Boogie With Stu
by Bill German
During my seventeen years publishing Beggars Banquet (1978-1996), I conducted about a dozen interviews with the various members of the Stones. But before I had the chance to grill Mick, Keith, Ronnie, or Bill Wyman, I launched my "Stones interviewing career" by sitting down with Ian Stewart.
Ian, or "Stu" as he was known, was the perennial pianist for the Stones until his death in December 1985. Commonly referred to as the "Sixth Stone," he was, chronologically speaking, actually the "Second Stone." It was he and Brian Jones who formed the band. In fact, when Keith Richards showed up to audition for the band, it was Stu who greeted him at the door.
Because Stu didn't fit the Stones' bad boy image, and because the Stones were not so much a piano-driven band, he was placed in the background by the group's eventual manager, Andrew Oldham. But knowledgeable Stones fans, as well as the Stones themselves, continued to appreciate his presence. Stu played piano on almost every Stones album and tour until his death and held various administrative positions with the band. He also took on several pet projects. He helped organize 1983's ARMS tour (to benefit research into multiple sclerosis) and did session work with groups like Led Zeppelin, the Stray Cats, and George Thorogood. He especially enjoyed playing boogie woogie music in small British pubs with a bunch of his local mates.
I was 18 years old in 1981 when Stu came to New York to promote the "Rocket 88" album. It was an album of boogie woogie standards that featured Charlie Watts on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, Alexis Korner on guitar, and Stu on piano. When I interviewed him at the Stones' office in Rockefeller Center, I could tell he was as proud of this humble project as he was of his association with the world-famous Rolling Stones.
Stu was in it purely for the music. He didn't care about all the extras that came with rock 'n' roll. He maintained a quiet lifestyle and never fell into the drugs & sex & booze scene like so many others. He was content to go home after a Stones tour and spend his time playing golf. Which is why his death at 47 came as such a shock.
He was the only person who could whip the Stones into shape, offering them all sorts of harsh criticism. He'd refer to them as "Showers of Shit" and "Three-Chord Wonders" and they'd take it from him. At Stu's funeral, Charlie Watts lamented, "Now there won't be anyone to sneer at us and disapprove anymore." It's fair to say the Stones looked up to him like an older brother and that he was the glue that held them together. Without him, they truly felt lost for a while.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Stu, which originally appeared in a 1981 issue of Beggars Banquet.
Bill German: You've been called road manager, company secretary, and Sixth Stone. Which term suits you best?
Ian Stewart: They're all vaguely correct, except that I was the second Stone, not the sixth Stone. I am actually company secretary, which is an administration thing. Road manager still applies. You can call me anything you like.
Bill German: Apart from recording sessions and tours, do you see much of the other Stones?
Ian Stewart: No, because they wander about so much. I see Charlie quite a lot, but Mick and Keith just wander. Well, Keith spends a lot of time in New York, but Mick just wanders. I'll tell you, my friends -- the people I see and hang around with -- are all guys I've been friendly with for years, because I still live exactly where I used to before the Stones came around. Most of them have nothing to do with music whatsoever. That's just the way it happened, basically. I don't like rock 'n' roll as a way of life. I think it's awful. Most of the people who are living on rock 'n' roll are living in a dream world.
Bill German: So you enjoy the fact that, unlike the other Stones, you can be a "star" one day and anonymous the next?
Ian Stewart: I can't really say I'm a star, but it is nice to get up there and play a little bit and then have some peace and quiet. But just because you're up there doesn't mean you have to become a star. I play golf with Roger Waters [of Pink Floyd], one of the most successful and richest bloody rock stars. And I can take him to the golf club and nobody would recognize him. If he walked in this room right now, you probably wouldn't know it. Floyd's made an absolute fortune, yet they've kept their faces out of the papers. I don't think that's really fair to your fans, to have no contact with them whatsoever, but that's the way Roger likes it. Floyd have kept themselves in a little capsule. Their own fans don't know what they bloody all look like.
Bill German: I'm sure if Bill Wyman walked down the street many people wouldn't recognize him.
Ian Stewart: They wouldn't now. But with Floyd they never did. There was a time when Bill would've gotten torn apart walking into the street. In '66, I used to see Bill Wyman come back to the hotel with half his bloody clothes off!
Bill German: So there's no regrets about not being up front with Mick, Keith, and Brian?
Ian Stewart: Nope, no.
Bill German: So Andrew Oldham almost did you a favor...
Ian Stewart: Almost, almost. He didn't do it [phasing Stu out of the main line-up] very nicely. I honestly don't like Andrew Oldham as a person.
Bill German: Does it stem from that incident?
Ian Stewart: No, I just don't like his attitude. He's a brilliant guy, actually. And if it were not for him, I don't think the Stones would've gotten to where they are now. They would have made it no matter what. I mean, there would've been a group exactly like the Rolling Stones and they would've been as good as the Rolling Stones, whether Brian and I existed on the face of this earth or not. But they would've probably, if not for the careful handling of the group by Andrew, burned themselves out in two years by playing too much. Andrew was very careful about the exposure and image of the group. He only slipped up when he tried to become a record producer. He knows nothing about music whatsoever. I mean, you can still be a record producer and not know anything about music. But when Andrew started this producing bit, he was more interested in the image of Phil Spector, running around in big cars, with bodyguards, collecting money, and buying clothes. That's how he thought producers should act.
Bill German: Is it true you helped put food in the Stones' mouths [when the band was first forming]?
Ian Stewart: I was the only one with any money. They were living in that apartment. Well, Mick had a university grant -- he had a little money -- but Keith and Brian had nothing. Andrew? No, Andrew had money. But I wouldn't feed Andrew anyway. I wouldn't piss on him if he were on fire.
Bill German: Why do you think you've stayed with the Stones for so long? And would you do it all again?
Ian Stewart: I like the music. And yeah, oh sure, I'd do it all again.
Stu died on December 12, 1985, succumbing to a massive heart attack while in the waiting room of his doctor's office. It all seemed so ironic. The one guy around the Stones who eschewed all the drugging and boozing.
Reflecting on that irony a few weeks later, Bill Wyman wryly told me, "I'll never play golf. I won't play golf or eat cheeseburgers. I mean, those were Stu's only vices."
Just days after Stu's death, I found myself in Ronnie Wood's kitchen, at his house on New York's Upper West Side. It was me, Ronnie, and Keith. I told them I was planning a special tribute issue for Stu (the cover of which is shown above). As I showed Keith some of the pictures I was going to include, he made this comment:
"Why'd you have to leave us like that, you sod? At least he went out on an upswing. He was excited about the new album ["Dirty Work"] and was delighted about the Charlie Watts Big Band. But I thought he'd be the one holding the shovel, the one to bury all of us. What a hole he's left, such an obvious gap. He would always be the one to comment on everything, and sometimes you'd think he was crazy. But then you'd go and realize that he was right all along. I mean, no one has a bad word to say about him. You know, I've had other friends pass on, and you'd go, 'Gee, it's a shame.' But with Stu, it was different. I could think of a hundred other fuckers who should have gone instead of him. He wasn't even on my list."
That's exactly how Keith put it. I memorized it as it came out of his mouth. And when he finished saying it, I ran to the bathroom so I could write it on an index card before I forgot it. When I came out of the bathroom, I told Keith I'd just jotted down everything he'd said and I asked him if he'd let me print it in the tribute issue. He said, "Of course."
A couple hours later, after Keith went home, Ronnie said that he wanted to write something for the issue. He grabbed a pen and notepad and sat in his basement studio, as a Vivaldi CD blasted from the speakers. He told me to leave him alone for a few minutes so he could come up with something heartfelt about Stu.
I retreated to the guest room where I watched a rerun of "Mary Tyler Moore." About fifteen minutes later, I peeked in on him. He was leaning back in his chair, lost in thought. His eyes were closed and the pen and pad were resting on his lap. Nothing written so far.
I came back after another fifteen minutes and found him in the same position. He was still bathing in a sea of memories, eyes closed. I gave him another fifteen minutes. And another. Nothing had changed. Two episodes of "Mary Tyler Moore." It was now 4 o'clock in the morning and he hadn't moved in an hour. Not a single word in the pad.
I called out his name.
I nudged him a bit.
No response. Either this guy is a deep sleeper, I thought, or Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones is dead right here in front of me.
I got up close to his face, but it was hard to tell if he was breathing. I figured, if he's asleep, let him sleep, if he'd dead, there's nothing I can do about it. He seemed so peaceful.
I took the notepad and wrote something like, "I must've bored you to sleep," and put it back on his lap. I tiptoed out of his house and hailed a cab back to my apartment. I gave it a 50% chance that the headline of the next day's New York Post would read: "Rock Star Found Dead in Upper West Side Home."
Thankfully, we know how that one turned out.
Left: The issue from 1981 that first featured the interview with Stu.
Right: Stu and 18-year-old Bill German at the Rolling Stones Records office, 1981.