Gary Stewart—A Record Store Day appreciation

I was shocked, like many I’m sure, to learn, maybe around 2 a.m. this morning from a friend’s Twitter post and then from several obituaries, of Gary Stewart’s death.

I tweeted my own sadness and this excellent quote from Randall Roberts in The Los Angeles Times: “As a music enthusiast, Stewart advocated for lesser known, unjustly dismissed or overlooked music by artists including The Monkees, Love, Dionne Warwick, the Neville Bros. and hundreds of others, and in doing so helped reframe cultural conversations by bringing into the present recordings considered to be long past their expiration date.”

My tweet simply said, “Deeply saddened by the passing of Gary Stewart, head of A&R for the fabled Rhino Records at its height. Great friend to many, had a huge impact on keeping so much great music alive.”

I was going to leave it at that.

Went to the gym when I woke up and after the old man (my age) on the elliptical two over from mine who was singing “Heart of Gold” to his headphones so bad it would embarrass even Neil Young finished, had enough quiet in the otherwise deserted room to reflect more on Gary and all he meant to everyone–even L.A. Mayor Mayor Eric Garcetti, who tweeted, “Amy and I mourn the loss of Gary Stewart. He was our partner at @LAANE & @LibertyHill–one of the funniest, most humble people we knew. A true champion of justice. A model of modesty, and most of all, our dear friend. L.A. is better off for everything he did. We miss you, Gary.”

LAANE, I googled, is Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. As for Liberty Hill, it’s a foundation that works to build power through grassroots organizing in communities across Los Angeles County. It tweeted, with a photo of Gary speaking, “The Liberty Hill community is devastated to learn that our dear friend and former board member Gary Stewart has passed away. On behalf of the entire Liberty Hill family, we extend our deepest sympathies to his loved ones.”

Gary deserved more from me, I acknowledged to myself on the elliptical.

First, like everyone who’s commented on his passing has said, he was a great guy, and that counts for plenty. Second, like me and likely most of those who knew and worked with him, he was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but more than me and most, backed his beliefs with social action, hence the Garcetti and Liberty Hill tweets. He even mandated that all Rhino employees set aside time each year for community service.

Like his email signature stated, “Gary Stewart—Opinions Galore,” and his opinions always jibed with mine.

But it was Gary’s opinions on music that impacted me personally more than anything, starting when I first made his professional acquaintance in the early 1980s, first as retail editor at the record business trade Cash Box, then as regular correspondent at Billboard. For me—and many other music journalists—Rhino, with its landmark reissues of the music we grew up with and forever loved, was the shit. I talked to him regularly for Rhino-related stories, and eventually wrote numerous liner notes for Rhino reissues.

“I think his true passion was for compiling, separating out the things he thought were important, the things that really mattered–the greatest songs, the greatest ideas, the greatest people–from the inessential stuff that he could safely leave behind,” music producer Andy Zax told the Times. Said Rhino co-founder Richard Foos: “I give him almost all the credit for overseeing everything. Approving every album, which were hundreds a year. He was probably the greatest, most moral, giving, loving person I’ve ever met.”

He definitely gave me one of my biggest honors in the business when one day he said, “As long as I’m at Rhino Records, you’ll always be on the mailing list!”

Of course, his long tenure at Rhino eventually ended, as did mine at Billboard. I still get Rhino press releases, but I don’t even bother responding to them: Years go by and you’re just a leftover name on an old contact list. It’s the nature of the business, the nature of nature. Yet those of us whose lives are music soldier on best we can.

Gary tagged a Joan Rivers quote, “It doesn’t get better—you get better,” onto his email signature, though I’m not sure how much better either of us got in the interim prior to my contacting Gary at the end of February for a comment on an appreciation piece I wanted to do on Peter Tork. I hadn’t been in touch with him for quite a while, I realized, as my first two email addresses didn’t work. I was able to get a viable one from a friend, and while Gary was happy to hear from me, he uncharacteristically obsessed over my message–after promising to come through with a thought or two: It wasn’t like the old days when he could easily give a quick phone response to a tradepaper question about an upcoming Rhino release. Now he needed a couple days to dwell on it, and I had to write back and ask him if he was still able to do it.

I also explained to him that I was writing about Tork because I appreciated him and The Monkees (and Gary), but that as the piece was for one of my sites (centerline.news) and that in all honesty, few people would likely read it, it was no problem at all if he couldn’t come through.

Besides, I added, I wasn’t getting paid anything. I write because I’m a writer.

“I only do things that are meaningful to me, either and/or the subject and the friends I can give recognition to,” I told him. He thanked me profusely for thinking of him, and I apologized just as profusely for not thinking of him right away! After all, no one had done more than Gary in reissuing The Monkees catalog, not to mention all the rest of the true “music of our lives,” as the oldies cliché goes.

The “wasn’t getting paid anything” part must have hit home, for he asked me if he could chip in some money—which I gratefully declined. An hour or so later I received an email that he had in fact donated to my PayPal account—for which I now thanked him profusely.

I went ahead and wrote the Tork piece and quoted him, sent him the link, and never heard back. One thing that haunts me now is one quote I didn’t use: Tork, Gary said, was the Monkees’ “author in abstentia—not a ghostwriter but more of a ghost influencer”–key word now, of course, being “ghost.”

The initial reports indicated that Gary died by his own hand. I have since heard that he had a life-threatening illness. He did mention a “non-threatening medical thing,” but I didn’t press it.

And I won’t suggest anything further, as again, I hadn’t been in touch with Gary much over the last few years while our professional paths diverged. All I know is that anything can happen in life, good and bad, and that I was only glad—as was he—that The Monkees had brought us back together again. Sadly, it would be the last time.

There’s an old saying in the record business—and I have to call it that for context—said in reference to someone, usually male, who epitomizes the best of the business, and I can at least say with certainty that it most certainly applies to Gary Stewart: He was “a great record man.”

And it’s so ironic, yet karmically just, that today is Record Store Day.

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