For Stew - The Drummer

When I first met Stewart he was dressed up like a magic mushroom. Or maybe he was on mushrooms. I forget. It was at a Halloween party.  He’s gone now, so I can’t ask him.

I had gone out party surfing, a Saturday night habit in Corvallis. In a town so small, walking four or eight or ten blocks eventually lead to a party in progress.  A house with the doors open, music rumbling the walls, and college kids swarming the door like bees. Corvallis was also big enough that I could crash anonymously without any questions.  In this case the house was a Dutch-style farmhouse with a half-finished basement filled with a students.  Everyone was waiting for “the band” to play, but apparently they were missing the bass player.  The drummer and guitarist, Stew and Doug, were hanging out in the garage having a beer. I play bass, and usually I’m shy about offering to play music for a crowd, but maybe I’d had a beer as well, or maybe because it was Saturday night and Halloween and everyone was wearing a costume and acting slightly giddy, but I offered to get my bass and amp and fill in.

I don’t remember how I retrieved my instrument -- probably ran home and trudged back, bass and amp in hands. My bass at the time was a Mosrite, purchased from a friend in high school.  The amp was a farty little practice box, barely larger than a… well, in those days I’d say portable record player, or typewriter case, but these days I’d have to say karaoke machine.  It probably pulled 40 amps and the only way it could possibly be heard at the party was if I turned all the knobs up to ten. Which I did.

Doug had wild curly brown hair, was wearing a blue lumberjack shirt about ten years before grunge made it popular, and had apparently shaved off half of his full beard – left side clean, right side fuzzy. Stewart, in addition to the mushroom hat, was wearing what I’d come to recognize as his standard uniform: a rainbow tie-dye shirt.  When he saw me with the bass in hand he gave a huge grin, blue eyes as big as quarters, and helped me schlep the amp into the basement.

Doug had a set of songs that he’d written, as well as a couple of crowd-pleasers like “Louie, Louie” and “Tequila,” I just tried to stay in tune and on the beat.  Most of the time Stewart favored a shuffling beat, so it was easy to follow along.  The audience apparently liked it because nobody was leaving and half the crowd was actually dancing. The basement buzzed with the sound of guitar, bass and drums, and the shouts and cheers of a happy college crowd. We played for hours, taking a couple breaks for beer, and at the end of the night when they asked if I wanted to join the band, I jumped at the chance.  They were called “Maurice and the Chevaliers,” Doug was Maurice, so I became a Chevalier.  I still don’t know what happened to their former bass player.

At heart, Stewart was a happy guy. Maybe the reason I thought he was on mushrooms was because he always flopped into the room with the sort of grin that suggested a psilocybic euphoria.  In college he had slightly longer hair, almost a Dutch-boy haircut that gave him an aura of innocence.  I don’t believe he was innocent, but at peace with himself and this reckoning gave him serenity.  He liked the Grateful Dead, listening and playing music, making art and meeting people.  Both he and Doug were in the Fisheries program at OSU, so none of my computer science classes intersected with theirs.  A couple times he came into the restaurant where I worked to order a sandwich, but for the most part we interacted in the context of the band: getting ready to practice, practicing, playing a party, or hanging out after practice.

In our trio, Doug was the driver. He wrote songs and worked up the lyrics.  While Stew and I sang backup, he took on the lead vocals and played guitar.  If it weren’t for his direction, the band wouldn’t have any shape at all. Stewart was more laid back. If the gig happened, he was happy. If it didn’t – oh well, there’s another day.  He liked to play music, but if that failed, he enjoyed talking or just hanging out.  I like to think that I provided the bass riffs that held everything together. I smoothed over the rough patch that might appear during a song when Doug switched from vocals to guitar solo.  If Stewart lost the beat, the bass helped find it again.

During the time we played together I didn’t write any songs, but Stewart came up with one. The only lyric I remember of it is “see it shine, shine, shine.”  I have never much listened to the Grateful Dead, but it seemed like something they might play.  I don’t think Stew played any instrument other than drums, so when he described the melody to us he had to sing it.  His eyes went toward the ceiling as he recalled the lyrics, like he was getting a message from a particular star.  He sang the song to us, pretty sweetly, “see it shine, shine, shine..”  We tried for an afternoon to get it right, but it never worked as well as he imagined it, and I don’t think we ever performed it.

One song written by Doug was “Volkswagen,” popular among the fans of the band. It was an ode to the car manufacturer, touching on Hitler, Woodstock, hinky repairs, and the culture dedicated to their vee-dubs and hippie buses.  Doug hit the chords on the off-beat, and I chimed in with a Reggae-style bassline, while Stewart stuck to a Grateful Dead drum beat.  The chorus ran

Give me Type I, Beetle, 
Karmann Ghia, Funky Bus 
Squareback, Fastback, Scirocco or Thing 
The new ones aren't as cool, but give any to me 
As long as they're made in West Germany!

Both Doug and Stewart had Volkswagens.  Doug’s was a gunmetal gray VW Bug circa 1965.  Stewart had the hippie bus – I think it was the 1963 23-window model that he finally started to restore in 1999. As a poor college student, I didn’t have any car, but the song influenced me enough that I ended up owning two Rabbits, and two Fastbacks.  VWs had a certain cachet. Yes, they were promoted by Hitler, but they were also popular with the hippie generation, and one center of the 60’s was Eugene, Oregon, only fifty miles south of Corvallis.  At lot of the drop-out generation had migrated to Corvallis while dropping out, and perhaps we had picked up some of that nostalgia through osmosis.  Stewart loved jamming on this song, egging us on with a wild grin, or closing his eyes and feeling the beat.

We were young and we could play forever. I’d get blisters on my fingers, but that only built up my stamina for next time.  Stew, however, always got the full body workout on the drums. One time, after an hour of jamming, he’d worked up enough of a sweat that he pulled off his tie-dyed shirt. I was shocked by the scar on his sternum.  I’d had other friends that that had similar scars. They usually had a heart problem when they were born, or as young kids.  I don’t remember if I asked Stewart about this, but somehow I knew that he had a heart problem.  He never mentioned it.  Whatever problem he had had, it didn’t seem to interfere with life.

At the end of the school year Stewart graduated, and that incarnation of the band broke up.  Later in Portland we found a new drummer, and “Maurice and the Chevaliers” continued for a few more years.  But after graduation I never saw Stewart in person again.

When I think back on the whole experience, one night sums everything up.  We had been practicing, and were at Doug’s house. A week earlier he had bottled a batch of homebrew stout, and we decided to sample the results.  Doug’s girlfriend Sharon had shown up and the plan was to go to a party later. It was a late spring evening and the mild weather was a nice change after months of rain.  The party started late, there was no hurry, so we kept opening 22oz bottles of homebrew.  After a while we realized it was nearly 11pm, and thought about going to the party, or maybe to get something to eat.  Doug said he’d drive us somewhere, and even though he was probably drunk, all four of us clambered into his bug. The combined weight stressed the shocks enough that we scraped the curb pulling out of the driveway.  Doug pulled the car out of the driveway, but accidentally killed it changing gears.  With the engine dead, in the middle of the street, Doug decided to open the sunroof.

In the night sky over Corvallis, where we had been used to the comforting clouds of rain, all of a sudden there was a clear starry sky.  Everyone in the car grew quiet, and even the background noises of the small town disappeared, not even a barking dog or the faint motor of a car cruising 9th Avenue.  In my head today I hear what Stewart was trying to describe in his song: “see it shine, shine shine.”  For a moment it was peaceful, and then we all cracked up laughing.

Some might see in this a wasted youth. Kids drinking, playing, going nowhere. They should have been industrious at their studies.  I see it as a moment captured in time, a gift. There’s a saying, “Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.”  When you’re young you don’t realize how beautiful you are, and how life is a fleeting thing.  A moment like this, when reason is reduced to nil, free from responsibility, but able to see all the beauty of the universe, is a rare thing.

I walked home under the stars that night.

For Stewart Alcorn  June 23, 1964 - March 19, 2015