It’s not like Dave Stewart wasn’t warned about what he would be getting into by writing Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: A Life in Music. Musician friends who had written their memoirs had cautioned him it would be “hell on Earth,” he says with a laugh. “They had written songs and created albums, done huge concert tours that lasted a year without them ever going home, and out of all of it, they said that writing a book was the hardest nightmare.”
But it didn’t scare off Stewart. “I had already started it,” he jokes, “and I had already spent the advance.”
Stewart’s career has been all about “pushing boundaries and looking for the next thing,” he observes. In the 1980s, he co-founded the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox. He is a solo artist, prolific producer, and musical collaborator (with among others, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan). He has composed music for film (Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune, Alfie) and Broadway (Ghost). He has directed documentaries and music videos and is also a photographer.
He found the process of writing a memoir “very weird,” he concedes. “You’re looking backwards—not forward—and trying to remember this and that.”
Which proved difficult, he relates. The book would not come as fluidly as had writing some of the Eurythmics’ biggest hits; some of which, he chronicles in the book, were written in less than a half hour.
“I started off thinking, ‘I’m a writer now,’ ” he recalls. “I’ll set up at Jamaica Inn (in Ocho Rios) in a room on my own and away from everybody. My first 10 days, I stared at a piece of paper, looked at the sea and wandered about. I would always end up at the bar talking to this really lovely old barman who had been there for 60 years. He told me fascinating stories about his life and meeting [celebrities such as] Marilyn Monroe. But I wasn’t writing anything. “
He got by with a little help from his friends, who would prompt him with questions about his life as he talked into a microphone, and otherwise jogged his memory. But how he “cracked the magic carpet ride of finishing the book,” he says, were his voluminous boxes of photographs. “I’m one of those people who have photographed and filmed just about everything,” he says. “Every picture tells a thousand stories. I opened a box and there’s a picture of me in a hotel room somewhere with Madonna drinking a bottle of champagne, and there’s another one of me dressed as a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom (for the Tom Petty music video, ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More,’ a song which Stewart co-wrote with Petty and was inspired by a wild night with Stevie Nicks). The more pictures I pulled out, the more it became, ‘Oh god, where do I start?’ ”
Sweet Dreams starts at the beginning with his childhood in the industrial town of Sunderand in northeast England (Think “Billy Eliot,” Stewart says). From his father, he was introduced to the musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein; from his brother, the Beatles and Memphis and Delta blues and from the radio in his family’s kitchen, 60s-era Top 10 radio. He was 13 in 1965 and learned to play guitar at the opportune time when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and Bob Dylan were just emerging.
As for the book’s ending, Stewart originally wanted it to conclude just as the Eurythmics were put on the map with the hit song, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” His editor balked. “I was I persuaded to carry on,” he says. “They wanted to hear what happened next.”
Stewart, in the book, professes to be not reflective or introspective. As a producer, part of his job, he writes, is to coax artists out of their comfort zone. Was it difficult prying stories from himself about his once-prodigious drug usage and his tumultuous relationship with Lennox (they were already a couple asunder before forming the Eurythmics)?
“Being a songwriter helped,” he offers. “Every song I’ve ever written about Annie and I was all personal, but hidden in a different context. [For the book], the context was my life, which meant real people, real names, and the real stories.”
Some are darkly comic, such as when Stewart, in the company of Daryl Hall, ingested mushrooms and hallucinated that a chicken bone was stuck in his throat. Moments that for most of us would be “surreal” and “dreamlike” (as Stewart writes) were for him just a day in the life: providing a garden haven for members of the fledgling Traveling Wilburys (whose members included Dylan and George Harrison) to jam in his backyard; Mick Jagger popping by to play a proposed theme song for a TV project Stewart created; or recording a duet with Lennox and Aretha Franklin.
When asked if Stewart learned anything about himself in writing the book, he offers, “I must have taken a busy pill at one point. What I learned about myself is I’m incredibly restless but have no sort of worry about the outcome. I’ve never been one to worry if [something] will be a hit. I’m just so into doing the thing.”
In this respect he shares an experimental and innovative creative spirit with David Bowie, who passed away just days before this interview took place. Stewart met Bowie through his friendship with Jagger and the two on occasion would listen to each other’s works in progress and offer comments.
“He was so concentrated on what he was doing,” Stewart says. “[Music] really is a kind of journey and David Bowie made it a journey that people could accompany him through all his transitions and the characters he created. You felt like you were waiting for the next installment and he always delivered.”