Thursday, June 6, 2013

RFK & The Poetry Of Memory: John Stewart's "Dreamers On The Rise"

Today, June 6th, is the 45th anniversary of the death of Robert Kennedy, shot down here in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of June 5th, mere minutes after winning the California Democratic presidential primary which solidified his status as the frontrunner for his party's nomination - and, as an opponent of the highly unpopular Lyndon Johnson and his even more unpopular war, a formidable adversary for Republican Richard Nixon. It is a melancholy anniversary on several levels. For those of us who remember that night, it seems impossible that so many years have passed since then, as time seems to speed by with increasing velocity as we move deeper into our decades. Kennedy's death was the next - but not the last - in a series of cataclysmic shocks that rocked the nation in 1968: the late January Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which though a major tactical loss for the insurgents was a public relations disaster for Johnson's administration; Johnson's subsequent announcement at the end of March that he would not seek re-election, though he was constitutionally able to do so; the assassination of Martin Luther King a few days later in April - and the violence and bloodshed at the Democratic Convention in August that was yet to come. It was a terrible year, judged by some historians the most pivotal in the nation's history since the Civil War, or perhaps even farther back to 1848.

Political murders are sadly not as rare in American history as we might wish or like to think they are, and happily those of us younger than 40 - more than half of our population - have no living memory of such acts. To them I would say that it matters not whether the public figure cut down thus was of your party or persuasion; the shock, the anger, and the outrage that we feel at political assassinations arise from their intrinsic evil and from the way that they tear at the fabric of American political life and institutions. You didn't have to like Kennedy at all to be appalled by his murder, or to be moved by the sight of his brood of now-fatherless children. Violence may play well in the cinema or in a video game, but in real life - it's a horror.

I am not at all sure at this distant remove how different the subsequent decades would have been had RFK lived. He might have been able if elected to end the war in Vietnam prior to its worst and bloodiest years - or not. "My fellow citizens," said Abraham Lincoln, "we cannot escape history," as both of our last two presidents have found to their dismay, and our chief executive has almost always been a prisoner of events beyond his control fully as much as  he has been the architect of the nation's path and destiny. RFK did not have the ego, the natural leadership, and the personal charisma of his older brother, nor was he capable of the same soaring flights of oratory; he may have had some of LBJ's ruthless singlemindedness, but he lacked the Texan's intimate knowledge of the legislative process and Johnson's remarkable adroitness at manipulating it to his own ends.

However,  Robert Kennedy had other qualities, not the least of which were the capacity to grow - out from under the shadow of his two more accomplished and more self-possessed older brothers, among other areas - and more importantly, the quality of a far deeper and more genuine compassion for the suffering and the dispossessed  than most other politicians of his or any other generation ever truly felt or knew. This was especially clear in his interactions with children - which you would expect from a father of eleven - but more surprisingly so in his support of the causes of the California farm workers and of the African-Americans and their civil rights movement, neither of which were  natural constituencies for a rich kid from Boston. And much of the energy that propelled his doomed presidential campaign forward emanated from those two groups; RFK was the last white politician to be able to reach across the nation's racial divide and to attract a kind of devotion from them until at least the time of Bill Clinton.

I was not in the RFK camp in '68 - I was a charter member of and card-carrying, button-wearing, neighborhood-canvassing recruit in Eugene McCarthy's derisively-named "children's crusade" of college students in support of the first senator (with Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon)  to come out and actively oppose Johnson's war. McCarthy's Middle Western directness, his poetry, his love of the People's game of baseball  - these appealed to my younger self far more than what seemed to me to be RFK's carpetbagging opportunism, as he got himself elected to the Senate from a state in which he had never lived and as he waited to declare his own candidacy for the presidency until after McCarthy had proven LBJ's electoral vulnerability in New Hampshire and elsewhere. McCarthy seemed a white knight to Kennedy's soiled pol - silly to have thought so, perhaps, but the world always seems a clearer and more black-and-white place when we are young.

What I saw in McCarthy, though, was what singer-songwriter John Stewart saw in RFK. Stewart was a show biz veteran with serious credentials as a former member of the Kingston Trio during some of the years in which it was the top vocal group in the U.S. and as the composer of "Daydream Believer," a #1 hit for The Monkees in 1967 and an enduring pop-rock standard - but he was also 28 years old when he joined the RFK campaign as the troubadour who warmed up the crowds before Kennedy spoke, especially on the senator's whistle-stop  tour through California. Stewart was young enough still to be captivated by RFK's idealistic vision of all that America could be, especially an America rid of the crushing weight and costs of a war that seemed to have neither a clear objective nor a foreseeable end. Kennedy's apparent natural diffidence also matched Stewart's own, and the two developed a close and personal bond, with Stewart remaining close to the senator's children for decades afterward.

Kennedy's murder had a profound impact on Stewart. Where RFK's compassion for the forgotten intensified Stewart's own and contributed to the deep emotional underpinning of wonderful Stewart songs like "Botswana" and "Reason To Rise," among many others, the assassination itself seemed to haunt Stewart for years and years, shaping songs like "The Last Campaign," "I Remember America," "The Last Hurrah" - and "Dreamers On The Rise." This last was composed and released in 1984, sixteen years after the last campaign in which Stewart would involve himself and when he was well into his forties. It is the reflection of a man in middle age looking back on the idealism of his younger years, and at the end, wishing that the time could come alive again. "Dreamers" is a simple song lyrically; its evocative power arises from Stewart's almost stream-of-consciousness imagery and from the poignant longing that the middle-aged often have for youthful ideals that have been abraded away by the harshness of life in the real world, both of which enable Stewart's song to escape from mere topicality. The song was first released on Stewart's aptly-named album "The Last Campaign":

It is that "turning back our lives" in the third verse in which Stewart most clearly expresses a kind of late-night feeling many of us get from time to time. You can't call it nostalgia, exactly; it is closer to regret for deeds undone, opportunities missed, words unsaid. Yet only a year after this recording, Stewart did turn his life back to a degree by recording an EP called Revenge of the Budgie with his former Kingston Trio bandmate Nick Reynolds, and one of the best cuts on the recording is the duet on "Dreamers" with Reynolds on high harmony:

Reynolds later said that this was his favorite of all the John Stewart songs he had heard and sung through the decades, remarking in The Kingston Trio On Record book that "When I first heard 'Dreamers On The Rise,' it just killed me. It was done so perfectly..."

Stewart performed the song throughout the remainder of his career, and there are fortunately a few videos of him doing so. This one is from 2002:

As JS mentions, he is accompanied by his bassist of 25 years, Dave Batti, who continues to perform with other Stewart sidemen as The John Stewart Band.

Joel K. presents an interestingly different take on the song in 2011 at Swallow Hill in Denver:

The piano accompaniment and slower rhythm make for a very different emotional coloring to the tune.

A few months after Stewart's passing, his widow Buffy Ford Stewart, herself an accomplished professional musician, and long-time Stewart collaborator Chuck McDermott presented a duet backed by the rest of the Stewart band at a tribute concert:

It is unfortunate that the video cuts off before the song ends; the thunder of the applause was a moment to remember.

We have several other high quality performances on YouTube done by people who knew Stewart to varying degrees. First, southern California singer-songwriter Tim Dismang, who frequently includes Stewart compositions in his own performances:

This is from 2003, and Stewart, who was in the audience and was captivated by Tim's rendition, can be seen congratulating Tim at the end of the video.

Finally, Nevada's Steve Cottrell in 2007:

As he usually does, Steve puts his own distinctive spin on the number, altering the speed, rhythm, and even the melody a bit to suit his own reflective take on the song.

"Dreamers On The Rise" is yet another John Stewart song that should be better known than it is. The tune has been virtually unheard by the public at large and has been buried, as Joel K. notes above, in the soundtrack of a minor and long-forgotten movie from the 80s. Yet it remains as one of the most articulate and heartfelt of the tributes to Robert Francis Kennedy yet written; it comes closer to capturing the spirit of Kennedy's campaign than works far better known. Like RFK himself perhaps, "Dreamers On The Rise" deserves a much better fate than time and national memory have dealt it thus far.

Appendix - July 2013

Courtesy of Chuck McDermott, a collaborator of John Stewart's for many years, we have an embeddable clip of that performance from the "minor and long-forgotten movie" mentioned above. Chuck explains in his FaceBook Posting:

This is hilarious. In 1984, a rather unremarkable film came out called "Hot Dog" which was a teen romance meets ski movie kinda thing. The producer was a John Stewart fan and the script called for the male lead to sing and play guitar a few times in the film. Two of John's songs were selected, and I got tapped to sing them since the actor was NOT himself a singer. When the film came out, John and I were on the road and were two of maybe 5 people in the theater for a matinee screening. When this nice young man opened his mouth and began singing, we literally fell out of our seats in laughter. Confused the hell out of the other 3 people in the theater...


Ben Blake said...

Jim, I'm pretty sure "Dreamers" made its debut on "Revenge of the Budgie."

Jim Moran said...

I'll check the order and dates again, Ben. I was under the impression that Nick Reynolds heard "Dreamers" on the JS album first. I defer to your expertise, though - will change it unless I find out otherwise when I return from the mountains.