August 2, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Mark Stewart knew he'd be raising some hackles when he named his Los
Angeles psychedelic-pop band The Negro Problem, but as a linebacker-sized
African American, he didn't particularly care. The goal was to provoke--and
to make people think.
"Something happened in this country," Stewart is fond of saying. "Irony
didn't really make it over on the Mayflower."
Now, after two full albums and a handful of independent releases with the
band, Stew (as he prefers to be known) is gaining his biggest audience yet.
"The Naked Dutch Painter" (Smile Records), his second solo album, has been
widely hailed by the British press and the American underground. And the
singer-songwriter is supporting it by touring in stripped-down fashion with
multi-instrumentalist Heidi Rodewold, his significant other, opening for one
of his heroes,'60s legend Arthur Lee of Love.
Arthur Lee, Stew
Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
(773) 489-3160, (312) 559-1212
Not that Stew has turned his back on The Negro Problem. In fact, the band
has a new album, "Welcome Back," due in the fall.
"In England now, the Stew thing is better known than The Negro Problem,"
Stew says. "I'm changing the focus of it now. I used to tell people when I
was going out on the road with four musicians, 'Hey, it's The Negro
Problem.' But the truth is, The Negro Problem is this kind of big, crazy,
psychedelic band, and Stew sitting there with Heidi ain't The Negro Problem,
as far as I'm concerned.
"Touring as a duo just makes more sense in terms of being a mobile unit.
So now I tell people, 'This is Stew and, hey, when we have the opportunity
to bring The Negro Problem out, we will.' "
The Los Angeles native grew up listening to punk and New Wave rock at a
time when many of his peers were grooving to rap and R&B. "In my junior high
school, we used to have to get protection from guys on the football team
because the hardcore guys in school would beat us up if they heard us
listening to, like, the Who," he says, laughing. "I swear, I must have been
the only black there when the Who played the Coliseum in 1976; 55,000
people, and I was the only brother. It was lonely!"
Stew started his musical career playing guitar and singing in a
succession of mediocre punk bands. For a while, he lived in New York and
played drums with No Wave pioneer James Chance; he also spent time in
Berlin, playing free jazz and art-rock there before the wall came down. He
formed The Negro Problem in the mid-'90s, after he returned to L.A.'s
burgeoning Silver Lake scene, and the group began to win notice with
sparkling releases such as 1997's "The Post Minstrel Syndrome."
Though the amiable frontman is clearly the focus of both projects, there
are significant musical and lyrical differences between The Negro Problem
and Stew. The band's recordings and live shows are lush, swirling collages
of bubbling sounds, while the emphasis on the semi-acoustic solo albums is
on the songs and the storytelling.
"I think a Stew song definitely has more of a story," Stew says. "Not to
sound pretentious, but it's more in that Jacques Brel tradition of telling a
strange story or drawing a strange picture. The Negro Problem is just
whatever the hell comes through my head. I like to have fun with the lyrics
in TNP, whereas the Stew thing I kind of like to write something that works
on paper. They might not be different for people who listen, but for me the
process is different. It's really cathartic for me to make a TNP record
knowing that I can say anything; I can make a rhyme that doesn't have to do
with anything, it can be completely absurd."
Meanwhile, solo Stew comes off as Generation X's answer to arch-satirists
Randy Newman and Graham Parker. He has the eye of a great short story
writer, and he portrays a winning cast of eccentric characters in sly, witty
and winning tunes such as "North Bronx French Marie," "Re-hab" and "The
Naked Dutch Painter."
How many of these story-songs are autobiographical?
"You know, that's a really good question, actually!" Stew says. "The TNP
stuff is certainly not autobiographical; those are just pictures and images
and opinions. But I'm just going through the last Stew record in my head
right now, and that's pretty damn close [to my life]!"
Though he jokingly calls him "my grandfather," Stewart isn't really
related to Arthur Lee. But in terms of continuing a tradition of inventive,
genre-defying pop music that challenges social conventions, a line can
clearly be drawn from Love to Stew and The Negro Problem.
Raised in L.A.'s tough Crenshaw neighborhood and strongly influenced by
Mick Jagger, Lee presented what '60s rock critic Lillian Roxon called "an
amusing paradox": an African American singing like a white Englishman
singing like an old African American. Love debuted in 1966 with a
self-titled album steeped in druggy imagery and forging a unique sound that
drew as much from Burt Bacharach and Hal David (the band played a
wonderfully trippy cover of "My Little Red Book" from the soundtrack to
"What's New Pussycat?") as it did from the Beatles of "Revolver" and "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
But Lee was never a utopian or a hippie. There was always a dark
undercurrent to his version of psychedelia, as evidenced by songs such as
"Alone Again Or" and "The Red Telephone" from the band's 1968 orchestral-pop
masterpiece, "Forever Changes."
Lee's failure to produce much worthwhile music after '68 has prompted
some critics to put him in a class with Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky
Erickson, notorious acid casualties of the Summer of Love. While he
resurfaced in the early '90s, attempting to connect with a new generation of
fans influenced by his work, his comeback was derailed when he was sentenced
to prison for threatening his neighbors with a gun. He already had several
other charges on his record, and he wound up spending six years behind bars,
thanks to California's strict "three-strikes-and-you're-out'' legislation.
Performing a mix of new and older material, Lee is back and calling his
current band Love, though this is somewhat unfair to his former partner, the
late Bryan Maclean, who wrote some of the band's best songs. The group
includes no other original members. Instead, Lee is backed by L.A.'s Baby
Lemonade, a younger band from the same "poptopia" scene that gave us The
Lee is healthier and happier these days, though still a bit paranoid.
"There are really two Arthur Lees," says current bandmate Mike Randle.
"There's the Arthur Lee who has worked with Baby Lemonade for years now, and
he can talk to me just like I'm talking to you. And then there's the other
Arthur who's just sort of put off by all the nonsense."
The musician's last performance here in the early '90s was
underwhelming--fans cheered wildly for the vintage Love songs and politely
endured the more recent material. But Stew says a recent English tour was a
triumph. "Opening for Arthur's crowd in England was wonderful, because
people were there, ready to listen, and they knew we were sort of approved
by the godfather. We played in front of, like, 1,200 people at Manchester
University and 1,000 in Liverpool."