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RIP Gary Stewart: Music Icon, Social Justice Warrior, and Great Human Being

It’s been two weeks since Gary Stewart, my dear friend of 44 years, took his own life, and I’m still trying to process it. We met as teenage college students and music fanatics; I was a clerk at the Rhino Records Store in Westwood and Gary was an enthusiastic customer. He was a management trainee at McDonald’s, but eventually we convinced him to come work at the store, and our deep discussions about music continued for the rest of his life.

Me (left) and Gary (right) promoting DIY artist R.Stevie Moore; outside the Rhino store, late 1970’s.

Miraculously, we both went on to have successful careers in the music business.  Gary eventually became senior vice president of A&R for the Rhino label, and has been acknowledged as probably the greatest compiler of reissues and box sets ever (his LA Times obituary notes he is credited on over 700 albums).  In 2003 Steve Jobs hired Gary as chief music officer at Apple, where he curated iTunes’ offerings and oversaw their ‘Essentials’ playlists.  He left Apple in 2011, and launched Trunkworthy, a movie/tv/music recommendation website.  The name referenced his car’s trunk, filled with cd’s and dvd’s he thought people NEEDED, and his habit of forcing them on even casual acquaintances. He returned to Apple in 2016 for another run at curating their catalog, and left last year.  I still laugh about his career arc—even in his earliest days at the Rhino store, he was a huge fan of ‘Greatest Hits’ albums.  In an odd way, he made that artform his life’s work.

Gary was also a social justice warrior; incredibly committed to the underserved and underrepresented, through philanthropy and his very active participation in organizations dedicated to fairness and equality, particularly Liberty Hill, Community Coalition and Laane.

As befitting the passing of a beloved music business legend, obituaries honoring Gary appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications.

But I keep thinking these tell the story of Gary the music icon and committed activist–not Gary the person.  The Gary I knew was a big, sometimes awkward, occasionally goofy guy. He remembered dates like nobody I’ve ever known: “Sparks at the Santa Monica Civic?  That was December 3 & 4, 1975. They opened the show with…”  He had more friends and acquaintances than anyone I’d ever met. There were 400 people at his 60th birthday party.  I don’t think I could have paid that many people to come to mine.

Loyal to his friends, generous beyond measure, dependable as can be, when I think of Gary I think: reliable, insightful, committed, perfectionist, unwilling to settle, occasionally guarded, vulnerable, obsessive, brilliant, excited, voracious, neurotic, self-effacing, beloved.  As my wife Jody would say, Gary was dear.

At the 2010 Rhino store reunion; l-r Rhino’s Garson Foos, me, Gary.

The thing I’ll miss most is hugging that big bear of a man and our obsessively nerding out about music. I have lots of music fanatic friends, but I can’t think of anyone I’ve talked to more about music than Gary. When we first met, I knew much more than he did about music and records. But pretty quickly his musical knowledge overtook mine in a big way. His taste was so broad and encyclopedic, his interests so all encompassing. Gary listened to everything, read incessantly, remembered everything, was always looking for new music, and went to shows many times each week. His passion seemed to know no bounds.

As we aged, and his interests broadened to incorporate films, plays, television and movies, Gary was forever trying to get me to listen to new things, watch new TV shows, check out movies, etc.  When Apple hired him for the first time, he took his signing bonus and bought 150 box sets of the first season of ‘The Wire’ and sent them to his friends.  Crazy?  Absolutely.  But I had to admit, I’d never seen it, and once I’d watched it became one of my favorite television shows ever.

As a record collector and dealer, I always have more records in my ‘to listen to’ stack than I have time for, along with a pile of unread books, magazines, and a list of movies I’m interested in.  Gary was always trying to turn me on to new things, but I protested.  “Gary”, I’d say, “I don’t have enough time to listen to and watch what I already have”.  If I’m watching a movie, tv show, or listening to a record, and I’m not loving it, I move on to the next thing.  Gary would NEVER do that.  He always found something interesting in everything.  Eventually he came up with a line about me – – “for you it’s got to be an A”. Exactly right.  But for Gary, everything had something to offer.

I’m so glad we were able to spend an evening together the week before he died. We had dinner, went to see The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (an unreleased tv special from 1968), and sat in the theatre lobby and talked for more than an hour.  We discussed his present state of mind, his depression (my term; more about that below) and of course music. He said he was doing better, and seemed like it. We A&R’d the acts in the movie in detail—we agreed The Who were the best thing in it, and for Gary, his favorite 60’s group. We were both surprised at how good Taj Mahal was, and disappointed in how ho-hum the Stones were (they went on at 2 AM and were exhausted, though Gary was more forgiving than me, happy to see them performing Beggar’s Banquet material live).  We were surprised to see in the credits that the guitarist playing with Jethro Tull was Tony Iommi, who soon went on to Black Sabbath. That led to a long riff about which bands the casual music fan would be able to name all the members of—something we both were amazed we’d never thought about before (we decided: Beatles & Stones yes, The Who maybe, but not many beyond that).  I told him about the time a few years ago when I interviewed Pete Townshend for a Joan Jett documentary; and we both, once again, acknowledged how lucky we were to have met and worked with some of our musical heroes.  It was like hundreds of conversations we’d had over so many years. Eventually our energy faded, we headed to the parking lot, I gave him a hug and a kiss, told him I loved him, and we headed to our cars. Never for a second did I think this would be the last time I’d see him. But it was.

I will miss Gary for the rest of my life. But I’m fucking glad I got to know him and spend so much time with him for so many years.

Jeff Gold

April 27, 2019

I’m working with Richard Foos and Harold Bronson on an event celebrating Gary; to be added to the mailing list email garystewartmemorial@gmail.com

I wrote this on April 12 after hearing Gary had died:

I met Gary circa 1975, when I was a clerk at Rhino Records, and he was a customer.  We became close friends pretty quickly, and eventually I was able to convince him to leave his job at McDonalds (he was a management trainee) to join us at the Rhino store.  Gary had confided in me about his struggles, and I wanted to write this for his friends.

Just so everyone knows, Gary knew how much he was loved. He may have brushed it aside when told so, but he knew it. A few months ago at lunch we had a very frank discussion—he was depressed, lamenting not having a job, relationship, having spent too much of his Apple money and not knowing what the next chapter of his life was. He was obviously suffering, but didn’t sound remotely without hope.  I emphasized to him how unique and employable he was, knowing an impossibly lot about music, and having come from Apple, and that there would be many companies that would want to know about their inner workings. We spent a long time brainstorming ideas for a new job (he took notes), and he referred to his next chapter in subsequent email as Gary 4.0.  I invited him to write something for my blog which he wanted to do and was working on. I told him again and again how beloved he was and how much good karma he had.  He also told me that he owned his house and had enough money for at least 10 or 15 years, and that he was cutting back on going out and spending to make it last.  He was fully engaged in finding solutions to his issues, and wrote me the next day “And yes, I know just how ok I am-and how much, on every level, I’ve got-I always have really.”  A week or so later he wrote apologized for not getting the blog post to me sooner, saying he was working on it and ’that’s on top of two networking calls/meetings a day-with exercise and meditating thrown in for good measure.

I followed up with him regularly; he went on a meditation retreat (which he didn’t love that much, but was doing more meditating on his own), and he was definitely getting mental health care,   He alluded to a medical thing, but told me it wasn’t serious, and that he was fine.

Last week we had dinner, went to see the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus film in a theater, and sat in the lobby for an hour or so afterward talking. He was again upfront about what was going on, and seem to be somewhat better, and said he was. We talked about ketamine being approved for depression, and I think he was going to ask his therapist about it.  I am pretty sure he told me he was seeing his psychiatrist the next day and was going to discuss changing his anti depressant,  but I’m not positive about that.  We discussed and I sent him a link to an Israeli film on a study where PTSD survivors were dramatically helped with MDMA/ecstasy. He wrote me an email this Monday telling me he really enjoyed it, and how it gave him a deeper understanding into a similar therapy a friend of his had tried.

I’m writing this to let his friends know that Gary knew he was depressed, had reached out to me, and I’m sure to others, was talking about it, trying to find a solution, and getting mental health care.  In no way did I think he was suicidal, but obviously I was wrong. But he was doing his best to try to help himself.  Gary was always working on himself, trying to be a better person, of service to his friends and humanity at large.

I loved Gary and always will. In my modern Buddhist worldview, reincarnation isn’t about being reborn into a new body.  It’s about how the departed continue to live on in those they loved, taught, or touched in some way, and how their energy is carried forward by those they leave behind.   I can’t think of anyone who put more great energy into the world, and so Gary will be reincarnated in each of us.

Comments

A moving, and fitting tribute about a loving and uniquely talented human. He is already missed by many. That number will only increase with time and the news that Gary has left us a lesser world without him.

Thank you for sharing this, Jeff.

Yes, too long. I was deeply moved by your remembrance. Though it will not be the best of circumstances, it will be good to see you and reconnect at the celebration for Gary.

With love and respect,
Philip

Thank you Jeff. I met Gary in 1987. He was always so generous and kind to me. I loved him! He impacted so many people in positive ways. If there’s anything I can do to assist in your the event you’re organising to celebrate his life please let me know? Even at this great distance across the pond …

Thank you again for sharing your friendship so candidly with him … it really helped me. Bless you!

Love

Christine Collister xx

Thanks for this touching and emotional tribute to a man that all of us obsessive
music listeners are so indebted to.

GREAT piece. He had such an impact on everyone that came in contact with him.
I wanted to share a Facebook post from a few years ago I posted after simply having coffee with Gary.

“I had coffee today with my friend Gary Stewart. Gary is incredibly passionate about music and has a resume that would blow your mind. I always feel better after I see him than I did before. I wish there were more people on the planet like him. Thoughtful, deliberate with a deep appreciation for the narrative and how music curation matters. He may just save the (music) world. Long live Rock. Long live Gary Stewart.”

Thank you for this. I live one house over from Gary. We bitched and moaned a few times about construction being done early on Sunday mornings but I hardly would see him otherwise. I knew more of him bc of the crazy parties he held and how often he had them. It was sad to hear of the news which actually came from our mailman. I had heard.abkut a suicide from the parking structure but also never imagined that it was my neighbor who would be tied to that headline. Breaks my heart that someone so successful, so talented, with a beautiful home and means to get by…would end his life. I too battle depression, and have suffered from many job losses that kept me scared and often took over my mind. The fear of the unknown. I’m opposite from Gary. I live in a rent control apt that if I wasn’t paying $1000 for …..I wouldn’t be living here. I struggle to keep my head afloat and don’t have $1 in my account. I’m completely opposite of Gary other than our common distaste for loud construction on Sundays. I’m so sorry for your loss. I also wish I had known Gary better. Often times I joked about crashing his parties. I love music and have a brother who sells vintage records. I wish I had a chance to pick his brain on music. Really hurts to know of his passing but he is lucky for the friend’s he had, like you….my condolences.

Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. I was touched by your description of Gary’s unique genius, kindness, and struggles.

So often when any of us fall into depression, it becomes difficult to see possibilities and hope. It sounds like Gary probably wouldn’t have been aware of this, but his unique talents would have been immensely helpful to the current research on psychedelics (including for depression, anxiety, rigid perfectionism). The playlists used are so central in helping people to have the powerful experiences that result in relief of depression, anxiety, self-criticism, but they are not yet well understood. I was struck by your saying that Gary had difficulty imagining he could have a meaningful career again, yet his talents could have been invaluable to developing this essential treatment.

I am sorry for your loss of your dear friend. Thank you for sharing your insights so openly.

Jeff,
Thank you for this tribute to your friend Gary.
I had no idea who he was when I clicked on the link on your website, but I bet I have a number of records and CDs he had a hand in! For that alone, it is an immense loss.
My condolences on the loss of your friend. He sounds like he truly was one of the good guys.
Marc

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