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Friday, June 8, 2012

(23rd in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Ian Stewart: Big Brother"

Song: Silver Train
Album: Goats Head Soup
Released: August, 1973

Spotlight on: Ian Stewart

One thing I’ll really never know is what it’s like to be a younger sibling.  No complaints, just reality:  Hey, someone has to be born first.  Back in my adolescent days, this ignorance was compounded by the fact that I was surrounded mostly by friends and family who, in one way or another, looked up to older siblings.  And some of them looked way up.  Dad grew up with 4 sisters, sharing the youngest role with one of them (his twin, Aunt Ann).  Four of my closest friends were also the youngest (Phil, Pete, Bruce, Dave). Mom was 10 of 12.  All my brothers and sisters were, well… younger than me.  Most everyone else was tucked somewhere in the middle (John, Mac, Cousin Jack).  Even the ladies in my life at the time were lower in their family’s age pecking order. The only friend I shared oldest affiliation with was Jeff D (looking back, there were definitely similarities in how we approached this role).

In most all these cases the older siblings had a strong effect on these people in my life.  Bruce, in his younger days, most definitely aspired to be like his oldest brother Alex, and was very much influenced by his older sisters as well.  Pete had tremendous respect for big brother Paul.  Jack felt the same toward his brother, my older Cousin, Bill.  Mom was influenced by all her older siblings in one way or another.  I loved witnessing all this, and I often shared the admiration that these friends and family members had in their older siblings.  I suppose I was experiencing the concept vicariously.

Older siblings clearly have a different effect on us than our parents.  The parental units can be the coolest folks on the planet, but when you come down to it, they are from a different generation.  The cultural disconnect is usually too vast to make the type of bond you can make with someone a few years older.  This is good for both sides of that coin.  What parent really wants to have their kids emulate their every interest?  That would be a bit freakish, yes?  You want them to find their own interests.  An older sibling however?  Now you’re talking.  At least that’s been my observation.

Although I did not have the younger sibling experience, I did eventually get to experience something very similar, playing the ‘apprentice’ role in all sorts of situations later in life.  Most of these were work related, but there were a few other situations as well.  One memory that comes to mind is Bob and I hooking up for a few days with an experienced world traveler while touring through Spain.  There was also the time Bruce and I headed into Boston as young teenagers on the train to see a Red Sox game with his older sister who we met up with at her apartment in the city and who appeared to know Beantown better than Samuel Adams.  There was cousin Andrea’s wedding when I was just 15.  There was John Miller in North Adams, who introduced me to hot peppers and gut wrenching belly laughs.  There was cousin Tom Gilligan and his knowledge of history.

The Rolling Stones had their apprenticeship too, and for many years subsequent they would be guided and conducted by their behind-the-scenes elder statesman, Ian Stewart.

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If there is one scene that stands out for me in the movie ‘The Sting’ it’s when Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) meet:  The young up and comer trying to get the old veteran back into the con game.  It’s a very well-acted scene.  When finally convinced to move ahead with ‘The Sting’, Gondorff proceeds to give Hooker the apprenticeship of a lifetime.  After reading Keith Richards’ book ‘Life’ this is how I picture his and Mick Jagger’s meeting with Ian Stewart:  Big warehouse-like room, Stu sitting at a piano in a dark corner.  “So, what is it you’ve come here to learn, boys?”

Ian Stewart never seemed to want the limelight that eventually came with fame and was content to be left off the publicly-recognized Rolling Stones lineup, never once appearing on any of their album covers.  But he was so integral to the Stones sound and how it matured over time.  He may have simply realized that he did not have the image that record companies looked for to sell a band.  He was a few years older than everyone else.  The big brother:  In all likelihood unwilling and probably unable to go fab, mod, psychedelic, hippie, or wherever the trend was heading at any given time.  The Jay-Leno like jaw certainly did not help.  It appears he just wanted to guide the music from the side of the stage, his piano playing remaining in that dark corner.  The band was very lucky to have him.  I cannot think of any other musician or band that had such an apprenticeship, such a mentor, such a Gondorff.

Stu’s style stands out in this week’s Stepping Stone, Silver Train ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5ViK-7z8Ws ). The song has a pre-rock sound to it; boogie like.  In fact, the song sounds like it could have been used in the soundtrack for ‘The Sting’.  It’s a period piece of music.  The piano playing paces the song.

As for the album it resides on, Silver Train sticks out like a healed thumb on a body of bruises.  ‘Goats Head Soup’ is the Stones ‘Who by Numbers’:  Introspective, sad, and at times dark.  Three excellent songs on side one, 100 Years Ago, Coming Down Again and Angie, sound almost remorseful:  An unheard-of sentiment for the swaggering Stones. Despite the deceiving title, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) is angry.  Dancing with Mr. D is the darkest song (the ‘D’ standing for death).  Silver Train brightens things up just a bit (think Squeeze Box on ‘Who by Numbers’).  It’s a solid track on an album full of them.  All in all, part of me wishes I started listening to the Stones with this album.  Not sure why exactly.  Just seems like a good place to begin.

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Of all my ‘apprenticeships’, some of the most valuable were the numerous situations where I received insightful tips on great music, the most memorable of which were while listening.  Those tips were often from that slightly older crowd, the big brothers and sisters of my friends in my younger days, as well as older friends and acquaintances later in life.  Being a child of the 70s, this meant that I was typically getting advice on some of the best music of our times:  Songs written by musicians of the late 60s and early 70s.  A handful of these musicians have sustained their creativity, even to this day.  In some ways I guess I viewed these slightly older musicians as my big brothers and sisters.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve delved into the music a bit deeper than most.

The tips continue to roll in, and I remain amazed at the fact that there is always something new to learn; some new Stone to flip over.  Like fellow oldest sibling, Jeff D once said “music can be, and is the common tie that bonds us, separates us, and spans our emotions, and unites us with the common bond of humanity, whether we are near or far”.  This was certainly the case with Ian Stewart and the Stones. 
Keep it up everybody.  I’ll continue to try to do my part.

   -   Pete

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