kingston Trio through most of the 1960s. After that, he had a successful solo career, which culminated in 1979’s Bombs Away Dream Babies and the top ten hit “Gold.”

Many years ago, while I was in the process of flunking out of college, John Stewart came to my campus. He gave a lecture about nothing in particular and everything in general: his life, songwriting, cars, women, performing. This was only a few years after “Gold,” so it was surprising that not many more than a hundred people were in attendance. I had something else that I had to get to, so I knew that I was going to have to slip out of the lecture half-way through. Stewart did not allow me to do this unnoticed, however. He cheerfully chided me for missing his pearls of wisdom.

After I was done with my thing and he was done with his thing, we happened to run into each other. He remembered me: it had only been two hours and I was, after all, the guy who walked out on him. We walked to his car, which, if I remember correctly was some piece of junk. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember two things he told me. First, he said, never listen to what your friends and family tell you about your work. He said, everyone told him that he sucked — until he sold his first hit and made $50,000 on it (in the late 1950s, I think); people who don’t know you are the only ones who can really see your talent. The second thing he told me was that art was whatever the hell you make it. He had an example: “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” It is just four song fragments pasted together. By traditional standards, it’s a piece of garbage; but as we all know, it is a masterpiece.

Here is Stewart from that time, doing “You Can’t Go Back to Kansas”:

Happy birthday John Stewart!

Part of this article taken from John Stewart and Jules Shear.

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