Saved His Soul With Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock \'n\' roll saved Gary Stewart.
May 19, 2005


Rock ‘n’ roll saved Gary Stewart.

It’s not that he ever felt desperate enough to end his life, but music played a major role in keeping him out of the abyss. The Beach Boys’ masterwork “Pet Sounds” made him realize that others shared his feelings of loneliness, alienation and despondency. Listening to the Clash rail against injustice in short, angry bursts of energy helped him vent his rage. The cerebral musings of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads taught him that things aren’t always as they seem, and that truth, beauty and art often reveal themselves in mysterious ways.

For more than 35 years, Stewart has lived as a disciple of rock ‘n’ roll — with a dollop of soul, funk and country thrown in for good measure. Ever since he built a radio in junior high electric shop and tuned in to the late, great 93 KHJ, Stewart has passionately spread the word — literally.

The new chief music officer for Apple Computer and former senior vice president of A&R at Rhino Records, Stewart has left an indelible mark on pop culture in the past quarter century, even if he is largely unknown outside the industry. His work has rescued talented artists from obscurity, taken listeners on a wild musical journey from raucous ’50s rock to sultry ’70s soul and beyond, and rehabilitated the reputations of once dismissed artists.

“I would love to be remembered as someone who turned people on to great music, art, culture or ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t know about,” he said.

At Apple, Stewart oversees the newly revamped Essentials Section that catalogues artists’ best songs. Until recently, Stewart worked at Rhino. There, he and other music maniacs transformed the company from a niche player that put out novelty records to one that popularized box sets, anthologies and greatest-hits packages with high-quality art work, extensive liner notes, rare photos and an obsessive attention to detail.

Seated in his cozy Santa Monica home, a black-clad Stewart looked and acted the part of the music junkie he is. With the enthusiasm of a teenager, the 48-year-old musicologist gushed when discussing his favorite albums. Stacks of Rolling Stone, Uncut, Magnet and other music magazines weighed down a coffee table. An estimated 5,000 CDs fill his record room, which, the single Stewart half-joked, have impressed more than a few women visitors “who were equally unimpressed during my high school and college days.”

Stewart analyzes, dissects and consumes music with the zeal of a Torah scholar, always striving for deeper meaning and understanding. His affability notwithstanding, he trusts his instincts and won’t compromise his beliefs for the sake of consensus. Too much is at stake. That meant no Bangles or Squeeze on a recent ’80s box set, no matter how much he loved the bands or how hard his Rhino colleagues lobbied him. The reason: They weren’t alternative enough.

“I’m a ‘no thank you’ kind of bully,” Stewart admitted. “In the end, I’ll say this is how it’s going to be, which I think is a necessary ingredient for good art.”

A self-described workaholic, he has produced or co-produced 400 CDs ranging from the ’60s pop group The Turtles to country rocker Gram Parsons to the recent deluxe reissues of his favorite artist, Costello.

In recent years, Stewart has taken listeners on a veritable journey through the music of the second half of the 20th century. His 10 Rhino box sets include the bestseller “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,” “No Thanks! The ’70s Punk Rebellion” and 2004’s “Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground.” A third volume of “Nuggets” is slated for a summer release, and a compilation of overlooked girl groups from the ’60s — Stewart’s final Rhino release — will appear later this year.

“He has an amazing knowledge that blows my mind,” said Richard Foos, Rhino’s cofounder and current chief executive of Shout! Factory, which reissues DVDs and CDs. “From The Beatles on, he knows, in incredible detail, music from every year, whether popular or unpopular, underground, alternative, whatever.”

Stewart’s work has helped rescue greatest hits and anthology collections from dusty car wash bargain bins and elevate them to respectability on the shelves on the nation’s biggest retailers, said Bill Inglot, a producer who digitally remasters CDs for Rhino and other Warner Music Group labels. Whenever a 23-year-old buys a Ray Charles or Doobie Brothers record, Stewart and his colleagues at Rhino deserve an assist for “helping to spearhead an appreciation for great old music and bringing it to new generations of young people,” said Inglot, who has collaborated with Stewart on hundreds of projects.

Stewart, a cultural Jew who attended Sunday school in his youth, takes pride in his heritage and its emphasis on fairness, justice and improving the world. In that tradition, he has contributed both time and money to causes close to his heart. For years, Stewart has served on the board of the progressive Liberty Hill Foundation, which helps combat poverty and injustice in Los Angeles. At Rhino — a company founded by Jews so committed to tikkun olam, or healing the world, that employees had time off for community service — Stewart headed a committee that encouraged volunteerism and philanthropy.

His religious background might have shaped his philanthropic impulses, Stewart said, but he sees little connection between it and chosen profession. Indeed, references to The Sex Pistols, The Sonics or The Slits never appear in Jewish liturgy.

On a subconscious level, though, Judaism seems to have influenced him. As in his philanthropic endeavors, Stewart passionately roots for the underdog. It offends his sense of fairness and justice that some great acts have failed to receive their due. As much as Stewart enjoys Elvis Presley or The Rolling Stones, nothing gives him greater satisfaction than turning people on to cool undiscovered music.

That’s why Stewart gives friends free CDs of beloved, under-the-radar artists like the Pernice Brothers. Or why he toiled so hard on the recently released career retrospective of Roky Erickson, a veteran singer who made a ripple in the ’60s with psychedelic rockers The Thirteenth Floor Elevators before a drug bust landed him in Texas mental institution.

“He has rescued countless artists and their music from the dustbin of history and brought them back to public consciousness,” said Steve Greenberg, a long-time friend and president of Columbia Records in New York.

Stewart grew up in middle-class Mar Vista, a ’70s version of an “Ozzie and Harriet” neighborhood with manicured lawns and well-tended houses. His father worked as an electrical engineer and his mother taught arts and crafts. In many ways, his was a typical childhood. Stewart was neither the most popular nor least popular kid in school and enjoyed hanging out with friends.

What separated him was his love of music.

At 13, he bought his first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Cosmo’s Factory.” The band’s dirty, swampy sound spoke to him. Hooked, the young Stewart began making weekly pilgrimages to the Do-Re-Mi record store. He rarely left without an armful of records. In time, Stewart had assembled one of the best music collection’s at Venice High School.

His knowledge of rock would help him land a job at the venerable Rhino Records shop on Westwood Boulevard and forever change his life.

The year was 1977. Stewart, then a college student at Cal State Northridge, found himself at the West Coast’s epicenter of the burgeoning punk/new wave movement. Hired as a Rhino sales clerk and later promoted to store manager, he remembers Devo dropping off the group’s first single and Alice Cooper and Bryan Ferry sightings. When New York’s Ramones swung by during tours, an awed Stewart and his colleagues showered members with free discs. (Twenty years later, Stewart would co produce the group’s 2000 two-disc greatest hits, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! The Ramones Anthology,” a lauded collection that some say played a role in the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

“I caught something that was the equivalent of the birth of rock and roll, the British Invasion, the Summer of Love or any great movement,” Stewart said of his time at the store in the late ’70s. “I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Stewart’s encyclopedic knowledge didn’t go unnoticed. After Rhino launched a record label, his bosses named him head of sales and later a vice president of A&R. To keep his edge, Stewart listened incessantly to music and prowled local clubs scouting talent.

His obsessiveness made him a highly valued employee but also an occasional nuisance, Rhino cofounder Foos quiped. Sometimes, Stewart would insist on delaying a set until Rhino could license just the right tune. He often prevailed. Good thing, too.

“He has impeccable taste,” said Shawn Amos, a former Rhino director of A&R and a current Shout! Factory vice president. “In many ways, he was the heart and soul of Rhino.”

But Stewart’s heart and soul occasionally trumped his common sense.

In the late 80s, he signed a garage rock band to the Rhino label at the height of synth-pop revolution. Though critically lauded, the group never clicked with the record-buying public. Stewart also managed a band called The Last, although he had no prior managerial experience. Despite Stewart’s huge financial, emotional and time investment, his efforts failed to secure the band a major-label record deal; The Last broke up.

“I remember them very well. My bank account remembers them very vividly,” Stewart said, with a laugh. “But it was a good clean-out. I was part of getting across good music.”

His fidelity to music has taken more than a toll on his net worth. Without going into much detail, Stewart said he has made many sacrifices for his career. He has never married.

Still, Stewart said his time at Rhino made it all worth it, even if his 27-year tenure just ended.

Although he declined to say anything negative about his former employer, several former company executives said life at Rhino slowly changed after media titan Time Warner fully acquired it in 1998. They said that although still a wonderful place, especially compared to other record companies, Rhino grew more corporate and bureaucratic.

When the company moved from its Westside office to Burbank in 1999, Stewart didn’t make the trek over the hill to the Valley. Instead, he became a consultant, a position he held until last year.

These days, Stewart devotes all his energy to Apple and iTunes. Like the teenager who used to make a weekly treks to Do-Re-Mi, the song remains the same for him.

“Yeah, it’s a little weird being so much older than most folks at concerts or record stores, but I’m not the only person who still loves rock and roll and culture who’s over 40,” he said. “If I can’t be excited about religion, then I shouldn’t have the job I have.”


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