Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It
Tight Natural Production 101
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I am ashamed to say that though I lived in LA for ten years, I never crossed paths with the band once known as “The Negro Problem,” and now as “Stew & the Negro Problem” (highlighting the role of front man Mark Stewart, who co-writes most of the band’s music with bassist Heidi Rodewald). I have some recollection of them on the cover of a local alt-rock music rag in the late nineties, but as I was primarily interested in such publications for their sociological interest (rather than for their aesthetic advice), I never took the bait.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and I’m sitting in my living room, scanning aimlessly through Netflix. I find something called Passing Strange (2008). Strangely, I almost pass. But the blurb indicates it is about a musician, so I’m curious. The blurb says nothing about it being a musical; about it being an offshoot of a cult LA band; or about it being as riveting as it was (due at least in part to Spike Lee’s tight direction, and a superlative cast). I watch and listen in one sitting; I buy the album; I am hooked. The show is deeply tuneful—most every song sticks, like Ben Folds’ music at its best. It’s also a bittersweet Bildungsroman and a witty cultural commentary. But it's more, too. As a kid, I learned a lot about collective music making from doing community theater, but was frustrated by the plastic turn Broadway had taken in the 80s and 90s. Passing Strange is welcome evidence that musicals can still be good in the wake of that era, in this case by opening up to the gritty narcissism of rock. (If only more Broadway composers would take the Stew character’s lead when he sings: “I let my pain fuck my ego and I called the bastard art.”)
It has been a month or two since I discovered S&TNP, and I haven’t yet caught up with all of their music. I’m working on it, though. After Passing Strange I moved on to their debut, Post-Minstrel Syndrome (1997), which did not disappoint, packed as it is with power pop, and plenty of axes to grind. That one actually made me wish I could go back in time, to hear it in its original context, when I was still a faltering graduate student, new to LA and unsure of how to balance my academic and artistic lives. Struggling to form the band that would eventually become the IJG, I would have drawn sustenance from lines like “What does Robert Hilburn know about rock and roll?” (Hilburn was the LA Times pop music critic at the time; I didn’t like his writing much.) I would have fallen in love with the eerily psychedelic “Submarine Down,” the punchy New Wave anthem “Buzzing,” and the hushed rage of “Doubting Uncle Tom” (“Just got out of surgery / Mother University / But last night in my dream I saw / Garvey on the cross / Woke up and called my mom / Doubting Uncle Tom”). No matter; it says something about the power of these songs that I’m able to fall in love with them all these years later.
More recently I tried the band’s latest, Making It (2012). Informed by the romantic (but not artistic) breakup of Stew and Rodewald, this one was initially a bit harder to warm to. At first listen, I think I agreed with Noel Murray’s assessment that it was “overworked lyrically and underdeveloped musically.” I found myself asking, for instance, how many rhymes for the word “nurse” does one song (“Pretend”) really need? (The answer? Six—“hearse,” “worse,” “converse,” “terse,” “purse,” and “curse.” And that last is repeated five times, just for good measure.) Too much of the album seemed to bog down in that kind of nervous obsession, obscured by Stew’s gift for aphorism, and by an overabundance of four-bar phrases.
And yet there was a rationale too. The case is made elsewhere in “Pretend,” when Stew sings of needing “a stupid song to pull me through, like a childhood dog when you had the flu.” It’s the logic of McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” or Sting’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” but in reverse—tilted toward misery, an attempt to purge a bad feeling by wallowing in it. While other themes are treated on this record—race (the acerbic “Black Men Ski”), drugs (“Speed,” which rivals Lou Reed’s “Heroin” in its evocation of what it’s like to be in the grip of chemically-induced self destruction), and culture (“Suzy Wong,” a stream-of-consciousness meditation on power and sexuality)—it is the backdrop of interpersonal crisis that gives Making It its bite, and, finally, its appeal. In the end, that title seems less as some critics have assumed—a comment on the broader success the band attained with Passing Strange (which in my opinion still has not gotten the attention it deserves)—and more a way of documenting the process of just surviving.
Survival depends on identity—and that’s probably the biggest theme in S&TNP’s work. But identity can be hard to forge. Stew is a Black guy who happens to be more comfortable as a rocker than as a hip-hop or R&B artist; on top of that he’s quirky as hell. Rodewald too seems committed to her own path; one can only imagine what it takes to stay in a band with an ex-lover, and to have your former relationship with him publicly analyzed in performance after performance. Together they are an interracial co-ed songwriting team; surely one of the more unlikely scenarios in the annals of art rock. Yet their writing is not merely a quest for uncompromising self-definition, but also for unconditional acceptance. Thus they brilliantly answer what I consider the primary challenge of underground rock: how to write music that people like without giving the impression that you want them to like it—even though, of course, you do?
We are entitled to wonder why a band that can pull off such a sophisticated trick as that has yet to attain the acclaim of contemporaries like the aforementioned Folds (or Spoon, or Radiohead, or Elliot Smith, or the Flaming Lips). In a culture that can momentarily break free of its past by electing a Black president, while devoting a significant portion of its national conversation to idiotic suspicions about his legitimacy, the answer may seem too obvious, and too familiar. The “Negro Problem” is really America’s problem—our inability, or unwillingness, to embrace the range of beauty of which we are capable.