STEW — BORN Mark Stewart in Los Angeles — has been so many things it’s hard to keep track. As a young man in the 1980s, he took inspiration from black American artists who exiled themselves to Europe, moving to Berlin and Amsterdam, where he ran with artists and musicians. In the 1990s, he led the L.A. indie rock band The Negro Problem, often dubbed one of the city’s most-likely-to-succeed. After the turn of the century, he toured with Arthur Lee, the doomed genius of the ’60s band Love. And soon after that, he moved to Brooklyn, where he began a new identity as a playwright, penning the autobiographical musical Passing Strange, which played on Broadway and became a 2009 Spike Lee movie.
He has toured as a solo musician and, with musical and former romantic partner Heidi Rodewald, has revived The Negro Problem in various guises. Most recently, he’s performed songs inspired by the life and work of James Baldwin, putting on a set called Notes of A Native Song at Harlem Stage and REDCAT. A release of the recordings and a tour are upcoming.
SCOTT TIMBERG: As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, you read music magazines and the work of heroic wild-man rock critics. At what point did that influence your novels, poetry, essays, and whatever else? Or did your literary interest come from another direction?
STEW: The people who were deep into music were also the people who were into [William S.] Burroughs. The really weird stuff. I could remember when you could not find a Burroughs novel to save your life unless you went in, like, a gay bookstore. Like, all of them. And everybody knew where you could go to find them back then — the geeks who were deep into music were also into really weird books. They were totally linked. I listened to Ultravox for three years before I realized they were influenced by, what’s his name … Crash?
J. G. Ballard, right?
Joy Division has a bunch of [Ballard references] as well. Again, these novels and poetry were always kind of linked. The fact that Lennon and Dylan both had books — that was huge. If you thought books and reading weren’t cool at that point, then it’s like, “Oh my god, the two coolest guys wrote books.” It was a done deal after that.
What was interesting about those two was how much they loved Chuck Berry, ’50s music, blues music — we were too dumb back then to realize that that was where the literature really started for this music. When you’re like 10, you don’t really get that Chuck Berry is a genius. You really don’t get it. You kind of get when you’re 12 that Dylan’s amazing, but it takes you a minute to be like, this Chuck Berry shit is un-fucking believable.
Like rockabilly and blues has an intellectual side to it that took a while to get, and those guys heard it.
Yeah, those guys heard it! To me there’s a connection between the English art student types who heard the blues and the way Godard and Truffaut appreciated our B-movies. It’s the same thing, man.
You have to be a little bit detached from it. We were too close to it, you know what I mean? Chuck Berry was the language; we already kind of talked like that in a way. If you’re John Lennon or Keith Richards, you’re going, Wow, that sounds wild. Same with those French guys looking at Sam Fuller movies.
And part of what you’re saying is that, if you were curious and trying to find the cool stuff, one would lead to another: you could start with Philip K. Dick and end with John Lee Hooker, or you could go the other way.
I think we also got this from reading the English press, which didn’t happen for me until punk rock happened. So they had their own way of looking at things.
With Lester Bangs’s style, you kind of felt the alcohol and the drugs. [Laughs.] You kind of felt it in him — in a way, he was more rock ’n’ roll than Lou Reed, because Lou Reed was so fuckin’ literary. Lester Bangs is supposed to be this writer, but you’re reading Bangs and you’re like, “This guy is high!” It was kind of vibrating. So all that stuff, to us, was completely mixed up in a way that we didn’t differentiate too much.
Most of those British guys were working class, but there were often references to literature. I remember a Jam record that had, like, a Shelley poem on the back of it.
Right, right. [Laughs.]
It may have been Sound Affects, which was the first Jam record I got. That was one of those moments you describe where you’re like, “Oh, poetry is cool because it’s punk rock.” Anyway, I think what you’re saying is true for a generation or two: between the art school crowd, Beat, post-Beat, the heyday of rock criticism, all this stuff was coming from the same group, same sensibility.
So, you’ve got a new set of recordings, you’ve done some shows built around it, based on the work of James Baldwin. Your interest in him came from a different route, I think, that had to do more with your biography.
Yeah, yeah. I had a couple of African-American teachers, women, who in third and fifth grade, just for some crazy reason, started telling us about these black expatriate artists. None of whom as 10-year-olds we were able to read. But these women were brilliant enough to realize all they had to do was plant the seeds and say these guys existed and what was so brilliant about them, just talking about Richard Wright or Baldwin or even Dexter Gordon.
They wouldn’t even play it necessarily in the classroom. Then, when you’re in the record store or bookstore, you see the name and you feel like you’ve got a claim to it, you know? That’s why I picked up a Baldwin book when I was ready for it — because she had already told me about it when I was in fifth grade. We did an interview a couple of years ago around the Baldwin centennial, and this person who interviewed me said, “You’re the only person I’ve talked to about Baldwin out of, like, 40 artists who didn’t discover him in college.”
So it was the romance of the expatriate experience that …
Oh my god, yeah: I thought, That’s what I want to do, I want to get out of here, I want to see what else there is, and they did that. By the time I was reading him, I was already thinking about getting away just because it seemed like such a cool idea.
So it seemed exciting to be a European exile. Did you feel like an exile already? To some extent, every kid does, regardless of their race or whatever, but did you feel like an exile in your own hometown?
Yeah, no question, that was the whole thing. I mean like being the black kid who liked weird music, who liked “white boy music,” as they used to say … There weren’t any white guys in my neighborhood, and the white guys who were making it were telling us it came from black guys.
But we were looking for each other and kind of seeking each other out. And yeah, of course we thought we were completely weird. I remember my mom coming in my room kind of like the scene in Do the Right Thing: “Why aren’t there any brothers on the wall?” “Well mom, Jimi Hendrix.” And she goes, “No, I mean really black.” Because Hendrix was just an alien. Hendrix didn’t count.
I was going to mention Hendrix — he’s an American black guy coming out of the blues in a lot of ways, but he had to go to London to break. People have said he wouldn’t have been able to develop and emerge in the same way in the States.
Absolutely: we have a line about that in Passing Strange where we say, “Hendrix had to go [to Europe] to get famous, America can’t handle freaky negros.”
You’re totally right, that every kid that age, especially if you’re into weird shit, you feel like an exile. I might as well be out of here because I feel outside of this place already.
So when you finally picked up Baldwin, what did you respond to?
I read Go Tell It on the Mountain when I was in high school, and it didn’t become my manifesto. I read his nonfiction. I loved his essays. I read all of that stuff the way you read anything that’s cool. I was blown away by how beautiful it was, but it wasn’t until later, when I was in my late 30s or early 40s, and I did a book report with my daughter about Go Tell It on the Mountain. And I reread it and I was just stunned.
I’ve said this before, but I felt like it was spiritual copyright infringement. That book had completely put its stamp on me and I’d had no idea. There were direct things in that book that informed not only my life but that informed Passing Strange. Like, big time. Like, literal scenes. The scene where he’s in the movie theater and he’s watching Bette Davis, he’s kind of realizing he’s gay. And for me, when I was in the movie theater watching these Godard movies … Those movies were like, “Yeah, I’m going; this is me; I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
So you had read this stuff decades before and it kind of seeped into your soul, but you didn’t realize how much you’d absorbed it.
Yeah, yeah, and like the scenes in church where the kid pretends he gets the holy ghost and that same exact thing in Passing Strange. There’s tons of stuff. And that’s when I became an arts education freak. Because I realized, Oh my god, this shit actually works — this shit actually does change people. It’s not just, like, to make the teacher feel good.
One thing about Baldwin: he didn’t just write about bad white people, though he did that too. He wrote about how black culture was very limiting and the church culture doubly so. Those were both things that spoke to you, presumably.
Yeah, absolutely, and I didn’t realize how much it was speaking to me the first time through, you know? One thing that I did pick up in high school was that Baldwin, here and there, wrote very frankly about how people go to Europe, and people leave their town to get laid. If you’re getting laid a lot, you may not ever get around to leaving. He was very frank about a lot of that in his writing, and I loved that a lot.
I want to move in a minute to European writers, but before we move away from “Jimmy,” give us a sense of these recordings and shows you’ve been putting on. You’re doing songs based on your work and his life as well.
The show is really about his influence on me. Although I have to say the impetus, we got a commission by Harlem Stage, and I knew I was going to be doing this show for a very Baldwin-centric hometown crowd. I didn’t want to be offensive by any means, but I did want to be irreverent; I didn’t want to do the whole Ken Burns great-moments/great-heroes-in-black-history shit. I wanted to talk about the messy aspects of his character, the rock-’n’-roll aspects of his character, which appealed to me, but I didn’t want it to be this cheerleader thing.
And which doesn’t seem right for Baldwin at all.
So it was weird, you know, I had family members of his and some of them were really pissed off at me, one of them thought it was one of the best things that had been done about him and another didn’t want to talk to me because they thought I had been offensive. Toni Morrison came. Yeah, she sat first row. She sat in front of my guitar amp and I said, before we start, I said, “Ms. Morrison, that’s probably the worst seat in the house because a lot of bad things are going to happen. Do you want to move someplace else?” and she said, “Nah baby, I want to be in it.” And I said, “Okay, cool.” That’s the wrong place to be at my show, in front of my amplifier, but she dealt with it.
The point is there were some people that were rubbed the wrong way and there were some people that were like fuckin’ relieved — like, Thank you. Because the fucking cheerleader thing, it gets boring to me. It gets really boring after a while, and I know we need it at a certain point. But now I don’t feel we need it anymore. I think the freest people to me in America are the ones that can completely take the piss out of each other. I’m reading a lot right now about the history of Jewish comedy. I am just so envious of the ability … The Producers — that Mel Brooks was just like, “Let’s make a movie about this.” It’s just so fucked up and wonderful. And this is like 20 years after the fucking Holocaust. I just love that irreverence and that just, like, fuck it.
And one of the things Baldwin made you want to do was go to Europe. And at some point you got interested in a lot of German writers. Which of those guys spoke to you the most directly?
It’s not very rock ’n’ roll at all, but I got a really good bunch of translations of Peter Handke, who ended up writing a screenplay or two for Wim Wenders.
He’s Austrian, I think. Wrote Wings of Desire, right?
Right, yeah — he was really very dark and Central European … The absolute lack of sentimentality, I think, was what influenced me the most. I really got into Jacques Brel over there, who’s not a novelist, but he feels like one to me.
I’d always loved a lot of old stupid English poetry — I’ve always liked Tennyson.
Super romantic, yeah.
I love Eliot.
But more probably than trying to read European writers, I started to write. And I started to see what Baldwin and those guys were talking about, how once you’re over there, time just kind of moves a different way and it allows you … I just remember when my girlfriend would be like, “Okay, so we’re gonna go to the bakery and then we’re gonna go to the outdoor Turkish market,” like your whole day could be based around what you were going to shop for for dinner.
And six hours in the coffee shop.
Oh, most definitely. It wasn’t something there that was inspiring you to write, it was more like you just had time. The United States … any place you go, there’s a ton of shit that inspires me to write, but I gotta tell you the way my schedule is, I hustle to survive in this world in this United States. It’s rough.
I think you said that Goethe was a big figure for you for a while.
Well, actually more now than then. I’m finally understanding the fundamentals of the German way of looking at things; there are just kind of certain people you have to read if you want to understand. Like The Sorrows of Young Werther. I wish I would have done this 20 years ago. These are like the building blocks of these people. It’s kind of like the way Picasso has influenced our visual language. It’s like we don’t even think about it anymore.
It’s like the way for most English speakers, whether you’re a church-goer or a theater-goer or not, the Bible and Shakespeare are the foundation of so many of your assumptions, whether you know it or not.
Yeah, for sure, for sure.
People talk about Faust as being the taproot of the German moral vision.
Oh my god, yeah. I did read that when I was there. I remember reading Faust when I was in Berlin, when I was about 22, and I remember going, Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier? I needed to read this when I was like 12. I needed a kids’ version, this is like hugely important to being a human being.
And again, that’s when I go back to like the whole arts education thing: these stories are like tools for us. They’re survival tools, they’re communication tools, they’re understanding tools. A lot of these stories are fundamental to survival.
And I really think sometimes, when I’m talking to a person or trying to communicate with them, I really feel like my stories are talking to their stories and we don’t have any overlap. I mean, hopefully it’s a great exchange sometimes. We had this really precocious 12-year-old kid who was a neighbor and I played him … um … [sings] “You’ve got a lot of nerve…”
“Positively 4th Street.” Maybe Dylan’s greatest song.
Yeah! Well, this is like a really precocious 12-year-old kid — he writes poetry and listens to music and stuff — and I played that tune and he was just like, “Oh, you can do that too, with a song.” And his whole shit was changed, and of course ours was too when we first heard that. And that’s what I really feel like, and as corny as it sounds, you really kind of need these stories.
Well yeah, this is kind of the argument behind a liberal arts education. Like, all of these weird Silicon Valley guys who went to Harvard or Stanford and were total science nerds, or dropped out. They never got into Dylan records, they never read the shit we’re talking about, they don’t have any of this basic moral wiring and basic understanding of the human experience. That sometimes you might try something and it doesn’t work out. Which seems to me like the kind of shit you learn when you’re really young. But these guys are learning it the hard way, and we’re all along for the ride.
So what besides Goethe?
I really love Heiner Müller, the playwright. It’s really some rock-’n’-roll shit. I mean a lot of people feel like he’s super intellectual, and yeah he’s got a lot of references, but I just like a lot of the really dark and weird aspects of it.
Basic survival is what we’re talking about here.
Yeah, it was a survivalist thing, but also it was this really kind of fundamental shift, this fundamental difference, because what it forced you to do was see if you actually did like that person. My friend used to always say, “You gotta always find your tribe, you gotta find your people.” And I knew this guy when I was like 20 in New York before I went to Germany, and I just found that everywhere I went Germans weren’t like, “Oh yeah, she’s my aunt and so I have to go over and blah blah…” We have all these obligatory things that we have to do — we have to see that person. Germans are like, “If I don’t want to see him, I don’t give a fuck if it’s my uncle.” [Laughs.] “I’m not going!” And I saw that in the literature. I would say you see that in the literature even before the wars. This kind of frankness, I guess. This kind of sober idea, again just not letting the sentimentality completely take over, which is not to say they didn’t have their capital-R romantic shit. Completely, over the top, clearly. But I’m just saying that was for me, like, fundamental.
I’m reading many more German writers now. What I definitely went crazy about when I got there were Brecht’s poems. The first place I ever stayed in, the first squatted house I ever lived in, in Berlin, had a dual translation book another English-speaking guy had left there because he went crazy trying to understand Brecht and really wanted to. Thank god that was there.
Yeah, Brecht wrote a lot of songs, didn’t he?
Yeah, he played guitar. He was, for me, the harbinger of things to come. The translations were just so straightforward and simple and, again, unsentimental, just plain biting, witty as fuck, sharp — the kind of poetry that called you out, like you felt it was actually talking to you in that kind of way that I love. Confrontational almost.
What about Rilke? Who I think every young man who goes to Europe —
You know, I have to say … obviously I can see why it’s cool … I don’t know why … my whole life people have been like, “Really?” You know it might be one of those things where I’ve got to be like 70 and something will click on. I fully expect it to because it’s been a long time …
I should let you go in a minute, but give us a sense of what you’re reading these days, besides Goethe — playwrights, novelists, poets, whatever.
This is really pretentious: I’m reading Wagner’s lyrics, his libretto of the Ring Cycle, it’s a pretty big book. I’m reading that dual language, so I can keep my German in some kind of shape but know what the fuck’s going on. I love his stuff, I’ve never failed to court controversy with some of my friends. I feel like he’s still the ultimate punk rocker because you mention him at a dinner party and someone’s gonna get mad and that’s a beautiful thing.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.