BAM Magazine, April 18, 1980

[Excerpt:] John Stewart: Wheels of Thunder
By Mark Leviton

Fire in the wind, a traditionally commercial effort of the sort Stewart had never tried, fizzled at #126 on the Billboard album charts--RSO's worst showing in a year full of Bee Gees hits. Al Coury, an RSO executive who both liked Stewart and has a practical business sense, came to John one day with an ultimatum. "He told me if I didn't get a Top Ten hit he couldn't let me record any more," states John without rancor.

At this, Stewart's lowest ebb in 18 years as a professional musician, John also found himself at a high point in interest in his craft. "I was hungry for something. I knew there was a certain kind of record made that had always turned me on, ever since I heard Presley's "That's All Right Mama." It happened with the Four Seasons, Kingston Trio, Beach Boys, Chuck Berry. I was searching for something, and it was close. I was ravenous to find out what that thing was.

"Nick Reynolds stayed at my house in the summer, and somebody suggested we listen to an album called Rumours. We were playing it all day, every day. I was trying to learn electric guitar and I had no idea what to do, and then I heard Lindsey Buckingham. He was frailing the guitar like a banjo! So I tried it, and started learning from Lindsey's records. I ran into Walter Egan at the musician's union one day and he said, "You ought to meet this guy Lindsey Buckingham who produced my last alnum--he learned to play guitar off Kingston Trio records.' We had found each other, in a circle. I knew Lindsey had to produce my next album. We had already learned from each other!"

Stewart's depression eased. "I was very lucky. I had a lot of support from Lindsey and Stevie Nicks. I was ready for them--I could have met Lindsey previously and not gotten anything. There's a certain way to play music, where it's hypnotic, notes fit right into your cranium. There's magic in drone notes, themagic of one note. You find it in cajun music, Scottish music, and most folk music, with all the open tunings, dulcimers, banjos. Lindsey knew the magic of that one note. Good songwriters can make a lyric a part of the rhythm. I had never done that. I used to be more intent on the lyric, and fitting the music around it. If the music didn't quite work but the lyric did, I went with it. Now I go the other way. I think of the total sound, of arrangements. To borrow a description from Neil Diamond, "I don't write songs anymore, I write records."

In this phase, Stewart had already burned himself out on what he calls "Americana." It no longer inspired him; his focus shifted. "There are no more farmers in Kansas for me to write about. They're still there, but I don't find magic in those scenes anymore. So I've written about getting yur first car, your first lay. I haven't done a flip-flop. It's still real American, but I feel something new is happening. I'm moving."

This new consciousness was first blasted out on Stewart's first single after Coury's ultimatum, a song he began writing while working at the Boarding House in San Francisco. "I kept thinking, 'It's only a song away.' And I realized I deserved to make it. Before, in the studio, I had let things slide. This time I kept saying, 'No, not right, we'll do the guitar again.'

"I realized everybody's got a hit song in them, the guy pumping gas, everybody. And there are people doing that every day, turning music into gold. So I wrote a song about trying to write a hit song. Where was the material? 'California girls, all around you. Each one's a song in the making.' It's like those mirror reflections that go on forever."

"Gold" shot into the Top Ten and pulled the album Bombs Away Dream Babies (an ironic title Stewart is especially fond of) with it. "Gold" actually went gold, and the LP sold over half a million copies, helped along by two more chart singles, "Lost Her in the Sun" and "Midnight Wind." "Gold," an infectious minor shuffle, certainly had that special pulse Lindsey and John discovered in each other, and the other songs shared the direct, punchy feel. And of course many Stewart fans (the few who had bought Willard) were horrified by the change of emphasis.

"I'm annoyed at the people who still want me to write about the highway, the sky and the American Dream. They don't want you to change--they would rather have you dead. I can't be the storyteller on stage, that guy I as for years. It was a fantasy to begin with. It's not what excites me anymore. On stage now I have more fun than ever, because I have a band that understands what I want. To play simply is the hardest thing to do. I try to communicate to them--make it simple. Play dumb."

Stewart shows some signs of being influenced by the new wave. Certainly Fleetwood Mac's Tusk follows a similar precept, expecially in Lindsey's home-produced tracks. "I'll tell you Lindsey's a big influence," says John. "I steal from him every chance I get. He's the best." Stewart also has some cautious words of praise for the likes of Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson.

Thanks to Karen for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.