Sunday, May 04, 2008

The John Stewart Memorial

Oh I live in California
I can look out at the ocean
On the silver blue Pacific
It is always there to see
But I'm so busy working
That I don't have time to see it
But it's the knowing that it's there
That means lot to me

- John Stewart, "Botswanna," Punch The Big Guy (1988)

As with so many of John Stewart's songs, this particular lyric hit me with especial forcefulness, this time as I emerged from the McClure Tunnel off of I-10 and onto PCH, heading north on a perfectly crystalline spring afternoon, toward Malibu and Pepperdine University's Smothers Theater for the official family-sponsored tribute to perhaps the most remarkable and certainly least appreciated songwriter of his generation, and - as both the mellowed Stewart of later years was proud to claim and as the tribute underscored with ample evidence - an integral part of the storied history of the Kingston Trio.

Coming out of the tunnel, I saw the silver blue Pacific for the first time in I don't know how many months - and found myself wishing that it hadn't been so long, which is about the same way I felt if I skipped a JS performance that I could have made with a bit more effort.

It was one of the most extraordinary evenings of music that I have ever enjoyed.

The location was perfect, as was the 5 pm starting time. Pepperdine is located on dramatically sloping, intensely green hills at the point where Malibu Canyon opens onto the strand leading to the beaches. It is an architectural gem set into a dramatically beautiful California landscape with which it is in complete harmony. Both the university and the coast itself put on their Sunday best in the hours leading up to the sun's daily dramatic plunge into that silver blue expanse.

The Stewart family planned an event that seemed not nearly long enough at 3 hours and 40 minutes non-stop. Just when you'd think that the music couldn't get any better - it did, often in unexpected ways. And the video tributes from those who could not attend - including an eloquent John Glenn and a clearly emotional Scott Carpenter and Roseanne Cash - were sublime.

And the moments - a wheel chair-bound Nick Reynolds joking about his impaired speech and still recounting an emotional bond with JS eloquently, RFK's son Max regarding Stewart as a father figure, MC Mikael Stewart kissing Nick on the cheek when Nick had finished, Mikael having to pause for a long minute after the John Stewart band had rocked out a song, saying "You know, sometimes you forget just how great so many of those songs were..."

The surprise high point for me was the appearance of Eagle Timothy B. Schmitt, who like so many of us was a Trio-maniac in his teens ("I was the Nick Reynolds") and then launching into a perfect "Chilly Winds."

The John Stewart Band - Dave Batti of course, but absolute heavyweights Dave Crossland and Chuck McDermott were superb. Crossland's "Armstrong" was mesmerizing, and his superlative reading of "Mother Country" lived up to its billing from those who saw him do it in the east Coast tributes. McDermott was just plain amazing on song after song - a real major musician. The We Five did two JS songs and "You Were On My Mind" flawlessly.

The spontaneously generated trio of MFQ vets Chip Douglas (almost DG's replacement and the Monkee's manager who brought a certain Stewart song to the group)and Henry Diltz plus musician and former child star Bill Mumy (Twilight Zone) doing a letter perfect "Molly Dee" - with Russ Kunkel - THE Russ Kunkel to anyone who followed more than Trio music in the 60s and 70s - on congas, and other percussion all evening.

Obviously, Lindsey Buckingham showed up - with a lovely version of "Lock All The Windows" and a blazing rendition of Gold with the band.

You knew Davey Jones would be last - but he surprised me at least with a heartfelt rendition of one of my favorite all time JS songs, She Believes In Me - which Douglas had brought to the Monkees with Daydream Believer, which of course closed the evening. Quite a sight it was, too, to see Schmitt and Buckingham sharing a mic at the rear of the stage with everyone else from the evening, including Buffy Stewart, Nick Reynolds, the whole Stewart band, and more - rocking chorus after chorus with the entire audience in that beautiful theater standing and singing and clapping.

I myself choked up frequently and quietly in the dark, coming to terms for perhaps the first time just how completely Stewart's music had settled itself into the inner recesses of my soul through all the decades of my life. California Bloodlines, Some Kind of Love, Armstrong - times and places and people now long gone came flooding back to me with virtually every song.

But maybe the most affecting was when Dave Crossland sang a plaintive tune penned by a man not yet thirty, coming to a melancholy reality some forty years later -

But I'm believing, believing,
Believing that even when I'm gone -
Maybe some lonesome picker will find some healing in this song.

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