One more under the bus: Ian Stewart

StuThe Stones story boasts plenty of aggression and nastiness. But there’s humour and decency, too, and most of it is based around Ian Stewart, the co-founder of the Rollin’ Stones.
Stu was born in Pittenweem, Fife in 1938, although he spent most of his childhood in Sutton, Surrey; by his teens, he was already crafting his own piano style from a mix of jazz and blues, often playing with distinctive sixths in his left hand. But unlike band-mate Brian Jones, Stu was anything but driven – his playing was informal, he found a clerical job at ICI, and could be found many weekends at Bridport in Dorset, where he and friends like Hamish Maxwell would walk, fish for mackerel, or visit the two local pubs. When Brian Jones placed his ad in Jazz News, Stu was the first recruit; “Stu started the band with Brian, and Stu’s as important or more important – that’s my opinion,” says the Stones’ longterm engineer and friend, Glyn Johns; according to pianist Ben Waters, “when he was in the band, they really did swing. He made a big difference”

Along with Pete Best, Stu became the recipient of rock music’s most notorious sacking, when new manager Andrew Oldham decreed his face – and chin – didn’t fit, and that six was too many members for a band. Glyn Johns: “I was in the next room when I heard it – I went apeshit, told Andrew what an arsehole he was. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference of course.” Brian Jones attempted to soften the blow by telling Stuey he’d retain a full slice of the money. This was, sadly, typical of Brian – making promises he couldn’t keep, a mistake that Mick Jagger would never make. Although, according to Keith Altham, it was quite possibly Mick who first discussed Stu’s sacking with Andrew, it was Brian against whom Stu would hold a grudge.

Stu’s sacking showed there were many snakes in the Stones’ blues garden of Eden ; they were a more brutal bunch than, say, The Beatles – Brian Epstein kept band rivalries in check, whereas Andrew Oldham would get stuck right in to the melee. Stu would always resent Oldham’s brutality – but of course, he lasted far longer in the Stones organisation than Oldham did and the sacking, says his friend Keith Altham, turned out a blessing: “I thought the right decision had been made, frankly. I don’t think he could have lived in that kind of circus. He was a very straight guy, a typical Scot, a boulder – an immovable one, if he made up his mind about something. Which is why they trusted him.” Oldham offered Stu the choice of being the band’s personal manager – certainly a poisoned chalice – or being the road manager, a job he retained, on and off, until his death of a heart attack in December 1985. Over those years, say his friends, he wasn’t always treated with the respect he warranted, but alone of all the band, Stu retained his independence. “The coolest thing about Stu is the fact he refused to play with them after a while!” says Glyn Johns; “ they were writing this other stuff and he was, ‘oh, it’s got Chinese chords in it – I’m not playing that.’ That’s why I got Nicky Hopkins, in, ‘cos he just refused!”
As the Stones careered on, Stu’s humour carried the band through. The band would ignore the loftiest promoters telling them to hit the stage, but when Stu said, “you’re on, my little three-chord wonders,” they always leapt into action.
“He was a gentleman…” says Keith Altham, “A gentle man”. People loved him. “You couldn’t not,” says Glyn Johns. “He was a complete one-off. He was my best mate, I lived together with him for many years and knew him as well as most, he was the most extraordinary guy, he was completely, nothing to do with the normal rock n roll bullshit about being a star. He didn’t give a monkeys about that, and he was exactly the same the last time I saw him as the first time I saw him. ”
The Stones’ story is one full of archetypes; Brian’s is that of the senstive, unreliable, visionary artist, Mick is the ambitious straight, who learns to become an artist. Stu is the dependable bloke, someone you can rely on. It’s a shame that he left no full first-hand account of his time with the band – his would have been an enthralling take. Sadly at least one of the Stones books featuring a detailed interview with him seems to manipulate or even invent quotes, so it’s hard to trust the impression that comes across. Nonetheless, having tried to capture how Brian Jones was damaged by the Stones, I would love to have known how Ian came to terms with his own treatment. Even in his early days, Stu was never as confident as you might think. Hamish, Stu’s close friend, is one of the few who saw Stu’s quiet side, his lack of confidence: “He was always playing… but he was always putting himself down, he never felt he was good enough.” His treatment by the Stones, even his continuing employment by them, could hardly have helped.

I remember, in particular, interviewing Pete Best about his life. I felt that, in many respects, he had obtained some degree of closure about missing out on fame and money; but that the betrayal by his friend John Lennon was a wound that would never heal. The same was doubtless true for Stu. “He pretended he wasn’t…” says Keith Altham, “but he was very deeply hurt by it. He admitted as much to me.”

Photo courtesy Helen Speight/Not Fade Away Facebook group


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