Donald Trump was admitted to hospital on Friday with symptoms of Covid-19. The bulletins coming from the hospital are slightly contradictory which is no great surprise. I don’t want anyone to die, I really don’t, although dying is part of the human condition. I didn’t want Boris Johnson to die when he was admitted to hospital at the start of the pandemic. I didn’t want Margaret Thatcher to die when The Grand Hotel was blown up by the IRA in 1984.
Growing up in the Sixties, the early death of well known people became almost routine. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Otis Redding, Brian Jones, Sharon Tate. To classify these as “celebrity deaths” seems a bit heartless but every one was a shock when I found out about it. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan on June 6th 1968, it was too awful to process. I was thirteen at the time so didn’t really understand the implications but it just seemed so unfair, especially as it was only two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Robert Kennedy was vying for the Democratic nomination for President and, after Lyndon B. Johnson dropped out, he was running against Eugene McCarthy. When announcing his candidature, he said “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.” Makes you think about haw far we have all come in fifty years, really.
In 1985, John Stewart released an album called “The Last Campaign”. The sleevenotes on the back of the album explain the connection between John Stewart and Robert Kennedy. “I first met Robert Kennedy when he was Attorney General and I was a member of The Kingston Trio. We stayed in contact over the years and I was proud to be one of those who campaigned when he ran for President in 1968. Buffy Ford (John Stewart’s wife) and I travelled with the campaign and sang on the backs of trains, flat-bed trucks, town squares and high school auditoriums. I wrote songs as we went and the images of the people who loved him and believed in what he told them has been the inspiration for other songs, years after it was over. I miss him. The memories will always live on. I dare say we won’t see his like again.”
The last two songs on “The Lonesome Picker Rides Again” are “Wild Horse Road” and “All The Brave Horses” and they merge into each other to form one seven minute piece. The lyrical content of these songs concern the lack of wild horses any more and wondering how what we will ride if all the wild horses are gone. These two songs were written about Robert Kennedy’s assassination and express John Stewart’s grief over the loss of a great visionary. I guess that John Stewart took inspiration from Bob Dylan. The only lyrics to John Stewart’s song, “All The Brave Horses”, are “Shoot all the brave horses and how will we ride” and the only lyrics to the first track on Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, released in 1970, “All The Tired Horses” are “All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?” It would be more likely that Bob Dylan “borrowed” from John Stewart but Self Portrait was released a year earlier. Maybe John Stewart played it in concerts a year before he recorded it and Bob Dylan was in the audience?
My good friend, Paul, who has impeccable musical taste, recently listed “The Lonesome Picker Rides Again” as one of the eight best albums ever made. Listening to it non stop over the last twenty four hours, I can see why. It’s features John Stewart’s wonderful emotional voice, great instrumentation (I would define the genre as “country-folk”) and some deeply heartfelt songs including seven of the saddest songs you will ever hear.
On “Touch Of The Sun”, John Stewart refers to himself as the “Lonesome Picker”. This phrase is part of the album’s title and refers to an excellent song on an earlier John Stewart album (“California Bloodlines”) called “Lonesome Picker”. In this fantastic song, John Stewart reveals his insecurity, feeling that no one listens to him as a person whereas when he sings he doesn’t feel so isolated. He hopes that, even after he dies, another lonely guitar player will find that his songs give comfort. “I’m believing that even when I’m gone, some lonesome picker will find some healing in this song.”
“Bolinas” is sung as a duet with Buffy Ford. For the first part of the song, the only instrumentation is a beautifully played acoustic guitar and, as the song builds, strings and a clarinet add to the sense of a lazy sun drenched time in a town that time forgot. Two small boys run after a train. The clock on the courthouse doesn’t work. The mayor is digging for clams. No one cares.
The song that follows, “Freeway Pleasure”, is one of my favourite songs of all time. In this song, John Stewart compares his life on the road to a woman. Should he stay with his love or should he stay true to his other woman, The Road, which stole him as a child to join a rodeo. “I’ve been too long with a woman made of stone”. He remains faithful to The Road and he is going to remain faithful to her. But not for long. His voice is sad, desolate and apologetic. It’s utterly utterly beautiful.
I haven’t spoken to Paul about this album for a few years now but I seem to remember that “Little Road And A Stone To Roll” is one of his favourites. The lyrics are pretty simple, describing what everyone needs in order to lead a happy life. Everybody needs a little road and a stone to roll. I interpret this as meaning that everybody needs a purpose in their lives. He lists other things that people need: a fire inside, a dream inside, a Carole King tune etc. As the song builds, the strings and the backing singers add to the sense of optimism. I think it’s optimism and not sadness. Is a little road enough?
Another remarkable song is “Crazy” which is slow, sad and beautiful. The name of the girl in question is “Crazy” and although she has had a terrible life, John Stewart has hope that she can heal, if she can just find the right person. It’s not clear whether or not the singer of the song believes that he can be this person. “Crazy, to be lonely is just dying too damned slow. Crazy as it seems you know to love somebody is just that – it’s crazy – the only way to go.” Strings and a piano combine with John Stewart’s voice which although is far from pitch perfect, drips with emotion.
So many fantastic songs on this album. John Stewart wrote “Daydream Believer”, which presumably kept the coffers rolling in. Here is the only live performance I can find on YouTube of John Stewart in his heyday. One of the comments for this clip recalls John Stewart introducing this song by saying “Thanks to the Monkees for my house in Malibu!”. (It’s better viewed on “Cinema Mode”.)
There’s a good editorial in The Observer today wishing Donald Trump a speedy recovery and hoping he loses heavily in the election in a month’s time. I concur (but if you had to choose between Robert Kennedy and Donald Trump….)