By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
But the show is also a knowing celebration of difference, one in which people who aren’t black find bits of themselves. (I, too, remember that holiday season I spent stubbornly far away from family, not knowing how few of those seasons there’d be left.) It invokes high school choir teachers and neglected mothers and European art students like archetypes in a new mythology, one known by anyone who’s ever fled a hometown with an eye on a life in the arts.
“We do get comments from people who feel it’s their story outside of the black thing,” Stew says. “Anyone who wanted to do something that their community said they were crazy for doing, this is their story. I really like that people find something personal in it, whoever they are.”
Our conversation in the sushi bar is going well, but things started out rough between Stew and me. First, I’d referred to the play as Stew when I wrote to ask for an interview; next, he’d shot back a sharp rebuke saying that if I couldn’t even get the title right, I should just skip it and write another “predictably detached/bad/cynical review to counter all the raves we’ve been receiving locally.” We both apologized in e-mails the next day, blaming exhaustion, oversensitivity and alcohol. A few polite e-mails later, we agreed to meet up for sushi, and I’ve come to understand Stew’s initial response in a better context. It wasn’t me Stew was writing back to, or even the Los Angeles media, which, he admits, “gave us a ton of acclaim when we were a rock band doing our thing.” It was Los Angeles itself.
“I’ve hated it since I was 9 years old,” Stew says of his hometown. “I’ve hated it since I used to watch the Rice-A-Roni commercials and see people riding on cable cars and think, Why don’t we have those? I would see people in New York on television riding subways and say, Why don’t we have those?”
“Stew doesn’t drive, by the way,” adds Rodewald, a sylph-slender redhead who was born in Pomona and grew up in Orange County.
“When I was growing up,” Stew says, “in high school, we were into punk — we were into London and New York, and we wanted our city to feel like a city. Like when you walk around, you’d see people on the street. We used to go to downtown L.A. on weekends in our new-wave suits, because it wasn’t enough to dress new wave — we wanted to be in a city. We wanted to be someplace urban.”
It’s not that Los Angeles didn’t like Stew: He got good press and radio play. And although the Negro Problem never got signed to a major label, he had enough of a following that people in the music scene generally knew who he was and respected him. But it also seems, looking back, that Los Angeles didn’t know what to do with Stew or his band beyond the club scene, which Stew and Rodewald had both begun to outgrow.
Rodewald recalls a time when they were approached to play a certain local festival — she won’t say which one — but the organizer who invited them called back to apologize: “The producers don’t know who you are,” she said. In New York, they had already played Lincoln Center. “It was so perfect,” Rodewald remembers. “We thought, okay, so this is why we’re not living there. People say, ‘Why don’t you bring the play to Los Angeles?’ And we say, ‘How about if we don’t?’ ”
It’s possible that this city ignores its own until they prove themselves somewhere else, although the number of homegrown bands that make it big here would seem to contradict that notion. It’s more possible that outside of the club scene and KCRW, Los Angeles and its hit-seeking record industry couldn’t find a natural place for Stew’s brooding and thinky cabaret rock — a melodious hybrid of new wave and the French chanson tradition as defined by Jacques Brel with a Kurt Weill–type license for lyrical excess. Stew grew up watching French movies at the NuArt and New Beverly; by the time he was 21, he was living in Berlin. When he returned to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he was married and had a daughter, Bibi (now 15), who lived “very happily” in Silver Lake until the whole crew returned to Berlin (the city Stew still calls home). The sounds that fed his formative years as a songwriter were just not L.A. sounds. And though Los Angeles liked him fine, other places liked him better.