Will Stewart

Will Stewart
writer, editor, musician
Ypsilanti Township, Michigan

Tottered on: 19 April 2007
Temperature: 59 F
Ceiling: isolated clouds
Ground: spring grass
Wind: NE at 7 mph

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TT with HD: Will Stewart

[Ed. note: The concluding remark in the conversation below is an allusion to Michigan is Amazing. Rubber Soul was once upon a time a used record store in downtown Ypsilanti co-owned by Will. Corndaddy is an alt-country band--Will plays drums, sometimes mandolin or bass. Their 27 July 2007 date is booked under the auspicies of 'Crossroads', a free downtown Ypsi concert series held on Fridays at the intersection of Washington St. and Michigan Ave. Contact information for 'Crossroads' can be found at DowntownYpsi.org]

WS: So, why a teeter totter?

HD: You mean as opposed to 'see-saw'?

WS: As opposed to ...

HD: ... oh, as opposed to a slide?

WS: Yeah.

HD: Um, well, I built it as a wedding anniversary present for me and my wife. So. I thought a teeter totter was the best kind of playground equipment you could build as an anniversary present.

WS: Sure.

HD: There's a certain metaphorical weight that it brings to bear ...

WS: ... so to speak!

HD: Yeah, on marriage, relationships, balance [laugh] ...

WS: [laugh] Right, ups and downs ...

HD: ... let's pause this a second here and I'll get the picture taken. [Ed. note: Photography ensues. An electronic melody sounds during the picture-taking.]

That's interesting, your ring is 'A Few of My Favorite Things'?

WS: Yep.

HD: From the Sound of Music?

WS: John Coltrane, yeah.

HD: But still, it's from the Sound of Music, right?

WS: Yes, it is, yep, it is.

HD: Okay, let's get this teeter totter going. Now, are you going to be okay? You're much taller than I am ...

WS: ... yeah?

HD: Yeah, I want to make sure that you get adequate knee extension.

WS: Okay, is that important?

HD: I find that it's important for me. When I'm teeter tottering with someone who's significantly shorter, I find that sometimes I don't get adequate leg extension, and I notice it the next morning.

WS: Oh really? No, this seems fine!

HD: Well, let's dive right into music, since your cell phone did go off there just now! This review you wrote [for the Ann Arbor News] of the Keb' Mo' concert ...

WS: ... [laugh]

HD: ... have you started receiving hate mail over that?

WS: Ah, a little bit. A little bit. I know of one letter to the editor that was rather critical of my critique. And I think that's understandable. The person who wrote was ...

HD: ... clearly a Keb' Mo' fan.

WS: Clearly a Keb' Mo' fan.

HD: I mean, you acknowledge in the review that the fans who were there at the Michigan Theater that night seemed very satisfied and enthusiastic about the performance.

WS: Yeah. Yep, and that's something that I've had to start thinking about a little bit--in terms of how to approach reviewing music, or I guess any art, but music is really what I do--along with restaurants. I mean, if someone does what they set out to do, and do it well, or do it at least to the satisfaction of their audience, then how do you balance criticism with satisfaction, I guess, is a way to think about it. It's something that I've really thought a lot about. The person who wrote the letter to the editor about the Keb' Mo' concert questioned whether ...

HD: ... whether you were in fact qualified to even review that genre.

WS: I don't know if she was questioning whether I was qualified--I don't remember it exactly--but maybe more like, Do I have a built-in set of biases, that maybe should prevent me from doing that? It's a good point, it's a valid question.

HD: So was it the performance that night per se, that you didn't find satisfying for yourself, or is it his music in general? There's this one line in the review, where you said something like, if you're shopping for sticky notes at Staples, then his music would be good background. Which seemed to be more of a comment about his body of work, as opposed to just that performance that night.

WS: That's a good question, that's a good point. I guess, the thing is, here's an artist who presents what he does as a certain kind of music--it's the blues--and purports to be a legitimate blues musician. And to me, and again, there are biases that might play into this, but that's not the blues! [laugh] I mean that's like singer-songwriter material. Maybe part of it is just labeling, how one bills oneself. Because to me, playing a one-four-five chord structure song with a porkpie hat on doesn't make you a blues musician. So I think that's really where my dissatisfaction with all that came through.

HD: Do you think it's even possible to play a real blues concert in the venue of the Michigan Theater? I mean, the Michigan Theater itself is a very elegant, a very friendly and safe environment, I would say. And that was actually the critique that you made of his performance, that it was very friendly and safe.

WS: Yeah, I haven't thought of that. There might be something to that, although I saw John Lee Hooker rip it up pretty good at the Michigan Theater one time and that was a blues show if ever there was one, I would say! So I don't know that the venue has really that much to do with it. But I think it's a good question. Yeah, certainly one I haven't thought of.

HD: I've never actually been to a musical performance at the Michigan Theater. I mean, I've been to movies there. Well, I'm not counting the musical performance at the beginning--that's a musical performance, but ...

WS: ... the organist would certainly suggest that it is!

HD: Well, yeah, but I mean the reason you're there is to see the movie. The organ is an extra bonus. Although I would contend that the Stucchi's ice cream, plus real butter on the popcorn, plus the organ performance, plus watching it go up and down, that all of that alone, without a movie, is worth the price of admission at the Michigan Theater.

WS: The Michigan Theater is a real jewel, I couldn't agree more. Musically, it's the not the best place in the world to see shows. The sound, acoustically, it's just not great. It's usually over-amplified--the PA is just way overburdening the room. But they seem to have dialed that in a little bit better recently.

HD: After the renovation?

WS: Maybe. Maybe. A guy named Scott McWhinney does the sound in there frequently--and I'm sure the artists have their own sound people, too. But I think he's made some great improvements in the way things sound.

HD: So you and Corndaddy have a show coming up on the 27th of July?

WS: That's right.

HD: Let's see, now I'm trying to remember now where that's going to be.

WS: The 27th, it's downtown Ypsilanti. They call it Rockin' the Crossroads, maybe something like that--a series they do on Friday nights.

HD: Is it accidental that it's almost to the day--within four days--of the third anniversary of the closing of Rubber Soul?

WS: [laugh] I don't know! Is that really true?!

HD: Yeah.

WS: Oh, you do your research! I'm stunned to hear that. No, there's no correlation whatsoever!

HD: Does it seem like three years?

WS: It's hard to believe. It's hard to believe. In fact, I knew it was summer. If I would have thought about it, I would have been able to identify it as three years ago. Yeah, three years--it's strange to think that we've been closed longer than we were ever open.

HD: So it was about two and a half years that you were open.

WS: Yeah, I hadn't really realized that either, until just now.

HD: So do you still follow the downtown business scene?

WS: In Ypsilanti? Ummm, no. Not really.

HD: So Brian Vosberg, do you know who he is?

WS: Brian Vosberg, Brian Vosberg. Why, did he say something bad about me? [laugh]

HD: [laugh] No, he's the director of the Downtown Development Authority in Ypsi.

WS: Oh, is he? I don't even know him. I knew his predecessor.

HD: So he's talking about now the need to identify a specific theme for downtown Ypsi. He was thinking that might include music and clubs and also maybe antique furniture. So I mean, that pairing, he's not proposing that as a theme, but I take it he's suggesting it might range from music to antique furniture.

WS: I'd be curious to know if he's saying that because that's more or less what exists there now.

HD: If you could pick a theme for downtown that would help translate Ypsilanti into a destination point regionally, do you have any thoughts on the direction you'd take it?

WS: Well, I think our idea when we [Rubber Soul] moved downtown was along the lines of the first part of what he's saying: entertainment, music. And really we always had in mind kind of like an indie version of Ann Arbor, or what Ann Arbor's reputation is as sort of boutique, one-of-a-kind kind of stores. So we thought there'd be this great synergy between the live music clubs--when we were there, Henrietta Fahrenheit was there also, vintage clothing, Mother Fletcher's, thrift shops--kind of like an indie, rock-and-roll kind of downtown area, where there would be this synergy and this kind of sharing of ideas and sharing a market really, sharing a customer base. Wheels turn slowly in urban development and retail development. It seems to me, one of the problems is those wheels turn so slowly that businesses aren't able to sustain themselves for long enough for that to happen, and then there's almost a 'reset'. The whole thing has to start itself again, because what you were trying to build upon, this kernel of trying to reach a critical mass, keeps notching itself back. So maybe when another place is added, you've lost one on the back end. So it just doesn't seem like those wheels turn fast enough to to build any kind of genuine momentum.

HD: So you live in Ypsilanti, right?

WS: Ypsilanti Township.

HD: But you work in downtown Ann Arbor? How do you do your commute?

WS: I ride the bus.

HD: Do you really?!

WS: Mmm hmm.

HD: Which line is that?

WS: I ride the 5! Yeah, it really works out well. It's almost right across from my house, there's a stop. So I can walk out at 7:33 and I'm on the bus at 7:38 and I'm in my office at 8:20. [inaudible] ... stop for coffee.

HD: You stop for coffee??!

WS: Yes. Well, not on the bus.

HD: I thought, Wow, AATA is really ...

WS: ... yeah, they're really working on their customer service!

HD: So is that generally a pretty full bus at the time you ride it?

WS: At the time I ride it, it is. A lot of kids ride it to school, to Stone School. From where I get on, it's usually about half full. By the time it reaches Stone School, it's usually standing-room-only. Then it kind of empties out. But then it really picks up again between Stone School, Georgetown Mall area, and the Stadium-Packard intersection, and then it's full again right up until campus, Thompson Street. I love riding the bus.

HD: Yeah? What specifically do you like about it?

WS: Well, if you were to ask me six months ago if I would like riding the bus, I think I would have said I would hate it. But in the morning, I really like the easing-into-the-day aspect of just being able to sit and read and listen to music, do a little people watching ...

HD: ... do you take something specifically to read?

WS: Yeah. I subscribe to the New Yorker, so I find that one issue of the New Yorker is almost enough to get me through a week of riding the bus. I just finished a really good Graham Greene novel that I enjoyed a lot reading on the bus. Usually just magazines or books. There's not a lot of reading material offered on the bus itself!

HD: You don't find the Ride Guide to be riveting?

WS: You can read it once and it's great, but it doesn't change very often.

HD: [laugh] Which is probably a good thing.

WS: It probably is. True.

HD: I wouldn't expect you to know them by name, but do you recognize the people who get on the bus at various stops as, Yeah that's a person who gets on this bus?

WS: Oh yeah. Yeah. There's a sort of a built-in set of people. Sometimes I'll take the 8:08 bus instead of the 7:38 bus, and there's a whole set of people on that one, too.

HD: Is that awkward at all? Do people sort of look at you like, Hey, you're not supposed to be on this bus?

WS: No, I don't find that. People mostly just stare straight ahead and try to avoid eye contact with each other. [laugh]

HD: Really? Is that the general bus culture as you perceive it?

WS: It's possible that that's just me! No, there are some people, who have obviously become friends through riding the bus, friendly acquaintances, anyway.

HD: So, nodding acquaintances.

WS: And I've noticed people exchanging, like, coupons. I remember someone saying, Oh, I remember you saying you liked something-or-other and I found this, and handed over a coupon to a bus friend.

HD: Wow.

WS: It's kind of a cool community of people. But that's the exception to the rule, in my experience.

HD: Do you ever recognize people as fellow Bus Number 5 riders out of context, just sort of walking around town?

WS: Mmm, hmm, yep.

HD: Typically when I see people out of context, I'll be able to recognize that I should know them, but I have no idea why, so there's this awkwardness of, Do I wave? Do I act like I know them? So do you have that some experience, or do you know immediately ...

WS: ... that's a bus rider? It's the latter. Maybe it's because you see them every single day or most every day. I mean there's one person who gets off the bus at the Transit Center in Ann Arbor and walks generally in the same direction as I do. Even that, we've never struck up any kind of conversation or anything. I've also noticed that I seem to be the last person that people want to sit next to as the seats fill up. I'm starting to get a bit of a complex about that.

HD: So do you always make sure that you sit, you know, in the far seat leaving the seat next to the aisle open?

WS: Yeah, yeah. And I put my briefcase on my lap and I try to do all those things.

HD: Hmmm.

WS: I know, I'm starting to wonder.

HD: Do you typically wear your sunglasses?

WS: No, only when it's sunny.

HD: Okay, and you bathe on a regular basis?

WS: Semi-regular anyway.

HD: Yeah, well maybe you should do some thinking on that.

WS: Believe me, I have!

HD: Well, it could be that you know they identify you as the guy who wrote the negative Keb' Mo' review.

WS: That could well be! Or the Dr. John one.

HD: Well, back to that review, one thing I wanted to ask you, the allusion to Dorothy Parker, I didn't recognize that. I mean, I know who Dorothy Parker is mainly from the 'horticulture' sentence, you're familiar with that one, right?

WS: Um, no, probably not.

HD: Someone asked her to use 'horticulture' in a sentence correctly, and she said, You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.

WS: Ah, yes, I have heard that.

HD: In the review, you paraphrased her, saying, 'there's no blues in the singer's blues' and I was wondering about the original?

WS: I'm shuddering now, thinking about this. Because that wasn't even Dorothy Parker. It was Gertrude Stein! [laugh]

HD: Gertrude Stein? [laugh]

WS: Just giving more ammunition to the people who think that I'm ignorant and foolish and think I'm otherwise ... Yeah, that's great. That's one of the drawbacks, I guess of trying to write articles at midnight or whatever and try to make sense of them.

HD: So you'll typically write the review immediately after the performance?

WS: Yeah, just because it has to be in the next day's paper.

HD: So the Gertrude Stein quote, what was the original?

WS: I don't know if it was Omaha or St. Louis, or some midwest city, I think, and she said something like, I've been to--we'll say it was St. Louis--and there's no there there.

HD: Oh, so she was the one who coined that phrase?

WS: Apparently so. Or, maybe it was Dorothy Parker. Hell, I don't know. I'm going to stay away from literary allusions from now on, I can tell you that much. The 'sticky notes' one though, I stand by that one.

HD: [laugh] Now sticky notes is that a trademarked name or is that ...

WS: ... PostIt Notes ...

HD: ... sticky notes is the generic phrase, then.

WS: And again, maybe having to do with the time of day or whatever, that was the only thing I could think of that you would be at Staples or OfficeMax to buy. I'm sure there are a million other things I could have said, but ...

HD: ... well, 'sticky notes' also has the musical lexical ambiguity of the word 'notes'.

WS: I guess so! You're giving me way to much credit there, though.

HD: Well, I mean you have to embrace the accidents as they happen.

WS: That's true, that's true.

HD: So listen, before we hop off the teeter totter, do you have anything else on your mind? Other than the fact that it's really nice that spring seems to have finally arrived?

WS: That's what I was going to say, this just the ideal day for something like this.

HD: Yeah, it is.

WS: I'm curious if your experience in doing these Teeter Talks, has it been what you had hoped it would be, as far as bringing people out and finding out about what they do? Has it accomplished its goal as far as you're concerned?

HD: Well, I would say it's accomplishing its goal. I would like to continue doing this until the wood wears out. At that point I'll rebuild and continue from there, I hope. Yeah, it's been fascinating. You find out different things about people, or you get a different conversation from what you'd get in a typical interview context where you call somebody up on the phone or you're sitting in an office discussing something across a desk. Or anyway, I think so. I'd like to think you get a different flavor of talk from somebody sitting on a teeter totter than in a more typical context.

WS: Is there something about the teeter totter itself that brings that out, you think?

HD: I think the fact that you're literally connected to the same piece of moving furniture--I mean I think you can call this a piece of furniture. And I think there's a built-in cooperative spirit that is required. So I think it would be very difficult to have a contentious interview, sort of a 60 Minutes, Mike-Wallace-style interview, you know, where I've done my preparation and I shove documents in front of your face and say, Okay so what do you have to say about this? It's not really built for that, just inherently. So from that point of view. If people are looking for controversy, people arguing with each other, it's probably not going to happen. I mean I could imagine it, but the basic setup doesn't promote friction between the two people.

WS: And you don't set out to confront people in any way, do you?

HD: I'm not lookin' to confront people.

WS: But you're not afraid of asking hard questions, either? Or substantive questions, at least.

HD: Umm, I like to think that I'm not afraid of asking hard questions, but you know, there's a certain hosting quality to it as well. I want to be a good host, as well as a good conversation partner. So you know, a good host is not going to go out of his way to put people in an awkward spot.

WS: Of course, people know where you live at this point, too. [laugh]

HD: Yeah, they know where I live. So I don't go out of my way to make it any more awkward than it already is, given that they have to sit on the end of a teeter totter.

WS: At the risk of asking you to play favorites, have there been favorite Teeter Talks that stand out for you?

HD: Honest to god, typically the favorite Talk is the last one I did. So right now, it's you, Will!

WS: Alright! I'm top of the heap until next time! And then you go ahead and transcribe these interviews by hand?

HD: I do it by hand currently. At some point, I'll switch over to some sort of voice recognition software, but that's going to require a hardware upgrade.

WS: Well, I think it's a really neat thing. It's a great way to take people out of their element and get them to ...

HD: ... it does. And I figure that even if the guest finds my end of the conversation--or what I contribute to the conversation--to be uninteresting, at least they get a teeter totter ride out of it. So that's my pitch. Even if you think I'm uninteresting, I will at least get on a teeter totter with you. And it's not everybody who can say that.

WS: And there's just not that many opportunities to ride a teeter totter any more.

HD: Yeah, I've pretty much got a monopoly on the teeter totter.

WS: Are teeter totters still appropriate childhood playground equipment?

HD: They are not.

WS: I was wondering.

HD: According to the public schools and the parks department, No. I checked before I started this. I wanted to make sure that my claims to having the only teeter totter in the city were accurate. And they confirmed that they have removed them all due to safety concerns. In fact one of the earliest totterees, Conan Smith, who's a County Commissioner, he told this story about how the teeter totter had affected his life in a fairly dramatic way.

WS: Someone bailed on him?

HD: No, he managed to get his finger caught in the pivot of the teeter totter. I guess it would have been on his right hand. Even though he's right-handed, for a period of time he had to switch over and do everything left-handed. So now he does everything athletically left-handed, even though he is actually right-handed. I think that makes him a more interesting person than he would have been if he had not had that accident. So, to me, removing teeter totters is not necessarily a good thing. I don't think there's been many deaths attributed to teeter totters.

WS: Probably not. Maybe some sore rear ends or smashed fingers.

HD: How's your butt doing?

WS: Umm. It's more of a workout than I thought it was going to be. It's in the hips, isn't it? It's all in the hips! It's fun, though. It's very relaxing and I really enjoyed it.

HD: You're not just saying that to be Michigan-polite, are you?

WS: No, Michigan is amazing, though. Don't forget that.

HD: Alright you got anything else?

WS: I don't think so, thank you!

HD: Alright let's carefully dismount. Thanks for coming.

WS: Thanks for having me.