Stew Speaks His (Very Freaky) Mind


The artist who goes by the nom d'art Stew is best known these days as the Tony-award winning creator and star of the musical Passing Strange, a breakthrough piece of theatre-making that has galvanized Broadway with its witty script and raging rock and roll score. Stew is no overnight success, though the mainstream press is just now catching up with the guy. He has been plying his trade in a variety of styles -- from L.A. punk bands, to the European avant-garde, to  the L.A. art-pop scene, to his current foray into musical theater -- since the late '70s. With his band The Negro Problem, Stew has released three albums—Post Minstrel Syndrome, Joys & Concerns, and Welcome Black -- as well as three solo albums under his own name, Guest Host, The Naked Dutch Painter, and Something Deeper Than These Changes. With his longtime musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald, Stew toured the US and Europe in support of Arthur Lee and Love, Blondie, and Counting Crows, has been a participant in the Sundance Theatre Lab and was a featured presenter at a TED Conference.

Passing Strange, a work of what Stew calls "autobiographical fiction"-- the story of a young black artist who escapes the cultural restrictions of his South-Central L.A. community to find aesthetic freedom in Amsterdam and Berlin -- made an improbable journey from being a nightclub act at Joe's Pub in NYC, to the Sundance Theatre Lab, to a run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to an off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre, to its current run at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, which is ending on July 20. Passing Strange has received an Obie award for Best New Work, and Stew also won this year's Tony for Best Book Of A Musical. On July 19, Spike Lee will be filming Passing Strange for TV broadcast. Stew spoke with MFD in email from his temporary digs in NYC.

Barry Smolin: It would seem that Passing Strange's world of black middle-class "savings bonds… real estate, college funds, jobs with benefits, homeowners, debutantes," as your lyrics describe, would have already produced a multitude of Barack Obamas. Yet Obama's arrival on the national scene is viewed as something "new," though the archetype has populated the African-American community for decades. What's your reaction to the political rise of Senator Obama, and why do you think it's happening at this moment in US history?

Stew: I really don't think it is possible to consider Obama's rise without considering Bush's fall. And by that I mean America's fall. Obama did not come out of nowhere and he is not merely the result of some racial epiphany that white America has suddenly had. Bush and Cheney created Obama, inadvertently, mind you. Bush's sickening fascism opened the door, and look who's coming to dinner: the Savior. Bush stank up the joint. Obama is supposed to clean it up. And I choose that metaphor carefully. Obama is expected/elected to be the janitor of Bush's lunacy (apologies to Nico).

And a lot of white people are expecting him to clean up more than just our political mess. They want him to cleanse their souls as well as our political backyards. And this scares me. It truly frightens me talking to lifelong Republicans who are so Obama-happy now. I'm like, "You voted for Bush… twice… and now you're getting your panties wet over a young, inexperienced man you hope will make all those other brown-skinned people across the world who hate us come back around to loving us? You fucking voted for the Confederacy and now you want mammy to kiss it and make it all better?" The psychologically dubious strain of hope they have in him chills me.

On the other hand, the hope that my daughter and her friends place in him makes me feel like he is JFK and I should just shut up, write him a campaign song, and get with the program.

Smolin: With Passing Strange, you have tapped into a rich, unmined vein, the "big two-story black middle-class dream," to quote the show again -- a version of the African-American experience that doesn't indulge media-exploited constructs like the ghetto-desperation of poor blacks or the Dionysian excess of professional athletes and rap stars or the fairy tale sit-com complacency of the Huxtables. In fact, beyond the more generic raves for Passing Strange, the play has also inspired prominent black artists like Whoopi Goldberg, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, and others to praise your achievement with the nearly identical proclamation, "That's my story!" Are you surprised that a narrative so particular to your own personal experience has struck such a powerful chord in others?

Stew: No, not at all. I knew Passing Strange was going to hit black freaks where they live because I knew my experience wasn't isolated or unique. There weren't a lot of black freaks in my midst growing up, but there were enough of us to know we existed. We recognized one another. We were gay choir directors, punks, elementary school teachers who wrote poetry at night, and computer geeks. We were everywhere. Sometimes we were so shocked to see each other at the Germs show at the Whiskey or the Chris Burden art installation that we wouldn't even dare talk to one another. We just couldn't figure out if it was cooler to acknowledge each other or to not. Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee were the President and Prime Minister of our little nation underground.

Smolin: Was it your intention to tap into that vein or were you just telling your own story?

Stew: I could give less than a fuck about my own story. I wanted to tell A story. That's why it wasn't purely autobiographical. I'm not enough of an egotist to think my story is important. THE story, however, is important.

Smolin: And what does it say about our culture that this large swath of black America has so rarely been given voice?

Stew: I think black people should take the brunt of the blame for a lot of the problems of cultural representation or the lack thereof. Sure, maybe black folks don't own enough publishing companies or record companies or what have you, but do those that do own shit support great black art? Has Ebony ever done an extensive article on Arthur Lee? Or even Hendrix?

Also, large sections of the black community have historically bought into a lot of the stereotypes that were supposedly sold to or forced on us. How many black kids still buy into the story that being smart or interested in things beyond your neighborhood is "acting white"? I used to get that shit all the time. When did being curious about the world become a "white" thing? And is the "great white conspiracy" against black people responsible for that mentality? I don't think so. I would never ascribe that much power to white people to credit them with fucking everything up for me. As long as they don't charge me to get into the library, I'll find a way.

I grew up experiencing more oppression from black people in the form of pressure to conform than I ever did from white racism. I think black people got so caught up in a confused sense of black pride that they actually cut themselves off from the ability to be full cultural players. Two unlikely heroes of mine, Maulana Karenga and Robert Redford, taught me the exact same thing: don't wait for an institution to be built to get you what you need, build the institution your own damn self.

But, yes, I would like to work with Tyler Perry.
Smolin: In Passing Strange, the character Youth struggles with social conservatism in the black community, a problem familiar to liberal politicians (Obama included) who seek the black vote but who support, for example, same-sex marriage, which is heavily opposed by black voters who otherwise identify themselves as "liberal." Can you comment on homophobia among African-Americans and whether those attitudes have softened at all over the past 30 years?

Stew: I don't know that black homophobia is any different from white. Maybe the stats are different. Of course many black people robotically buy into the tired Christian totalitarian myths about the "sin of wasting seed" and all that crap, but let's face it: a lot of Hispanics and whites and Asians do too. I think all the races are equally fucked up in this respect. What has always fascinated me, however, about black church culture, is how the gay man has often been fully accepted and even at times exalted within the Sunday-morning framework. And yet that same church pays dangerous lip-service to the kind of fascism in the sexual realm that gave us segregated water fountains and lynchings in the racial realm. There is an assumption among some that the oppressed are supposed to be more righteous than average. But this isn't true. We all suck. I think people are righteous most often when it serves them to be so.

Smolin: Black Republicans -- oxymoron? Why do they exist?

Stew: I love black Republicans. I wish there were more. They represent a challenge to the black Dem monolith, and I welcome and applaud that. I'd like to see more black Greens, Libertarians, and so on. Black Republicans are really the coolest because as soon as you sit down at a table with these guys it's on! And they are ready to debate. They come prepared 'cause they are always outnumbered and always out-gunned. Years ago, I got my mind blown by a Mexican-American Republican born lower-middle-class in East L.A. He was all about Jack Kemp, and he told me some cool stuff that Kemp had done in some DC ghettos, and it was refreshing and eye opening. I'm, of course, not into the black Republican nut cases that they generally shove on TV and radio 'cause those are just public clowns with no more weight than Paris Hilton.

Smolin: When you were coming of age in the early-mid '70s, there seemed to be a natural affinity between the African-American and Jewish communities, especially among artists and musicians. Today those connections seem strained to breaking and the separation is palpable. Historically, socially, what has drawn African-American culture and Jewish culture together over so many issues and yet keeps them so very distant over others?

Stew: I think what divides blacks and Jews ultimately is that Jews enjoy the luxurious legacy of European/Enlightenment culture which defines them to this day, and that brings with it a freedom to be ironic and question religion, etc., whereas blacks are more Puritan, more Christian, more typically American. With the important exception of the blues -- which is super rich in irony and totally misunderstood by most white music critics -- blacks, like most American whites, do not, on the whole, have that sense of deep irony that Jews have. I envy Jews because their culture allows them to make better jokes about themselves than their enemies can. Nobody can outdo them in this regard. And that is a very important weapon and survival mechanism to have at your disposal. I remember the most hardcore outrageous Holocaust jokes would be made by the Jewish guys I went to high school with. I mean jokes I would never repeat! Whereas black people would never go to that level with slavery jokes. It's not in their make-up. They are too "sincere" (i.e., American). I remember telling [L.A. journalist] Erin Aubry that I wanted to do a Pythonesque skit about the Middle Passage, and she looked at me point-blank and said, "What's funny about that?" With that mentality, Mel Brooks would have never made The Producers.

Smolin: You attended two public high schools in L.A. (Fairfax High and Hamilton High), both of which had significant numbers of Jews in the student body. What has been your experience interacting with Jewish friends and fellow artists? Have the cultural differences mattered at all?

Stew: I learned how to be an artist from Jews. I was already an artist, but I was closeted about it. And I didn't know anything about James Joyce or French film or the Beats. I didn't know how to wave my freak flag. Jews were born carrying theirs. So being an artist was no biggie. The Jews I knew in high school who would unashamedly describe themselves as "artists" blew my mind and changed my life forever. They read the big books and wrestled with the big theories and dove head first into the continuum and they claimed the continuum. They didn't read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as just a novel. It was a manual for them. All art was an instructional manual. As was French film. And it was that way for me too. We weren't observing; Godard was teaching us and we were taking notes on how to live life. Most shockingly, they wrote songs while their moms cooked dinner within earshot. I never could have done this in my home. I was too ashamed of being an artist. I wrote songs in the basement or in the quiet of my room behind a locked door.

Smolin: For much of your 30-year career, dating back to the late-'70s, you have had the experience of being, as a snarly Youth sings in Passing Strange, "the sole brother up in this motherfucker." As a black artist busting out with his thang in 1978, you chose to forego R & B, soul, funk, and disco in favor of making rock and roll. Some have argued that, like Jimi Hendrix and Bad Brains and Vernon Reid, you made "white" music instead of "black" music. How do you answer that accusation? Especially given the black origins of rock and roll?

Stew: I don't really buy this "chose to forego" notion. It implies a kind of conscious operation that has nothing to do with my experience as an artist. The music chose me, not the other way around. I just chose to make music. And the music I made reflected all of the above.

For instance, I just listened to a pretty comprehensive compilation of well recorded live and studio and rehearsal tapes by my [late-'70s/early-'80s] band The Animated and was stunned at how funky and soulful a lot of it was. I was also stunned at how often we employed disco beats. It's not like we sounded heavy-metal or something.

Music used to be a regional thing. Stax grooves were funkier than Motown's even though Stax was interracial and Motown was all black. That's 'cause the South was funkier than the North. Period. No matter what color you were.

Smolin: You are doing a show on Broadway, one of the more mainstream American cultural institutions, and yet, you often describe your aesthetic as (the decidedly non-mainstream) "punk rock," obviously meaning something way beyond a musical style. What do you mean when you say "punk rock"?

Stew: Here is my defining punk rock moment: when the film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle came to L.A., everyone associated with punk was there. If a bomb had dropped on the Nuart Theatre that night, the entire L.A. punk scene would have disappeared. Well, there is a scene in this film that explains in a wonderfully cynical way how consciously manufactured the "authentic" punk image actually was. How it was a fashion thing invented by fashion and art experts like Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The film was making fun of anyone who took it seriously, hence "swindle." So when the lights went up and all these people had to face each other with their "unique" looks which had now been publicly exposed as manufactured, I realized I was more punk than any of them because I felt I had understood what was important about punk -- which was simply to say "NO!" Even to the punk look itself! Punk for me is simply not compromising: not for money, fame, or to be liked. And I never have. I didn't do it with any of my records, and I didn't do it with Passing Strange. Throughout this production we have stood up to every single bad note and suggestion from our producers and have said very loudly and in their faces "NO!" And that is why our play is good. 'Cause it's probably the only play on Broadway where the creators always said "NO!"

Smolin: You spent most of the Reagan years and the Bush I years in Europe, and, aside from your Broadway obligations, you still spend a considerable amount of time in Berlin. This gives you an interesting alternative perspective on American politics I would think. How does European media coverage of world events differ from that of American media?

Stew: One word: Katrina. I was in Berlin during Katrina. I was on the phone every day with America. And I know for a stone-cold fact I was seeing shit on French and German TV that was not broadcast on American TV. Even CNN International was broadcasting stuff that Americans weren't seeing.

Now, by the same token, I was also in Berlin during the '92 LA riots when European media described the situation as a "race riot" which was just patently absurd. And I also heard the BBC interview a fucking DJ from LA during the riot whom they took as some expert on race when in fact he was not an expert, merely black and utterly inarticulate. That was enough for them to deem him interview-worthy. No self-respecting American news show would ever talk to this guy about such a serious subject and call him an expert. But he was probably the only black guy the BBC reporter knew in L.A. So the European media are not perfect either.

The main point with Europe vs. America in all respects is that the European media do not infantilize their viewers. They attempt to sell the viewers crap, lie to them, seduce them, all those evil things that media everywhere do. But they also recognize their viewers are adults. That's what makes it refreshing for me.

Smolin: That said, how does the average European differ from his American counterpart in terms of political awareness and attitude? Was it noticeable when you first arrived there in the '80s? Is it more or less noticeable now?

Stew: In my time I have seen Europeans attempting to become more American in their media (all their shows are ripoffs of ours -- they even have a German David Letterman clone), but when I talk to my daughter and compare attitudes about life and politics and compare her to most American kids, I realize Europe is still a preferable place to raise a kid. With a healthy number of visits to the US thrown in, of course.

Smolin: Traditionally, America has not valued its artists unless they become celebrities, providing little in the way of support or exposure. Where does the artist fit into the American political zeitgeist in particular and American society in general?

Stew: Artists, because of the way America treats them, end up having to function like terrorists. We exist in these little cells plotting ways to make a big splash so our cause will be noticed. And then we are captured by the media and they render us pointless. In Berlin art "matters." It's really an amazing contrast.

Smolin: Will art ever "matter" in the USA?

Stew: Not in our lifetime. You're talking about a tremendous fundamental cultural shift that I am not sure there is any historical precedent for. Do cultures change? Sure, we have more museums now than ever, but is art a part of our everyday lives? I don't think so. America is cursed with this deep, puritanical learning disorder best epitomized this way: "Who has time for art when there are cows to milk . . . and Seinfeld re-runs to watch?"

One important point I need to make clear is that Europeans don't have great arts programs because all Europeans think art is important, no, they have great arts programs because the people in power think it's important.  And they make the people at home feel it's important.

Smolin: Can artists effect change in the contemporary socio-political climate?

Stew: I don't think any of the ones who actually could effect change are willing to go there. When you think of how powerful some of these big stars are -- people whose weddings get news coverage -- and you realize these people could totally go bananas and become agents for change. But instead they just promote their movies and occasionally adopt a baby from Africa. But I don't expect anything from these people. I'd be foolish to.

Smolin: It appears that one day, perhaps even in our lifetime, we will have a black president and possibly a woman president, probably a Latino president, even a Muslim president. Do you think there will ever be an Atheist president?

Stew: I'm praying for one.

Smolin: Seriously, though.

Stew: That would be a change far more intense than a black man being elected president. That would be something.

Smolin: But is such a thing possible in a country wherein 92% of the people (according to a recent Pew survey) believe in God? As a survivor of the "Baptist Fashion Show," do you think America will ever be ready for a president who says, "I don't believe in God?"

Stew: Only if the Prez before him fucks up the country via religion so much that people see how dangerous it can be and decide to keep it private and not force it on others.

Smolin: To what extent is the American electorate driven by fear?

Stew: I'm too scared to answer that question.

Smolin: Candidate Obama promises "hope" and "change." Can President Obama deliver on either? 

Stew: He can deliver the same kind of change that any pol is capable of. The question is does he have the balls and will to do it? One thing he will definitely do is change the language of black America. His speech, his cadence, his rhythm, his enunciation is quite different from any famous black man in America. I have known people who sound like Barack Obama forever, but they were never famous. And unlike older black candidates, he does not fall into the black-speak Ebonics thing when he's trying to "get real." Oprah and others still pull that stuff, but Obama does not 'cause his generation doesn't do that. I still go there, but my daughter doesn't.

Smolin: Indeed. Let's not forget, yes, that you are an artist and a cultural critic, but you are also a father with a teenage daughter. Are you optimistic about the world she will be inhabiting in the year 2025?

Stew: I'm not concerned about the world my daughter will inhabit. It'll be her world. I'll only live in it (and kvetch!). I'll tell her what it looks like. And she'll tell me what it means. And despite all the iPod brain implants and hologram parties she'll attend, there will still be love and live music in her world. And war. Or, as her mother once wrote in a poem:

It's new.
It's never new.
It will be you.

Barry Smolin is a teacher, songwriter and radio-host who resides in Los Angeles. As a songwriter, he has released two albums under the name Mr. Smolin. His weekly radio program, The Music Never Stops, is heard Sunday nights, 9-11pm Pacific Time, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.