Sunday, March 21, 2010

color me passing strange

I'm going to take a small break from sharing stitches, paint and doodles to tell you about something I've mentioned a time or two before... I want to share the work of another kind of artist- a poet, a musician, a performer. His name is Stew.

The first time I heard Stew and his band, The Negro Problem (and this is up for debate because the husband is sure we heard of them long before this program, but...), was on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic". (Click the link and listen- I'm thrilled they still have it available for streaming. You'll need RealPlayer, as far as I can see... but I promise you it's worth it.) I was hooked! I was entranced by "The Statue Song (Indoors Again)". Listening to that song was like watching a movie. "Ken" was an equally brilliant and sympathtic (and fucking funny) song about Ken, who is forced to be with Barbie and who only wants to love as he'd like to (with G.I. Joe). And then I was pushed down memory lane with "Monsanto". (Remember that strange "Adventure Thru Inner Space" by Monsanto ride at Disneyland that was usually the first ride you hopped on because it was right there at the entrance to "Tomorrow Land" and very rarely ever had much of a line? You'd sit in those white pod-like chairs that swivelled and looped you through, making you believe you were shrinking and have become the size of an atom being looked at under a microscope? Thinking about that stirs something up, doesn't it? Yeah, and Stew put it in a song!) On "Morning Becomes Eclectic" it was sung slowly with a banjo in a different tune so I could grasp the lyrics - unlike the recorded version where Stew's words fire out like a machine gun.

"Monsanto, come back to me.
I'll wait there
I'll wait there
To Disneyland in Winter
To Disneyland in Winter
When everybody else is gone
Take a ride a million times
There ain't nobody standing in line
Everybody oughta have a mother or a brother
who would take them on a magical time
To Disney land in Winter
To Disneyland in Winter
Ya know when everybody else is gone"

A lot of Stew's songs are like that- where you miss pieces of the lyrics and they are left up to you to fill. He stitches words together so they all kind of seem like one big word, with a melody. (I've always thought that about Tracy Chapman as well. Isn't is FUN singing "Fast Car"?) And in the blogs and message boards Stew fans all offer their interpretation of those lyrics because, as they also like to mention constantly, Stew never publishes his lyrics.

Stew has an incredible discography, but also not to be missed is a wonderful little diddly he wrote for "Spongebob Squarepants". Yes, I said "Spongebob Squarepants". (Additionally, I have heard a Stew song on the long gone television series, "Ed"... God I loved that show- especially after I heard a Stew song playing in the bowling alley!) "Gary's Song" was written for the episode where a distraught Spongebob is searching for his pet snail, Gary, that ran away from home.

So after hearing this awesome band, I kept my eyes peeled for them. This was before iTunes and even a little too early for Amazon. Back then, when you heard about a band, you went to a record store to buy the CD, if they had it. (Yeah, back then they were "Record Stores".) So it wasn't until we caught them at one of their gigs at Java Joe's in Ocean Beach that we finally picked up a CD. The show was, obviously, even better than hearing them on the radio. We were so entertained by Stew's expressions when he sang. When we would listen to the CD in the car, the husband and I would repeat the hand gestures and facial expressions of Stew as we sang. We had to. That was part of the song. One time we were lucky to catch them singing just down the street from us at the "Adams Avenue Roots Festival". There were lots more Java Joe's shows and even a few trips up to their native Los Angeles for gigs. One L.A. show was an installment of "The Cover Problem" where they would sing their versions of covers for a single artist. The show we went to was Madonna. God I wish I could have a recording of that show. It was fantastic!

Cut to a lifetime later (the husband and I are now daddy and mommy) and we hear news of Stew taking his little Public Theater production, "Passing Strange" to Broadway. I check ticket sales almost daily, trying to find a way to get us there. Can we take the kids AND my mom so she can babysit the night of the show? Can we fly for one night and leave the kids? Dammit how can we do this?!? We keep waiting for an answer to hit us when... we read that the show has closed. We waited too long. So we wait impatiently for Spike Lee's release of his filming of the musical. (watch the trailer HERE) We finally got it and I've been watching it for a couple weeks. This ain't your Granny's musical! I suppose I should just buy the dang thing because I'm holding up the Netflix queue. (Don't want to keep others from seeing this amazing show.) I'm just so moved by songs like "Arlington Hill" and "Keys". (see their performance at the Tony Awards HERE)

"You know those L.A. ladies
in their Mercedes
They lock their doors if he just sneezed
Now he's like- Bitch please
She gave me her keys
He said the kind of place I wanna be
is where no one is cold or scared of me
And then she handed them these
Her keys
No one ever made him feel as real
as when she handed him her keys
Welcome to Amsterdam"

I'm moved by the whole thing, but mostly I'm moved by songs that really strike a chord with me. And what I hear most is me asking myself, why didn't you get yourself out to New York to see this thing? It's the same feeling I had when I was in High School and falling deeper and deeper into my appreciation for John Lennon, knowing I would never know what it was like to see him perform live. Only, I could have seen "Passing Strange" if I had just pushed it. One of those things I'll always regret. So, lesson learned - I will never miss those kinds opportunities again. But back to the show, watching it is like being at the theater, at a rock show and at church all at the same time. You get pulled into the emotion of the story and then you're bopping your head and rocking out. There are truly deep songs like "Arlington Hill" that haunt me and stop me dead in my tracks to ponder the meaning of life. (Watch the video HERE and imagine these words opening the scene in clip #1: "He took a trip for the first time in a bug on Arlington Hill") And then there are songs like "We Just Had Sex" that I find myself singing to myself again and again and again. (Watch the video HERE- clip #5) And, I absolutely love how the show starts:

"You don't know me and I don't know you
So let's cut to the chase the name is Stew
I'll be narrating this gig so just sit tight
We might play all night
Been on the road- me, her and this band
For one thousand dates of one night stands
Oh, and by the way can we crash on your couch tonight?
Say is that alright, is that alright?
Well before we get to your uptown flat
We're gonna do a little play since you paid for that"

When I saw that at the start of the ride I thought, "Yeah. That's Stew!" The same Stew I can picture sitting on stage at Java Joe's singing and chatting in between songs about things like how incredible greasy taco stand quesadilla cheese is and asking for a couch to sleep on in a way that sounded like a joke but kind of really didn't. So many times I wanted to say, "Come on over!" Don't drive back up to L.A. tonight!" but didn't and probably should have. Why not?

"Passing Strange" is pure genius and I recommend it to everyone I know , and don't know, for that matter. So rent this, if you can. Read Stew's blog, if you want. Listen to some music, if you will. I think you'll dig it. I'm still diggin' it after all these years.

"After so long feeling so alone
I feel like picking up the phone
and calling up that place called home
To say I've found a brand new family
a place where I can be that thing called me
No more saying uncle to Uncle Sam
Now I'm telling L.A. just who I am
Color me Amsterdam

1 comment:

Joe Crawford (artlung) said...

Awesome post. I was there at the Adams Avenue music festival when you were, and I probably attended many of the same Java Joe's shows you did.

Thanks for linking to my out-of-date Lyrics site. I need to improve that site. Holler at me if you have any suggestions for how to improve the site! Also, I've been blogging 'bout Stew too.

Stew, TNP, Passing Strange: awesome.