Aidan Smith: Pittenweem’s pianoman who was soul of the Stones

Ian Stewart, far right, was declared not to look right for the rest of the band, from left:  Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones  at London airport in 1966. Picture: Getty

Ian Stewart, far right, was declared not to look right for the rest of the band, from left: Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones at London airport in 1966. Picture: Getty

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STRANGE as it may seem, Mick Jagger et al owe a debt to the far from exotic East Neuk town, writes Aidan Smith

The first time I realised Fife was different, strange, exotic? That’s an easy one: it was Monday morning in second-year physics when the girl every boy fancied revealed that she’d been at a pop concert in Dunfermline. It took the lads all of the double lesson and pretty much the rest of term to process the information: Geraldine had been out on a school night.

She was, if you didn’t count the sixth-formers who’d given her a lift from Edinburgh, unchaperoned. She’d crossed that bridge, the still fairly newish construction we didn’t really trust on account of the churning sea being visible through gaping holes. Then, even more daringly, she ventured inside a building with a quite oddly-spelled name – the 
Kinema.

Now you may be thinking it was Geraldine, then 14, who was different and strange and exotic rather than Fife. Okay, you contend, the sweaty metropolis of Dunfermline might once have hosted premier skiffle evenings, but out in the Kingdom’s boondocks life is surely slower, duller and not rock ‘n’ roll at all. Well, go to Pittenweem as I did last week. Daunder around the East Neuk fishing village and tell yourself: a Rolling Stone came from here.

I think of Ian Stewart every time I’m in Pittenweem and every time the Stones do something ridiculous I wonder: “What would Stu say?” He was their piano player and their van driver. He was the uncompetitive one who broke up the scraps between Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. He would cover for the others if their girlfriends showed up while they were backstage with groupies. He was unswervingly loyal and yet he’d tell them when they’d just made a crummy album. He was their moral compass, such as these guys had one, and kept an actual compass in his pocket along with a spanner. He was the voice of reason and the sanest voice amid the insanity of Altamont, grabbing the microphone to urge the panicked mob: “Can you let the doctor through, please? … Lost in the front here a little girl who’s five years old.” He was all of these things despite being booted out just before fame struck.

The Stones haven’t really done anything ridiculous this time but their big exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery in London has had lukewarm reviews. Exhibitionism, which is supposed to be a walk-through of the band’s history, has left critics and fans underwhelmed by its over-emphasis on size, scale and spectacle. I can’t help feeling that the show would be better, and the Stones’ current image would better, if Stewart was still around to oversee things, spanner at the ready.

Confession-time: I’ve never worshipped beneath Jagger’s jiggly satin-clad bottom. Always preferred the Beatles. At teenage parties, my friend Dave Whittle and I would yank Stones 45s from the stereo to irritate the kind of straggly-haired goons who would invariably have more success with girls like Geraldine. But the group’s story, especially through those tumultuous 1960s, is important – and Richards’ early-years reminisces in his memoir Life were the best of a book in which he said of his old boogie-woogie buddy: “Ian Stewart. I’m still working for him. To me the Rolling Stones are his band.”

It’s the small, warm, intimate details in Life which are missing from Exhibitionism. Stewart, you feel, would have made sure more of them were included – not just from his era as a full member but afterwards when he would continue to do a turn on the piano, stage-right in semi-darkness.

You can find this detail in the many Stones biogs. In one, the first time we encounter Stu he’s a 23-year-old shipping clerk playing in a loping, barrelhouse style with one hand while the other holds a pork pie. In Richards’ first encounter, the guitarist heard Stewart before he saw him and resolved: “I’ve got to meet this cat.” Stu was dressed in Tyrolean leather shorts and, Richards noted, was oblivious to the stripper sauntering past their seedy Soho dive.

Although the exhibition recreates an especially manky Stones residence from 1963, it also has lots of cold, computer-generated info about number of gigs performed, size of audiences, etc – the sort of boasting you’d expect from a band who once took to the stage astride a 40ft inflatable tadger. But Stewart might inquire: “Who curated this show – the bloody accountant?” And he wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

One of the things we all think we know about Jagger is that he loves money. Stella Street, the telly comedy about a suburban crescent full of celebs, had him running the corner shop – actually sprinting along the aisles to check on the stock. Certainly a band questionnaire from ’63 didn’t disabuse us of this notion: while the rest fantasised about one day owning castles and yachts, Mick’s dream was “to own a business, my business”.

That’s what the Rolling Stones have long since become: a corporate behemoth. But also a national institution and a bit of a joke. When they’re photographed propping each other up, like at Exhibitionism’s opening night, our reaction is: “Look, they’re still alive!” But I don’t think Stewart, who died in 1985, just 47, would want to see them like this. He’d surely cringe at the prospect of them threatening a new album when the last good one was all of 35 years ago.

The leather shorts and stripper-indifference hinted that Stewart wasn’t cut out for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and especially not the Stones bacchanal. Ruthless manager Andrew Loog Oldham saw a man with “a Popeye torso, a William Bendix jawline and a bad Ray Danton haircut” and declared the look not right for the band. Bitter? Not Stu. He stayed on in his various roles, not least that of the band’s soul.

Little wonder at the Pittenweem 
pianoman’s funeral that Richards turned to the others and groaned: “Who’s going to tell us off when we 
f*** up now?”

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