Imagine you're one of two founding members of a band. Together, you and your co-founder conduct auditions and hire other band members. For months, you use your desk at work as the band's informal headquarters, handling all its bookings. Then, just as your band is about to record its first album and begin its trajectory to superstardom, a newly-hired, 19-year-old manager tells you you're fired--because you just don't have the right looks to be a rock star.
That's exactly what happened to Ian Stewart, often called "Stu," a keyboard player and the second band member to join the Rolling Stones. Unlike the thin, long-haired, and decidedly rock-star-ish Mick and Keith, Stewart had a stocky build, a square jaw, and an un-flamboyant wardrobe. Adding insult to injury, Stones manager Andrew Oldham offered Stewart a job as road manager (i.e. head roadie) for the group after firing him from the band. Stewart accepted the offer and stayed in that job until he died of a heart attack in 1985.
This sounds like a recipe for an angry, bitter life, doesn't it? Instead of becoming a household name and wealthy beyond his dreams, Stewart spent the rest of his days moving band equipment and booking hotel rooms. Still, surprising as it may seem, according to all who knew him, Stewart was a very happy man.
"Most people would have told Oldham to go to hell, but instead he accepted the job as a roadie and I wondered what was going through his mind," says Howard Massey, author of the new novel Roadie, inspired by Stewart's story. Massey has a long history of writing about recording studios and recording technology, and he got to know quite a bit about Stewart's life, as well as meet some people who knew him well. "Most people would assume he had no self-esteem and suffered while watching the Stones from the sidelines, but he was actually quite content," he says.
There are life lessons in Stewart's story for us all:
1. Life isn't fair. Don't waste time getting upset about it.
Stewart's friends and girlfriend were outraged when they heard of his firing. His roommate at the time, recording engineer and producer Glyn Johns, responded that he assumed Stewart wouldn't take the roadie job--and was quite surprised when Stewart said that he would. "Everyone around him was really upset and angry," Massey says. "He was the only one who wasn't."
2. Live by your definition of success, even if it looks like failure to others.
Why did Stewart accept the job as road manager? "He said it would give him the chance to see the world for free," Massey says. It also gave Stewart, a phenomenally gifted keyboard player, the option to decide which Stones tracks he'd play on, and which he wouldn't, both in the recording studio and onstage. At gigs, he had a piano set up where he would play on the songs that he liked, but whenever there was a song in a minor key, as he put it, "I lift my hands in protest." A different keyboard player would take over on the songs Stewart didn't like--a luxury he wouldn't have had as a full-fledged band member.
3. Be willing to change your goals.
Undoubtedly, Stewart helped found the Rolling Stones because he wanted to play music, not lug equipment around. But he had the wisdom to see that taking a different path might actually lead to more happiness. Indeed, superstardom wasn't always easy for the Stones. "They were trapped in hotel rooms and dealing with drugs and all that," Massey observes.
"He ended up a lot happier than if he had been a member of the Rolling Stones," he adds. "He wasn't interested in fame or trappings of success, and he certainly wasn't interested in playing on any songs he didn't want to play on."
4. Getting rich is overrated.
One of the biggest injustices in this whole story is that the rest of the band became very rich off their music, while Stewart, though he received a good salary, did not achieve the wealth the band members did. But Stewart looked at the question another way. "You can squawk about money, but the money the Stones have made hasn't done them much good. It's really gotten them into some trouble," he told an interviewer in 1976.
5. Follow your passions.
Getting fired from the Rolling Stones freed Stewart to do the things he loved to do, and one of those was play golf. "He enjoyed playing golf courses around the world," Massey says. Stewart took advantage of his position as road manager to book hotels that may not have been near the venue where the band was performing--or the center of town--but were near the locale's best golf courses. "We're bored to death looking for some action and Stu's playing Gleneagles," Keith Richards commented.
Later in life, Stewart created Rolling Stones Mobile, the first-ever traveling recording control room. Where previously recording engineers might travel with equipment and then set it up where the band was playing, this innovation meant they could simply run wires from microphones wherever the band was playing to the truck parked outside, saving hours of setting up and then taking down recording equipment. "It became enormously successful," Massey says. Besides the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Neil Young, and Frank Zappa all recorded using Stewart's mobile studio. The Deep Purple hit "Smoke on the Water" was recorded with it.
6. Have a big heart.
People who knew Stewart recall how kind, hardworking, and likable he was. Richards later noted that his job as road manager allowed him to remain a vital part of the group, even if he wasn't a band member. In Stewart's place, Richards recalls, "I'd probably have said, 'Well, fuck you,' but he said, 'OK, I'll just drive you around.' That takes a big heart, but Stu had one of the largest hearts around."
That's the best happiness tip of all.